You are on page 1of 11

Research Essay

Little girls worldwide seem to idolize the idea of beautiful princesses, dashing princes,
and happily ever afters, but where does their adoration of these fantasies stem from? The
popularized Disney Princesses have become iconic fairy tale figures for children of all ages.
However, the seemingly harmless Disney Princess films are filled with subliminal messages that
affect the behavior of children. From Snow White to Frozen, Disney Princesses have evolved
their gender role positions from stereotypical feminine characteristics to more masculine and
independent attributes. The changes between the 20th and the 21st century Disney princess film
plot lines have influenced how children perceive their assumed gender roles by the visualization
of the prince and princesses actions in the movies. The gender roles portrayed in many of these
films initially affect childrens depiction of their roles in society, which may ultimately influence
their social perceptions as adolescents and adults.
Gender roles are the product of the interactions between individuals and their
environments, which give individuals cues about what behavior is believed to be appropriate for
a certain sex (Blackstone 335). From a young age, children begin to construct their views on men
and womens duties in society. According to sociologists Dawn, Descartes, Collier-Meek,
Childrens media influences a childs socialization process and the gendered information
children view may have a direct effect on their cognitive understanding of gender and their
behavior (England, Dawn, Descartes, Collier-Meek 557). Specifically, Disney princesses have
shown children stereotypical actions that are common to both sexes. Nancy Signorielli, a
professor and director at the University of Delaware states that, children are mimicking the sextyped behaviors and personality traits of specific characters to identify with them (Signorielli
342). Societys immense emphasis on gender roles have even been recognized by infants.

According to psychologists Albert Bandura and Kay Bussey, 2-year-olds perform remarkably
well in sorting pictures of feminine and masculine toys, articles of clothing, tools, and appliances
in terms of their typical gender relatedness (Bandura, Bussey 676). The attributes of males and
females in the 20th century Disney movies are commonly categorized into stereotypical gender
role themes. Psychologist Mia Towbin simplifies Disney portrayal of women: as helpless, in
need of protection, domestic worker, and likely to marry. Also, Womens appearances are more
valued than her intellect. On the contrary, men are naturally strong and heroic, primarily use
physical means to express their emotions or show, and have non-domestic jobs (Towbin 12-15).
The gender roles depicted in these films are introducing to children the stereotypical duties of
which they should abide by.
20th century Disney princesses, like Snow White, are presented as stereotypical women
who complete domestic tasks and rely heavily on men to rescue them from horrid situation. The
1937 screen classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the first Disney film ever
made. Princess Snow White is known for her beauty, charm, innocence, and indubitably her
domestic work. In the film, the Prince falls in love with the princess with barely a glance. At the
climatic ending, the prince rescues Snow White from the deathlike spell with true loves kiss.
Shannon Peterman, author of Reversing the Princess Effect: Social Change through
Childrens Literature, discusses the traditional gender role implicated into fables during the
20th century. She explains that Snow White and similar tales give the impression to young girls
that it is normal to rely upon men for your survival and that you should wait on them and that
you should wait on them hand and foot in return (Peterman, 4). The repetitive themes of
domestic work and damsels in distress in 20th century films influences childrens actions and
mindset of how they should act. The happily ever after films are relaying to children that the

Prince and Princesses gender roles are a normalcy in society. The first three princesses, Snow
White, Cinderella, and Aurora, were repeatedly shown doing domestic work. However, the
symbolic feminine tasks were more prevalent in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. According
to England, Descartes, Collier-Meek, it was clear that men were not expected to do domestic
work, nor did they have the ability to do so (England, Descartes, Collier-Meek 563). The gender
roles applied in the films may entice children. For a small trade of domestic work, women can
rely on men for safety, love, and happiness. The early princesss stereotypical actions and their
compliance within the gendered system granted them many rewards, while reinforcing the
desirability of traditional gender conformity(England, Dawn, Descartes, Collier-Meek 564). The
feminine job of domestic work portrayed in the films is still commonly in effect. Mothers are
often known as the primary house cleaner and cook for their families. Sociologist Mick
Cunningham states, Children's attitudes toward household labor in young adulthood are
predicted by the behavioral models they observe earlier in life (Cunningham 112). Since
domestic work is depicted only by the princesses, children have viewed it as a womens job. The
stereotypical duty is then enforced by many of the childrens mothers who engage in the same
domestic activities as the early princesses. The characteristics of the early princesses mirror the
implied gender roles of American and British women in the 19th century. The expectations of
middle and upper class mothers and wives became known as The Cult of Domesticity. The
women were expected to cultivate piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity in all their
relations in return for a husbands provision of security and protection (MacKethan). Early
Disney princesses were directly modeled after the The Cult of Domesticity. The gender roles
in the 19th century influenced the Disney films, which in retrospect influences todays society.

