The Effects of Princess Culture

I wrote the following piece about the Disney princess franchise and the effects that their physical manifestation has on young girls for my Writing 101 class at Duke entitled “The Disney Version.” I wanted to share it on this platform because I believe the overarching message is an important, albeit overlooked reminder: The way role models and characters are depicted in the media matters. If we are only ever exposed to princesses that are impossibly thin, we will inevitably begin to associate thinness with goodness of character. However, the reality is that no matter our body shape or size, we can all be great, kind-hearted, irrevocably strong warriors in our own lives. Keep this in mind when consuming media such as that produced by the Disney franchise….

The impact of princess culture

Since Disney first launched its Princess brand in 2000 now worth $5.5 billion, the so-called “princess culture” has infiltrated preschool classrooms, influencing the minds and behaviors of a generation of young girls. This sheer molding power stems from the undeniable fact that the Disney princesses have become ubiquitous in society, represented in essentially every imaginable product available in the consumer market. Not only are the princesses depicted in dolls and on dresses, but they even color the cans of Campbell’s soup and smile on the packaging of toothpaste. Now, this wouldn’t be concerning if research showed that Disney princesses only seem to have a positive influence on the hundreds of thousands of young girls who worship them and try to mirror their actions and personality traits in daily life. Yet, when these treasured princess movies tell us that “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets the man” as Ursula does in The Little Mermaid (1989) or “She’ll never be worth anything! She’s a woman!” as Chi Fu exclaims in Mulan (1998), how can the psychological well-being of girls not be negatively impacted? If girls are raised to believe that they are worthless simply because of their gender, isn’t that a wholly disempowering experience?

Unsurprisingly, it has been shown that the ability of the Disney franchise to shape perceptions of female identity and desirability has often not been for the better, but for the worse. In fact, a study known as "Pretty as a Princess" conducted by BYU family life professor Sarah M. Coyne examining how the Disney Princess culture impacted the behaviors of 198 preschoolers revealed that higher princess involvements (through media consumption, toys, and products) was positively correlated with higher levels of female gender-stereotypical behavior such as quiet play, pretend cleaning and cooking, and avoiding exploring new things, risk-taking, and getting dirty. I'm fortunate enough to have had a mother who pushed me to follow my passions and challenge myself to explore subjects I didn't think I could ever excel in such as math or science simply because I was a girl. However, I cannot help but think that if my main role models were passive, one-dimensional, and frustratingly dependent Disney princesses such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, or Snow White, perhaps I may not have been so adventurous and dared to venture beyond my comfort zone.

I think parents think that the Disney Princess culture is safe. That’s the word I hear time and time again—it’s ‘safe.’ But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture.
— Sarah M. Coyne

As Coyne implies in the quotation above from her press statement, parents should not just view Disney princesses as seemingly innocent characters for in the minds of many little girls, the princesses are not mere fictional conceptions but are heroines they idolize and strive to embody. As discovered in the "Pretty as a Princess" study, this pressure to be exactly like the princesses can be particularly problematic when it comes to issues surrounding body image. Engagement with princess culture led to poorer body image and lower self-esteem among many young girls, for the abundance of identically skinny Disney princesses that they grow up worshipping—often representing their first exposure to the thin ideal—leads them to accept the myth that being impossibly thin is the only acceptable form of beauty. Why, in a nation where 68% of women wear a size 14 or above, are girls trained to believe that thinness and beauty are inextricably linked? Why, in a nation teeming with diversity that is even projected to become “minority white” by 2045, is the beauty standard of pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair still so prevalent? Well, because cultural expectations of beauty will never change unless media outlets such as Disney that leave imprints on the minds of the youth begin actively diversifying their messages and promoting more positive standards—standards showing that beauty encompasses all shapes and sizes, all colors and complexions.

Yet, although Disney has made great strides in attempting to break down gender stereotypes, this momentum has entirely excluded weight and physical appearance. For example, a team at the comedy website, Above Average, even found that in a majority of the Disney’s eleven princesses, their eyes are larger than their waists! Yes, you heard me right: eyes larger than waists. Don’t you just love how the media creates these absurd Catch-22 situations in which we can never be beautiful because their definition of beauty is entirely unattainable? It’s no wonder that the number of children under the age of 12 who have been hospitalized for eating disorders has increased by 120% from 1999 to 2006! I’m scared to even think about how high this number has skyrocketed now, in the year 2019. This lack of credible anatomical basis must be modernized to reflect the reality that the average woman has curves, does not have a thigh gap, and certainly has eyes significantly smaller than her waistline. Perhaps then so many girls as young as 3 years of age will stop feeling like they do not deserve to take up physical space in this world.

