What Makes a Good Princess

Recently, I’ve become interested in the debate surrounding whether Disney is seriously impacting the self-esteem and self-image of young girls. (The Trouble with Disney’s Teeny Tiny Princesses, Merida from ‘Brave’ Gets an Unnecessary Makeover).

When I was little, all I ever wanted in life was to become a princess. I wanted to be beautiful and have beautiful dresses and live in an enormous castle and have everything I ever wanted.

Was this dream heavily inspired by Disney princesses?

Yes.

Did I grow up into a perfectly normal human being with reasonable levels of self-esteem.

Also yes.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a little imagination, but is it ok to be telling millions of little girls around the world that they should want to be princesses?

Well I don’t think it’s fair to dump Disney with the sole perpetuation of gender stereotypes, particularly with their most recent releases of Frozen and Princess and the Frog, which both put a different twist on what it means to be a ‘princess’.

But even in the earlier, perhaps more ‘sexist’ Disney princess films, I would argue that many, whilst restricted to the gender norms of the times, promote bravery, courage and initiative as ‘princess’ qualities to aspire to.

But let’s take a look at some other strong female characters inspiring children these days.

Astrid (How to Train Your Dragon– aka my favourite movie ever)

Astrid is the ultimate viking: strong, brave and tiny bit bloodthirsty. She wears skulls on her belt and wields an axe which is easily heavier than anything I could lift. She’s also smart, regularly outwitting the boys. A role model? I think so.

Merida (Brave)

She’s Scottish, rides a horse, is awesome with a bow and arrow and refuses to marry any of the hopeless fellows offered to her, instead ‘claiming her own hand in marriage’.

Rapunzel (Tangled)

Not only does she chop off her traditional, princessy ‘long blonde hair’ at the end of the movie, she also proposes to her man, rather than the other way round. Gender stereotypes mashed up? I think so.

Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t think all the Disney films are perfect. There’s definitely still a loooonnnnggg way to go. The fact of the matter is, all the characters are still very disproportionate, with large eyes and tiny waists (see ‘if Disney Princesses had realistic waistlines).

But I don’t think anyone can reasonably blame Disney alone for poisoning young girls’ perceptions of what it means to be female. Disney, as we have seen, is trying very hard to keep up with the times by trying to empower young girls whilst still maintaining that ‘princess mystique’ that’s been capturing audiences for decades.

Let’s not forget that gender stereotypes come from all sorts of places.

There’s still plenty wrong with how media portrays women, but I think we have definitely come a long way from Snow White cleaning up after seven dwarves with the help of magical woodland creatures.

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8 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Princess”

  1. Hi Ainsley! I really enjoyed reading this piece, it was clear and very easy to read. I completely agree with you that Disney, although it may have a role in shaping the perceptions of what it means to be a woman to young girls, it is not the sole catalyst behind the enforcement fo gender stereotypesin popular culture. The stereotypical representation of women in the media has come about through a long history and this means it may take just as long to break these stereotypes and see more women portrayed in different lights (this goes the same for what it means to be a man too). For example, in ‘Tangled’ Raunzel’s love interest Eugeine Fitzherbert goes by the more daring and brave sounding name of Flynn Ryder, it is through encouragement by Rapunzel that he accepts his original name, again demonstrating how Disney is expanding from traditionally old-fashioned representations of men and women, commonly seen in their earlier films.
    I like how you’ve acknowledged this in the female characters in more reent Disney films (I also love ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’). I’ve always thought that Mulan is another strong Disney Princess, in the song ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For,’ The male soldiers talk about desiring a woman who does stereotypical things like cooking and cleaning for them, however Mulan says “How about a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?” Turning gender stereotypes on its head.
    While these types of characters are expanding the notion of a Disney Princess,I agree there still is a long way to go, the articl you included about Disney princesses not hvang realistic waistlines can also be applied to other areas such as Barbie Dolls and retail clothing Manequinnes. (http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/superskinny-topshop-mannequin-sparks-outrage-after-customer-posts-photo-on-twitter/story-fnet01u7-1227107526858)

    All in all, there still is a lot of work to be done to break gender stereotypes and see both men and women portrayed in new and different settings, hopefully the examples you mentionsed inspire more steps in this direction.

    Thanks for the great read!

  2. I completely agree: too many people are happy to criticise the ‘Disney Princess’ without engaging what that concept actually means. It may be the English Literature Degree in me taking hold: but to talk about texts without referencing their contexts is incredibly shortsighted (and pretty heavily covered in the NSW HSC http://bit.ly/1K1ZMAS).

