The Princess Industrial Complex

So, below is the paper I presented at the Empire State College Student Academic Conference. I personally think the paper only scratches the surface of the issues of feminism and capitalism that are out there. And, I do think I only focus on one aspect of the issues. I have always believed that feminism is about choices and we are not always going to agree on those choices. The easy condemnation of Barbie, princesses, and other girly accents doesn’t actually change anything. Questioning and discussing makes it much harder than just saying “No” to any and all things we find offensive.

That’s the end of the rant. Please read, comment, and debate. I hope it at least makes people think about the issues I’m bringing up.

Introduction

            “Standard of Beauty” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in discussions of girls and women and their self esteem. Magazines, television, music, and almost all fine arts are looked at by feminist scholars and cultural critics. One of the most pervasive and influential standards of beauty is the phenomenon of the Disney Princess. The Disney Princess is an all encompassing idea that includes, body type, ethnicity, and personality. The total package creates an archetype of feminine behavior and stereotypes. The princess, her prince and their bodies, faces, and minds have become the standard of acceptable femininity and hetero-normative societal attitudes.

            The Disney Princesses; Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Mulan, Pocahontas, Jasmine (Aladdin), and Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), cover a wide variety of ages, ethnicities, and even social status (some start as princesses and others become princesses) but two things about them stay quite similar. All of the princesses have body types that conform to Western standards of beauty and the endings of their stories end in typically “happily ever after” narratives.  All of this, when taken as a whole, creates an idea of ethnic diversity with a highly standardized view of beauty.

            The Disney Princesses as merchandising juggernaut is also an issue. From the time a young girl is born, there is a wide variety of merchandise. Bedding, clothes, toys, house wares, and even furniture are all things that can be purchased. The sheer volume of Princess items creates a saturation of images that inundate a young girl. The images project a standard of beauty that a girl begins experiencing at almost their moment of cognitive awareness. Disney’s idea of beauty permeates all “types” of girls and surrounds them with merchandise that creates an enclosed world of the Princess where “good” is pretty and “bad” is ugly and the idea of beauty transcends all.

What does all of this mean? By looking at the Disney Princesses and the standard of beauty, the Disney Princesses and ethnicity, and the Disney Princess and marketing, there becomes a pattern of Western-ized beauty that permeates the consciousness of young girls and creates an illusion of perfection that the majority of females will never reach. And, beyond the physical, the idea of the ideal man and what he can give a woman is just as damaging. “Children’s self-image is affected by the ways in which they see themselves in texts both verbal and visual, and that fairy tales play an important role in shaping self-image and the belief system of children” (Hurley, 221). The idea of a perfect life, where you are beautiful, wealthy, and married is the dream that Disney profiteers in. By looking at how it homogenizes standards and experience, we can see how women are influenced by these ideas.

                                                Disney Princesses & Standard of Beauty

            To call someone or something “beautiful” is a loaded term. The cliché is “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But, the real phrase should be “attraction is in the eye of the beholder”. What a person is attracted to is what and what is considered beautiful by the consensus can be quite different. Disney animation style of the Princesses and other animated characters in their films are drawn in a proportion that either makes them beautiful or unattractive. The animation works to create a visual way for the viewer to understand who is “good and who is “bad”. The idea of proportion creates visually shorthand of acceptableness within the animated world. The sheer volume of Princess films and their dominance within merchandising has created a world where their standards have become de rigueur. “Combined with Disney’s popular and global profile, this makes the Disney princess in effect the ‘princess of all princesses,’ and, although she was born into the paternal world of Walt Disney, she is, especially in the latter decades, putting her own stamp on the kingdom” (De Rozario, 34). Because of this amount of influence, what the Walt Disney Company perceives as beautiful becomes what is beautiful.

