Below the scintillating cerulean and violets, a steam train runs over a bridge, which stands above a river with an old sailing ship; whilst a familiar castle shines bright within the dark ethers that is within seconds illuminated by fireworks, making the night show rise to an apex of color and music. As a circular line is drawn over the castle, the bottom of the screen transitions to reveal the words: “Walt Disney”. Embedded within the hearts of children since coon’s age, this scene of Disney’s magical kingdom stands as a cherished childhood dream.
Disney has come a long way to establish itself as one of the most powerful companies in the entertainment industry today. However, the continued popularity of the classics has forced the company to look up to the negative stereotypes present in the films—whether it be a progression of the African-American stereotypes by the display of stock characters in a demeaning manner, or the defiled portrayal of the female leads in the classics. The voices for holding these films accountable and narrating stories differently in the future has led to an opportunity of discussion. When played on the Disney+ streaming service, a content advisory for classic Disney films like ‘Dumbo’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Aladdin’, etc., flash up with a warning about stereotypes: “The programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.”
Tracing the classic Disney Princess movies, this article aims to portray the negative stereotypes particularly in terms of gender, given their immense popularity.
An industry built on magic and happily ever after, the Walt Disney company started in 1923 in Los Angeles, by Walt Disney and his brother Roy, who laid the foundation for an empire. Throughout its 100 years as a company, Disney is known to have starred more females as the leads in movies. Beginning in 1937, the Classic era, known as Disney’s golden age includes the release of ‘Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. These appeared prior to Walt Disney’s death and the second-wave feminism, thus reflecting the model woman shaped by the 19th century’s notion of domesticity, where the naïve woman relies on the protection of a man throughout the film with principles of submission and standard duties of the house-hold, until she is met with the appearance of her male savior, thus the ultimate ending revolving around marriage.
“Just whistle while you work/ and cheerfully together we can tidy up the place”, sings a contented Snow White, while she does the chores, awaiting nothing more than a prince’s love, regulating her own aspirations to the shadows. Reinforcing stereotypes, Cinderella is liberated from her ruthless household only by wedding her royal savior, while Aurora is awakened by a kiss from the prince, before he slays the villainess, in order to rescue the sleeping beauty from her destined confinement. The paralleling stories continue to shape a line of kingdoms where the quintessential symbol of romance is male saviorism while women are figured as the damsels in distress.
With Disney’s Renaissance Era (1989-1999), which brought with it 12 films with leading female roles, Disney made a moderate progress to bide within the changing societal attitudes in the third-wave feminism. However the princesses starring in films like the ‘Little Mermaid’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Pocahontas’, etc., were not much than just being “little more diverse in appearance than their classic sisters”, while other factors remained unchanged.
Belle’s success in breaking from the passive stereotypes, by the courageous act of rescuing her father from the beast’s dungeon, and straying from the marriage-minded princesses of the past was but derailed. Despite the verbal and emotional abuse, she tries to find the beast’s humanity, accepting a toxic relationship in turn to secure a man’s affection. Similarly, while Disney gave more independence to the princesses with Ariel’s curiosity to explore the human world, she was still portrayed as the naïve princess relinquishing her voice, and culture in the sea for a prince’s love; “a sacrifice worthy to be made”. Similar things were noticed in Aladdin and Pocahontas, with additional racial stereotypes. With the release of princess and the frog, Disney made a significant shift by the introduction of Tiana, the first African-American lead princess. While we expected a progress towards racial equity, Disney, sadly, continued to characterize the “Black servant, presenting Tiana within that same narrow scope of historical representations of Black womanhood,” writes Ariel Callen; at times, implying her African-descent to be linked with the past slaves.
With four collective waves of feminism and advocacy for breaking from stereotypes, came the Revival Era (2009-present), with films like ‘Tangled’ and ‘Frozen’. With Rapunzel possessing artistic creativity through her paintings, and showing bravery by escaping the domestic sphere, Disney wafts a breath of fresh air, which is but blocked as we move forward to the story’s conclusion. Tangled’s happily-ever-after like always, focuses on Rapunzel’s marriage to Flynn Rider, with minimal spotlight on her own independence. However, with the release of ‘Frozen’, which starred the headstrong, ice-controlling princess, Elsa, Disney took a much awaited turn. “True love”, which was ultimately used to break the curse of the frozen heart, was shown through the dynamic of the two sisters, rather than a male savior. As ‘Moana’ (2016), and the first south-east Asian princess ‘Raya’ (2021) continue to sustain theme of audacious and independent female characters, there stands precious room for change in terms of gender and race.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”– Mark Twain
We often see this in Disney, where, unfortunately, “Tales are as old as time”. While Disney may have succeeded in breaking the gender stereotypes through the years, what waits now is the much discussed, much debated over—body image, which deserves an individual discussion. Whether it be Snow White or Elsa, benevolence continues to be linked to rosy lips and insanely thin waists, while evil characters are depicted as ghastly. Disney has to work to “let it go” wholly, so that upcoming female characters are represented richly, and truthfully.
Maryam Hassan is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Zaina Shahid Khan