Early princesses are perceived as gentle and kind. The Fairest of Them All, Snow
White, has an innocent and sweet personality that is loved by all except the Evil Queen. Snow
Whites motherly attributes towards the seven dwarves follow stereotypical gender roles
throughout the film. The second Disney princess created in 1950, Cinderella, is another example
of traditional gender roles at work. Kind-hearted Ella is forced to serve, clean, and cook for her
wicked-step mother and step-sisters. Ellas nickname Cinderella embodies the domestic duties
she endured. Like in Snow White, Cinderella relays the stereotype of love at first sight.
Prince Charming is entranced by Cinderellas beauty the moment he Charming lays eyes on her
at the ball, which immediately leads to him following in love with her.
Similar to other 20th century Princess films, the movie Mulan, downplays women.
Mulan highlights the stereotypical gender roles of men. The movie stereotypes women as not
being capable of fighting. The popular song Ill Make a Man Out of You, communicates with
children all the attributes of a real man should have. According to the song lyrics, men must
have the masculine characteristics of swiftness, strength, and mysteriousness. The meaning
behind this song is harmful because it describes how stereotypical masculine attributes should
only pertain to men.
For the first time in forever, Disney princesses are not involved in a romantic
relationship. Unlike the 20th century princesses who quickly fell in love with attractive princes,
21st century princesses embraced love from their family members. Disneys faade of how
romantic relationships function is sending children a terrible message. Portrayal of romance
provides a strongly gendered message. The child viewer is provided with consistent exposure to
the social script that one falls in love either very quickly, at first sight, or against all odds
(England, Dawn, Descartes, Collier-Meek 564). However, recent Disney films have shifted their

focus to a whole new world of non-romantic relationships. The plot of Brave is focused on
healing a relationship between two women, a mother and daughter, not romantic love. According
to journalist Danielle Morrison, Merida does not want to be married, perhaps ever, and she fights
for her right to choose whether marriage is the right path for her (Morrison, 9). Both Merida and
Elsa do not have romantic love interest by the end of the film and are still have a happily ever
In Frozen, Princess Anna is quick to accept Prince Hans marriage proposal, although
they had only just met a few hours prior. When Elsa accidently hurts Ana, Ana awaits for Prince
Hans to cure with true loves kiss, but is rudely awakened when Prince Hans reveals to Anna
he does not love her and only wanted to become King of Arrendel. The surprising twists in
Frozen taught children that true love does not need to be romantic. Unlike Snow Whites heroic
prince and soul mate, Princess Anas assumed romantic love interest turned out to be the villain.
In Snow White it was not clear how or why the princess fell in love with him (the prince); she
seemed to be chosen by him and obligingly fell in love (England, Dawn, Descartes, CollierMeek 559). Early 20th century princesses are portrayed as gentle-spirited and respectable women
towards men.
Unlike the 20th century Disney princess films, 21st century Disney princess movies, like
Brave and Frozen, promote more gender equality. The refreshing flicks are relaying to
children non-romantic love stories and female empowerment and independency. In the 2012 film
Brave, Scottish Princess Merida is portrayed as a free-spirited girl who wants to be control of
her future. After she gets in an argument with her mother, Merida consoles the help of a witch to
casts a spell that will change her mother. Lady Elinor, Meridas mother turns into a bear. Merida
regrets her mistake and tries to fix it. The movie encourages children to value family, specifically

mother-daughter relationships. According to author Shannon Peterman, the publications of