            In the world of the Disney Princess the standard of idealized beauty is drawn in a very similar way. Looking at animator Glen Keane’s book detailing the animation of the princesses and also in a children’s “how to draw” book, both explain and feature very homogenous body types. The Princesses have long, thin legs and arms, small waists, neutral sized hands and feet, long hair, and symmetrical facial features. All of the physical features are markers of beauty. The proportions are not caricatures like Barbie or the Bratz (both more exaggerated and stylized female forms), but still fall well into the thin, Caucasian model of beauty. These feminized standards are quite traditional, but so are the other characters that orbit their universe. The Princes and love interests in the Disney films are also drawn in a Western standard of beauty for the male form. The men are tall, muscular but not animalistic, narrow waist, strong jaws, firm features, and wavy hair. This male ideal becomes much more in focus when looking at the film Beauty and the Beast. Before his transformation, the prince is a beast of indeterminate origin but obviously mutated while the villain Gaston has large quantities of chest hair and an exaggerated male physique. In both cases, the forms on display are to be mocked or pitied and not accepted like the form the Beast takes when he finds true love. Both genders conform to the Western standard. By presenting both male and female forms as ideal, young female viewers gain opinions about what is acceptable for them and what they should find beautiful in others.

            The ideas of beauty that are part of the Princess phenomenon creates an idea of what is acceptably female and therefore correct for the gender. The idea that something is truly “female” or truly “male” is part of a heterosexual society and an ingrained patriarchal structure. The animation in the films work in tandem with the stories to create what is a societal correct and acceptable form of gender roles. With a few minor tweaks, the stories are interchangeable with a hetero-normative ending and gender roles firmly in place. “The gender expectations are repeated across all the Disney films, even in the films with more independent heroines: Belle fends off a mach suitor with her passion for reading but eventually falls for the Beast and becomes mistress of the castle and its singing housewares. Ariel, an inquisitive mermaid who defies her father, becomes demure and silent on land in her prince’s world” (Wohlwend, 65).  The princess must sublimate her true self to achieve happiness and to become a “true” princess. Her beauty overtakes any distinctive personality and helps her achieve “happiness”.

In many, if not most, of the Disney films that feature a princess, the plot revolves around the gaining of a rightful throne. This dynamic works to create dramatic tension while also creating delineation between who is good and who is bad in Disney’s moral universe. “While the hero and heroine are always noble and attractive by birth, villains are privileged and titled due only to the misplaced magnanimity or whim of a legitimate superior” (Artz, 130). Many times, the jealous/unscrupulous ruler is drawn one of two ways; they are either short, squat, and feature bulbous features or they are overly tall and angular with arched eyebrows and insect-like appendages. In both cases, the villains and villainesses are out of anatomical proportion. The extreme roundness or extreme lankiness of the figures places them out of the “correct” physical proportion. The distinction is especially pronounced when the Princess is taking on a female adversary.

            Gender and age play parts in the good/bad dynamic but the most important battle is the female dynamic in Disney’s Princess films. The dynamic between the beautiful and the unattractive works in the relationship of the heroines to the villainesses and helps the viewer understand who to root for. In many of the Disney Princess narratives, the female heroine must battle an “evil” stepmother or witch. “It is in the Disney features where male power is reduced or erased however, that the greatest tension is created between women” (De Rozario, 42) In the stories the villainesses can typically shape shift into something or someone else. In Snow White, the evil queen makes herself into a crone. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent turns herself into a large dragon from the pits of Hell. And, in The Little Mermaid, Ursula the Sea Witch turns herself into a beautiful femme fatale to steal Prince Eric from Ariel. The villainess is older and more powerful than her princess counterpart. But, she is also ugly, venal, and easily defeated by pure intentions. As in many narratives, not just within Disney, virtuous femininity must battle the forces of age and ugliness. Like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz tells Dorothy, “only bad witches are ugly.”

Beauty is a huge part of the princess narrative. It confers happiness, love, and virtue on those who have it and quite the opposite on those who do not.  “Some moms worry that princess make girls obsessed with beauty. But I think the problem is that popular princesses lack what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control’. This is the belief that you are responsible for making your way in the world” (Vanderkam). Young girls are taught that the body is not just the only part of a girl that needs to be molded into a princess. Girls that do not have symmetrical features, curvy yet thin bodies, and docile personalities are outside of what the princess accepts.

