There is this odd, stereotypical binary to women in media. It seems like you are either a “traditional” woman, who likes makeup and dresses and is content with a quiet, empty-headed domestic life; or you are a “strong female character” type, who likes guns and violence, is one of the guys, and denounces the other type of woman as inferior. Interestingly, as time goes on, it seems the traits of the latter have become more popular to show in media while actively demonizing the qualities of the former.
In children’s media, these traits tend to be described as being a girly or as being a tomboy. These portrayals, much like for older women, help give girls good role models, and, more importantly, somebody to identify with. But while adult media has changed in their portrayals of women, has children’s media changed over the years in their portrayals? Have they diversified enough to have enough good role models for younger girls? In the Disney Princess line of films, while the earlier era of films portrayed mostly girly and more two dimensional versions of women, latter Disney films have done a better job of capturing the various states of being a girl in a way that respects both identities.
Disney and the Portrayal of Girl
The Walt Disney Company is probably the most recognizable brand of media for children in the world. They started out with a princess film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which helped rocket them to stardom (ABC News, 2015) , and they haven’t stopped with princesses since. In the beginnings of its line of princesses, Disney’s portrayal of women tended to align with the what are now the stereotypical versions of princesses. Our protagonists were kind, ladylike, good with animals, cared and doted on the people around them in a motherly fashion. But they were also emotional, air headed, and not resolved to fix their own fates, preferring to rather wait for somebody else (usually the men) around them to take initiative and bring them out of their misery holes.
Take Cinderella (from Cinderella), for example. She was extremely kind to the animals and people around her, even to her cruel stepsisters and stepmother. She is beautiful, gentle, quiet, and graceful. But at the same time, she does not take any action to escape her step-mother’s clutches. This is not like the recent film Tangled, where Rapunzel has been subtly emotionally manipulated and kept in isolation to think her life is normal. Cinderella presumably has access to the outside world to fetch various sundry items for the house or for meals, and knows her relationship to her family is wrong and longs to escape it. But her forms of escape are always provided by others- her animal friends make her dress for her, her fairy godmother intervenes when her dress is destroyed, and so on. In the end it is the random chance that a shoe was all she left that allows her to marry the Prince, the man who ultimately saves her. So while the fact that she is feminine in and of itself is not a bad thing (one could instead argue it’s a positive trait for girls who do enjoy more traditional forms of expression), she also shows many passive, weak stereotypes that could prevent her from being a great role model for kids.
What about later generations? The Disney Renaissance, typically categoriszed as animated films released between 1984 and 1994 (Puig, 2010), saw a rise in a more diversified princess base. They were no longer afraid or unwilling to work themselves out of the situation, were more willing to use “male codified actions”, and were more willing to be less feminine overall (Descartes & Collier-Meek, 2011). Belle from Beauty and the Beast is a perfect example. Her love of learning, stubbourness, and drive for adventure are all more tomboyish qualities, and yet she still manages to retain her grace and gentleness, and her beauty. This is unique since as a kid in the nineties, you were either a stereotypically rough and tough tomboy, or a prissy girl. She showed you could be “woman-like” and still kick butt.
And yet that did not excuse her from having her own odd faults and stereotypes that stemmed from her being a woman. Like most Disney films in canon up to that point, the film ended with her falling and love and getting married to the Beast, and her love for him (something typically drawn from women, and not typically sourced from stereotypically gruff men), were what ultimately saved the day. Though she was the one who did it, it was in kind of a cliched manner expected of a woman and not as great as it could have been.
It’s not entirely surprising that they ended the film with a more traditional, done-before route. As we analysed advertisements in class this year, we realized that some brands need to maintain and allure of their values in order to draw customers back. Since Disney definitely wanted to maintains its controversy free, traditional allure to appeal to parents, they wanted to stick with familiar story telling.
Knowing this about Disney then, it’s not too shocking that Brave, Disney’s first princess film where she did not end up getting married, and where that wasn’t the entire point of the plot, was actually made by Pixar. The princess Merida is very unlike the other princesses. She is not conventionally beautiful; she has a round face, wild curly orange hair, and a simple navy dress. She is not graceful or gentle or interested in princess-y affairs, and is the poster child for the word “tomboy”. But this aspect is not shown as the pinnacle of how to be a girl. It actively shows the negative aspects of some of her tomboy characteristics, such as her obstinance in refusing to listen to her mother, while still cherishing them as aspects of her personality.
But where this film goes a bit beyond is in the inclusion of the secondary protagonist, Merida’s mother Queen Elinor. Queen Elinor, though a women not a girl, is incredibly feminine. She is totally into the whole archetype of being queenly. She wears fancy dresses, is elegant, and never participates in rough sports-in short, much more similar to princesses Belle and Cinderella than Merida is! But the film chooses not to exile her for embracing more traditional roles and attitudes. She still has an immense amount of power in the land, and is a strong woman who knows what she wants and how she will get it, despite how she chooses to act and portray herself. Brave, in this sense, is the most modern of the films since it reconciles the two ways of “acting” as a woman, and tells the audience that both are perfectly acceptable.
The Impact of Representation
So now we have a full gamut of different types of ladies for girls to watch on screen. We have the very girly characters that were generally weak and ineffectual of early Disney. Then there the more varied, but still tied up with men, girls in the Renaissance. Finally, there is the split binary where both are acceptable and strong of the Revival. But why does this matter?
I talked about princess Belle at length in this post, and I criticize her the most because she’s really my favourite. I loved Belle as a child because I was just like her. I was not blonde, or into pink or dresses, and preferred reading books and going on adventures to staying in a stuffy castle waiting for some dude. She showed me that personality were totally valid, and also that maybe embracing some of the effeminate aspects of my personality did not mean that I could not identify as a tomboy.
This phenomena of having somebody to identify with, to show that how you express yourself and your gender is okay, reflects across all little girls. I’m sure most of the women in my class had a favourite princess when they were younger that was their favourite because they reflected some aspect of their own demeanor. Let’s hope in the future, we don’t have to hold the crux of the weight of creating representation on one company, and instead, we can create a more diverse media to represent a wide range of girls.
ABC News (December 1, 2015). Behind the Magic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. ABC News. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/Press_Release/magic-snow-white-dwarfs/story?id=35507438
Disney, Walt (Producer). Geronimi, C., Hamilton, L., and Jackson, W. (Directors). (1950). Cinderella. United States: Disney
Conli, R.,Lasseter, J., and Keane, G. (Producers). Greno, Nathan and Howard, Byron (Directors). (2010). Tangled. United States: Disney
Puig, Claudia (26 March 2010). ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ documentary takes animated look at Disney renaissance. USA Today. Retrieved from:http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/reviews/2010-03-26-beauty26_ST_N.htm
England, D., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. (2011). Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7-8), 555-567. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7
Hanh, Don (Producer). Troutsdale, Gary and Wise, Kirk (Directors). (1991). Beauty and the Beast. United States: Disney
Sarafian, Katherine (Producer), Andrews, Mark, and Chapman, Brenda (Directors). (2012). Brave. United States: Disney