“I Want to Live the Fairy-tale and Princess Life”: A Deeper Look Into the Portrayal of Women in Disney

By: Rhonda Nemri

In the early 1920s Walt Disney created the beginning of something magical and fulfilling to childhood life; Disney animation. The production of animation has become a significant role in many people’s lives. Animations that were created starting from the early 20s’ still exist in our children’s story books/television. Animations were known as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Mickey Mouse, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and so on. Adults have also enjoyed these animations that were made for children. Adults today still cherish these Disney moments and pass them along to their children in hopes of creating the magical and fantasy life children want to experience.  As an adult, I can recall the moments in my life as a child watching the different Disney productions that gave me the opportunity to have an imagination as a child.  Disney is used as a central piece for educating children, teens, and adults. Disney is consisted of television, radio, and print. “Dominating market power in entertainment mitigated by avuncular representation adheres to Disney in large part due to its primary production art form: the animated feature” (Artz).

According to Artz “the appropriation of cultural codes from traditional tales through visual metaphor, anthropomorphism, naturalized scenes and settings, and music are defining characteristics of Disney animation. Disney animation entertains and instructs because it offers a cinematic escape from reality by presenting recognizable narrative and imagistic fictions as if they were or could be reality (n.p.). The effect that cartoon characters have on the audience is substantial. Disney’s aim to their audience is to feel connected and wanting to be a part of this fantasy that in most cases won’t ever be a reality. These different movies or cartoon shows that are created are still shown, and will carry on its magical themes.  “Disney features do not become dated as quickly as other genre. Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and now Simba, Mulan, and Tarzan will likely thrill future audiences as their contemporaries” (Artz n.p.).  Mainly when you are a child, parents sit you in front of a television screen in hopes of enlightening the child for a moment and allow them to be part of the ongoing creations of Disney. Disney is a magical word. Products specifically for Disney have reached millions of people all over the world. In the 2011 fiscal year Disney’s net income increased 21% to a record $4.8 billion (“The Walt Disney Company Reports”).

With these different animations that have been around for decades, they have images and storylines for the viewers to be part of and allow the audience to connect with the different stories. A lot of times they have an emotional aspect to it to connect on a deeper level with these characters. However, the animations that has been out for decades and will probably continue to be read as stories for children’s bedtimes and shown on television, send off a message to the mass audience that must be questioned. Since a lot of the storylines for these animations deal with women, one must question the message and the portrayal of these woman characters. In this discussion, I will predominantly discuss The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella, and how it affects women/girls, given the fact that these characters are still relevant today.

The animations that have been mentioned earlier in this essay have been around for decades. They each have a specific storyline that seems to get the audience attached to these characters. The idea that the “realities” of these women or girl characters end up in a fairytale ending is what seems to generate the attachment to these animations. The commonalities between the characters are beauty, sexuality, domesticity, love, honor, and being a princess. Animations such as The Little Mermaid, Jasmine in Aladdin, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella, each have a specific story to their lives. With the different endings to each story, throughout the animation the objectification of these characters is presented. You might be thinking, “Well it is just an animation, there is no harm.” Yes it is just an animation, however these women characters is what young girls want to portray in their realities. Let’s first look at The Little Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid

Ariel is a beautiful, talented woman who ventures out in the sea. Her true passion is to be with Prince Eric, whom she ends up saving from an incident that led her to fall in love with him. What is striking about this love story is that she has to lose her identity in order to gain something, which is the Prince. The indication that women should give up her gifts and her desires to be with a man is problematic. Ariel must give up her voice (singing, aspirations and her love of music), and her fins to gain legs to walk in order to be with her Prince. However, with all that she has given up, the Prince still doesn’t want her and marries another woman. In order for Ariel to get her voice back she has to kill the Prince. She does not want to kill him, but is left between the struggling decision of either gaining the love of Prince Eric or getting her life back.  This is questionable since she went through far measures in order to gain the Prince, but makes it hard on herself to decide if she wants her identity back or to love. Ariel’s happily ever after requires her to be submissive and strip herself from anything she was passionate about to be with a man who didn’t want her. Ariel’s character shifts from strong independent to forcefully giving up something she loves to be happy. Looking in today’s society, women tend to change their body image in order to be accepted or loved. They augment their breasts, facelifts, and tummy tucks, which Ariel’s actions is a metaphor to 21st century actions. While looking at this cartoon, Ariel is not the only character that we can analyze. Prince Eric, whom seems to have the full package, is handsome, caring, loving, and holds the Prince Charming qualities that Ariel seemed to be intrigued by. However, Prince Eric fits the typical stereotype of what male Disney characters portray, and one that signifies the patriarchy.

