Informal Feminism

{January 16, 2011}   The Princess Problem

Disney is a title synonymous with childhood. Children all over grow up with Disney films at the forefront of their entertainment. However, Many of these films can be considered problematic, particularly the princess films. These films constantly reproduce bad female stereotypes. They merit the women based on their appearance and ability to master “female” tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the home. The women are often lacking depth and are usually rescued at the hands of their handsome prince. The problems with these films must be addressed because they are being instilled into the millions of young girls who are obsessed with them.

            The women of Disney films almost always seem to fall into two categories: helpless, virtuous, and inherently good princess or demonized and evil stepmothers/sisters. It is an interesting dynamic because the inherently good princess is always categorized as princess. They are never given the title of woman but always of girl, never queen and always princess. The Queens of the Disney realm are almost always portrayed as evil, vicious and cruel. This seems to perpetrate a fear of womanhood, being a woman is something that is to be feared because the adult women in these films are almost always evil. The representation of these evil female figures is seen in such princess films as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid.

            Each of the female villains in these films is represented as evil because they seek to gain some sort of control over their life. They seek power and control of the kingdom, they also intend to rule not be a figurehead. These queens also plan on ruling without a man at their sides. They seek power traditionally given to men, just look at the word kingdom. They are always fought and defeated by the hero, who because of his masculinity can defeat them. The princesses are all much too delicate and inherently good to be able to fight such an evil. They are slotted into the role of good female and good females wait for their man to come and save them. This also allows the male characters to maintain control of their kingdom and power.

            This is troublesome because these storylines portray women who seek success outside of the traditional male world as villainous and women who fit into traditional female stereotypes as good. These princesses are good because of their ability to perform household tasks well, be demure and submissive to their male counterparts, and their beauty. There are very few who are able to stand up for themselves and fight the evil, they always wait for the male to solve their problems.

            The male characters control the storylines in the princess movies. The plots always centered on finding love regardless of the cost. The goal of the princess is to get the prince; she has very little identity outside of this goal. She may not overtly state this to be her goal, that would put her in the evil stepsister/mother column, but it is the basis of the story. However, the interactions between the princess and the male characters can be quite problematic. In this case I would point specifically to Beauty and the Beast. This is a film where Belle, the princess, spends much of her time being abused by the beast. He yells at her, makes her cry and imprisons her in her room. I watched a movie about a Disney awhile ago and unfortunately the name slips my mind. In that movie a little girl, maybe between 8 and 10, was asked what she got out of the interactions between Belle and the Beast. Her response was something along the lines of ‘he was scary and mean but if you work real hard you can change him’. That is one of the messages these films present. Young girls are being instilled with the idea that if a man is abusive he can be changed with a little hard work. I understand that I can’t blame films alone for women in abusive situations but absorbing those messages for a young age can have a detrimental impact on young women’s idea of love.

            Outside of that example, the male characters are still dominant. The princesses would be unable to fix their situations without the male characters. They swoop in and save them from the big evil villain. In some films the princesses compromise their own identity in pursuit of the prince. In the little mermaid, Arielle gives up her voice so that she can go and woo the prince into falling in love with her. To her this man, whom she has never really met, is more important then her life in the ocean and her ability to speak. The loss of her speech is extremely distressing because she is unable to communicate her identity. Her voice is taken away from her. The old adage children should be seen and not heard comes to mind, only replace children with women. Arielle then only has her looks to woo the prince, the basis of their relationship becomes about her appearance. One of Disney’s favourite schemes is making the identity of these women completely about their appearance.

            These women are meant to look a certain way and are supposed to act according to certain rules of female behaviour. To step outside of those rules puts you firmly in the evil stepmother/sister column. To put yourself above others is a big no no; they must always be submissive to family and the prince and never challenge that authority. The princesses with their inherent goodness are also expected to appear a certain way. They are always slender, almost always white, and very fair. They are the perfect example of the woman western culture expects all women to look like. They also talk infrequently and very rarely make statements with real intent or value to them. This reinforces values that place beauty at the top; everything will work out fine if you are beautiful. If you are outside this standard of beauty, you are more likely to be seen in the female villains and destined to be considered evil. This standard does not allow for different bodies and therefore lacks any sort of diversity. It also gives girls an unrealistic goal to attain, instead of teaching them that they are beautiful regardless of any particular standard of beauty.

            Many of the examples I have cited in this blog have been older films. So the question of whether these values are still seen in the latest Disney films or if, in our supposedly progressive society, the images have changed becoming more diverse and giving the women their own voice. The answer to this question is not quite. One of their more recent releases was called The Princess and the Frog. I rented it this week in order to answer this question. The film definitely provided a heroine who wished to have a career and was motivated and hardworking, not to mention she was the first black princess. However, and this is probably a spoiler so if you care you should probably stop reading, she still decides to give up everything to be with the prince. Tiana, the princess, stops her prince before he can kiss the other princess to tell him that she will give up all of her dreams to be with him as a frog. Regardless of everything she worked for since she was a child she is willing to give everything up for love and a man. So, in the end while they made a character who was shown as be smart, capable, hard working, and trying to run her own business she still would give it all up to be with a man.

            This is the problem with these films, while the female character may evolve and be given more of a voice; they are still willing to throw everything away on the man. These films are good at providing women with these difficult choices and making sure that their character always takes the choice that an inherently good princess should, love and subservience to a male character. I do think that these films can be enjoyed but they should also be discussed after, giving the young girl the understanding that this is not the real world and women are more then just subservient and part of the domestic sphere. What I want to see is The Paperbag Princess made into a movie, it would be so satisfying to see a women stand on her own, taking control of her life and say “Prince Ronald, YOU’RE A BUM!” because girls need to have a role model that tells them its great to be smart, capable, and able to attain your goals without a man to save the day.


Diana Surman says:

Excellent blog Liz – So, so TRUE!! Hopefully in the future disney films will be produced to portray women in a different light. However, until then, what you wrote in the last paragraph is so important – after watching these films or any film with your children (both girls and boys) discuss the content. These shows are enjoyable and good lessons can be learned through watching and discussing them. I love fairytales and I do believe they are an important part of literature – it is our responsibiliy as adults to educate our children and instil values and morals prevelent in our society today.

By the way, you are an amazing writer and I really, really enjoy your blogs.

Thank you Diana. It was hard to narrow down what problematic issues to tackle with the disney films, there might be another post focused on them in future :). I really glad you picked up on the discussion idea because I think that these films can be enjoyed but there should be a discussion around the stereotype’s portrayed in them. It is scary what children can get out of these films without parents even realizing. I wish I could remember the name of that documentary film about Disney because it really brought that idea home to me. Maybe one of the girls who went to school with me will read this blog and be able to remember.

Marnie says:

This is an wonderful blog. A topic that both women and men should be aware of…the influence of media on our self esteem.

Theresa says:

Jeez Lizzie you could have called me and asked my opinion. I would have told you how it really is…

Great Post I am really enjoying the read. Keep them coming, I think I just found another blog to look forward to and follow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: