Disney movies have captivated audiences of all ages since the early 20th century. From charismatic animals to beautiful princesses and strong princes, Disney has gained massive influence over young minds, becoming a household name. So popular have the Disney princess movies and relevant consumer products become, that the underlying negative and stereotypical gender roles of their times have often been glossed over (5). These films tended to emphasize the female’s looks, accentuating tiny features while praising talents usually limited to singing and cleaning (2).
They were equally emotional, weak, and more likely to be controlled by others. On the other hand, their masculine male counterparts were prominent, independent and more likely to have a job (4). As women were pressured to fit into a certain societal mold by their peers, they were also compelled to submit to the consensus through another medium: media. With media, women were given an image of how a “normal” girl should look and behave (5). Disney movies were one of the most influential factors on many in the post-World War II era, and even to this day. While Disney produced training films for civilians and soldiers alike, the Disney princess franchise served to train women for another role in the decades to follow, while also providing false gender roles for other individuals as well.
Snow White (1937)
Though Snow White was produced in 1937, three years before the intended time period of this class, it’s release had a considerable impact on the following era. The character of Snow White was modeled after the passive damsel typical to German fairy tales, an image of femininity that would soon become vastly outdated alongside the popular images of Rosie the Riveter and other working-class women.
She was the representation of they typical 1930s American girl with cropped hair and a boyish figure. Like the many princesses that would follow, Snow White was very domestic and relied on a prince to come and save her, not having a problem waiting for him. She was given the role of mother around the house, and without complaints continued to prance around, singing and humming in happiness (4).
It is to say that this conveyed what was considered proper during this time. Following the release of Snow White in the 1930s, no more Disney princesses were created during World War II because of both the female involvement in the war and the consequences of the draft on the film industry.
Cinderella represented the new feminine ideal and marked a cultural makeover of the 1950s. The film was a turning point for Disney following the loss of the European market during World War II (3). Cinderella emphasized the power of appearances, and illustrated the push for women to return to their roles in the home.
It demonstrated the subservient role of women during this time, as the character of Cinderella was essentially an unmarried housewife in an unconventional nuclear family, filling the same roles a wife would, such as cooking, cleaning, and running the house.
Her ambitions included falling in love, getting married, and getting a makeover. She was forced to remain in servitude for the rest of her life until she escaped by marriage (4). Cinderella portrayed the “New Look” of 1947, following an era of wartime rationing and fabric restrictions; it marked the return of femininity and a transformation from Rosie-the-Riveter-esque overalls and military uniforms to the elaborate and luxurious dress of .
In another respect, the film serves as a metaphor for World War II as a whole, with the makeover of Cinderella mirroring the makeover of America (3). It is a story of post-war consumerism, ringing in a new era of materialistic capitalism. The wicked stepmother and stepsisters are a trio of evil opposition, similar to Germany, Italy, and Japan of the Axis Powers. Likewise, the mice find work in manufacturing making CInderella’s dress. It is also significant that Prince Charming gets married in military uniform, representing the rise in marriage following the Second World War.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Similar to Cinderella and the decade before, Sleeping Beauty exerted a considerable influence on the women of the 1960s. She also represented the ideal woman with traditional femininity that was valued in the post-World War II era. She was praised mainly for her beauty, and remained silently sleeping for most of the film. Equal with Snow White and Cinderella, she relied equally on her prince. It is important to note how she could only be saved by the kiss of her prince.
While this image of women was conventionally praised in the 1950s, Sleeping Beauty was criticized by the public, especially women who were beginning to gain a voice and call for gender equality.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Following the classic trio of Disney princess films—Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty—a large gap exists in the Disney princess franchise. The release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 was followed by an extensive generational gap in which Walt Disney dies, Betty Friedan publishes “The Feminine Mystique” and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marches on Washington (1). During this time women fought for legal, social, reproductive and sexual rights, as well as protested the institution of Miss America Pageants. It was a time of dramatic cultural transition in American history, and Disney was forced to adapt to keep up with the time.
Filmmakers hoped the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 would mark a comeback in the Disney princess franchise, but their newest addition was plagued with problems of its own. Though filmmakers intended to recover from the stereotypical sexist female image of the previous generation with a spunky, adventurous protagonist, they literally silenced the female voice and ushered in a new era dominated by male characters.
With an attempt to create an ambitious princess, instead Ariel was shown as rebellious, with a main objective that revolved around love and ultimately her “prince charming”. In order to find her true love, Ariel was willing to give up her career, leave her family, and even sacrifice her voice in order to have legs (4).
This gave a negative image to young, malleable minds and how one should consider their future and career, with a strong emphasis on finding love.
Considering Princes and Other Gender Roles
In early Disney films, princesses were portrayed in a traditional manner, all incapable of helping themselves and getting out of conflicts on their own (4). Along with love, prince charming was equally the driving force of all of these films. Stereotypical views of a man were equal with those of a woman in early Disney films. Princes never showed a loss of power or outcry of emotion. They were assertive, intelligent, prominent, and athletic (4). All of the princesses seemed to lack a life worth living, until an important man came along whom she married and lived happily ever after.
Despite being considered “princesses,” these females did not exhibit signs of power. They did not seem to have anywhere to go, until they achieved happiness with the man of their dreams (5). However, the male figure was always royal. In Snow White, the prince rode a horse and had the ability to give Snow White a life back with a single kiss (4). This was seen in Sleeping Beauty as well. Furthermore, the role model for Disney films was always a father figure, regardless of the gender of the main character.
In films such as The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s father was the king of the sea. On the other hand, older females in these movies were often times portrayed as evil figures or stepmothers, such as Maleficent and the Evil Queen (4).
These aspects served to have a negative influence on views of authority figures, despite their massive influence. Just as princesses were illustrated in an unrealistic manner, other Disney characters were as well.