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Disney Princess Literature Review - Survey of Communications

Children and The Negative Effects of Gender Portrayals in Disney Movies
Rodne’ Graham
Alabama A&M University
CSP 500
Dr. Michelle Walton
November 27, 2018
Background Information on Disney
According to statistics, there are 116.4 million home in the united states that have at one
or more televisions (Season, 2015). On top of that, Americans alone spend collectively 250
billion hours per year watching television (Tonn, 2008). Media is the most vital asset through
which people develop their identities and thereby come to comprehend the role that gender plays
in the actual world. Disney has been around for over 90 years, and during this time, they have
played a role in how society displays gender roles (Barber, 2015). Through multiple researches
and literature reviews, including the motion pictures themselves, Disney can be seen gradually
making strides alongside the surrounding culture and shifting times in America (Barber, 2015).
The company started by a man and a mouse, has become the leader in animated movies. Media
already has a substantial influence, portraying what is expected from society and societal norms
(Gardner, 2015). Disney was chosen because through history, the roles of men and women
pictured in their films have mirrored the cultural perspective and beliefs of social norms and
expectations on gender roles and identity. Disney is a great way to follow the influence of views
and expectations of behavioral norms linked with males and females (Barber, 2015). The Disney
Princess Franchise line was established in 2001 as an advertising and marketing campaign that
was targeted toward young girls (Orenstein, 2006). Disney introduced the enchanted world of
princes and princesses and far away kingdoms to the lives of millions of children and even adults
(Barber, 2015). Disney owns several films and theater companies, music and radio companies,
parks and resorts, publishing and television companies, and various other things (Columbia
Journalism Review, 2013). This literature review is an analysis of several Disney princess
movies to explore how they portray gender roles to children. The ladylike qualities which Disney
depict are analyzed in connection to the feminine characteristics of the Disney princess,
concealed messages behind the chosen Disney song verses, and the depiction of male characters
within the Disney franchise. The movies that will be analyzed are: Snow White, Cinderella, The
Little Mermaid, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast.
Gender Roles and Communication
Gender is one of the most discussed topics in society today (Maity, 2014). Our society tends to
outline what it means to be male or female, and then define what depictions and traits of normal
behavior they are each to portray (Gardner, 2015). This topic of gender portrayals in Disney is
directly related to the field of gender communications. Gender communication is defined as
communication about and between men and women. The topic of gender portrayals is connected
because not only does it discuss males and females, but it discusses males and females from the
perspectives of how media can affect the development of young children. Merriam-Webster
defines a role as being a socially expected behavior pattern usually determined by an individual's
status in a particular society. Gender roles, also called gender stereotypes, are constructed for
males and females present themselves very early in a child’s life (Palmer, 2013). In western
societies, femininity is related to a nurturing demeanor, while aggressiveness is directly
associated with masculinity. People are taught to be masculine or feminine. Don Zimmerman
and Candace West said that once a person is labeled a member of a sex category, he or she is
then justly responsible for behavior in that same category. Those individuals are required to “do
gender”. Doing gender implies making contrasts that are neither unavoidable nor fundamental
(1987). Children’s thought regarding sexuality are usually evident by the age of two. “Although
they have not constructed a consistent view of their own gender, they can distinguish females
and males and learn to divide the world between women and men” (Gokcearslan, 2009). Arma
an Gokcearslan mentioned in her article “The Effect of Cartoon Movies on Children’s Gender
Development” that both peers and media are more effective than parents in gender development.
She also noted that media message that are related to gender are of great concern because
children of tender ages cannot separate fiction from reality.
In today’s society, girls are pictured in bright colors, dresses, playing with dolls and tea-parties.
