Disney Princesses: Role Models or Anti-Models?

With all the recent Disney remakes it’s like the 1980s and 1990s movies we all grew up with are coming back again as live action remakes. Growing up as a 90s kid I was the biggest Disney Princess (and Aladdin) fan girl. I was so infatuated with Princess Jasmine as the first princess of color in a Disney animated movie. To me she screamed feminist and female empowerment. Her ability and courage to speak out in a world where women were seen and not heard really stuck with me. Plus she wore pants and flat shoes which, in my mind as an adult, are much more comfortable and realistic.

Looking back at Disney princesses and the giant phenomenon it’s become since the Disney classics, like Snow White and Cinderella, it’s easy to see why people, and particularly children, are drawn to these types of movies. Animation, story, color, princes and princesses, a forbidden love, dragons and warlocks, etc. They’re all part of any child’s imagination… any adult’s imagination. It’s a fantasy and story we can follow while leaving our own reality behind. That, plus popular and catchy tunes like “Let it Go” from Frozen are really hard to forget no matter how much we try (I’m sure parents can relate).

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

With the recent release of the new live action Disney movie Aladdin I wanted to revisit the idea of Disney princesses as role models. After Disney released their more recent animated movies like Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, Moana, Brave, and Coco the Disney company was suddenly recognized for their strong female princesses and diverse cast of characters. I question what audiences and critics count as a strong female character and diverse cast. It’s a bit of a touchy subject because it really depends on your own perspective. You can see Disney princesses (particularly before the 90s) as white, quiet, and submissive women waiting for a man to save them and make everything better through marriage. On the flip side I’ve seen people argue that those same princesses show strength in sacrificing their life to live in an unknown world and show perseverance in doing what is necessary to live out their dreams and ambitions. So again, depends on perspective.

I grew up in love with Disney princesses, and to an extent I still do. But obviously I didn’t just create a Disney villain blog for no reason. If I love Disney princesses why not create a blog about Disney princesses? Why create a blog about Disney villains? Personally, I think Disney princesses are fun for the story but there are so many gray areas to improve on (as awful as that may sound). Let me explain.

So as I mentioned I grew up with a fascination for Disney princesses. I wanted to be them, have my own palace, do nothing but relax all day (cause that’s what it seems like they do all day), and be fed really good food all the time. As an adult I was quick to learn the world doesn’t work that way, even for those considered royalty. I decided that there were a lot of gray areas with the way audiences may perceive Disney princesses and possibly even the way Disney creators thought of Disney princesses. I started believing Disney villains were more realistic, more relatable, and that’s been my opinion since.

Once Upon a Time (2011 – 2018)
Photo credit: ABC Family Studios

Part of what drove me to this decision was the TV show Once Upon a Time and the YouTube parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier”. Once Upon a Time is a show based on fairy tale and Disney characters living in today’s society (1990s Maine, USA). The parody musical is a spin on the Broadway musical Wicked but with Jafar (from Aladdin) as the main character instead of the Wicked Witch of the West. In both the TV show and the parody musical I started seeing the discrimination associated with those who were labeled as villains and the hierarchy between them and supposed heroes and princesses. From there I wrote a paper on the social oppression of Disney villains and the privilege and un-realistic stereotypes of Disney princesses (click here to read).

Disney’s Aladdin (1992)

In my mind Disney princesses lack diversity. As someone who looks east Asian I’m expected to identify with Mulan but I don’t identify as a warrior or tomboy so I never identified with her. To me Princess Jasmine was the closest I could identify because we had the same skin tone (at the time) and shared a love for cats and pants. Nowadays I can’t really identify with anyone because of their petite stature, small faces with big eyes, and long flowing hair that is never out of place. There are a lot of things I can say about Disney princesses and what they really teach children outside of hope and love for all. For the sake of fitting everything into this blog post I won’t. Feel free to message me or comment if you’d like to discuss further.

I think Disney is really trying to change the tide, especially with the world’s evolving terms and identities. The new live action Disney movie Aladdin is one example of how I see Disney trying to up their game. Naomi Scott plays Princess Jasmine. The first live action Disney princess of color (as far as I’m aware). She starts out as a seen but not heard princess with drive and ambition to be the next Sultan of Agrabah. Due to laws and policies she is told she cannot because there’s never been a female ruler before. All the people in the palace aside from her handmaiden appear to be male and tell her power and leadership belong to men. Princess Jasmine often rebels at the urge for her to marry by insulting / turning down suitors who come to woo her. She has a powerful song called Speechless (see below) that shows her speaking out and finally finding her voice. She sings she will not be silenced and should not be underestimated which in my mind is a very powerful and empowering song for anyone feeling silenced. I will admit I went back to the theater to watch Aladdin two more times, mainly because of Naomi’s performance as Princess Jasmine.