Brave in 2012 girls were given a female character that did not hide who she was in order to
obtain her goal (Peterman 8). Similarly to Merida, Elsa has an independent personality. Queen
Elsa, in the 2013 premiered movie Frozen, tries to contain her magical powers or the sake of
her sister Ana and every other person she encounters. Elsa is independent and tries to resolve her
issues by herself. After years of attempting to contain her powers of producing frost, snow, and
ice, she runs away and embraces who she is and lets go of her fear. At the climax of the film,
Anna rescues herself and Elsa instead of a Prince Charming character. The 21st century Disney
princess gender roles are revolutionizing into more equalized feminine and masculine traits.
Gender role researcher, Brianna May states that when more women take on more active roles,
Disney creates more active characters (May 19). Disney has also added more personality into the
characters. Princess Anna exhibits a quirky personality. She is far from poised. Annas goofy
personality differs from Snow Whites poised personality. Merida, Anna, and Elsas personality
shows children to not be afraid of embracing who they are.
Although, Disney princess gender roles are now presented nontraditionally, there are still
other stereotypical gender roles that continue to affect children. All Disney princesses exemplify
how beauty equates with goodness. Psychologist Sharna Olfman, states that when children
continuously receive the evident message that physical traits reflect character flaws, they are
becoming trained to embrace societal stereotypes that are both wrong and upsetting (Olfman
38). The stereotype is seen from the earliest to the most recent Disney princesses. Snow White
and Cinderella exhibit beauty and kindness, while the witch and the stepsisters are ugly and
wicked (Bazzini 2). The witch in Brave also follows this trend. Her cringe-worthy features hint
to children that she is evil. Villainous Prince Hans in Frozen is one of the only villains who does

not blatantly appear unattractive, and that is because he is portrayed as a protagonist character
until near the end of the film. Sociologist Sylvia Herbozo, conducted a study about body image
related messages in 4 to 8 year old children videos. 13 out of the 25 selected children films were
Disney. According to Herbozos statistics, The average number of body image-related messages
was 8.7 per video. Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and, Aladdin
excreted more than 10 image-related messages per movie. In 72% of the videos and 10% of the
books, characters with thin body figures have desirable traits (Herbozo 27). Although boys and
girls were affected by these movies, Herbozo found that girls sought more after the characters
perfected body images.
Disney princesses body images are deeply affecting childrens perception of beauty. In
the article Fairytale Dreams: Disney Princesses Effect on Young Girls SelfImages, author Ashley Bispo discusses how more girls are introduced to exposed images in the
media, like Disney princess depictions, the more likely they are to associate these images as the
self-image they should seek to attain (Bispo 7). In 2000, Doctors Schur, Sanders, and Steiner
found that 42% of the girls and 36% of the boys in grades one through three desired a thinner
body shape. They also found that 52% of the girls and 48% of the boys wanted to lose weight.
Thus, a preoccupation with body size and shape is clearly present during early childhood.
Unlike the average female, a Disney girl has a slender neck, demure shoulders and a defined
waist. Her long legs connect to her waist, eliminating the need for hips (Taylor 1). In addition to
the princesss flawless bodies, their outfits also play a role of how children view femininity.
The majority of all Disney princesses are seen wearing dresses throughout the entire film.
The only princesses who do not fit these criteria are Princess Jasmine and Mulan, who wear
pants instead. However, the only reason why Mulan wears pants in the film is because she is

