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How Do Disney Princesses Mimic the Expectations for Women?

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Lee loves TV and films, and she's ready to give her hot take on some of her favorites


Life Imitates Art

I’ll be honest: I love Disney. So much.

I think you’d have to be a monster not to.

But a couple months back, my family got a free trial for Disney+, so I had the joy of delving back into my favorite classics: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin, and Freaky Friday. And I’ll be honest again: some of these movies have a lot more going on than my five-year-old self originally processed.

Beginning in 1923, Disney has been a way for children and young adults alike to take a break from the world around them and embrace the magic of childhood (aside from the brief anti-Nazi propaganda during WWII—trust me, it’s a real thing, look it up). But we often forget that, just like everything else in the world, Disney is a reflection of the world around us in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And though I would love to get into the pro-capitalist propaganda or racial slurs and commentary that Disney has funneled out in its nearly 100 years of history, today is not about that.

Today I’m going to be exploring the ways in which America’s culture has changed in the ways that it views women and how those parallels can be seen in Disney. Because whether you grew up with Disney or not, their movies have quite a bit to say about the evolution of America.

So, look out Disney. The clock has struck midnight, and the fairy godmother's magic can't protect you now...

The History of Mid-20th Century Women

To first understand Disney, we must first understand some history.

When WWII happened, as all the men were drafted, the women stayed behind and took up the jobs of their husbands, driven by Rosie the Riveter and a new wave of feminism in the US. Despite the horrors of war, the Blitzkrieg, the Holocaust, the new fear of atomic bombs, and other generally not-pleasant events, the one good thing that did come out of it was a new sense of female empowerment.

Then the war ended, and the men came home.

The war freaked people out so much that American society naturally wanted to revert back to the “good old days,” and people did this in a few ways:

  • Post WWII “Domestic Idealism”: The men went out to work and the women stayed behind as a housekeeper. Reintroducing gender norms was a way that the public tried to resort back to “normalcy” as Americans reminisce about a time before the world began to fall apart.
  • “The Baby Boom”: Some estimates suggest that nearly 4.24 million babies were born a year in the period between 1946 and 1964. And, of course, someone had to stay behind and take care of all those kids.

At this time, the idea of the “housewife” was reborn—a woman who was quiet, obedient, and took up little space. Because the simple fact of the matter was that women no longer needed to work, so by the fifties, the housewife became a normality in the US.

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Women who had been working during the WWII era, only to have their jobs stripped from them, were understandably not very pleased. The women’s rights movement began sometime in the 1800s in the US, but it came back again in full force after WWII.

Pretty soon, with the changing economy that made living much more expensive, as well as the dissatisfaction that many women felt in their housewife position, many women began to re-enter the workforce between the 50s and 70s.

Over time, with the slow progress of economic wage equality (albeit this issue was never 100 percent solved) as well as the growing ability for women to be economically and socially independent, mostly thanks to the development of contraceptives in the 1960s, women have been able to fight for their own rights and identity as independent American citizens, all the way up to the modern day.


The Evolution of Disney's Gender Roles

This progression of women in society is directly parallel to their roles in Disney films. Because despite some of its faults, America has made massive strides in the evolution of its gender roles, especially in recent years. And in keeping up with the times, Disney has made no exception.

In Disney’s “first stage,” let’s look at Sleeping Beauty (1959), a movie so progressive that the titular character was onscreen for a total of 18 minutes before spending the rest of the movie sleeping (I really hope my sarcasm is coming through). At this time, the expectation of a housewife was in full swing, and the trope of the princess being saved by the prince was a product of that societal expectation. In both Disney and the real world, the women were the damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by their courageous prince. The woman had to rely on the man. Even in the other movies at that time, Snow White (1937)* and Cinderella (1950), these common trends are abundantly clear, displaying in full force that a woman must be at the whims of their “breadwinner” to fully thrive.