                                                Disney Princesses & Ethnicity

            As a company, Disney has always (Song of the South excluded) to always worked to create films that are culturally sensitive. Many times, when a film features ethnic characters, Disney works hard with interest groups to make sure that their scripts are not insensitive to the cultures they are based in. The body types and many of the facial features of the Princesses are quite anglicized and Caucasian in appearance. The smoothing of the features creates a homogenous sheen to their female royalty. Disney makes all of the Princesses in the mold that began with their first Princess, Snow White. “Disney retained what the brothers Grimm insist is the essence of Snow White’s appeal, the colors red (lips), white (skin), and black (hair)” (Brode, 186). But, Snow White is also the premiere archetype for the latter princesses and her animation style is continued today.  Jasmine (Middle-Eastern), Mulan (Asian), Pocahontas (Native-American), and Tiana (African-American) are drawn in almost complete symmetry with their European and American sisters. The homogenization of these images works to create a commonality while also denying inherent differences in female forms and facial features from various ethnic groups.

            By working to create animation that is sensitive to the requests of various ethnic groups is common practice within Disney. But, changing the style of the Disney Princess is off limits. Much like anamorphic animals, the Princesses are ambassadors and created by the company to make money. By creating Princesses that conform to what is a societal expression of beauty, Disney stifles much of ethnicity. Customs, beliefs, and geography are huge parts of ethnic identity, but so is physical being. Eye, nose, and mouth shape, body types, and even hands and feet are shaped by genetics. All ethnic groups have differences in their body types. A young woman from Jamaica is going to look physically different from a woman in Nigeria even though they have the same skin color. A young woman of Irish descent will have many unique features to that of a woman of Serbian descent. Although both have a similar skin tone, they look more different than alike. Disney Princesses have similar features and body types regardless of their actual differences. Disney creates images that conform to the popular notions of beauty and femaleness regardless of geography.

            In the beginning, all the Disney Princesses were Caucasian and hailed from somewhere in Europe. This slowly changed with Ariel in The Little Mermaid, where the character was from the ocean floor. The Princesses started coming from various walks of life on land beginning with Jasmine in Aladdin. “In particular, the representation of gender and race and a pattern of increasing orientalization reveal themselves in the characters’  characteristics and this series of films’ iconography in the personality traits of each heroine, and in the development, and in the development of each character’s love relationships in the films” (Lacroix, 217). The addition of characters from more exotic locales created animation that respected the culture without actually changing what was successful for Disney. The Princesses were still drawn the way they had been since their conception and the love interests and villains/villainesses were still drawn the way they had been in films involving European descended characters.

            The lack of secondary ethnic characteristics creates a uniformity to the Princesses. Although there are concessions to certain markers of ethnicity (i.e. the almond eye shape of the characters in Mulan), the general feeling is that of a character that shares most of her beauty with her Western counterparts. In all the cases, the Princesses share more similarities than they are differentiated. Almost all of the characters fall within the same age range as well. In the classic Disney fairy tales and even the more modern adaptations, the Princesses fall in the age range of 18-25. This uniformity of age also creates a marker of what is acceptable as old age is typically a sign of imperfection.

            There is one rare exception to this and it is Pocahontas. Ironically, the Native-American Princess was actually quite young when she met John Smith and her journey to England after her time with him. This storyline would be quite complicated and tricky for the Disney brand. So, for the sake of cleaning up murky moral waters, Pocahontas became closer in age to the John Smith character. “In many ways, particularly when compared to Ariel and Belle, Pocahontas appears to be almost an Amazon. She is tall, has long, strong legs, and a developed bust. She retains, however, the slender waist like the others, which adds to the overall mature and voluptuous look of the characters” (Lacroix, 222). In the Disney film her story is quite simple and told as a traditional love story with john Smith. The fact that the story is based in some form of history as opposed to fairy tales, creates some tension for keeping her story within the Princess paradigm. But, by changing her age and ignoring some of the trickier aspects of the story, she stays well within the Disney Princess standard.  Pocahontas is still very similar to the other Disney Princesses. She has long hair, a small waist, and long, well proportioned limbs. The similarities are still pronounced, even with the dramatic and physical license Disney took with the character.

            The idea that beauty is standard without any concessions to ethnic difference creates a smaller world, for lack of a better term. These “ethnic” Princesses are created with the goal of attracting a larger share of the female audience. Young Asian, Native-American, Middle-Eastern, and African-American females have seen their skin color and many cultural avatars represented by the characters in these films, without Disney sacrificing their collective idea of beauty. The young girls engaging with the films see their culture respected but they also learn to critique their bodies based on the larger society’s standards. These young girls begin to question their own bodies because of the style of animation of the Princesses.“For children, animation pierces the consciousness and physical existence with experiential meaning, accessing a realm of understanding unavailable via literate or non-cinematic physical activity” (Artz, 119). Disney treats the stories of minority groups with respect and consults with many people to understand cultures they might be ignorant of. But, the physical attributes of the females stay quite Anglo.