On the other hand, boys are expected to play with tools, sports, and video games. The
expectations of the social norms that children are to portray have consequences if they step out of
those boundaries. Those children risk getting harassed, discriminated, and even abused by their
peers and adults (Gardner, 2015). Children make sense of their identity, surroundings, and
behaviors through popular movies, fairy tales, and stories (Barber, 2015). McGhee and Fruch
suggest that substantial television viewing may play a role in a child’s knowledge and
understanding of expected behaviors and characteristics associated with males and females
(1980). E.J Graff (2001) told a story in his article “The M/F Boxes” about a girl who was
deemed too masculine by society and her parents. At fifteen years old, Daphne Scholinski was
forced into a Chicago mental facility and diagnosed as an “inappropriate female” all because she
did not want to wear dresses and play with dolls like other girls. Daphne told the hospital of her
horrible childhood and they still chose to treat her for “masculinity”. This child was given
conduct demerits because she refused to wear makeup, and to make matters worse, she was put
on a boy’s ward in the hospital where she was raped twice, the hospital felt that it would
encourage her to be more feminine (Graff, 2001). Daphne Scholinski challenged what was
socially acceptable for how a girl should behave and was punished by society for her actions. If a
girl chooses to dress the other way around, she is labeled a “tomboy”. A tomboy is defined by
Dictionary.com as being an energetic, sometimes boisterous girl whose behavior and pursuits,
especially in games and sports, are considered more typical of boys than of girls. Tomboys are
sometimes outcasted in society, the same way that Scholinski was, because they choose to wear
clothes that are more masculine instead of a tutu and ballet slippers. Females, by traditional
societal standards, are expected to be delicate, well-mannered homemakers, much like that of a
Disney princess. On the other hand, males are required to be strong, daring, and authoritative like
a true knight riding in on a white horse. Not only are young girls affected by the images, but
young males can begin have a distorted view of what they represent to society as well. The
typical prince-charming-rides-in-on-a-white-horse-and-rescues-the-sleeping-locked-away-novoice-having-girl-of-his-dreams narrative gives the perspective that they are automatically the
more dominant gender, who will rule over the women (Baranwal, 2016). Even colors are
classified as boy or girl colors in the hope of molding each gender in a certain way. In many
movies, Disney differentiates between genders using specific colors. Pink has always been
deemed to be a girl color, while blue has always represented the presence of a male. Boys get
dark colors that will not show dirt, such as: green, brown, and navy (Greene, 2010). Dark hues
imply that young men should be more outgoing and courageous just as a princess-rescuer, prince.
Playing in mud and fighting villians are supposed to be key pieces of a young man’s journey and
the dark colors will conceal the stains and imperfections in their attire throughout their
Snow White
This story was based off a unique grisly story made by the Grimm Brothers; however, it was
changed to make greater excitement to the age group that required it (Abler, 2008). Through the
cheerful music, funny characters, and happy ending, the character Snow white starts the Disney
trend of a domestic woman who becomes a damsel-in-distress relying on a prince to come save
her. This young, pretty, sweet-natured princess portrays the societal views of what was expected
of females and their gender roles (Yerby, Baron, Lee). Snow White could have been a story
about a young girl figuring out who she really is, but instead creates a musical showcase to other
women and young girls the idea of domesticity (Garabedian, 2014). As an early Disney film,
traditional gender roles are presented by showing her cooking and cleaning and mothering the
seven dwarfs. She is portrayed naturally as a happy homemaker, as she waits for her prince to
come and rescue her (Maity, 2014). Snow White sings called in the film called “Someday My
Prince Will Come”; the lyrics of the song express the cliché Disney agenda of how her only goal
and dream is wait for a prince to come and save her. The song repeats the words “Some day my
prince will come, some day I'll find my love, and how thrilling that moment will be, when the
prince of my dreams comes to me”. Not only does the song sound redundant but it tells little girls
that regardless of how bad your home life may be, regardless of a jealous witch trying to kill you,
a man will always come in out of nowhere and save the day (Silverman, 2009).
