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"Leave the Sewing to the Women": Gender Roles in Disney's Princess Films (Part 1)

Updated on October 31, 2014

A band of mice are merrily singing a tune as they work together to make their friend Cinderella a dress for the ball. While assigning jobs, one mouse enthusiastically states that he will help sew, to which another responds that he ought to “leave the sewing to the women” and shoos him away to perform a much more daunting and daring task. As odd as it may seem to impose gender roles onto vermin, the sentiment would have held significant weight at the time in which the film was made. To disregard children’s films as a viable source for social commentary would be a grievous oversight, for children’s media can potentially provide insight into the values and molds that society wished to instill in their younger generation. Media has tended to particularly dictate women’s roles in society, and if one were to closely analyze films of any era, one would see carefully crafted female characters that embodied ideal femininity of the time, and Disney’s princess films are no exception. The Disney Princess franchise did not officially exist until 2001, but the films represented within the franchise have been contributing to and defining girlhood for decades. With an emphasis on the first three Disney princess films to be released – that is, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty -- this essay will analyze the techniques used in these films to portray and perpetuate gendered roles for women within the social context of the eras in which they were made.

Snow White, Escapism, and the American Dream

A Disney princess is defined by her sweet and demure nature, and no three characters exemplify that more than Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. These women are, without a doubt, the epitome of passivity. They remain chaste, yet exhibit strong maternal tendencies, creating what scholar Sarah Rothschild calls a “retrograde image of femininity” that ignores the progress that women had made in earlier years. Disney’s first feature length animated film was released in 1937 in the middle of the era where the Great Depression was in full swing. The decade prior had seen an influx in loose and free young women who dared to challenge traditional notions of women’s roles, but by the 1930s, the focus on individual independence had to take a back seat as families took on a newly important role to facilitate financial stability. With economic decline came a sense that the American Dream had shattered to pieces, so films like Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves existed not only to provide audiences with a sense of escapism from their unlucky lives, but to create a sense of optimism that the American Dream was not dead; that through all adversity, a person could still achieve their dreams if they kept on believing and never lost hope. Women continued to work despite conservative fears that working women would destroy the home and, contrary to those fears, family life became stronger as divorce rates declined out of necessity and women found more authority within their households. The focus placed on Snow White’s role as the dwarves’ keeper can possibly be interpreted as a product of those ideals, yet her role in the film seems to perpetuate far more conservative gendered roles than what most women in reality were facing. Although she is still a young girl, for instance, Snow White immediately takes on a motherly role the moment she discovers the dwarves’ unkempt cottage, leading to a nearly four-minute long housekeeping sequence. She orders the dwarves to wash before supper, ushers them off to bed, and bids them goodbye with a kiss as they head off to work in the morning as if knowing how to care and tend to others is in her nature, despite the fact that she presumably never had a positive maternal figure in her life. Even as she cleans the castle steps during her servitude, Snow White is never depicted as complaining. She keeps her chin up and hums her dreamy little song to pass the time. She is kind and patient and content with her role.

On one hand, her pleasure in housekeeping can be easily interpreted as sexist, but the way she transitions from scared child to dutiful mother figure can also be read as the character taking on a role of leadership. Surely, in the 1930s when familial stability was important for one’s survival, having a sturdy and capable mother to care for and manage the home was equally as important as the husband’s role at work. So by giving Snow White a nurturing disposition, the film gives her a small sense of power and importance. But then, by the end of the film, she has evolved from child, to mother, and finally to wife, creating a narrative that is careful not to suggest that she can move outside the realm of her feminine duties.

Wishing and Dreaming

Another princess would not appear until the fifties, perhaps in part because Disney wished to relegate women to domestic roles, and the able, working woman of the 1940s did not facilitate that, and in part because women of War World II simply did not need a chipper and hopeful princess to help them sing their way through their troubles. Rosie the Riveter was enough of an inspiration, and though over a decade separates the two films, their heroines share a plethora of common traits. By the end of the Second World War, America was in such a fragmented state that family life had never looked more appealing. Society returned to a patriarchal sense of the home where women inspired by Rosie the Riveter could not have been more out of place. Now that men were returning from war, there was no reason for women to continue participating in the work force and anyone who did so was once again accused of destroying the American family. Propaganda began to be released, detailing the idillic, romantic paradise of a life at home in order to combat the fear that women would steal jobs away from men. Many women took the bait and returned to their traditional roles with the belief that marriage was the most fulfilling goal, and thus domesticity was back in vogue.