                                                The Disney Princess Industry

            The Walt Disney Corporation is a huge multi-faceted organization which includes television networks, cruise lines, resorts, and merchandising. Although the Disney Princesses are a relatively narrowly focused phenomenon, it is hugely successful on a global scale. In Europe, the Disney Princess products are currently a huge hit among pre-adolescent girls. The brand is now worth $3 billion (British pounds) and its UK growth amounted to 25% last year (Cochrane, 22). While in the United States, princesses are everywhere, and they seem recession proof. Disney racked up $4 billion last year marketing the heroines of films from Snow White to Aladdin to preschoolers and their parents (Vanderkam). The sheer volume of material sold ensures that the images Disney animators have created reach the largest market share that they can. The majority of children engaging in the princess merchandise are female. Therefore, the Disney Princess becomes an integral part of the female experience and shapes female image through its saturation of imagery and their aggressive merchandising.

Beginning at very young age, Disney merchandising of their animated princesses begins in earnest. Before a young girl has even seen a film or is making her own choices, there are Princess crib sheets, onesies, bibs, and a variety of bottles and other newborn accessories. The marketing of the idealized female begins at birth. Beyond birth, the market share of merchandise grows to fit all the needs of the young female customer. After the age of three it is quite possible that Disney’s female consumer is immersed into the world of her favorite princess or all of the princesses. “During play with Disney Princess toys, children reenact film scripts and expectations for each princess character, quoting memorized dialogue or singing songs…The pervasive availability of consumer products associated with the Disney Princess films blurs the line between play and reality…one can be Cinderella all day long, sleeping in pink princess sheets, eating from lavender Tupperware with Cinderella decals and dressing head to to in licensed apparel, from plastic jewel-encrusted tiara to fuzzy slipper-socks” (Wohlwend, 57-58). At the Walt Disney parks there are Princess Beauty Salons. At these salons, young girls can get the dress, hair, and make-up of their favorite princess. They are wardrobed and beautified in large windows so that other park-goers may watch and want to be a part of. This concept is offered to girls and women of all ages. The breadth and depth of the amount of merchandise related to approximately nine Disney Princesses makes sure that every girl can be covered physically and mentally in the concept of “princess” and the dreams and expectations of that term.

One of the main ideas of marketing is to embrace the largest amount of the market that is available. Disney has aggressively worked to create Princesses that appeal to every girl and can be ensconced in every part of the globe. By working to create so many “types” of Princess, Disney has a goal of ensnaring a wide variety of young girls. Disney even focuses on class to show girls that they call all become Princesses. “Many Disney heroines at times wear the princess mask, for the appealation of princess is not exclusively tied to social status. For example, Disney heroines with inventors and soldiers as fathers- Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Mulan (1998), respectively- have been called ‘princess’” (De Rozario, 46). These two characters come from humble beginnings like many, if not all, of the young girls engaging with the films and other products. On the other hand, many Disney Princesses must drop their title and work menial labor or engage with the proletariat which also creates a princess who is “relatable”. The fact that most consumers of Princess product are lower, working, or middle class, a haughty girl with a title will not sell. So, the princess becomes more “normal” by either becoming a princess after hardship or through sacrifice. Young girls can find a Princess that they feel a kinship to.

After marketing, the merchandising is a key part of the Princess juggernaut. Disney has placed their Princess properties on the following items; sippy cups, pajamas, flatware and tableware, furniture, books, DVDs, CDs, toys, board games, luggage, school supplies, food, and even more products that do not fall into these broad categories. Disney’s merchandising works to saturate the market for young female dollars, so to speak. The products may feature one princesses or an assemblage of princesses. The groupings change with no real unifying concept, except that of Princess. Separating children by gender begins at quite an early age, and much of the products for preschool girls are the Disney Princess merchandise. The Disney Company has many products that appeal or are commonly made for children under the age of three. Young girls begin consuming the images of the princess from infancy and are inundated with the products for several key years.

