The Flip Side / The End

I know that I have given Disney and its depictions of Disney Princesses a hard time in my past blog posts. I have made many points critiquing their strategies, critiquing them as role models, and critiquing the movies in general. This is why I think it’s important that we also consider the beneficial qualities of Disney films.

First, Walt Disney was an absolute genius in terms of film creation. He was a pioneer in animated film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated feature film in Technicolor and was critically praised over and over again. Steven Watts notes that “Disney studio secured a stunning 15,000 booking contracts in its first few months of [Snow White’s] release” (160). The film also won an Academy Honorary Award for being “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”. Fun fact: Disney won one full-size Oscar and seven miniature ones.

Disney was not only a visionary in terms of children’s entertainment, however. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out during The Great Depression, and when it came out, it represented a relief for individuals who were suffering. Watts mentions that “the film transports the care-worn adult back to the happy days of his childhood” (161). This demonstrates that Disney can potentially alleviate tensions and problems for individuals. Disney represents a brief escape from the burdens of society in the 20th and 21st centuries.

There are reasons that children are so fascinated with Disney films. This primary reason is that they are just so entertaining. The original musical scores and plotlines are captivating and beautiful. Many of the Disney films additionally uphold primary moral values of 20th century America. Not all Disney films present negative and destructive messages to children. Many of them present the importance of familial stability, the pure institution of marriage, domesticity and interaction in the family, and even in some cases include allusions to the Bible. (As an example, we can consider Snow White being tempted with an apple by her step-mother; this clearly refers to the Fall of Eden in the book of Genesis.)

Evidently, Disney is still widely admired and well-beloved today. I know that despite everything I have mentioned in this blog, I will most definitely show my children Disney films (if they ever come out of the Disney Vault!). I will, however, make sure that any girl I may have will be exposed to a variety of depictions of women, so she can make her own decisions on how to live her life, and I’ll just have to hope for the best. And really, that’s all we can do, right?


This is going to be my last blog post. Thanks to everyone that visited my blog and read what I have to say!

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The Curse of Female Beauty

It’s no question that all of the Disney Princesses are beautiful animated characters; quite often, however, their beauty serves a purpose in the plotlines or in the creation of the films themselves. It’s easy enough to say that we, as consumers, enjoy watching a TV show or film much more when the characters are beautiful. According to a study by Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz, however, beauty has a crucial role in the tales themselves.

Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz performed a content analysis of many of the original fairy tales that were later transformed into Disney movies. The tales and films of most relevance to my purpose, however, are Snow White, Cinderella, and Briar Rose (or Sleeping Beauty). Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz studied these tales to analyze their representation of the “feminine beauty ideal” which they define as “the socially constructed notion that physical attractiveness is one of women’s most important assets, and something all women should strive to achieve and maintain” (711). Throughout the course of their study, they found that out of all the tales analyzed, “94 percent of the tales make some mention of physical appearance, and the average number of times per story is 13.6” (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 717). Surprisingly, this number is regardless of gender or age.

Interestingly enough, Baker-Sperry and Gruaerholz found that the tales that most upheld the feminine beauty ideal and that made most frequent references to physical appearance are the ones that have been reproduced the most throughout folklore. The five most common tales for reproduction are Cinderella, Snow White, Briar Rose (or Sleeping Beauty), Little Red Cap (or Little Red Riding Hood) and Hansel and Gretel. Together, these stories make up two-thirds of the reproductions of folk tales. Cinderella and Snow White, however, are the tales that have been reproduced the most. Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz noted that based on their observations, “there are many more references to women’s physical appearances in reproduced versus non-reproduced tales” (720).