Jasmine in Aladdin

Jasmine is a 16-year-old, who also has desires and wants in her life. She is beautiful and witty and has dreams of her own. She is the daughter to a Sultan of Agrabah. Jasmine’s character definitely represents the common Middle Eastern physical features. Dark long hair, olive to tan skin, and almond eyes that is seductive. Her father tends to suggest men to her to marry; however, Jasmine refuses any of the marriage propositions. She gets into trouble when spotted handing an apple to a young boy, but was accused of stealing from the village market. At this point Aladdin, whom disguises himself as a Prince because of a wish he received from the genie, tries to save her from getting her arm amputated. The two eventually fall in love with each other and she accepts the marriage proposal from Aladdin. Jafar, who has evil characteristics, represents the stereotypical angry, aggressive and forceful Middle Eastern man. Jafar exposes Aladdin’s dishonesty as a prince to Jasmine, and then exiles Aladdin to leave. Jasmine is then forced to become Jafar’s slave girl and turned into a harem concubine to wait on him. Aladdin then came back in hopes of saving Jasmine from the slave girl she has become. In order to get successfully rescued, Jasmine had to amuse Jafar by seducing him and pretending to fall in love with him, and then escaping with the genie lamp that Jafar took from Aladdin.

So now that I have given you a brief description of how the characters were portrayed, I will now offer an analysis and observation. First, Jasmine is a witty 16-year-old who spoke up about not marrying who her father wanted for her. However, the life that she refuses is thrown at her in a forceful way. She is to be seen as a wife and submissive. Her father wants to choose her lover, while Jasmine searches for her love in which it becomes Aladdin (the prince/hero).  This representation is highly relatable to the actual Middle Eastern girl/woman who is forced into a marriage with a man who she does not know or barely knows. Of course modernized traditions have changed a bit; but the concept of marriage is still similar to Westernized traditions. In an effort to rid this destiny, she runs away. She is also created as a seducer, sex object, and slave to Jafar. In the “Western imagination, the Middle Eastern harem was a place of sex, debauchery, slavery, miscegenation, power, riches, and sheer abandon” (Brookes). Jasmine was always running away from what is forced on her, although she is a heroine, she is still created as submissive, trapped in a life she doesn’t want, and princess. This is the common struggle with women today.  They have these lives that have been ascribed to them from when they are born. As soon as they are old enough to make their own decisions, women tend to struggle between wanting to be happy and wanting to make their family/society happy. It is hard for happiness to be equal, because there is always this forcefulness to a woman’s life to choose what society wants over her happiness. Here Jasmine is representing the Middle Eastern woman who has the voice and qualities to become whoever she wants, however she is still dominated by the male characters in this animation. It is socially constructed that women must marry at a young age, and in this animation Jasmine is 16. In American society marriage at age 16 is frowned upon; however in many other cultures or countries, specifically Middle Eastern or Mediterranean countries, marriage at a young age exists. Therefore Jasmine isn’t given the opportunity to grow as a woman; she is seen as a princess, daughter of a Sultan, and a future wife.

Belle from Beauty & the Beast

In the story of Beauty and the Beast is a very interesting one. This animation can easily allow for the audience to connect with the heroine; Belle. The plot starts with an enchantress who offers the prince a rose in exchange for a night’s shelter. When he turns her away, she punishes the prince by transforming him into a beast, and turning all of his servants into household and furniture items. The rose that she gave him symbolically represented his love. If by his 21st birthday he did not find love by the time the last petal has fallen, then he shall remain a beast for his entire life. Belle who represents many characteristics, is beautiful, assertive, but also has feminine characteristics such as nurturing and loving. She loved to read and was always at the bookstore or at home helping her father with chores. Her character was definitely different from the other women in this animation. She had goals to be something more, however other women were portrayed as bimbos, sexualized, mothers, or maids. In the animation, many men pursued Belle because she was very attractive and beautiful. She was definitely fancied by the male character Gaston. Gaston’s character is very arrogant, tough, and is a narcissist. He wants Belle to be his wife, and thinks he will get her no matter what because of his looks and physical features. Belle’s father Maurice who is an inventor, goes on a journey to a fair, however gets lost in the woods and captured by the beast to keep him hostage. Belle however shows up to the castle looking for her father. She offered the beast herself instead of her father to be a prisoner and held hostage.

Firstly we can see that Belle is a conservative, beautiful, and smart woman. The people in the village often saw her as weird because she often enjoys reading books and educating herself. This is something that is known in today’s society. Women who are educated and smart are not looked at the same compared to men who are educated and smart. Belle (and today’s women) is to represent beauty and domesticity. Anything other than that she was weird. In the first part of the animation we can see Belle as a loving and nurturing woman. She sings, and the sheep come to her because she is delightful. Which often, in Disney animation they represent women who often speak to animals. Just like Belle, she is capable of reaching out to animals because she is a woman who really has no voice. Throughout that scene strolling through the village, it is quite clear that all the women represented in that scene are domesticated. You can see mothers with children, maids, women cleaning, and the three young women who often lust over Gaston, which are sexualized. The women characters represent the social construction of what femininity is and what it should be.

