I have written a guest blog post for Gemma Ahearne who runs http://plasticdollheads.wordpress.com. This post was originally published on 5th August 2013 at http://plasticdollheads.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/guest-blogger-young-beautiful-and-fertile-the-disney-ideal/.
Although Disney likes to claim every Disney Princess is different, there seems to me to be remarkable similarities between them. Have you ever, for instance, known there to be an ugly Princess? An old Princess? Even poor Merida, who wasn’t exactly an eyesore to begin with, was given the full Disney makeover when she was made a Princess. Tiny waist, bigger boobs, sexy hair. All very PG.
Conforming to the socially-accepted version of ‘beautiful’ is a clear narrative through many of the films. Snow White is “the fairest of them all” in her kingdom, and Sleeping Beauty and Belle are actually called “Beauty”. Their ‘beauty’ is emphasised through their hyperfeminine attributes, such as excessively long hair (hello, Rapunzel), tiny waists, large breasts, large eyes framed by long eyelashes, floor-length gowns and dainty heels. There is even direct emphasis on women’s figures, with Mulan told “men like women with a tiny waist” (always good to inform a 5-year-old of that).
Mulan is even encouraged to play up to her femininity in order to get married – she is forcibly dressed up as traditionally beautiful, and asks “who is this girl I see?” because she does not resemble her usual self. Hair is also hugely emblematic of femininity. Mulan ritualistically cuts off her long, flowing hair when she is acting as a man – a sign of removing her femininity. When she exits the water, Ariel seductively squeezes the water from her hair and primps herself. In fact, bar Snow White (who would, actually, be complying with the beauty ideals in 1937 of shorter hair), all the Princesses have long flowing hair and are always perfectly coiffed. Characteristics linked with femininity are hyperbolised within the cartoon character to make them more prominent. And through these standards, girls are shown unrealistic body ideals, which are constructed by Disney as facilitating ‘proper’ femininity.
Just to ram these ideals down girls’ throats that bit harder, those characters that ‘have’ beauty are often rewarded (for instance, with the ‘happily ever after’ finale), whilst those who lack are punished. Ursula in The Little Mermaid, for instance, is very obviously portrayed as ‘ugly’, and at the end of the story she meets a grisly end. And it’s not only her, think of Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother; her Stepsisters; Snow White’s Stepmother. They’re all ‘ugly’. By this narrative, any girls who fail to conform to traditional beauty ideals are not ‘real’ women, and will be punished by society. Even though, for many girls, conforming is unattainable due to varying body shapes and natural attributes such as skin and eye colour.
These ‘ugly’ characters also have something else in common: age. Ursula and both the wicked Stepmothers are all middle-aged, defying the young and virtuous ideal of the Princesses. This middle age is apparently dangerous, sinful and grotesque. She distorts femininity and acceptable female embodiment through disobeying understandings of female reproduction with the arrival of the menopause. Their bodies are ‘failing’ to procreate, therefore they are apparently less feminine, and depicted in juxtaposition with the Princess’ virginal, child-bearing body as ‘monstrous’, aberrant and abject.
This limited depiction of female forms is worrying, considering the films’ audience. Children soak up information like sponges, and all of these ‘norms’ are being filed away somewhere, beginning to frame the way they consider the world. There has been some criticism about theories such as this one, complaining Disney is “only fantasy… only a cartoon” (Bell et al, 1995:4). But, given the fact that the Disney Princess brand alone has amassed $4billion, I find it indisputable that the films do not influence children’s perceptions in some form. Elizabeth Bell et al agree, questioning why Disney has “somehow [become] centrifuged from ideological forces” (ibid). They claim Disney is “monolithic” loaded with dominant myths which are all concealed under the guise of ‘Disney magic’ (1995:5).
And it is this mask of innocence which is most troubling. Disney films currently hover under the radar, an accepted form of entertainment for young children. But the messages they portray to children are, in my opinion, extremely limited and dangerous (you can also see my piece here about heteronormativity in Disney films). It may be ‘just a bit of fun’ or only ‘playing’, but can anything that is so loaded with patriarchal myths really be innocent? There has to come a time when we question whether we want our children (our girls, to be precise) growing up thinking they’ll only be successful if they’re beautiful, and as soon as they’re middle-aged they’re over the hill. I’m not sure I’d pass that off as innocent.
Note: This is a rewrite of a portion of my undergraduate dissertation ‘Through the Looking Glass: Exploring the ways in which Disney Princesses reinstate heteronormative femininity’.
Bell, Elizabeth; Haas, Lynda; Sells, Laura (eds.), (1995). From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. New York: John Wiley & Sons