Not surprisingly, however, is the fact that “messages concerning women’s beauty are far more dominant than those for men” (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 723). This is crucially important for women’s reactions to the feminine beauty ideal in society. Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz noted many ways in which these tales and their constant reproductions and promotions of the feminine beauty ideal affect the way women behave in society and the way they represent themselves:

–          While the feminine beauty ideal is viewed largely as an oppressive, patriarchal practice that objectifies, devalues, and subordinates women, it is acknowledged that many women willingly engage in “beauty rituals” and perceive being (or becoming) beautiful as empowering, not oppressive

–          Women internalize norms and adopt behaviours that reflect and reinforce their relative powerlessness, making external forces less necessary

–          Those women who seek or gain power through their attractiveness are often those who are most dependent on men’s resources

–          Beauty regimes of diet, makeup, and dress are central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women. It remains one of the major means by which adolescent girls and women gain social status and self-esteem

–          Social importance of the feminine beauty ideal lies in its ability to sustain and to reproduce gender inequality

–          As women’s status in society is enhanced, there is likely to be a greater reliance on normative controls via value constructs such as the beauty ideal

–          Both men and women are being increasingly manipulated by media messages concerning attractiveness, a trend that is undoubtedly linked to efforts to boost consumerism

–          The competition women may feel toward other women over physical appearance may limit their ability to mobilize as a group


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Mirror, Mirror?

In class lately, Professor Strangelove has been going over the interesting phenomenon of personal videos being created and posted on the internet. These discussions are based on his book, Watching YouTube, which analyzes this behavioural trend in great detail.

Strangelove illustrated a point that piqued my interest the other day; he mentioned that one of the main reasons that individuals participate in the amateur video process, and particularly the virtual diary function, is to allow for individuals to see representations of themselves on the internet, and accurate representations at that. People flock to websites such as YouTube in order to see people just like them on the internet; those that they see on-screen are regular Joes. This is a breakthrough in global media, for now individuals have the opportunity to see completely, or at least, mostly, accurate representations of human behaviour on-screen.

Individuals can also challenge the corporate media messages that dictate the way they should behave. Personalized messages that go viral frequently depict, according to Strangelove, behaviour that could be considered deviant from the norm. This allows for a more varied depiction of human behaviour that is not constrained by corporate media. In short, the internet and websites such as YouTube are democratizing global media messages.

This is important when it comes to Disney Princesses for now girls can see depictions of women that are varied and much more accurate. The women they can see on YouTube are imperfect, perhaps ugly, maybe slightly curvy, and might even have a mohawk. These are just examples, of course, but it is understood that now girls can choose to view whichever depictions of women they want to see. Disney Princesses, in fact, can be parodied and made illegitimate as role models for young girls.

I am definitely not saying that every virtual journal entry or clip of the girls from Jersey Shore are going to be better role models for young girls than Disney Princesses. In fact, parents should also be aware of what their young girls have access to on the internet (such as celebrity wardrobe malfunctions, for example). Either way, girls now are able to choose what they see. They are not dictated to by large media conglomerates who tell them how to dress, how to speak, and how to act in general.

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Fact and Fiction

Although Disney films certainly influence young girls, it is also the Disney Princess paraphernalia that impacts the way that young girls behave. To delve into this deeper, I took a look at an article by Karen E. Wohlwend who studied how girls play with Princess toys, and whether they faithfully the plotlines of the story or attempt to deviate from it.

It is crucial to understand that the toys that these girls play with are sometimes not just toys. According to Wohlwend, “toys act as durable texts that concretize identities” (58). This means that the toy influences the identity of the girl. Wohlwend expands on this notion:

Identity messages circulate through merchandise that surrounds young consumers as they dress in, sleep on, bathe in, eat from, and play with commercial goods decorated with popular culture images, print, and logos, immersing children in products that invite identification with familiar media characters and communicate gendered expectations about what children should buy, how they should play, and who they should be. (57)

In other words, the toys constantly surrounding these young girls dictate exactly how they should be: like the Princesses the toys are based on. This is dangerous, for, as previously mentioned many of the Disney Princesses are unrealistic depictions of womanhood and can harm a girl’s perception of both herself and of the women in her life. They also encourage the girls to look as the Princesses look, a wildly impossible expectation. This is taken to the next level when Wohlwend notes that “the pervasive availability of consumer products associated with the Disney Princess films blurs the line between play and reality, allowing children to live in-character” (57). This is so very dangerous for young girls should grow up with awareness of the harsh reality of the world they live in. They need to know the difference between fact and fiction.

