Watching The Rescuers earlier this week with some feminist friends got me to thinking about Disney movies (again) and the messages that they portray. With this in mind I noticed a few things while looking through the Disney Princesses that I’d like to take some time to highlight here:
If you line the princesses up chronologically, in the order their movies were released, some things become strangely apparent. Look at their waistlines – although Snow White starts off incredibly thin, as time goes by the princesses only get thinner and thinner. The 1960s are when the real thin ideal came into its full force in our culture – is it a coincidence that Disney princesses had started shrinking in the decade before? Its true that culture informs media, but it goes the other way too – little girls who grow up idolizing impossibly thin princesses become young women who perpetuate and buy into the idea that thin is the only acceptable form of beauty and one should strive to be thin, regardless of the price. Obviously Disney is not the only perpetrator of this ideal (but considering its constantly growing power, revenue, and influence it plays a large role) and all little girls do not grow up and internalize this message, but enough of them do to make a difference – as evidenced by the shifting ideals between 1950 and 1960.
1992, when Jasmine joined the list of princesses, is where things start to get tricky. Jasmine marks both the first non-white princess, and also the cessation of the shrinking waists (I don’t think it could get smaller than Belle!) It strikes me as significant that Jasmine is both non-white and relatively “fuller” than past princesses. Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self Image by Vickie Shields explains this issue best, in my opinion, when they say “In order to enter the mainstream media, one must look and sound as ‘white’ as possible, altering voice, diction, and most importantly, appearance to present a close ideological fit with the status quo.” Part of the reason Jasmine was allowed to have a relativley fuller figure probably has something to do with the fact that she isn’t white – once one part of the “status quo” has been broken, it is much easier to diverge from others as well.
Jasmine opened the proverbial floodgates for Disney, allowing a multiracial wave of princesses to break into the mass media. On one hand its fantastic that Disney is making an effort to be culturally inclusive and put their racist beginnings in the past, on the other hand Disney’s non-white princesses (just like their white princesses) leave something to be desired. Disney is certainly taking steps in the right direction – its princesses are becoming less homogeneous, more independent, and just generally more awesome…but there are still issues.
First of all – each and every one of these princesses still embodies a beauty ideal that is unachievable for real women and girls. While I understand that they are cartoons and a certain suspension of reality is expected and accepted – do their waists really have to be nearly as thin as their arms? Why can’t we have an average sized princess, or even an overweight princess? Disney has made a great step in attempting to break down racial beauty stereotypes, now, why can’t we continue that momentum to encompass weight (among many things) as well?
Why can’t Disney Princesses look like the little girls who look up to them?
Secondly – why does Disney feel the need to “whitewash” both history and culture? Pocahontas, while a beautiful movie, is fairly unethical as it co-opts the real story of Pocahontas, a Native American woman who was assimilated and taken advantage of by white settlers as a young girl. Honestly, it would have been just as easy to make this movie and call Pocahontas something else, so as to not rewrite and dishonor her real story. In addition the stereotyping in these movies is often horrible – Aladdin is the best example; Aladdin himself was modeled after Tom Cruise, and the only stereotypically Arabic character in appearance and voice was Jafar, the villain. While its fantastic that Disney is making a concentrated effort to be more racially inclusive that inclusivity should be done in a sensitive matter – historical manipulation and rampant stereotypes are not okay.
Lilo & Stitch is a good start – Lilo looks and acts like a normal little girl, which is refreshing to see, and her older sister Nani is most likely the “realest” looking Disney woman in existence. In addition the movie seems, at least in my knowledge, to be respectful of the Hawiian culture and racially inoffensive. However, movies like this are not the norm with Disney and Nani, unfortunately, has not been set up to be emulated by little girls.
Nani is an orphaned young woman, essentially acting as a mother for her younger sister Lilo, not a princess; little girls most are taught to look up to princesses, to want to be princesses which means that, while Nani is a great start, Disney really should be using its princesses to help promote positive ideals in little girls – like good body image, independence, intelligence, bravery, and so on… at least for as long as society points to these princesses as the ideal for little girls.
All of this sounds well and good, but Disney is never going to listen… right? Not quite. Its true that Disney executives and animators will probably never stumble upon this blog post, but I’m not the only one thinking this way. If you feel passionate about this issue, take a bit of time and send a letter to Disney* (I can’t find an apprpriate e-mail address) and let them know! If enough of us write in, who knows what could happen…
Walt Disney Animation Studios
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-4850
Another fantastic way to take action in promoting better media images of beauty and femininity is to support those media outlets that already promote this ideal. For instance, The Paper Bag Princess is an amazingly empowering children’s book that supports a different kind of female ideal. Also, Ugly Betty is an awesome show that promotes so many positive messages (and ABC pulled it mid season! Do I detect another letter writing campaign?) Please use the comments to tell us about more body-positive, female positive media that we can support!
* If enough people are interested (let me know in the comments!) I’d even be interested in providing a letter template to make your lives easier, or even starting a petition. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an idea as to how we can take action on this!