disguises herself as her father to take his place in the army. When Mulan is herself, she is seen
wearing different kimonos throughout the movie. In Aladdin, Jasmine wears pants instead of a
dress. Even so, her mid-drift is shown to showcase her feminine body image. The two most
distinctly portrayed sexualized and objectified princesses are Jasmine and Ariel. Jasmine uses her
body to seduce Jafar to distract him from Aladdin. This scene is showing little girls that it is okay
to use their bodies to get what they want from men.
Ariel trades her voice for legs to have a chance to meet Prince Eric. Since, Ariel can not
speak; she uses her sexual abilities to win the affection of Prince Eric. The villain in The Little
Mermaid, Ursula, sings the song, Poor Unfortunate Souls, to discuss the lengths merfolk
go through in order to obtain things they do not have. She tells Ariel she does not need her voice
because she has a pretty face and can use her body language to woo over Prince Eric. Disney
is teaching children it is okay to change who you are for somebody else. Also, it shows that
femininity is not ascribed, but instead learned. According to Psychologist Bob Bednar, Gender
is portrayed as something that can be used as a mask. It can be put on and then taken off when
necessary. Although this masquerade might empower Ariel, it impedes her as well since she must
abide by these cultural rules to satisfy a man and be accepted on land (Bednar). Jasmine and
Ariel use of body language objectifies women and conveys to children that women can
manipulate men with their feminine body figures. Children are learning from these films that
men care more about a womans attractiveness rather then their intellect or opinions.
The non-traditional princesses defy the traditional gender roles that are displayed in
earlier Disney films like Snow White and Cinderella. Recent Disney films like Frozen and
Brave have expressed to children that happily ever afters exist without the involvement of a
romantic love interest. Although there are definite differences in gender roles between the 20th

century and 21st century Disney Princess films, there are still stereotypical gender role depictions
shown in even the newest princess movies that affect children. All Disney Princess movies tend
to correlate beauty with goodness and unattractiveness with wickedness. The characters
physicality attributes causes children to stigmatize their body images and strive to become
thinner. Media, especially Disney princess films, majorly influence childrens socialization of
gender roles.

Works Cited
Bazzini, Doris, et al. "Do Animated Disney Characters Portray and Promote the Beauty
Goodness Stereotype?." Journal of Applied Social Psychology 40.10 (2010): 2687-2709.
Bednar, Bob."Body Language." Body Language. Southwestern Networks, n.d. Web.
Bispo, Ashley, Fairytale Dreams: Disney Princesses Effect on Young Girls Self-Images
Dialoguers at Rutgers 9: 1-15.Print.
Blackstone, Amy M. "Gender roles and society." (2003): 335. Print.
Bandura, Albert and Bussey, Kay,. "Social cognitive theory of gender development and
differentiation." Psychological review 106.4 (1999): 676. print.
Cunningham, Mick. "The influence of parental attitudes and behaviors on children's attitudes
toward gender and household labor in early adulthood." Journal of Marriage and Family
63.1 (2001): 111-122. Print.
England, Dawn Elizabeth, Lara Descartes, and Melissa A. Collier-Meek. "Gender role portrayal
and the Disney princesses." Sex roles 64.7-8 (2011): 555-567. Print.
Herbozo, Sylvia, et al. "Beauty and thinness messages in children's media: A content analysis."
Eating Disorders 12.1 (2004): 21-34. Print.
MacKethan, Lucinda. "The Cult of Domesticity." National Humanities
Center, 2010. Web.
May, Brianna. Beyond the Prince: Race and Gender Role Portrayal in Disney
Princess Films. St. Marys College 1 (2011): 1-21. Print.
Morrison, Danielle. Brave: A Feminist Perspective on the Disney Princess Movie. Diss.
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo: 2014. Print.
Olfman, Sharna. The Sexualization of Childhood. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2009. Print

Peterman, Shannon N. Reversing the Princess Effect: Social Change through Childrens (2013). 1-12. Web.
Signorielli, Nancy. "Television and conceptions about sex roles: Maintaining conventionality and
the status quo." Sex roles 21.5-6 (1989): 341-360. Print.
Taylor, Victoria. "Teenager Breaks down the Unrealistic Anatomies of Disney Princesses."
NyDailyNews. New York Daily News, 6 June 2013. Web.
Towbin, Mia Adessa, et al. "Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney
Feature-Length Animated Films." Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 15.4 (2004): 1944. Print.
Wohlend, Karen E. Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts
through Disney Princess Play. Reading Research Quarterly 44.1 (2009): 57-83.
January 1, 2009. Print.