In 1950, the film Cinderella was released and was once again based from another Brothers
Grimm tale. Even though it came from such a gruesome tale, Disney once again shaped the story
and the movie to idealize the classic rags to riches story that mirrored American post-war culture
(Chrisman-Campbell, 2015). Cinderella is a picture of a typical damsel-in-distress because only
the prince can save Cinderella. Cinderella was stuck in her enforced servitude for the rest of her
life until she could escape with marriage (Yerby, Baron, Lee). Cinderella was stuck being a slave
inside of a house with her evil step-mother and step-sisters. Cinderella is shown as a woman of
grace, poise, and charming beauty. As all the other princesses, she is admired by the animals
around and she is the prettiest of the household, which is why she is kept locked away. The
villainesses in this film are also cast as unattractive and mean, and they only work to make
Cinderella’s life harder than it must be. The step-mother and step-sisters are evil and apparently
unable to properly for a child. When the sisters and the step-mother attempt to get the prince’s
attention, he declines (Silverman, 2009). They were also very aggressive when attempting to try
on the glass slipper; yet, selfish, mean, and loud women never get the man in Disney. Cinderella
carries all of traits needed to make a great housewife for a prince to come rescue her away from
the turmoil at her step-mothers house.
The Little Mermaid
Ariel’s sacrifice itself represents blatant sexism in that she trades her means of communicating
and expressing her intellect and personality for the physical sexual symbol of human legs making
her into ‘a woman as man wants her to be’ (Maity, 2014). The villainess in The Little Mermaid
is a full-figured sea-witch woman who goes by name Ursula. Ursula is the only powerful female
character in this film, however, she was cast as a hypersexualized, dark, vile looking octopus
with wild hair, huge breasts, and big curves. This depiction of her character tells the audience
that if a woman is in a power position, she is seen as a “castrating bitch” (Sells, 1995). Ariel
seeks out to find Ursula and asks if she could make her into a human; Ursula assures her that her
requests can be fulfilled but she must first give up her voice. Ursula goes on to explain in a song
called “Poor Unfortunate Souls”:
“You’ll have your looks, pretty face
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!
The men up there don't like a lot of blabber,
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yes on land it's much preferred for ladies not to say a word
Come on they’re not all that impressed with conversation…
It’s she who holds the tongue who gets the man.”
This sacrifice automatically screams the ever so popular phrase “Women are supposed to be
seen, not heard”. Ariel risked giving her most powerful asset to get the attention of a man, even
if it meant staying silent for the rest of her life. Nandini Maity stated in her article “Damsels in
Distress: A Textual Analysis of gender Roles in Disney Princess Films” that the message The
Little Mermaid sends to little girls is that they should sacrifice their way of communication in
order to achieve their goal of getting a prince (Maity, 2014).
Mulan might have been the most interesting movie to analyze during this research. During the
beginning of the movie, Mulan is shown being prepped to see the matchmaker. While she is
being prepped, the women in the background are singing a song called ‘Honour us all’; this song
tries to enforce the traditional gender roles into her being. The lyrics tell her that she should have
‘tiny waist’, she should ‘be calm’, and ‘obedient’ (Maity, 2014). The songs goes even further by
stating that the purpose of a woman and her main use to a man, is for her to have babies. Here
again is the theme that a woman should be seen and not heard. Mulan tried to break out of the
traditional stereotype roles by demonstrating that even as a woman, she could do everything that
a man could do. Although Mulan saved her country from the Hans, her story still reverted back
the common ending of marrying a handsome man in order to secure her happily ever after.
Beauty and The Beast
At the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is shown walking through the town, being
chased by town’s most eligible bachelor, Gaston. His pursuits are a fail because Belle tells him
that she enjoys reading more than she wants his attention. Belle exhibits having a sense of
knowing who she is without the approval of a man but this movie took a different approach when
it came to submission and marriage. Gaston only wanted Belle because she was said to be “the
most beautiful, so that means she’s the best” (Beauty and the Beast). Beauty and the Beast
portrays a battle between two male characters while Belle helplessly awaits the outcome. It is
viewed as Belle's obligation to transform the monster into an adoring man (Silverman, 2009).