Gaston represents the alpha-male. He dominates the village because of his physical features. He wants Belle and only Belle. Even though Belle refuses him, he still thinks he can get her. His character is a representation of the aggressive male whom uses his sexual-being to get what he wants. His prey is Belle and he is the predator that will fight for Belle. By Gaston doing this, in his eyes Belle is a sexual object that he must contain in order to fulfill his manly fantasies. Man needs woman in order to feel whole and subject. When Belle is a hostage in the beast’s castle, she has traded her freedom for fear. Belle becomes part of objectivity and accepts her place as a prisoner. The goal of the beast is to use Belle and to gain something, which is becoming human again and freeing himself from being a beast. When we think of a beast, we tend to think of one that dominates, and puts fear into people. The beast represented the male that is aggressive and violent towards women (oppressor). This is something that Belle needed to understand, and accept and see that the beast’s violent behavior and aggressiveness is something she had to get used to. Bestiality is then created between the two. Bestiality is known as “sexual relations between a human being and a lower animal” (“Merriam Webster Dictionary”). It is Belle that must learn and give up her norms of what love is, and to love a beast that represents ugliness and violence. It is her that must teach herself to accept what is given to her. After all it is the beast’s fate that relies on Belle’s openness to love him. It is not her beauty that gives him the freedom to become a prince and not a beast; it is the fact that Belle is a woman. Since she is a woman, this is what makes her a valuable entity to beast and makes him whole. Belle’s character represents the patriarchal structure of what women should be considered to be. She must be fearful of the male. Although Belle stands up to beast, she is still the other in the animation. There was a part in the animation where Belle decided to leave the castle, but then is surrounded by wolves and is about to get attacked. Beast sees this through his magical mirror and goes to save Belle from this disastrous moment. His motive is to become a hero, which Disney is most likely to represent in a male character. However, through this heroic moment, beast gets injured and Belle is only left to bring out the nurturing side of her. She takes care of his wounds and this then begins the loving relationship between beast and Belle.

From the beginning of the animation we see Belle as a feisty, loving, caring, and nurturing person. She does however stand up to the male characters in the animation, but during her first encounter with beast she was fearful and scared. She is a heroine in this animation, but is still left with the Disney representation of what a woman character should be. She is put in situations where she is in trouble, she is saved, she is domesticated, and nurturing. However, the Disney animation may seem to be circling around Belle, nonetheless the real story surrounds the beast’s journey in finding a woman to release him from his curse and to love again. Hence the title of the animation is Beauty and the Beast and not Belle and the Beast. The title is a representation of finding beauty in a beast and focusing on a “teaching” moment for the audience that beauty is a valuable treasure to have in order to love or to be loved. It is quite clear that Belle is portrayed as the other, and beast as the subject of the story, however Disney certainly attracts the audience, specifically women, to believe that this story was a fairy-tale ending and love story that allowed Belle to become a princess. This is the idea that Disney always has when creating a woman character. She will go through love, violence, nurtures, gives up her freedom, or something she enjoys; but these acts are okay since she becomes a princess. Which is ultimately a girl’s dream; becoming a princess.

Cinderella

Cinderella’s character also represents the beautiful woman who has wants and dreams in her life. However her stepmother and step sisters caused her oppressions. Cinderella’s duties are to firstly listen to her stepmother. She must clean, and become a servant to her “family” members. Her stepmother represents the witch-like characteristic’s that is forceful in order to gain something. Cinderella represents the selfless and motherly woman who is denied to become anything but a servant. She is also capable of speaking to animals such as birds and mice. This is also a representation of a woman who is incapable of associating with humans, and only has a voice when it comes to speaking to animals. She is also nurturing and mother-like with animals, which is why these animals tend to come to her with ease. With a ball coming up to attend to, the stepmother refuses to allow Cinderella to join them to go to the prince’s ball. The prince uses this ball as a way to find his future wife. Women dress in their best gowns and show off their beauty in hopes of getting chosen to be a wife. This sounds just like The Bachelor, where women are to represent beauty and have personality traits that fits the bachelor in order to be chosen and given the final rose and marriage proposal. The only way Cinderella was granted to go to this ball was to be transformed in a princess-like image, since her stepmother destroyed her original gown.