Second, after a 40-year hiatus from making movies, a new wave of Disney features flooded theaters. Aladdin (1992) was just one of the few that came out as a product of the mid-20th century reform for women. As a quick recap, the princess, Jasmine, doesn’t want to marry a prince and follow the traditions her father set out for her, so she runs away from the castle, only to meet street rat Aladdin (roll credits). Aladdin finds a magic lamp, wishes that he can become a prince, takes Jasmine on a magic carpet ride, and then after some heroism, Aladdin defeats the villain Jafar. Jasmine marries Aladdin, and they all live happily ever after. So, obviously the Disney trope of “man-saving-woman” hasn’t quite gone away yet. But notice the difference in Jasmine’s characterization as compared to Sleeping Beauty. Jasmine has her own decisions about how her life should be run, and then proceeds to take actions to make sure that her desires are carried out. Doesn’t want to marry a prince? She runs away. Doesn’t want anything to happen to Aladdin? She seduces Jafar as a distraction. Of course, she still must rely on Aladdin at the end to be the “hero” (The same way Prince Eric killed Ursula at the end of The Little Mermaid (1989) or the Beast fought Gaston in Beauty and the Beast (1991)) but at least she has some jurisdiction over how she will live her life. Plus, she’s super sassy and isn’t sleeping the whole movie, which is a win in Disney’s books.

But it’s really been the release of Frozen (2013), as well as all the other 2000s movies so far, that have demonstrated just how gender norms for women have really gone. The story follows two sisters, both with their own unique personalities that make them more than just a commodity (Anna, for example, is the first truly quirky Disney princess that we have really seen). But perhaps what’s most amazing about this movie is that it completely turns this prince-saving-the-princess trope on its head, as (spoiler alert) Anna’s love interest reveals that he only wanted to be with Anna for her association with the throne. One emotional sequence later, Anna is saving her sister, Elsa, from murder, and through the power of sisterly love, everyone lives happily ever after. With the release of Frozen, as well as Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016), all of these movies depict the princess being the one to save the day, with Tiana being the one to defeat Dr. Facilitator and Moana being the one to fulfill her ancestor’s destiny. These women don’t have to rely on men anymore, the same way that in our modern day it is becoming more acceptable for women to be independent.

In both Disney and modern American society, women are now being more considered as equals among their male counterparts, viewed not as the stereotypical housewife of the 1950s, but rather as someone who could save the world.

*Snow White came out before US interference in WWII (1941), so women at the time were held to the same standards


So, Is It Getting Better for Women?

The short answer: yes. With the evolution of gender roles, it is easy to see the progress that America has made..

The long answer: yes, to an extent. Because there is still subtle discrimination among women in society, and it comes in the form of beauty standards.

And nowhere is that more prevalent than in Disney.

We’ve all seen the unnaturally unrealistic body proportions of Disney princesses, from the childlike face to the tennis ball eyes, a waist the size of their neck, non-existant hips, and the stick-like slimness of a near-impossible body composition. From Cinderella to Frozen, these physical expectations are present in nearly all the Disney Princesses.

And when I say unnatural, I mean to the point of nightmare material. Buzzfeed did a “social experiment” to demonstrate the unnatural expectations of these princesses, in which Buzzfeed employees Photoshopped themselves to fit the same body composition as some of your favorite Disney princesses. But the strange thing is that when we look back to the original photo, the Photoshopped version seems more and more desirable, tennis ball eyes and all.

So what does this tell us? Well, it shows us firsthand that even when gender roles have begun to shift, we still hold many of these strong, empowered females to unrealistically slim body expectations. It tells us and our children that in order to be successful, a woman must be strong-willed, but she also must be missing two ribs. Of course, many men are held to this standard of beauty, too, but unlike women, men are still taken seriously when they don’t have the ideal body type. Just look at the difference in animated kings versus queens. Many of Disney’s kings are drawn with a chubbier build, but the queens are still depicted as slim, just like their daughters. And what about the rather ugly, old depiction of many of the female Disney villains, such as Ursula and the Evil Stepmother? Are we trying to tell our youth that in order to truly be a good person, a woman must look pretty and youthful?

And of course, our society values beauty as much as it values money or fame. However, the extreme scrutiny that we see women held to in terms of their bodies, in both Disney and social media alike, suggests that women still have a ways to go before they could ever be considered “equal” among their male counterparts.

It has only been in the last few years that Disney has begun to stray away from these beauty constructs. In 2016’s Moana, the titular character is depicted with broader shoulders and more normal proportions, considering both her cultural and gender predispositions. In recent years, it is becoming much more politically correct to be much more accepting of all body types, but it will take much, much longer before the ‘ideal’ slim body type is wholly out of style. Both Disney and our society have a ways to go before they break down these preconceived barriers of a “desirable” body type, but it is reassuring to know that the necessary first steps have begun to be made to promoting a healthier, more natural beauty standard that encompasses not just those with rare genetic exceptions.

So what do you think? In what ways has our society improved for women’s rights, and what can they still work on?

Buzzfeed's Princess Experiment


Sue Dunn on June 16, 2020:

This article is so well written. Sarcastic, funny yet rings so true to my ears!

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