There is, however, a silver lining. According to Wohlwend’s study, the girls tend to deviate from the Disney script; they “rewrote plots they knew by heart and subtly altered character roles to take up more empowered identity positions” (58). Evidently many of the girls perceived a conflict between what they see in the Disney films and what actually occurs in real life, for they “attempt to negotiate the tension between their desire to faithfully reproduce story lines from favourite Disney films and … to get past social limitations of performing the predetermined gender expectations associated with media toy marketing and princess play” (Wohlwend 58).

This demonstrates that although the girls enjoy the story lines provided by Disney and adore the characterization of the Disney Princesses, they push the boundaries on what constitutes femininity in the plotline and dialogue. In a sense, they make their own preferred version of the movie. They negotiate the fiction of the film and the reality of their lives.

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So What’s the Point?

In criticizing Disney films, one must ask themselves, what does Disney intend with these films? What’s the goal that the company is aiming for? This question is of particular relevance because of the origins of many of Disney’s films.

As you may know, many of Disney films are based on fairy tales or folk tales, however radically modified. Jack Zipes, Disney and fairy tale scholar, contributes an insightful essay in the book From Mouse to Mermaid which examines the relationship between Disney and their original story tale versions. Zipes notes that fairy tales were originally “intended to endow with meaning the daily lives of members of a tribe” and to “explain natural occurrences” (22). He explains that with the development of fairy tales, particularly in French aristocratic culture as contes de fees, they tales began to comment more on “the concerns, tastes, and functions of court society” as well as provided guidelines for “proper behaviour and demeanour” (23). This may make us ask ourselves, after the fairy tale evolved into the ever-popular Disney film, what do the films now do? Do they maintain their social critique? Do they provide moral lessons? And if so, what exactly are they saying about who we are at a culture?

If Disney films dictate the proper way to act, we have a problem. Many of the characters,men and women, in Disney films are entirely unrealistic based on real life. You will be considered insane if you walk through forests singing or talking to every animal you encounter. This is demonstrated quite well in Disney’s semi-animated film Enchanted, for Giselle comes from an animated world into the harsh reality that is New York. People think she is stupid for her constant optimism and her naivety. They think something is wrong with her.

Disney films that are based on actual historical events are also brought into question. Is Disney providing a commentary on historical characters and historical outcomes? Are these depictions of history even accurate? (In research I have done in passing, it has been noted that films such as Pocahontas and Mulan deviate sometimes drastically from the actual historical event.)

Zipes insightfully writes that Disney “changed our way of viewing fairy tales” (21). It is possible that through constant revisions and sanitations, these fairy tales no longer contain the same meaning they originally had. Perhaps the meaning has been removed entirely from the story. Perhaps I am just thinking too hard and these stories now are just for pure entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

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Independent Women

Interestingly, Disney has begun, in recent years, to modernize some of their princesses. They have been slowly giving their princesses more agency in the plot, the ability to make their own decisions and control their own destinies. The importance of marrying a Prince as the goal of the plot has also recently begun to be questioned. Let’s take a look at some of these more realistically independent Princesses.


This film was released in 1995 and was Disney’s first animated feature film to be based on a real historic character – in this case, a Native American woman dealing with English settlers of the Virginia Company in 1607.

Pocahontas is a unique female figure thus far depicted in Disney for she contrasts the typical “princess” characterization. First, she is rebellious and adventurous, demonstrated when she violates her father’s (the Chief) decree forbidding his tribe to meet the settlers. Pocahontas also dreads being forced to wed the warrior Kocoum because he is too serious, a quality which greatly conflicts with her spirited personality. She is additionally perhaps the most open-minded character in the whole film, disregarding the distinction between the settlers and her tribe.

Pocahontas is also very active; she stops an armed conflict between the settlers and her tribe. Additionally, she saves her lover, John Smith, from execution. Here the princess is the savior.


