Will Disney ever ditch the stereotypical ‘Princess’ appearance?

Today, the Walt Disney Company is established as a global brand, producing animated texts that are considered part of American popular culture, particularly the Disney Princess franchise. However, through analysis of recent texts such as “Frozen”, “Brave”, “Tangled” and “Princess and the Frog”, it is questionable whether Disney really aims to entertain their family audience or to simply make profit by reproducing the Westernised gender stereotypes utilised by the company since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in 1937.

 

In 2014 ‘Disney Princess’ has become its own genre of film and thus ‘Disney Princess’ has its own generic codes and conventions which have not changed for over nine decades and are still present in today’s ‘Disney Princess’ texts. This is due to the fact that Disney is a commercial institution and therefore refuses to change its ideology in any radical way. Their aim is to control, through hegemony, their huge, international audience which passively consumes texts, thus maintaining their institution’s profits. For example, Disney received revenue of 45.041 billion dollars in 2013.[1] However, these impressive figures could be a result of Disney taking advantage of their young audience, ages ranging between 3 and 12 years old, who are extremely impressionable and cannot read Disney texts oppositionally. Disney ignores modern-day values of gender equality and feminism and instead reproduces their conventional ‘Disney Princess’ movies containing the unrealistic ‘love at first sight’ and ‘happily ever after’ narratives as well as their representation of unattainably beautiful females. As David Held states “dominant cultures of the West and USA are swamping minority cultures in processes of homogenization, reducing diversity and that this is a strategy to meet the economic interests of the USA and other Western nations.”[2] Disney fails with each text to produce media that doesn’t conform to western mainstream. This is disappointing because, considering the huge audience Disney have, they could have a positive impact on discrimination, but instead Disney discriminate (themselves): they suggest to young girls that, in order to be happy and loved, they must have all the conventions of a ‘Disney Princess’: innocence, grace, sweetness, a flawless figure, white skin, big eyes, a small nose, and a white, tall, dark-haired handsome man. Otherwise, according to the ‘Disney Princess’s’ codes and conventions, they are an ‘ugly stepsister’ or not even deserving of a role in the fairytale.

 

Feminism theorises that such stereotypes created by a patriarchal society were effectively a reduction of women; this can be seen in the physical representation of women and beauty in Disney texts. Appearance is a huge factor in the ‘Disney Princess’ franchise in terms of connoting Disney’s unchangeable representation of what a woman should be. In classic texts such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, the princess protagonists are shockingly undiversified: all princesses are practically cinematic Barbie dolls, each complete with large eyes; thick wavy hair; dainty red lips; a small nose; pale skin and a very tiny waist with curvaceous bust and hips. In the films each of these princesses has an extremely soft, high-pitched, gentle voice with matching delicate and graceful movements. Barthes, in his semiotics theory, states that every image is a signifier.[3] This is proven in the representation of the princess characters: the pale skin signifies innocence and virginal purity, the large eyes also signify innocence and the curvaceous yet slender body signifies femininity and beauty in the view of the “male gaze”[4], as Laura Mulvey describes it. The male gaze is most frequently applicable in love scenes/songs of Disney texts, for example, in ‘The Little Mermaid’ during the song ‘Kiss the Girl’, there are close-ups of Ariel’s face whilst all she does is sit gracefully, thus Ariel is portrayed as simply a pretty ‘thing’.

 

Since these princesses were created decades ago in a patriarchal, sexist and racist society, these stereotypes could reasonably be blamed on the time period. Whereas in modern times “specific images of ethnicity and gender function effectively as marketing tools within this cultural economy and are used to sell products by appealing to consumers who self-identify as empowered individuals”[5]. It appears that Disney has recognised this consumer-based shift in marketing due to the representation of women in the recent additions to the franchise (Elsa, Anna, Rapunzel, Merida and Tiana). However, it is extremely disturbing that the new princesses are even more unrealistically proportioned in a post-feminist era. Although Disney aims to meet their teenage audience’s demands of challenging their stereotypical female appearance in “The Princess and the Frog” by having the first Disney African-American princess, Tiana, she is not challenging the conventional Disney appearance in any other respect apart from her coloured skin, as she still has the large eyes, small nose and tiny waist etc therefore she is not an accurate representation of an African-American woman. “The Princess and the Frog” was released in 2009 when, according to blackdemographics.com, “For African Americans, the poverty rate increased in 2009 to 25.8%, 9.9 million.”[6] Therefore Disney’s racial insensitivity and inaccuracy is reflecting the racism that still occurred in America at the time. Although Disney makes a reasonable effort to show racial diversity through the release of their first African-American Princess, the false representation of ‘Tiana’ implies they are not making a genuine effort to change their stereotypical ideology.

