By Mary Grlic
Image via USA Today
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess in a large elegant castle. Despite having everything she wanted, she still felt the curious desire to go out and explore the world. Being held back by the world around her, she was stuck in her castle until she could find a prince to marry and live with as a family. Her insatiable curiosity led her to escape, where she found her dashing prince who would finally save her from her captive life. They lived happily ever after.
While stories like these seem to have a happy ending, the whole premise is inherently flawed. Classic Disney princess movies often follow a similar narrative in which a woman finds a man to save herself from her struggles in her life. Such stories adhere to gender roles and can send harmful messages to young, impressionable children.
Disney princesses tend to fall in one of three categories. First, classical Disney films portray the main character as a damsel in distress, playing into stereotypical domestic gender norms. These characteristics are shown in Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Secondly, there is a category of the ambitious and rebellious princesses, like Rapunzel, Ariel, and Mulan. The third type of woman is the independent and free spirited princess. Newer characters, like Anna and Elsa from Frozen, depict this archetype.
Beginning in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney depicts a young and beautiful princess that other women in the town are jealous of. The Ugly Stepmother follows a violent and obsessive narrative in which she aims to kill Snow White, purely out of jealousy. Throughout the film, Snow White is seen cleaning the house and cooking for the dwarfs, doing all of their dirty work and adhering to the female gender role as a housekeeper. Overall, the film depicts the main character as a ditsy girl who needs a man to save her, rather than a powerful woman that young girls should look up to.
Some other Disney films follow this misogynistic narrative, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Both Cinderella and Aurora are princesses that are only admired for their kindness and their looks. Their lives are only complete when a prince comes to save them. Although there is no issue with beauty, kindness, or relationships, the inherent problem is that these movies convey the message that all girls should only be pretty and codependent.
In later years, Disney films started to depict more powerful and rebellious women. While these were strides for girls in the media, they were still inherently flawed depictions of women. Beauty and the Beast, for example, is about an intelligent girl named Belle. The movie makes it clear that women reading books was an anomaly, but Belle fights against these gender stereotypes and continues to love reading. She is courageous when she tries to save her father and sacrifices her life back home to ensure that he is safe. However, some psychologists say that she is a victim of Stockholm syndrome: she falls in love with the Beast who holds her captive. The film may promote abusive relationships where victims are meant to change abusive men. It is not Belle’s fault that she falls victim to this abuse, but by making the couple live happily ever after, the movie portrays that the Beast’s outbursts and commands were tolerable. Nonetheless, Beauty and the Beast does portray an intelligent and brave young woman, unlike other Disney classics, making her a much better role model than her predecessors.
The newest wave of Disney films has portrayed some of the best role model princesses for young girls. Moana centers around a powerful young girl who sets out to save her family and her island. Though she disobeys her father’s wishes, Moana works hard to help her community as she endures a challenging journey across the water. Overall, the film has no subplots to distract viewers from Moana’s undoubtedly courageous and fierce character. Additionally, the animation of the film Moana set her apart from the traditional Disney princesses, as her body highlighted different traits that were more athletic and lifelike. She seems to be more realistic compared to real-life humans, which is an amazing thing for young girls to see portrayed in films.
Moana was the fifth non-Caucasian Disney princess, representing a strong and independent Polynesian woman who is a great role model. Other non-Caucasian princesses, like Mulan and Pocahantas, have also shown a lot of courage in the Disney world. Mulan, a film that came out in the third wave of feminism surely has gender stereotypes in the storyline. However, Mulan’s strength and independence bring her to overcome these norms to save her father and fight in a war. Her courage is inspirational to all.
Starting with Snow White and moving onto Moana and Frozen, the portrayal of Disney princesses has changed a lot. Disney movies and their princess protagonists have become increasingly better at showing the endless opportunities a woman can have, rather than merely depicting stereotypical gender roles and plots where men save the day. Disney films have surely evolved to accurately depict better role models for young girls.
Written by Writer Mary Grlic