This film was made in 1998 and is also based on a historical character, in this case, Hua Mulan, a Chinese woman who fought, and succeeded, in the Chinese army.

Mulan is originally not very interested in getting married; she only goes along with the match-making ritual in order to uphold her family’s honour; she fights the repressive gender roles of Chinese culture forcing her to become domesticated. Mulan also impersonates a man throughout the majority of the movie and takes on a man’s role. She enters the Chinese army in lieu of her father after a conscription was sent out. Despite many blunders at the beginning of her training, Mulan becomes the first of the warriors-in-training to successfully climb a pole and retrieve an arrow, a test given them previously by Captain Shang that everyone failed.

Mulan is the savior in many situations. First, she saves her unit from the Huns in the mountains by causing an avalanche. She is also the only one to spot the Huns entering the emperor’s city, and is the one to mobilize the troops to save the emperor.

At the end of the film, however, Mulan returns home after turning down a position as an advisor to the emperor. Her love interest, Captain Shang, additionally goes to Mulan’s home, and the assumption is that they will get married.


Tiana is from the film The Princess and the Frog that came out in 2009. Before even seeing the movie, she is of interest, for she is the only Disney Princess that is African-American. As a character, Tiana is smart, hardworking, and quite independent. Tiana is active and with her own important set of priorities; she works two jobs to attain her goal of opening her own restaurant. She even turns down events invitations from her friends, saying she has no time for dancing – her work is more important. This contrasts with her friend, Charlotte, who is a princess fanatic and has devoured fairy tales from her youth.

Interestingly, in this film Tiana is much more active than Prince Naveen; he is idle and desires only a life of luxury without work. In fact, he only comes to New Orleans with the goal of marrying a rich southern belle. Originally, Tiana despises this element of Naveen’s character. Tiana is the most active, and ultimately it is she that destroys the voodoo curse imposed on Naveen.

In the end, Tiana ends up marrying Naveen and becoming a real princess. Her goals and dreams don’t end with marriage, however, for together she and Naveen finally open her restaurant.

These more modern Disney Princesses reflects more varied elements of being a princess; they demonstrate that it is possible to be both happily married to the love of her life and have her own personal career goals come true. They advocate the message that things don’t always come easily just because of status; hard work and determination are infinitely more crucial to success. These are the kinds of Disney Princesses that little girls should aspire to be like. So on this one, I say bravo Disney.

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The Little Ones

How exactly does the image of Disney princesses affect the psyches of young girls? Peggy Orenstein, in her 2004 article for the New York Times, delves into this mystery after being continuously bombarded by individuals calling her three year-old daughter “princess” and by her daughter constantly harassing her to buy Disney Princess products. Click here for a link to this article.

First, Orenstein notes that the nine official Disney Princesses (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan,Pocahontas), and more generally, the pink colour scheme associated with them, dominate the market of young girls’ toys. She notes that there are “more than 25,000 Disney Princess items” – and this is in 2004; it is easy to assume that there are more products on the market today. One may argue, however, that there are other choices available for girls, if they decide not to buy into the Disney dream. To refute this point, Orenstein quotes Lyn Mikel Brown, professor and co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes,” who mentions that

When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.

This is an issue for it can potentially restrict the variety of play for girls. If they merely play according to Disney scripts, they will play the same roles over and over again.

Orenstein concedes that “there are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations,” but also notes that drastic femininity may come with a price: “young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.” Additionally, many girls today are beginning to suffer from what has been called “The Supergirl Dilemma,” in which girls are pressured to be perfect, not just in looks but in school, extracurricular involvement and attitude as well.

Orenstein’s article is of great critical interest, for she does not approach this fairly sensitive topic with the hard-headed feminism that is primarily found in the critique of Disney princesses. She mentions that girls do oftentimes “stray from the script” of Disney films, and assume other roles in play. She additionally says that “maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress,” showing that girls can be a princess “without compromising strength or ambition.” And finally, she even notes in passing that a princess might just be a princess, with no extra meanings or issues attached.

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