In recent years, Disney’s seeming apathy when it comes to restructuring its rhetoric on body image has been subject to great criticism. Many have begun to ask questions such as, “Would it really be the end of the world if we had an average-sized princess, or even an overweight princess for that matter?” In 2014, one fed-up high school student, Jewel Moore, even created a petition entitled “Every body is beautiful” calling for Disney to make its next princess plus-sized. Her reasoning is as follows:

I’m a plus-size young woman, and I know many plus-size girls and women who struggle with confidence and need a positive plus-size character in the media... it would do a world of good for those plus-size girls out there who are bombarded with images that make them feel ugly for not fitting the skinny standard.
— Jewel Moore

Her sentiment and call to Disney to create a princess who refreshingly deviates from the played-out thin ideal clearly resonated with many, for since its creation, the petition has received over 37,000 signatures. In today's society, where movements of body positivity are starting to gain a stronghold among the public, Disney must adapt its branding to be more inclusive of a multitude of body types. Further beckoning Disney to stop creating princesses who are the unhealthy, unnatural size of 000, an article in People magazine shows illustrations of various princesses re-imagined to reflect more real, curvier, blemished (albeit still worthy) body types. In a shocking turn of events, the transformed princesses as shown to the left are (*dramatic gasp*) still beautiful.

Tangled messages

Hope certainly still remains that Disney can reform its ways. After all, if Disney was able to embrace the women's empowerment movement, perhaps its embrace of the body positivity movement will come next. In recent princess movies such as Tangled (2010), Disney has not only deviated away from patriarchal realms, but has actually come to champion feminist messages through transforming princesses who used to be passive, frustratingly dependent, and largely unintelligent into fearless warriors who possess the inner strength, fortitude, and self-sufficiency to handle whatever life throws their way. Disney was able to start empowering a whole generation of young girls to rise up as leaders by breaking down traditional gender roles through the progressive characterization of Rapunzel. Here are just a few reasons why Rapunzel, or rather "Punzie," is the Disney equivalent of the beloved, irrevocably feminist Beyoncé, inspiring the world through uplifting anthems such as “Who Run the World (Girls)”:

  1. Her dream has nothing to do with desperately waiting around for a prince to save her and carry her away from all of life's troubles. Instead, her lifelong dream of seeing the lanterns in person is entirely fueled by her own insatiable curiosity, showing female viewers that their life prospects need not revolve around gaining the affection of men.

  2. She is well-rounded and passionate about a range of extracurricular activities. From being a pro in astronomy and actually being able to map stars to having the mental dexterity and strategic skill to be a chess champion, Rapunzel proves that girls truly can do it all!

  3. She has the strength and self-respect to free herself from Mother Gothel's toxicity instead of giving up and just believing that she is a "fragile flower" who will never make it on her own in a tumultuous, uncertain world. This characterization is a huge victory in the women’s rights agenda, for it inspires a generation of girl viewers to show fortitude in the face of adversity and reminds them that they deserve more than remaining with people such as Mother Gothel who only serve to lower their self-esteem. (WARNING TO DISNEY: Don't remain a Mother Gothel figure who degrades the self-worth of young girls.)

  4. She is the undisputed leader who is always saving Flynn. Whether it's through her glow-in-the-dark hair or speech about dreams that wins over the hearts of the Smuggly Duckling tavern-dwellers, we can always count on Punzie the super-heroine to save the day when Flynn leads them into trouble! By showing that Rapunzel never needed a man to rescue her (Flynn's only function is to literally serve as a human GPS), Disney essentially sends girls the uplifting message that they too can be resourceful leaders.

  5. Her weapon of choice is a frying pan!!! By consciously transforming a symbol classically connotated with how women belong in the home to a symbol of how the intrinsic strength of women should never be taken for granted, Disney is sending the inspiring message that if we actively choose to redefine the intended functions of objects by looking at them through a lens unfiltered by oppressive, creativity-suppressing societal norms, we can find fortitude through unexpected means.

  6. In the end, she is out-and-about in society, leading her kingdom and igniting meaningful change. No longer does a princess have to silently smile and unconditionally support her husband as he reigns supreme over his kingdom.