Cinderella singing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes."
Cinderella singing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes."

Cinderella and Aurora acted as bookends to the era of happy housewives who cheerily vacuumed while wearing their best pearls. Women in other films of the era were often depicted as sweet and saccharine to reinforce the idea that women functioned best as wives and trinkets, and while neither Disney heroine directly imitated the expectation of ever-chipper homemakers, they did perpetuate ideals of domesticity through their gentle and patient personalities. Cinderella is introduced as “ever gentle and kind” immediately providing the audience with an unblemished image of grace and regality. While Cinderella may get frustrated or feel defeated, she never acts out on her frustrations and instead attempts to find the silver lining in the situation. She believes she will be trapped under her abusive stepmother for the rest of her life, and the only event that drives her toward making an attempt to escape her life there is the prince’s ball. Ultimately, it is the men in the movie that give her a way out. Romance may not initially be a central factor to Cinderella’s motivations, but her ultimate goals do evolve into finding a way to marry the prince. Aurora, on the other hand, is far more focused on romance, as demonstrated by the fact that most of her small speaking role in the film is dedicated to gushing about a young dashing man from her dreams.

She Walks in Beauty

A consistent theme present in films from the 1930s to the 1950s involved women in positions of power being taught by men that sex and marriage were all that should matter to her in life. Snow White easily fits this bill: she is a woman stripped of her powerful title, forced into servitude and never once told that she can aspire to more than a wife to a prince. She expects the prince to save her through marriage, rather than taking the initiative to take back her own kingdom. Cinderella and Aurora fall into this category, too, having been stripped of their titles and birthrights as children, they are left to do chores and daydream about their royal beaus. The importance of romance is, as Rothschild states, an invention by Disney. True love’s kiss was never a plot point in the original tales from which the Disney films are based, yet the notion of true love conquering all (including over the almighty power of an evil sorceress, as is the case with Sleeping Beauty) is a recurring theme in these narratives. All three princesses dream of romance while marriage is reinforced as their ultimate fulfillment, which stays in line with notions of the importance of marriage during the decades in which they were made. Their physical beauty takes on an immense amount of importance far greater than any other attribute, especially for the men in their lives, and is, to an extent, the source of their salvation. The huntsman allows Snow White to live because he cannot bear to kill someone so gentle and beautiful. The dwarves’ hesitant debate over allowing the princess to stay with them is cut short when she offers to cook for them, implying they would have turned her out if not for her traditional feminine skills – never once considering that perhaps they should protect their princess in need regardless of what she could offer them. Her beauty and femininity are the factors that continuously save her and, more importantly, it is the love from the men around her that saves her. From her birth, Aurora has expectations of beauty and femininity quite literally thrust upon her through gifts bestowed to her by the three good fairies – or rather two, since Maleficent interrupted the gift giving before Merryweather could give the child her gift, though one can only assume that the last good fairy was planning on granting her an equally superficial present rather than anything of use to her such as the gift of sensibility or deft governing skills.

To further explore how these women are viewed, one must look to their relationships with their love interests, all of whom are initially attracted to their superficial traits such as their beauty, grace, and vocal prowess while audiences are meant to believe that these men have fallen in love with these women without making much of an effort to understand them as their own person. These films suggest that, above all else, these women should be and are valued for their physical attributes. In direct contrast to their passive hope, the men are thrust into active pursuit of their goals. While the princesses passively sing of wishing and dreams, waiting for their happy ending to come, the men around them lead the action. Whether they desire a housekeeper like the dwarves, or a mother of his grandchildren in the case of the king in Cinderella, the men in these films and their desires drive the plot forward. The fairies are the only women that take an active role in their respective narrative, for they are responsible for every plot development and action in the film – including the reason why Aurora is found due to their bickering over which color they should make her gown. They provide Prince Phillip with the weapons necessary to escape from his captivity and defeat Maleficent, proving to be the most competent and useful characters in the film. They take initiative – but everything they do is in order to protect Aurora, justifying their active role by remaining within the realm of protective mothers attempting to keep their innocent child safe from the corruption of the largest threat to the kingdom: a powerful woman.