ALADDIN ‘Speechless Song’ Movie Clip (2019) Disney HD
Viral MEDIA

While Disney is making changes there’s still so much that could change. With all the previous Disney princesses having been around for years, and sometimes decades, it’s hard to move past the common blonde hair, pale skin persona of the first few Disney princesses created in the 1930s – 1950s. Susie Neilson posted an article on NPR titled How Disney Princesses Influence Girls Around the World. In the article she discussed sociologist Charu Uppal’s research studying the effects of Disney princesses on girls around the world since 2009. Asking nearly 140 girls across five countries to draw a picture of a princess most drew a light skinned princess that resembled a Disney character. “Not one girl drew a princess in her country’s traditional garb” (Neilson). Uppal’s reports indicated that while there are more diverse princesses being released that does not replace the “images of popular white princesses in Disney that have a much older and global presence” (Neilson). “Disney has made an effort to diversify and empower its princess cast in recent decades, responding to criticisms that the brand is too white and casts women in passive roles. Since the introduction of Jasmine in 1992, four young women of color have been added to the company’s official princess lineup: Pocahontas, Moana, Tiana and Mulan” (Neilson).

Photo credit: Know Your Meme

While Moana, Tiana, and Mulan are considered Disney princesses of color they are not princesses in their respective films. Pocahontas technically is not a princess either, she’s the chief’s daughter, similar to Moana. Elena of Avalor, the first Disney Latina princess, should be on the official Disney princess lineup but for whatever reason (maybe because she’s from a TV series instead of a movie) she is not included in the official line up of Disney princesses. That being said, Jasmine is the first and only princess of color to be born into royalty. All the princesses who identify as white, except for Cinderella and Belle, are born into royalty (Snow White, Aurora, Ariel, Rapunzel, Anna, Elsa, and Merida). Based on the criteria that most Disney animated movies consider their female lead a princess whether they are or not brings up another question. Why is Esmeralda (from The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Megara (from Hercules), Wendy (from Peter Pan), Lilo (from Lilo and Stitch), and more not considered princesses? Princess Tiger Lily is considered and treated like a princess in Peter Pan but is not in the official line up of Disney princesses. Why is this? Is it because she’s a supporting character and not a main character? What about the other Disney women who are not considered Disney princesses? Mulan is not royalty and doesn’t marry into royalty and yet she is part of the Disney princess lineup. So what grants her the status of Disney princess when other leading ladies such as Esmeralda, Megara, Wendy, and Lilo are not?

“The U.S. — a country with no royalty – has colonized children’s imaginations of what a princess is, and that’s something to take seriously.”

Rebecca Hains, author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years

As a Disney princess fan turned Disney villain fan I stumbled upon the term “anti-model”. Opposite of role model. Literally a light bulb moment went off for me then. An anti-model is a person or group “you don’t want to resemble when you grow up” (Housel). I think of Disney princesses as an anti-model. They may be nice to say hi to at a Disney theme park but (for me) they are not people I want to be when I grow up (and by grow up I mean age older than I am now).

Disney princesses fit in this very tight box of who can be a Disney princess, mainly based on physical traits and appearance. Uppal noted in her study that “the girls in her study said they lack what they perceive as princess characteristics – beauty, desirability and Americanness” (Neilson). Not that every girl, boy, and non binary individual should identify or want to be a princess but there are many, as shown by Uppal’s study, who identify beauty and self worth with being a princess and vise versa. Rebecca Hains, a media studies professor and author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, says “beauty in itself isn’t inherently good or bad, but it’s been assigned this importance culturally as what makes someone who is female valuable” (Neilson). Of course there are many other variables to consider in what determines beauty, self worth, and the role a princess plays in society. Neilson uses the colonization of countries like India before Disney animated movies were produced as an example. Since colonization and white washing began long before Disney started producing movies they (and other forms of media) can not solely be blamed for white washing and “American-izing” countries. Although they are great influences.

So rather than call Disney animated princesses role models I consider them anti-models. To me, they show me what I don’t want to be when I grow up. I am growing into a stronger, more independent, female leader who’s not afraid to engage others in the tough diversity conversations affecting our country (to be honest I’m still a bit shaky on politics but one day I’ll get there). I don’t wait for my partner to do and fix everything for me, I do it myself and make my own income. I also believe beauty and self worth come from anyone anywhere.

Feel free to disagree. I’m not trying to convince anyone that we should hate Disney princesses or anything. I love them… to an extent. I think there are adjustments that need to be made to showcase strong, diverse, and empowering women as Disney princesses, and Disney characters overall. To me, Disney princesses are anti-models. What are they to you? What are they to the children in your life?

Ted Talk: The Power and Problem of Princesses by Zara Brownless

Works Cited

Housel, Morgan. “The Opposite of a Role Model”. The Motley Fool, www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/12/18/the-opposite-of-a-role-model.aspx.

Neilson, Susie. “How Disney Princesses Influence Girls Around the World”. NPR, www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/05/24/726129132/how-disney-princesses-influence-girls-around-the-world.

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