Disney Princesses, Feminism and Reductionism

I wasn’t going to write about this, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it all week, so at least it will get it out of my system.

There was an article on the Telegraph last Monday called ‘I’d happily blow the brains out of a Disney Princess’. In this article, Beverly Turner connects the Disney Princesses to Miley Cyrus, Barbie Dolls, the sexualisation of women and girls and women’s lack of representation in high profile jobs. I don’t usually read the Telegraph, so this was brought to my attention by fellow bloggers. Katie Clark has a particularly good response to this article, and she summarises Turner’s argument brilliantly

The author fumes that ‘the cult of Disney’ brainwashes children into believing that women should do no more than wait around, doe-eyed and pathetic, for a charming Prince to come along and rescue them from whatever perilous circumstances they happen to find themselves in.  She argues that we should have more true-to-life characters because most women “prefer to do more than wait to marry a Prince, in a size 8 dress with hair down to their waist” and that the Disney princess image is damaging to young girls as it teaches them that they need to be aesthetically perfect and can’t do anything without a man.

Sadly, this argument is one that is repeated by many feminists, who only see in Disney Princesses the cult of beauty, standard femininity and the goal of finding a man. This is summarized in the much publicised photo

Image

This criticism of the Disney Princesses is a classic case of reductionism. It removes context and severely damages any feminist criticism against the Disney Princess brand.

My beef with this reductionism of the Disney princesses can be summarised as follows:

1. Removal of Agency

Boiling down the Princesses story as being solely about being pretty whilst finding a man completely removes the agency of the princesses. And agency is important. We live in a world where women in media are mostly ornamental, whilst men are instrumental. The princesses are not ornamental. Sure, they are pretty and have fabulous clothes, but they are the lead actors in their own story. They are not girlfriends, wives, or side-kicks, and are each involved in a deeply personal journey of growth. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Coming of Age Stories

The stories of the Disney princesses, save perhaps for Aurora, are primarily coming of age stories, not stories about finding a man. Sure, they are also love stories but time and time again, the princesses find it during their personal stories. Finding love is not the goal, but a happy by-product of their stories. Look at Ariel, Rapunzel, Belle, Mulan, Tianna, Pocahontas. None of them were concerned with finding love. People seem to forget that Ariel sings ‘Part of That World’ BEFORE she meets Eric. Ariel’s passion was the human world, she wanted to be human. And even after she met Eric, she did not run straight away to Ursula asking for legs. The catalyst to her transformation into human was her father’s rage in destroying all of her most precious possessions. Her deal with Ursula is much more about teenage rebellion and getting back at her dad than it is about Eric. Ariel’s story is about following her dreams, and the sacrifices, mistakes, and rewards one finds along the way. The princesses find love as a consequence of following their own paths through life.

3. Sexualisation and Distortion

The outfits that Ariel, Jasmine and even Pocahontas wear may be on the skimpy side, but I never saw them as sexualised. But maybe this is because the sexualisation of women in media is so overt, that I am a bit blurry in this issue. To sexualise is to make something sexual, and other than the relative skimpiness of the outfits of these three princesses, they are not made sexual in any way. They are not sex objects, ornamental, there to be looked at. As I said before, they have agency. Additionally, none of the stories, apart from maybe Snow White’s, are about their beauty. The Princesses are themselves quite unaware of their looks, and their stories do not revolve around this.

The argument that they are bad because of they distort what real women look has some merit. However, the merit does not lie solely in the fact that they have huge eyes, small noses, full lips and swishy hair. They are distorted because animation distorts. The distortion of women characters is rife in animation and cartoons. But the distortion alone is not the problem. Simba does not look like a real lion and Sebastian is the most expressive crab I have ever seen. The problem lies in what the distortion represents.

Real Problems

I do think that there is a problem in how they are drawn, and they stem from the Jessica Rabbit conundrum: ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.’ The problem is not that they are sexualised and distorted, but that they were drawn as a heteronormative, white, European standard of beauty.

I recently watched a documentary called Waking Sleeping Beauty, a behind the scenes look at the Disney animation studio. The animators behind The Little Mermaid, Alladin etc are all overwhelmingly white men. So it is not surprising that most of the princesses are white, European, and drawn to appeal to a Western audience.

Most feminist critiques lack intersectionality, that is, an awareness of the  intersections between different disenfranchised groups. In feminism, this means feminists have to be aware not just of the oppression of white women, but of the specific racial dimensions of the patriarchy.

This is something that is lacking from the Disney criticism. By complaining that the princesses are only there to be looked at and find a man, they overlook the serious issue of the racial uniformity of the princesses. Additionally, the princesses are overwhelmingly from what is considered to be the ‘developed world’. None are from South America, South Asia or the Caucasus, for example. The Global South and the experience of those who inhabit it are never a part of the Disney Princesses story, most of which take place in a vague European setting (with notable exceptions of course). It was very disappointing to see that Disney’s new feature, Frozen, features zero characters from an ethnic minority and it is also set in that vague European world.

And when they are represented, the minority stories can be quite cartoonish. Aladdin is an exercise in Orientalism, and Pocahontas… Oh Pocahontas. I will leave Pocahontas to the amazing Native Appropriations, but suffice to say, its representation of American indigenous population is sorely lacking.

So what to do? Shall we stop watching Disney movies and stop our daughters from doing the same?

No. I don’t think so.

What is needed is a critical eye. I always tell my students never to accept what they see as a given. Look for the constructions behind the images, and what they try to tell us. Look for who is represented and excluded, and how these representations and exclusions are made. Be critical, not just in academia, but in everything. And children can be critical thinkers too. They need parents to watch what they are watching, to ask them questions and guide them to see things differently.

And in the end, there is nothing wrong with being a feminist and either hating, loving or being indifferent to the Disney princesses. Academia would not exist if people agreed on everything. Feminism should be broad enough to welcome dissenting opinions, as long as the commitment to equality remains. But beware reductionist arguments, because they more often than not create strawmen that are just yelling to be taken down. And more than anything, be aware of intersectionality, because true equality will only be achieved when no one is oppressed and excluded, and everyone is represented.

Wider Reading

Lissa at Critical Audacity has been defending individual Disney princesses. So far she has covered Aurora, Cinderella and Snow White

Feminist Disney

Native Appropriations

Sociological Images

** UPDATE**

Feminist Disney just raised my attention on Twitter that I appear to be dismissing some of the implications of the animation distortion. She highlights that we need to be aware how the princesses are drawn partakes in the wider distortion of the female form by other forms of animation such as Comics and Anime, all of which have a negative impact, reinforcing the perception that there is a single ideal body shape. This has serious implications for young girls and eating disorders.

She is absolutely right. In my effort to highlight the ethnic and geographical distortion of the princesses, I overlooked this issue.

I stand corrected!

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3 Responses to Disney Princesses, Feminism and Reductionism

  1. diahannreyes says:

    I really appreciate you drawing out the nuances that we should definitely be thinking about. I found myself agreeing with you.

  2. BTW07 says:

    Great post! And thanks for linking other articles concerning this issue! I’m actually working on posts defending the Disney Princesses too (a bit longer than the blogger you sited). I just finished Snow White and will be tackling Cinderella next. 🙂

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