With the capitalistic twins of merchandising and marketing, The Walt Disney Corporation is able to influence female thought from birth until adolescence. Girls are inundated with the female ideals of Disney’s animated princesses and have very few choices for gendered products to use in their daily lives. The volume of Disney product makes it hard for young girls to have choice in their consumer behaviors. For all of the problematic imagery that the princesses encompass, there are those who find Disney’s work almost feminist. “Disney’s attitude toward women emphasizes strength of character in pursuit of excellence and self-fulfillment” (Brode, 181). But, the excellence and self-fulfillment that Disney pursues through marketing and merchandising is one of acquiescence. The American dream of having everything you need and the happiness that things provide is part of the dream Disney sells to its young fans and their parents.

                                                            Conclusion

  Wthe Disney Princesses, their influence extends like tentacles across the female experience. The animated films, merchandising, and character interactions at the various parks all work to create a fully integrated “female” experience. This female experience is a heterosexual and classically beautiful one. The Princesses are all drawn with small shoulders and waists, long limbs, and small, well-proportioned heads. The difference between the animated drawing and an advertisement in Vogue is marginal. The Princesses help begin the process of homogenizing beauty. Their looks and stories are ones where the markers of good and bad are easily visible unlike those in the “real world.”

     The standard of beauty that the Princess represents crosses ethnic and class lines. Disney works hard to create a princess for every girl. Their ethnicities and family backgrounds create a diverse group of women. The idea of the princess expands with these changes. Disney works to promote ethnic and class difference, however, the body is essentially the same. There are no especially tall princesses, overweight princesses, or princesses in pants. The villains and the princes themselves tend to fall into very standard appearances. The delineation of “pretty” (good) versus “ugly” (bad) creates prejudices and opinions that stretch beyond the viewing of the product and permeates the consciousness of the culture, especially for girls and women. Judgment begins with the physical and it takes much to overcome the first impression.

All of the materials featuring the Disney Princesses work to underscore the search for a mate and a happy ending. The Disney films show women a world where the ultimate goal is one of happiness, stability, and heterosexual union. “Underlying the courtship is the princess’s struggle for autonomy and her function representing that autonomy” (De Rozario, 50) By the end of every story, the young woman is happily ensconced in a world of lavish homes, material wealth, and attractive people. Although the Princess may have a hobby, with the notable exception of the recent Princess Tiana, the hobby is forgotten with marriage.

The “look” of the Disney Princess is one that envelops the female experience in the 20th century. As the global community becomes smaller through popular culture and the information superhighway, Disney is a huge part of the global community. There are Disney parks on several continents, their films play across the globe, and their licensed properties can be found in almost every store in the world. With this influence, Disney’s idea of the “perfect” life is what the world sees as the perfect life. The ideas of marriage, wealth, and beauty as the goals of every woman become what is seen as normal. Disney’s view of women creates a world where jobs and hobbies are just the means to the picket fence end. Even if Disney has no agenda, and they have never stated one, their influence on the female experience is vast and must be looked at critically.

References

Arzt, Lee. “The Righteousness of Self-Centred Royals: The World According to Disney Animation.” Critical Arts: A North/South Journal of Critical and Media Studies 18.1 (2004): 116-146. Print.

Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005. Print.

Cochrane, Kira. “The Dangerous World of the Princess.” New Statesmen 7/3/2006: 22-23. Print.

De Rozario, Rebecca-Anne. “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, the Function of the Disney Princess.” Women’s Studies in Communication 27.1 (Spring 2004): 34-59. Print.

Hurley, Dorothy. “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess.” Journal of Negro Education 74.3 : 221-232. Print.

Keane, Glen. The Art of the Disney Princess. New York, NY: Disney Editions, 2009. Print.

Lacroix, Celeste. “Images of Animated Others: The Orientalization of Disney’s Cartoon Heroines from the Little Mermaid to the Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Popular Communication 2.4 (2004): 213-229. Print.

McCafferty, Catherine. Learn to Draw Princesses. New York, NY: Disney Enterprises, 2006. Print.

Vanderkam, Laura. “The Princess Problem.” USA Today 8/12/2009 , sec. Life:Print.

Wohlwend, Karen E. “Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts through Disney Princess Play.” Reading Research Quarterly 44.1 (2009): 57-84. Print.


One Comment on “The Princess Industrial Complex”

  1. Absolutely Brilliant! Laura


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