Walt Disney Presents: Princesses in the Realm of Romance

  • By Grrrl Power Liverpool
  • 21 Apr, 2017
Text by Holly Hinchcliffe

This essay seeks to analyse the romantic evolution of a figure we all know - the Disney Princess.

The Disney Princess Phenomenology has captivated the world since the introduction of Snow White in 1937 and continues to hold audiences enthralled. This essay will discuss how The Walt Disney Company manipulated this infamous figure to convey its patriarchal paradigm of romantic love to an emotionally underdeveloped, pre-adolescent demographic.

The Disney Princess is symbolic and  illuminates the position of women in love within very specific time periods. From the birth of the ubiquitous Disney fairytale and the Disney Renaissance to the contemporary Disney Revival period, there is a lot to learn, and unlearn, about womanhood and romance.

Someday my prince will come…

Laurie Essig’s 2014 TEDXVienna talk, ‘Love Inc. - How Romance and Capitalism Could Destroy Our Future’ exposed some uncomfortable truths. She boldly declared, “we all dream about marrying a prince” and that, “we believe romance will get us to a better future,” because from a young and impressionable age we have been culturally homogenised. And the blame, according to Essig, can largely be directed towards The Walt Disney Company.

Disney Princesses do dream. Yet, in adulthood, I now realise that their scope of dreaming was narrowed, based on one principle aspiration; to fall in love with a Prince. Snow White dreamed that, “someday [her] prince will come”, Cinderella posited that “a dream is a wish your heart makes” and Aurora had already met Prince Philip “once upon a dream.”

The romanticisation of dreams is more sinister than it initially appears. For Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, love is not something which adds to their stories but, quite the contrary, it defines them. Love in these features is a means of escape from the suffering and isolation they endure from one dominant figure - the older woman.

The “little” and “lovely” Snow White is punished by her “vain” stepmother, the Evil Queen, simply because she is deemed more beautiful. The “gentle” and “kind” Cinderella is stripped of her wealth and position by her Wicked Stepmother. Aurora is cursed by Maleficent and is subsequently forced to spend her life confined within a woodland cottage. The fact that these narratives were transferred by Disney between 1937 and 1959 illuminates the social representation of women in these periods. Society confined women within two polarising stereotypes: the young and beautiful and the old and cruel, a receptacle of love or an obstacle.

The trope of the older female villain is not the only issue which is engendered by these classic Disney features. The concept of Love itself is manufactured by Disney into a product which can be immediately obtained. The narratives follow the same arc: a beautiful young woman dreams of love and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, she has found her prince and regained her social position.

Ironically, the Disney romance narrative is as fragile and transparent as Cinderella’s glass slipper. Aurora, “the maid who won [Philip’s] heart but yesterday”, is awoken by his ‘true love’s kiss’ - despite knowing him a mere 24 hours. The spoken word poet FreeQuency took issue with this particular plot device in ‘The Princess Poem’, questioning how Disney could convey this narrative as “romantic”, “consenting” or “future husband material” to young female viewers.

Disney romantic features are deemed ‘safe’ by parents but for young girls this representation of safe is wholly misogynistic. Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty do not portray women who actively pursue their dreams. Instead the heroics are conducted by other figures such as dwarves, old lady fairies and various anthropomorphised domestic animals; unconventional figures who simultaneously heighten both the princesses’ attractiveness and helplessness. The overarching consensus connoted by these classics is this: a woman’s dream should exclusively be for men and ultimately won by them.

If I do marry, I want it to be for love…

Sleeping Beauty, after poor commercial success, heralded the end of the traditional Disney Princess phenomenon and it would be 30 years before we would meet another. Between 1959 and 1989 second-wave feminism had incited a global conversation concerning the social, cultural, political and economic position of women. In this period of volatility there was no place for another rendition of a homemaking princess.

Although the Walt Disney Corporation experienced severe financial losses in the 1980s they sensed, as the second-wave feminist movement was supplanted by the third-wave, that there was a space in the market for a reinvigorated romantic feature. Thus, the company instigated a new era of filmmaking - the Disney Renaissance.  

The Little Mermaid was both a critical and commercial success, winning the hearts of young girls everywhere and increasing the company’s profits by 35%. Yet, Ariel does not signal Disney’s departure from the insidiously patriarchal narratives of the classics. Yes, she was a much more active character than her predecessors but, within the realm of romance, Ariel becomes even more restricted, sacrificing her means of communication, her angelic, unmistakable voice, to gain the love of a man she barely knows.

This narrative twist strengthens the troubling notion that love is an emotion which is sourced in aesthetics. The implications of Ariel giving up her voice are complex and multifarious, especially for the Disney demographic - one cannot help but infer that the feature is celebrating and condoning a woman’s sacrifice of self.

Technically the Disney Renaissance began in 1989 but I propose that the release of Beauty and the Beast in 1991 shifted the parameters of the Disney Princess identity. Belle, like her counterparts, is a much-lauded beauty who lives an isolated existence but there are fundamental differences. Belle was the first Disney heroine to reject a suitor, the odious Gaston, and remained true to her passion for literature and dream for more than a “provincial life.”