Beauty and the Beast communicates to children, particularly young girls, that if she is ‘beautiful
and sweet enough’ she can end the mistreatment (Maio, 1998). Girls may begin to believe that if
abuse or any form of mistreatment is met with the act of love, the man can be changed into a
loving spouse.
Sleeping Beauty
Aurora is Sleeping Beauty is seen by Prince Philip as a poor peasant girl but he cannot get over
how beautiful she was. She won him over by just being beautiful. Aurora was The Queen in
Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, was casts in a negative light because she was independent and
demonstrated her power and individualism proudly. She was not attractive, nor did she possess
any kind of ladylike traits. Her famous lines are worldly known and are as follows: “Mirror,
mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”. Maleficent’s mirror one day turns against her
and replies that Aurora was the fairest in the land, this made her envious and vengeful. She sets
out to ultimately kill Aurora but luckily, the handsome Prince Philip rides in on his white horse
to save the day and awakes Aurora with a simple true loves first kiss.
Male Influence
Disney typically portrays men as the social leaders. The charming prince may not be the
protagonist in a Disney movie, but he is always the great savior in the eyes of society.
Fearlessness and fortitude mixed with great looks produce a happily ever after on screen, but this
is often not the case in real life (Pelton, 2015). Taking a step back and looking at the sea
creatures in The Little Mermaid, specifically Flounder the fish and Sebastian the crab, they were
the prominent male figures in Ariel’s life, who also helped her to defeat Ursula and gain the full
attention of the prince. The film is packed with imagery of a “helpless Ariel who has to rely on
her male animal friends for both intellectual and physical support” (O’Brien, 1996). Although
Flounder and Sebastian were animals, Ariel still needed men to save the day for her, just as the
other princess films. In each of the films discussed, the man who is supposedly in love rescues
the princess from the chains of jealous, malicious, older women who a sense of power over them.
Not does this demonstrate a power struggle, it also shows how the power is switched from the
hands of an evil villainess to the hands of her prince charming. In the movie Snow White, the
dwarfs relied on her to cook and clean for them, while she depended on them to keep her safe.
This depiction again reinforces the idea that women should only be domesticated and depend on
men to protect them from harm (Matyas, 2010). In Cinderella, the three mice men help to rescue
her and get her to the ball to meet prince charming. Here again, it is shown how the male animals
must save the day just as much as prince charming is expected to do. Cliff Leek proposed an
amazing question in his article “Masculinity and Disney’s Gender Problem”, at the end of his
article, he asked “If we see male characters interrupting and stealing the thunder from female
characters on-screen how can we be surprised when we see men and boys interrupting women
and girls in boardrooms and classrooms?”. That question stands out tremendously and it is one
that needs to be asked when the topic of gender and media are being discussed.
Gender roles act as blind beliefs for society (Baranwal, 2016). It is generally regarded that
Disney movies are unhealthy for children, especially the young girls to watch for the physical,
social and behavioral attributes they suggest, and to conform to the values supporting male
dominance (Maity, 2014). From these fairy tales kids discover and learn the proper manners and
the function they should play in the society. The introduction of gender roles in Disney movies at
a young age could have to the potential to permanently damages little girls' senses of
independence. The "princesses" that are more independent are sometimes not pictured on
princess merchandise because they are not as pink and girly. This exclusion could potentially
give little girls the idea that you can't be a princess if you don’t like dresses and tea parties. In
most Disney movies, the role of the female is to submit to the dominant male figures. In recent
years, the Disney Princess franchise has started to move away from the societal version of
traditional female roles. We can see this in more recent films such as: Princess and the Frog,
Brave, Tangled and Frozen. As society is changing and parents are demanding more, this
franchise’s only option is to change along with it. In closing, in the original version of these
movies, “Prince Charming did not kiss Snow White to wake her, Ariel never loved Eric, the
Beast was not angry and violent, Mulan never fell in love with her General; these changes were
added by Disney to make them more interesting and to forward a sexist agenda” (Maity, 2014).
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