    To many people look at “Disney Films” as one genre, one entity. In reality they are a timeline; one which spans almost 80 years. Where films sit on that timeline, the context of the film, is obviously going to be reflected in the portayal of themes and characters. From a modern context the portayal of some princess may seem sexist, but all still have redeeming and progressive qualities (Props to Snow White for surviving that first night in the woods. That scene always terrified me as a child). What’s the worst that can happen from a young girl watching Snow White? She decides she wants to cook and clean? To be a stay-at-home. She is allowed to want that. Feminism is about being allowed to make that your own choice. (http://huff.to/1H9TlYS) And in addition to Snow White and the older Princesses, children watch Mulan and want to become a warrior; Rapunzel and want to wield a fry pan; Merida and want independence and a huge horse.

    Issues of self-esteem and self-image stem from crises of self. When children or young adults feel that a particular identity is being forced on them as the ‘right choice’. Disney Princesses don’t do that. They have so many different personalities, characteristics and dreams. They tell young girls that anyone is a princess, that you can stay at home and clean, you can save the whole of China, you can chase boys, or you can stand up for yourself. Just as long as you are yourself. And I think that’s more admirable than many other messages young children are told.

  3. I really like how you’ve made the strong point in your post that it is not solely Disney’s responsibility to create role models for young girls. Since the new princesses how come out there has been a shift in what gender is supposed to be. I think it’s really important to write that Disney is also not the only one creating the older fashioned ideals.

  4. Hey Ainsley, I really enjoyed your thoughts on this topic. As a child I grew up watching disney as well and was swept away but the magic and romance of it all. Only to find out later on in life how unobtainable majority of the aspects of life that Disney portray are. Gender stereotypes in the media can be very demeaning especially to the person who is being portrayed in a less than equal manner. We rely on the media to inform us with news and topics that are of interest to the public and I believe that each individual should be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve regardless of whether they are male or female.

    I do agree though that Disney is not the sole reason for Australia’s harsh gender stereotypes and I detect that Disney is trying to break some gender roles in order to empower women, however I feel there is a lot more that they could do since they are a multibillion dollar company that is the source of entertainment for so many young impressionable people.

    Sarah

  5. I like how you’ve shed light on the positives on the impact of Disney films on children. Most studies nowadays are always emphasising on the negative effects on kids from Walt’s earlier films (which I admit was 100% guilty of a few weeks back). However, I would have liked to see a contrast between the more recent Disney films and the later ones like Pocahontas, Lion King, Snow White etc and examining how Disney films have developed and improved over time. See http://www.cracked.com/article_16905_7-classic-disney-movies-that-taught-us-terrible-lessons.html – Great read! I love it when weekly topics are turned into something we can all relate to and take a nice walk down memory lane again.

  6. Hi Ainsley,

    I really like how you didn’t just go straight into criticising Disney but recognised that despite some of their films ascribing to gender stereotypes, many films also promote bravery and courage.

    When I was a kid I hated Disney Princess movies despite my mum and sisters enthusiasm for them, so I think agree that it is wrong to always blame Disney and assume that children have no autonomy and will be socialised to follow everything they are exposed to.

    I also liked how you explored other forms of media and social institutions that perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes just as much, if not more so, than Disney.

    Great post! Well Done!

  7. I enjoyed the fact that you didn’t completely trash the classic Disney films. While there are issues present in them, it’s important to note that they do feature courageous females at times, shown especially in your example from ‘The Little Mermaid’. You also made great comparisons between the classic Disney films, and the new Disney films, and why/how they have grown. They have definitely come a long way over the years.

    Thank you for including hyperlinks into your blog. I wasn’t familiar with some of the films you mentioned, so I was able to look over them. Also, adding additional links (e.g. the waistlines of Disney princesses) helps for a more interesting read. I do think it would have been a better idea, however, to concentrate on fewer films. It would make your blog at lot more concentrated, easy to read, and understand. Great work though!

    On a slightly different note, I think it’s interesting that Disney hasn’t incorporated the same gender values into their superhero films. In 2009, Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment, who of course are the studio that releases films such as ‘The Avengers’, as well as the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Thor, etc.).

    Upon buying Marvel, many people including myself believed that Disney would begin to incorporate female superheroes into their Universe, but this has not been the case. With over ten films now in the franchise, there has yet to be a standalone film featuring a female superhero. Even Black Widow of ‘The Avengers’ gets pushed to the background when it comes to advertising and merchandise. This is something Disney should look into. Why do you think they haven’t?

    Incase you were interested, here is a link that explores females in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. It may help put things into perspective:
    http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/movies/why-is-theres-no-woman-lead-superheroes-in-marvel-films/story-e6frfmw0-1227319445070

  8. This is a great post! I totally agree that Disney does sometimes perceive gender stereotypes in certain movies, but they also try their best to lay out the positive perspectives for younger girls. Although as you mentioned some characters do still represent the unrealistic image of the ‘perfect girl’, but they also show characters that represent a strong sense of self-identity which is a positive aspect for younger girls to focus on.

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