You don’t need someone to complete you. You only need someone to accept you completely.
— Rapunzel, Disney's Tangled

As summed up by Rapunzel’s heartfelt quotation above, we need not rely on the affection of others to feel whole and complete, but instead can rely upon our own inner strength as a means towards self-actualization. However, “if [we] only need someone to accept [us] completely,” Disney definitely is not that “someone.” For although Disney does repackage Rapunzel to reflect modern-day views of gender equality, it still lags in progressing its portrayal of body image and the beauty standard. Through her unnaturally thin waistline, blonde, straight hair, pale skin, and large, green eyes, Rapunzel serves to enhance the perpetual glorification of Barbie-like features as a female beauty ideal in Western popular culture. To all the girls out there who may have dark, curly hair, tan skin, or a body shape that is not extremely thin, Rapunzel just serves as another reminder that they do not meet the coveted beauty standard.

I just want to ask this: What about blonde hair makes it inherently better than any other color? I don’t understand why Rapunzel’s hair is only magical when it it long and blonde, but the second Flynn chops off all of the golden tresses and it turns brown, it loses all of its power. Similarly, is it a coincidence that while the young, beautiful, and good-natured Rapunzel has straight, blonde locks, the evil Gothel who rids Rapunzel of a happy childhood through deception and emotional manipulation has curly, black hair? I think not. Both of these examples are extremely problematic, for the entanglement of dark hair with evilness, barrenness, and powerlessness and the entanglement of light hair with pureness, ethereal magic, and youth can disempower girls with dark hair into believing that because of their physical appearance, they are somehow less worthy and less innately “good.”

I was that little girl who would walk into the Disney store and sadly stare at the endless rows of glimmering princess dolls with unnaturally thin body types and long, straight, light-colored hair, thinking, "Why can't I be beautiful like them? Why was I born with this ugly, messy black hair and brown skin?" This experience isn't exclusively mine, however. In an article called "How 8 Women of Color Viewed Barbie When They Were Little Girls," posted on BustleAfrican-American author Paige Tutt writes about how her own self-perception was adversely impacted because her ethnicity was excluded from the beauty-ideal narrative:

I recognized myself as inherently different and other compared to this beautiful, tall, blond doll. I would look at my kinky hair in the mirror, rub my ashy elbows, pull at my mocha-colored cheeks, and wonder why I didn’t look like my Barbie doll.
— Paige Tutt

Anecdotes such as Tutt's are heartbreaking, because no girl, especially at the age of just 5 or 6, should have to grapple with such suffocating feelings of unworthiness and "otherness" solely based on her physical appearance. No matter what we look like on the outside, we are still just as deserving of love, affection, support, and compassion as those who do fit the Western beauty ideal. It's time Disney starts teaching young girls this essential message. It can do this by diversifying the appearances of future princesses so that it no longer seems so absurd that someone with curves or short, curly, dark hair or small eyes can be beautiful too.

A call for change

So, Disney, it's time to get your act together. I’m only saying this because I care and because you’ve mended your ways before, so I believe that you can do it again. You were able to shatter the glass ceiling by transforming Rapunzel into a fearless leader. Now, you need to shatter the stereotypical beauty ideal that has been looming over society for far too long, reducing the self-esteem of many young girls. Rapunzel was able to “see the light”, it’s your turn to “see the light too.” I don’t know what you’re waiting for, but if you need a multi-purpose frying pan or a Flynn Rider to help you reach the ultimate destination of enlightenment when it comes to diverse body representation, I would be happy to send them your way. (Just give it a few days because surprisingly, wanted thieves who steal treasured crowns are not readily available for purchase on Amazon Prime.)

Disney, in this heartfelt, open letter to you, I beg you this: Remember the children.

Remember all the little girls out there who look up to their mothers and exclaim, "Mommy, I want to be a princess!" Remember that the children who worship your films are so much more than mere commodities or a means to the end of earning profit. Remember that with power comes great responsibility....The responsibility to care, to be a catalyst of positive, meaningful societal change, and to never lose sight of what matters most. Walt Disney once said, "Our greatest natural resource is the minds of children." Well, Disney, don't exploit or degrade your greatest natural resources by constantly reminding them that they are unworthy or they can never encapsulate the "true beauty" concomitant to unnaturally small waistlines, pale skin, doe-like eyes, and golden blonde hair. Instead, shape them to become fearless, self-confident, and irrevocably strong leaders who we would be proud to call our future generation by broadening and diversifying your outlook on what "pretty" looks like. Don't just tell us you care, but instead show us. We've been ready and waiting. We are ready and waiting.

Simran BansalComment