With Beauty and the Beast, Disney also (marginally) recodified their depiction of romantic love. Rather than the immediate, love at first sight variety, the romance between Belle and the Beast flourishes slowly as they come to know and understand each other. This romance has, by its very nature, divided critical opinion. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, wrote to The Huffington Post saying that “the idea that the right woman can ‘tame’ a beastly, abusive, troubled man and turn him into a prince” is a troubling message for young girls to be exposed to, not to mention the allegations that Belle is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and has become complicit in bestiality.

As third-wave feminism gained momentum it became clear that the Disney Renaissance had a lot to answer for. Third-wave feminists denounced the exclusionary rhetoric of the preceding wave; they wanted feminism to incorporate issues of race, class and sexuality, issues which had largely been ignored by the Walt Disney Corporation.

The introduction of Jasmine in 1992, the heroine of Aladdin, was a positive step both representationally and romantically. Jasmine did not seek love or even dream of it, what she desired was freedom. Jasmine firmly stated “If I do marry, I want it to be for love.” It is the conjunction “if” that is important here; marriage and romance are depicted as options rather than obligations.

Renaissance is defined as a rebirth or renewal and it is towards the end of the Disney Renaissance that the company’s aim comes to fruition. After Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas were sworn into the Disney Princess collective but it is Pocahontas (1995) which, in my opinion, signals a turn from traditionalism.

Pocahontas was, according to Megan Condis, assistant professor of English at Stephen F Austin State University, “a very different type of character in that she isn’t as defined by romantic relationships and she’s a lot more active.” Unlike many other Disney princesses she has a community and takes an active role in governing her tribe. Despite only six years passing between The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas and both being classified as romantic features there are important differences between the two Renaissance films. Pocahontas, unlike Ariel, refuses to sacrifice her character to appease her father, Chief Powhatan, or adopt a “steady” lifestyle.

Nor does Pocahontas alter herself in order to attract John Smith. Rather, she critiques the Western fear of racial difference which John Smith and his company represent. She argues against the accusation that she and her people are “savages” and teaches him their customs and language. Their union, rather than falling into a fairytale category, functions more as a meeting of minds. Pocahontas and John Smith perceive each other as equals which is a unique quality in a Disney feature whose narratives traditionally take place within castles populated with royalty. Love is given a new meaning in Pocahontas; it is not about dreams or prosperity, it becomes a state of peace and acceptance. This romance of equality, however, was never going to achieve a ‘happily ever after.’ Considering that the Disney Renaissance strove to reinvigorate their romance genre it is strange that the first inter-racial romance depicted by Disney is cut short by violence and the fact that the violence was enacted by a white Western character speaks volumes about Disney’s inability to fully eschew their traditional connotations.

Love is an open door…

Classic Disney Princesses and those of the Renaissance period are emblematic of romantic love irrespective of whether they achieved their ‘happily ever after.’ The release of The Princess and the Frog in 2009 is symptomatic of this. The characterisation of Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess, broke countless stereotypes. Tiana was the first princess to inhabit a lower socioeconomic class and the first princess to harbour entrepreneurial dreams. Tiana’s dream becomes sidelined by the narrative as she and Prince Naveen, the self-confessed playboy, begin their adventure as frogs. The message that Disney seems to be espousing is that regardless of exterior appearances love originates from an interior space. This is all well and good until we consider that Prince Naveen needed to become a frog in order to shed his patronising and entitled persona. The character transformation exhibited by Naveen is reminiscent of the titular Beast which, again, seems to suggest that only a very specific kind of woman can salvage a man’s personality. Tiana ultimately decides to sacrifice her dream to remain incarcerated as a frog because her “dream wouldn’t be complete without him.” Far be it from me to question a woman’s life choice but, after waiting 72 years for an African-American woman to join the Disney Princess collective, I find the reactionary narrative arc mildly disheartening.

Although The Princess and the Frog is categorised within the Disney Revival period it’s relationship with romance echoes strongly of the Disney Renaissance. The premise of the Disney Revival period, however, is communicated by Frozen’s Anna when she sings “love is an open door.” The subsequent features produced by The Walt Disney Company, namely Brave (2012) and Frozen (2014), explore the concept of love independent of its romantic connotations. Where the classic Disney narratives posited women against each other the narratives of Merida and Elsa and Anna explore the complicated relationships between women. Brave’s storyline focuses on the consequences of broken female relationships and the importance of rebuilding them; teaching young children that they can respect their mother’s opinions even when they do not agree with them. 

Frozen marks another departure from the traditional Disney romance as it’s two leading characters are female sisters who, in various ways, save each other and repair their fraught relationship. Formerly an act of true love was depicted as a romantic kiss of awakening, yet in Frozen, Anna sacrifices her life to save Elsa, which is a much more heroic feat. Although Frozen is not a completely revolutionising Disney feature in that it is not racially diverse in the context of romance, Frozen 2 could prove to be groundbreaking if the rumours of Elsa’s homosexuality prove to be true.

The Disney Princess has had a long and illustrious relationship with romance. She has been wooed, saved, transformed and educated by this most natural of emotions.  The Walt Disney Company have spent 79 years, from Snow White to Moana constructing and deconstructing love paradigms to accommodate the societal transformations. The most recent incarnation of the Disney Princess, Moana , is an ode to self-love and self-actualisation.  They are flawed and may not always be the role models we believed they were in childhood but they are cultural canvases which we can learn from, and strive to reclaim.

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