She sits as close to the television as she can, not wanting to miss a moment. She watches the prince lean down and place a kiss onto the lips of the princess. It’s so simple, so easy. The princess is a being of beautiful perfection that falls in love with the prince and has all of her wishes come true. The little girl knows that she wants to be a princess too and live happily ever after with her own prince charming.
The Role Models
Fairytales, myths and popular cultural stories are often used by children to make sense of the world they find themselves living in. Disney, one of the world’s largest media corporations, is probably one of the main contributors to the way in which most children understand the world; every person from the age of one to ninety-one has been influenced by the media mogul. One of Disney’s top selling and most influential characters are their princesses. As to date there are eleven notable Disney princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and sometimes Mulan) that serve as role models for millions of little girls. These princesses contribute to our culture’s preconceived notions of beauty and the gendered norms of femininity. They teach us that to be feminine we must be beautiful, delicate, and docile and in order to obtain our ‘happily ever after’ we must not only be feminine but also fall in love.
Cultural views of gender are expressed and maintained through a number of ways. One way in which this is done is through the cognitive development theory. According to Dr. Julia T. Wood in her book Gendered Lives; the cognitive development theory focuses on our use of role models who we base our behaviors and identities on. “The significance of [Disney’s animated princess films] operate on many registers, but one of the most persuasive is the role they play as the new “teaching machines.”” Through their story lines and characters the princess films reinforce female gender norms and culture’s preconceived notions of beauty, working to define this for a variety of young girls as thin, delicate, and mostly white. Although there are multiracial princesses, they all adhere to western culture’s white ideal of beauty. Jasmine, of the 1992 Disney classic Aladdin, is Arabian, only her skin tone is darker for the Middle Eastern setting. Her features maintain many white features, such as a delicate nose and small mouth. By continuously using white ideals of beauty on their princesses, Disney is forcing even girls of other cultural backgrounds to adhere to the ‘thin is beautiful’ ideal to mimic their role models.
Thin Is (unfortunately) In
These princesses are not only acting as role models of culture’s gender norms for young girls, they are also using nonverbal communication within gendered media to further the ideal that thin is beautiful and anything that does not fit this representation is ugly. Dr. Julia T. Wood in Gendered Lives states that gendered media can both communicate and resist dominant ideologies of gender, sexuality and race. Through media the “cultural view of women as dependent, ornamental objects who exist to look good, to please men, to care for children, and to be sexually desirable and available” is continuously repeated.
Research from Beauty and Thinness Messages in Children’s Media: a Content Analysis suggests that media exposure also, “significantly influence[s] body dissatisfaction and the development of eating disorder symptomatology in our society.”This article argued that children are particularly susceptible to media messages and are more likely to perceive the “imagery surrounding thinness and fatness on television and other media as real rather than artificial.” In many of the princess movies there is an emphasis on physical attractiveness (aka thin) which is associated with sociability, kindness, happiness or success; on the other hand, characters that are more over weight are depicted as evil, unattractive, unfriendly and cruel. For example, in The Little Mermaid the villain, Ursula, is portrayed as an unattractive, obese octopus. As children and young adolescents are exposed to more and more images of thin bodies research shows there is a positive correlation between this and the desire for a thinner body.
It’s a Fatal Attraction
The emphasis on appearance and beauty encompasses much of female’s lives; we are taught that beauty will take us far in life, especially in regards to intimate personal relationships. In Gendered Lives, Dr. Julia T. Wood defines a personal relationship as a relationship where both partners depend on each other for affection and material assistance. The ideal that physical appearance is a key determinate of personal relationships is especially reinforced by the Disney princess movies; which, in many movies, took only a matter of minutes for couples to fall in love at first sight. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel fell in love with Eric at first sight, while he fell in love with her voice. In Pocahontas, the title character and John Smith fell in love based on appearances, as they did not speak the same language. It’s amazing that all they had to do was “listen with your heart and you will understand,” and suddenly the Native-American princess and the English settler can speak the same language. The fact that love at first sight is a cornerstone on which relationships are built in these films, encourage the belief that physical appearance is the most important thing when entering an intimate relationship.
It’s All About the Happily Ever After
The image of beauty and perfection that the Disney princesses portray have influenced young girls from Snow White’s creation in 1937 and even past the creation of the last princess, Merida, in 2012. Although we would like to think that many of these princesses are strong role models, they in fact embody gendered norms that represent women as lesser. As Freud notes, “female symbols are those that suggest the possibility of either entry or entrapment.” If we look closely into the lives of the princesses, Rapunzel is locked in a tower, Snow White is sent out to be murdered, and Aurora is put to sleep. These heroines have their freedom severely restricted at a time in life when the adolescents who see them as role models are discovering independence and increased agency. Even more progressive heroines like Ariel, Jasmine and Belle “still live in male-dominated worlds, and ultimately find fulfillment through their romantic relationships with [their] Prince Charming.”
Merida, the Black Sheep
But, there is one princess who gives us hope. Merida, the last princess in a long line of Disney heroines, defies preconceived notions of feminine gender roles. She is a princess with “a strong will, a stubborn streak and a lot to learn.” She is not obsessed with her looks nor is she fawning over a prince charming. She is fighting her own battles and doing it on her own terms. She is the role model for young girls that Disney fans have been waiting for. It has taken time but, we are glad that she is here. Although Disney tried to give her a make-over and change her appearance– “she’s thinner, her eyes are wider and … Is that miracle anti-frizz solution she’s using?” — many fans petitioned against this. If anyone needs a make-over its the over sexualized princesses we already have. In a world where girls are continuously told to be thinner, more delicate and docile, it is refreshing to met a princess that’s fine just the way she is.