Once upon a time, every little girl put on the sparkly crown, switched on the television and put on a Disney princess movie. The man, Walt Disney, and his mouse, ‘Mickey’, have been an integral part of all our lives. The immense following has made it possible for Disney to construct gender roles and expectations. With time, both society’s and Disney’s expectations of characters have changed. There are three main strands into which this can be divided: the damsel-in-distress, the ambitious and rebellious, and finally the free-spirited and outspoken one. The values we learn as children remain embedded in us forever – since a huge part of our childhood is spent watching these movies and idolizing these characters, it is obvious that we imbibe bits of what they portray. This article aims to explore the shift in characteristics of Disney princesses through time, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 to Frozen in 2013.
The princess is given a character based on the time the movie is set in. The first strand is set as early as 1937. At the time, women hardly question their position in society. With the 19th Amendment, they had just been given the right to vote. In the 1930s, the countries started reviving from the Great Depression. The men joined the workforce, the women became care-givers, home-makers and child-bearers. Therefore Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella advocate these very characteristics.
1937 saw the release of Snow White: a portrayal of the perfect woman – enthusiastic about carrying out domestic chores like cooking and cleaning, while being both pretty and content. Snow White is a mother or wife figure to the dwarfs and tends to their needs; in fact, she hardly ever saw the world outside of the cottage. The consumption of the poisonous apple and being saved by the prince instills the role of man as a messiah – a saviour. The dependence of the female is rather glaring, yet a cornerstone to judge a woman’s character back then. Similarly, Cinderella, in the 1950s, reinstated the ideals of a perfect woman in society. Her only incentive in life is to marry in order to escape the clutches of her evil step-mother. There is no transition or progress in thought from Snow White to Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty too repeats the same old features of the princesses before her. Though, there is more emphasis on the ‘true love’s kiss’. The social position of the woman being the puppet or the subordinate in the hands of men is extremely clear. Today’s viewers might not appreciate these movies with the same enthusiasm they did as children, and even if they do it will not be without some level of discomfort or scorn.
With the Equal Pay Act, the feminist movement in the United States saw an uproar. The gender roles of women were heavily questioned and the year 1968 witnessed the declaration of equality on the basis of gender and race in the workplace and by the 1980s, feminists had won a few of the major battles. Complying with the cultural changes in the era, Disney movies too implemented a significant shift in the assertion of certain characteristics in the princesses. They were allowed to have a mind of their own and strive for something better in life, but the dependence on the male figure is not yet abolished.
In The Little Mermaid, Ariel is a trailblazer and trendsetter who does not comply with authority or hegemonic ideals imposed on her. Not only does Ariel look different from her Disney predecessors, but also thinks differently. Even though the ocean is expressed as a dangerous place, Ariel is exploring it with her fish Flounder, instead of staying at home. However, at the end, her motive is to attain true love. So, for Prince Eric’s love, Ariel is ready to make the irreversible change into a human and discard her identity. The modern viewer will regard this action with extreme criticism because, in brief, Ariel is sacrificing her true self for love rather than embracing who she is. Mulan, like Ariel, shatters social stereotypes of being the quiet, obedient girl. Like Ariel, she sacrifices her gender identity to fight in the war. The determination and sense of commitment to filial relations that Mulan embodies is admirable. At the end, she too finds true love, but is not solely driven by it. The last movie of this era, Tangled, screened in 2010, is where Rapunzel knows that her only way out of the tower is Flynn Rider. However, although the man is the instrumental figure, Flynn Rider is a bandit and not a prince, therefore another stereotype is shattered. Overall, today’s viewers may have mixed feelings about this era.
Coming to the final era, we see that the representations and expectations of women have undergone a drastic alteration. The princess in our era is independent and free spirited. After the eras of being portrayed as the dependant sex, these movies were a breath of fresh air.
In 2012, Merida, a Viking princess, breaks all stereotypes and believes in making her own destiny than the one carved out for her. Merida is wild, slightly eccentric and blames everything on her mother, but is also graceful in understanding her mistakes. Brave is a movie concerned not with romance but focused on the beauty of a mother-daughter relationship. On the same note, Frozen, released in 2013, is a story about two sisters exploring their true selves. Disney has come so far that when Anna falls in love with a complete stranger – a trope found in nearly all of their earlier films – Elsa views it as strange and comical. The take on a ‘true love’s kiss’ is what I personally appreciated the most. It was not the prince but her sister that could bring Anna back to life. These last few movies are what define us as women of today.
Entertainment and media have vast networks and the greatest ability to impact the masses. Therefore, I feel that it is up to production houses like Disney to display the modern woman: brave, independent, self sufficient, dauntless, yet loving and caring at the same time.