While these three princesses possess positive attributes such as never losing faith in the face of abuse or adversity and remaining kind and patient when faced with those who seek to tear others down -- themes that surely resonated with audiences at the time as much as they do now -- they lack their own sense of autonomy. Others make any large decisions the princesses are presented with on their behalf. From the time she is an infant, Aurora is expected to marry due to her father and a neighboring king’s wishes to unite their kingdoms. Cinderella laments about her life while her animal friends make a dress, allowing her to make an attempt to go to the ball with her stepfamily. When she thinks all is lost, the fairy godmother conveniently appears to give her the means to achieve her dreams, and while she sits helplessly behind a locked door, her animal friends are busy trying to rescue her so she can prove her identity to the Duke. She would have never become a princess if it were not for the intervention of others, and while there is nothing wrong with getting help, these women are never given the opportunity to solve their problems on their own.

Supporting (Or Not So Much) Women

Truly, these three princesses exemplify what it means to be patient, gentle, and kind, and those who have the audacity to abuse and manipulate these innocent and pure women through their unwavering virtue are solidified as nothing but wicked and cruel. Aside from the pure ingénues that are the film’s heroines, women in these films are categorized into two alternate roles: the wicked and vile crone that stands in the heroine’s way of happiness and the mother that comforts and guides them toward their goals. There are only two women present in the entirety of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and they each serve as antagonists to one another. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are no better, as the villains’ motives are driven by female jealousy, vanity, and spite. Lady Tremaine, the antagonist to Cinderella, is slated as cold, cruel, and “bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s beauty,” immediately establishing her as a wicked and heartless old crone. Maleficent, too, is driven by jealousy, as the only motivation she has for cursing the infant princess lies solely in the fact that she was snubbed an invitation to a celebration.

Maleficent presents an interesting case considering she is the most powerful character in the entire film, so powerful, in fact, that the other characters that can perform feats of magic state that they are unable to break the curse laid upon the princess. The three good fairies lament that Maleficent knows nothing of kindness or love – she is incapable of understanding sacrifice and therefore cannot fathom the idea that the three good fairies would forfeit their magic in order to protect the princess, making it the perfect plan to keep Aurora safe. They rely on this woman’s failure to grasp the concept of basic human decency, using her own corruption as a weapon against her. While Maleficent may be the most powerful character in the narrative, her immense power is clearly depicted as the source of her corruption and villainy. One could interpret that depicting powerful women as sources of pure evil was potentially a dramatic mechanism to drive audiences away from the idea of women accomplishing anything of worth outside the home, which would then place a much more appealing light on the demure and gentle women who sing sweetly and dream of the day when their prince will take them away to be wed. All three of these princesses are rather similar in virtue and while they may have flaws, said flaws are used as an excuse for those around them to guide or manipulate them. Ariel, who would come two decades later, would prove to be much more vocal (despite the plot of the film). Her flaws are at the center of the story: her stubbornness and daydreamer attitude drive the plot forward and highlight her relationship with her father. Ariel's successors would follow along a similar line, struggling between maintaining the princess persona that Disney had spent half a decade carefully crafting and creating a fresh, new type of heroine that better reflected what the modern woman aspired to be.

Referenced Works

  • Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern America: A Brief History, Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995. 196.
  • Rothschild, Sarah. The princess story: modeling the feminine in twentieth-century American fiction and film. New York: Peter Lang, 2012.
  • Ryan, Barbara. Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement Ideology and Activism. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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    • Patrick Rijnders profile image

      Patrick Rijnders 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      Impressive article, you did a lot of research for it. It's interesting, director Kenneth Branagh recently said that his live-action remake of Disney's Cinderella is going to have a princess who is not just going to wait for a man to come rescue her, so Disney is aware of the fact that times have changed ;)

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 3 years ago

      Very nice Hub! I think the Princess mentality in general has set many a woman up for disappointment in relationships and in life in general. The idea that life ends (albeit happily) when you find Prince Fill in the Blank and settle down at twenty something is a bit scary. Tiana was interesting in that at least she had a life goal (her own restaurant) that didn't involve royalty, marriage, or being saved from anything.

    • MarieLB profile image

      MarieLB 3 years ago from YAMBA NSW

      That was a fabulous article Birdie Ryan. I found it very informative, interesting and also entertaining. Great work indeed.