 

In Brave, Tangled and Frozen, Disney utilises computer animation and again challenges the stereotypical ‘Disney Princess’ movie in terms of narrative and characters but not in appearance. In fact when compared all four female protagonists from these three texts have the exact same facial proportions. Again, Disney is reproducing false representations of women that are being decoded by young children to cultivate an aspirational but unattainable image, as stated on http://www.reelgirl.com “sexism in children’s media is a repeated pattern kids are exposed to that shapes who they are and who they become.”[7] Interestingly it seems that Disney have reverted to their original ideologies in recent years, whereas in the late 1990s Disney challenged the traditional, domestic representation of a woman and instead a political correctness developed in their new princesses such as ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Mulan’. Both Pocahontas and Mulan overcame the Western ideal and, instead, Disney explores Native American and Chinese culture. Also these two characters do not have a stereotypical ‘girly’ ball gown, instead their costumes are representative of their culture. However, this could just be connoting Disney are only willing to alter their white conventional princess when the narrative requires it, and also as an opportunity to seemingly meet their audiences demands to promote racial and cultural diversity. However when Disney releases a text where they have the power to create a princess from scratch, they revert to the Barbie-like appearance.

 

 

In advertising and E-Media, the princesses are redesigned for merchandising, for no apparent or justified reason, the characters are represented even more unrealistically than their cinematic animations with tinier waists etc. On Disney’s official website the Chinese character Mulan is wearing a sparkly, feminine dress which is never worn in her feature films and thus she has been redesigned for marketing value. Herbert Schiller, the main theorist behind cultural imperialism, explores how less economically prominent cultures essentially import culture from wealthier countries. This easily applies to Disney as an American institution which attracts a global audience, therefore the fact they are releasing unattainable representations of women to children and families internationally is disturbing. In official advertising images no character traits are connoted through their body language as each poses in exactly the same way. There are no connotations of female empowerment, or any relevance to the films’ narratives such as the fact that Mulan is dressed as a male soldier and fights in the war for the majority of her feature text. Instead she is shown to look beautiful, feminine and innocent in order to make the audience of young girls aspire to look like her and thus spend money on the merchandise. However, in coherence with the uses and gratification theory, this could arguably be blamed on the consumer rather than the institution because it could be assumed that the audience are responsible for choosing media to meet their needs, this approach would state that Disney’s audience of young girls watch Disney Princess texts to fulfil their specific gratifications. They identify with the Princess characters as role models which reflect similar values to themselves, according to the theory.

 

The narratives of the ‘Disney Princess’ films also represent women stereotypically, connoting the unrealistic ideology that a heterosexual male and a heterosexual female fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after, the male falling in love with the female solely for her beauty and saving her from her problem which she can’t solve herself. This narrative structure follows Todorov’s equilibrium theory: first there is an equilibrium, (e.g. in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” Snow White cooks and cleans for the seven dwarves contently) then there is a disequilibrium, (Snow White is poisoned by the evil Queen) and finally the text ends with a new equilibrium, (Snow White is saved by the Prince). Interestingly, the male character solves this disequilibrium. The shot reverse shot of Snow White and the Prince when they first meet shows in a medium shot Snow White on a balcony (iconic sign of love, e.g. Romeo and Juliet) surrounded by doves (iconic sign of love), and in a long shot the Prince is serenading Snow White. His masculine, strong physique is defined by the long shot whereas Snow White is only shown from the hips up in a mise-en-scene with connotations of innocence, the focus being her stereotypically attractive face and small waist. However this extremely sexist narrative is most applicable to Disney’s classic princess texts rather than recent texts. As “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” was released in 1937, it it understandable that it follows a sexist narrative as women were still seen as inferior to men, only 24.3% of women worked in America in the 1930s. Despite this, there was an increase in employment of women and, prior to Snow White, women were given the power to vote in the 1920s. Therefore, even in the 1930s, Disney does not make a conscious effort to eliminate stereotypes in their texts despite society moving forward.

