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Are Disney Princesses Anti-Feminist?
And they all lived happily ever after. Or did they? We all know the iconic Disney Princesses. Most girls grew up watching their movies, learning their songs, and dressing up like them. However, this seemingly innocent behavior can have many negative repercussions on a girl’s view of themselves and the way the world works as they grow up in reality. Although Disney has been taking strides towards making their princesses more modern, Disney Princesses are harmful to young girls because they impart negative beauty standards on them and perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes that hold girls back from becoming independent women.
Many people could argue that Disney is working towards making their princesses more modern by centering the movie around strong, independent female protagonists, such as Rapunzel from Tangled, Merida from Brave, Anna and Elsa from Frozen, and Moana from Moana. In these movies, the female character saves herself and does not have a love interest, which is, honestly, very refreshing. Brave shows Merida refusing her arranged marriage and saving her family from a curse. Moana sails the ocean and fights a lava monster to save her island. There is no arguing the “girl power” in these plot lines.
And while Disney is working on its gender stereotyping in its movies, it is still lagging behind in its depiction of the female body. For example, in Frozen, Anna’s wrist is smaller than her eye. “This sends the message that women should be small and thin compared to men[…] This message can hurt girls’ self-esteem if they feel that they are not skinny[…]thus making them feel that they are not pretty either” (“The Problem With Princesses.”). Even Merida- the closest Disney ever really got to portraying a girl who looked like the rest of us- fell victim to Disney’s princess beauty culture. Disney stores remade Merida with better hair, slimmer waist, makeup, and without her iconic bow and arrows. “With this, Disney conveys the message that in order for a product to sell, it needs to be pretty and girlie (which does not include a bow and arrow). This further makes girls feel that they can only gain attention if they are beautiful and woman-like” (“The Problem With Princesses.”). Because of the fact that Disney still cannot accurately portray the female body, these negative beauty standards are still absorbed by young girls who now believe that they need to be pretty to be loved, wanted, or even a hero. This leads to an increase in low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders (Hains) in young girls who don’t understand why their bodies do not reflect the heroines in their favorite movies.
One of the reasons that the Disney princesses are harmful to young girls who watch their movies is that the Disney princess are basically flawless. “Princesses and other female protagonists are displayed with a size zero waist, skinny limbs, and even small feet. This unnatural, and unhealthy, body size presented in Disney's animated characters however, is what society calls for” (“Body Image.”). This causes girls to believe that to be pretty, or successful like their childhood role models, they also must be skinny and beautiful. Not only this, but evil characters are portrayed as people with societably undesirable traits such as being old, fat, or ugly. As little kids grow up, they learn to associate these undesirable traits with evilness. “When a movie is consistent with its physical indication of evil, the physical indication begins to stick with the child watching because their brain has correlated evil with old, fat, or ugly” (“The Disney Princess Effect”). When children see beauty representing good and ugliness representing evil, they associate that to the real world. This is extremely harmful for young girls who can’t possibly live up to their own expectations of what they think beauty is. Furthermore, girls who are larger only see themselves represented in evil characters. This is shown in Melissa May’s poem “Dear Ursula” where she admits that “[Ursula, you] were the only Disney character that ever looked like me” (ButtonPoetry). All of this combined causes girls to have lower self esteem, body image problems, depression, and eating disorders. All these girls want to do is be a princess, but they can’t because their reflection will never match what they see in the movie screen.
Disney Princesses are not only harmful to young girls because of the way they look, but the way they act as well. The gender stereotypes that they pander to are seriously outdated and yet we continue to expose our young girls to them. Girls memorize the lyrics to “Part of Your World” while memorizing the fact that Ariel gives up her voice for a man. Symbolic? Unquestionably so. How about in Beauty and the Beast where little girls learn that you can fall in love with an abusive partner? How about Cinderella where Cinderella waits for a man who can’t even remember her face? Even watching Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, little girls learn that you don’t even have to be conscious or even alive for a man to kiss you. Do these sound like positive messages to send to young girls, especially in the world today? A study found that “The more the girls in the study engaged with princess culture, the more they behaved in stereotypically feminine ways”(Hains). This means that exposing girls to these outdated gender roles translates to the more they absorb them into their everyday lives. Disney teaches girls that they should be beautiful, quiet and always, always, always sacrifice for the men in their lives. In today’s society that is completely the opposite of what we should be teaching young girls. We should be teaching them that you don’t need a man to save you, you don’t need to be beautiful to be successful, you don’t need to be quiet to be loved, you don’t need to look like a model to be a good person. But as Naomi Wolf writes in her book The Beauty Myth, “A beautiful heroine is a contradiction in terms, since heroism is about individuality, interesting and ever changing, while “beauty” is generic, boring and inert” (Wolf 59). The gender roles that Disney continues to place on their characters are harmful to young girls because it teaches them these outdated gender roles that they believe they cannot violate, less they become unbeautiful and therefore unwanted.
Personally, I never really had this problem as a little kid. I feel like I mostly avoided the “Disney Princess childhood” largely because watching the movies made me extremely anxious. However, even watching them with my little sister now, I feel the negative effects of watching these disproportionate girls get a man because she fits the definition of “Western beauty”. I watch Ariel tell her father that she’s sixteen and can handle herself. I look at myself in the mirror. I am sixteen also. I am not tall like Ariel, not skinny like Ariel. My hair isn’t long like hers, my face isn’t clear like hers. I wonder why I do not look like her, when I really should be wondering why she doesn’t look more like me. And I feel so conflicted. I hate myself for not being as beautiful as the animated characters. I hate Disney for making me feel like this is a beauty expectation I have to live up to. I hate the fact that I am living in a world where women’s growth is allowed to be ridiculed and stunted, seemingly unintentionally, by children’s movies. And I look at the new Disney Princesses. I look at Moana, which Disney tells me is an accurate portrayal of a girl about my age. I watch the movie end, the credits roll. And in the black screen that’s left I see my reflection and I am not what Disney says I should be.
In conclusion, Disney princesses are harmful to young girls because of the impossible beauty standards they impart on them and the gender roles they perpetuate through their plotlines. This is because it leads to an upswing in depression, body image problems, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and eating disorders. None of this is good for girls who need to grow up to become the strong, brave leaders of the next generations. We need girls to speak their minds, and if they’re trapped in a tower or gave away their voice or are waiting for a man to save them, they will never save themselves.
“Body Image.” The Rhetoric of Disney.
ButtonPoetry. “Melissa May - ‘Dear Ursula’ (WoWPS 2014).” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Mar. 2014.
Hains, Rebecca. “Why Disney Princesses and 'Princess Culture' Are Bad for Girls.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 June 2016.
“The Problem With Princesses.” The Odyssey Online, 14 Nov. 2017.
“The Disney Princess Effect on Young Girls and Feminist Theory (with Images, Tweets) ·sternb13.” Storify.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women: with an Introduction by the Author. Vintage Books, 2015.