 

By 1980, however, society had developed and women were receiving higher education, better employment and different social expectations. Therefore, in accordance with the feminist era, Disney released Princess texts which aimed to promote female independence and power. As Sarah Rothschild states “breaking away from the stereotypical blond-hair-blue-eyes princess was supposed to mark a breaking away from other traditional aspects of Disney princess stories: the princesses’ passivity, the importance of the male rescuer, the traditional “good girl” character.”[8] In terms of narrative, Mulan, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are initially pro-feminism, featuring protagonists which seek adventure and ambitions that are not related to love or beauty. On the contrary, halfway through the narrative suddenly the Princess is seeking love – Ariel does not dream of being “part of that world” as she is intrigued by human objects, instead she dreams of being “part of your world”, singing to her Prince Charming. Therefore, Disney does not totally fulfil its aims of connoting that they have a feminist ideology, although the movement from older texts such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty is very recognisable.

 

In 2013 Disney attempted to break the conventional ‘Disney Princess’ narrative completely in ‘Frozen’ by mocking the generic narrative several times. For example, in the scene featuring the song “Love is an Open Door” the beautiful Anna is seen looking lonely before she is swept off her feet by a stereotypically handsome stranger named Hans and the pair fall instantly in love – bursting into a cliché love song with an extremely romantic range of mise-en-scenes such as a waterfall, a balcony, a moonlit sky etc. However after they announce their engagement, despite meeting only 3 minutes in the text prior to this, the audience soon learns that Hans is the villain of the movie. This scene evokes hilarity from the audience through Disney mocking it’s own stereotypes, however this is a marketing decision to please their modern audience by seemingly shaming stereotypes yet by the end of the film Anna has fallen in love with another man, although he is not the Disney prince stereotype of tall, dark, brooding and handsome, instead he is chubby, fair-haired and not typically attractive. Nevertheless Anna is still a white female falling in love with a white male, therefore ‘Frozen’ does not achieve what Disney pretends to aim for which is the reflection of a true hegemonic shift: the promotion of equality and demotion of stereotypes in order to satisfy their modern day audience and re-establish themselves as an institution with only good intentions. In ‘Frozen’, Disney even introduces their first homosexual couple, however these are two minor characters and the long shot only shows, what the audience presumes but is never told, the man’s husband and children for less than 3 seconds before this homosexual couple is forgotten and not shown again. Nevertheless, this subtle change does show a hegemonic shift in Disney, and possibly connotes from now on Disney will continue to challenge their stereotypes and possibly one day include homosexual couples in their texts. Disney’s audience have always generally accepted Disney’s old-fashioned ideology, even today. This is relevant to the cultivation theory which claims that “the more TV a viewer watches, the more likely it becomes that their opinions of various items in the world will start to mirror those the media portrays”[9] as Disney repeatedly produce the same stereotypes and their audience “do not even know they are starting to bend their views to those of the media.”9

 

In conclusion Disney partially refuses to change their sexist and racist representations of women in their ‘Disney Princess’ Franchise as the stereotypical appearance and narratives of these texts has become a trademark over the years, earning huge profits for the institution. Although their ideologies and texts have developed with social expectations of women and love, their conventions remain stereotypical of the genre. However Disney recognises they have been left behind ideologically, thus they limitedly feature non-stereotypical characters and narratives to maintain their audience however through research it is clear Disney texts remain monolithic expressions of ruling class values in a ruling class society.

[1] The Walt Disney Company. The Walt Disney Company Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Financial Report And Shareholder Letter (2014)

[2] D. Held

[3] Barthes, R. Image Music Text. Fontana Press (1993)

[4] Mulvey, L. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Times Literary Supplement (1975)

[5] Negra, D and Taskey, Y. Interrogating Postfeminism. Duke University Press (2007)

[6] http://blackdemographics.com/households/poverty/

[7] Magowan, M. Disney says its sexism is all in your pretty little head. http://www.reelgirl.com (2013)

[8] Rothschild, S. The Princess Story. Peter Lang (2013)

[9] Chandler, D. Cultivation Theory. Aberystwyth University (1995)

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