Her fairy godmother changed her destiny by turning a pumpkin into a carriage, and had the mice make her a new dress to look like the other woman who were attending the ball. She had the princess image and was ready to attend the ball. However her fairy godmother told her she must leave by midnight or else she will transform back into her old image. When she arrived at the ball she was able to meet the prince, and soon after the prince was falling for her. Of course this then becomes the fairy-tale story that every girl wants. Unfortunately for Cinderella the clock struck twelve and she had to run away from the prince, only to leave behind her glass slipper. The princes duty was to find the matching foot of his future princess in order to fulfill his destiny of being with his beautiful princess. The women in this story are obsessed with the idea of being the princess. They have to look their best, and they have to look like a princess. Cinderella, even though she is a loving and caring woman, and has a destiny of her own that she wants to fulfill, is still categorized in what a Disney princesses journey has to be like in order for her to be with her love; the prince. Cinderella was only viewed as an object in her stepmothers’ eyes. Of course this treatment to Cinderella was because she was much prettier than her daughters. However, Disney has created these characteristics on purpose, and possibly not to make it obvious that Cinderella represented a servant, but to showcase the socially constructed feminine roles of what a woman should be.  After all, Cinderella’s troubles and tribulations still lead her to a dream comes true and a happily ever after ending, which is becoming a princess to her prince charming.

Conclusions

Disney has become a significant role in many people’s lives. Adults are still attached to the very characters that gave them the meaning of fantasy and imagination. Disney allows those to take the animations realities and make them part of our fantasies, in hopes of it becoming our realities. Walt Disney has created a growing industry that has transformed into one of the biggest forms of entertainment. The most intriguing part of Disney, is the fact that it still exists whether old fairy-tales, or newly produced fairy-tales.

Although there are numerous researches on the effectiveness of Disney on the audience, I took this analysis as a way to really dig deep into something I was once and still fairly enlightened by. These Disney animations that I have discussed were animations that I grew up with. The little Mermaid was one of my favorites, and made me want to be a mermaid. Belle in Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful woman, smart and daring, something I was also intrigued by. Jasmine from Aladdin also held a beautiful persona about her. It wasn’t the idea that she was a princess that made me like her; it was the fact that she was beautiful. This then also points out that not only are these women princesses, they are beautiful, and something girls look up to, and try to be. Finally, I wasn’t really into Cinderella, but I do remember watching it on television. I didn’t like the fact that she was treated badly by her stepmother, however I did like the magical aspect of being granted a night of fantasy turned into reality for her. As a child I never really wanted to be a princess, I was just attracted to the beauty of these women, and how they did hold special qualities, that unfortunately are not highlighted as much. We should also notice how these women have only male characters in their lives. Their mothers are not shown, or even explained if they even have mothers in their lives. It is always the father who is projected more in these characters lives.

These are old animations that still exist in our society today. During Halloween the amount of princesses that little girls dress up in is amazing. The idea that these little girls want to be a princess is what is being taught to them at a younger age, and unfortunately carried with them throughout their adult years. Even though some of these woman characters represent a tough and beautiful characteristic, they are still portrayed as the other, and domesticated. The feminine roles are definitely presented in these Disney characters, the same as what a woman’s role represents today. Men characters in Disney represent the prince charming and hero that saves the day. He has masculine characteristics, and one that tends to dominate in the storylines and is the reason why these women become princesses. Women are seen as emotional, nurturing, and motherly characters.

These Disney characters do represent present-day women, and it is very interesting to see how it does affect young girls idea of what a fairy-tale is. Women tend to think of their love lives having a fairy-tale ending, or a princess-like wedding. Hence the puffy dresses, crowns, and limousine as the carriage that will transport her from her home to the castle (church, or banquet hall).  When looking at Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, and Cinderella, they all hold similar characteristics. They are beautiful, very petite and skinny, beautiful hair, batting eyes, domesticated, and finally they all are becoming a princess. However, in order for them to be that princess they all went through some sort of troubling situation to captivate that princess role. Their roles were always the other, and then created into a subject or something close to it. Disney animation affects young girls and women today because it makes them see that no matter how patriarchal ways affects their lives, or how objectified or domesticated they are, it is okay, because the final reward is finding true love and a fairy-tale ending. I cringe when I hear a mother or father call their daughter “my little princess” or “daddy’s princess”. The moment you call them a princess at a young age, the more these little girls begin to believe that she is destined to be a princess or treated like one. The idea that we want to project to little girls and even women, is that you do not have to be objectified in order to get what you want. There are ways to remove what society sees in you already, and women should not accept these socially constructed roles given to them or fulfilled in order to appear feminine. However, women should be able to choose how they want their lives and not what is expected of them. Yes, domesticity is something  women tend to fulfill because it does become our duties in the household, or to become mothers. However, if you are doing it because you choose to, and not because someone tells you it’s your job, then there is no harm in this. Disney is something that I am sure will be around for many, many years. I know that Disney Princesses will also be around, and stories will be shared. However, we have to be able to reject what these storylines are really trying to portray. Perhaps newer animations are in need in order to fulfill a better idea of what women should be. I am sure there are animations out there that do represent heroines who do not fulfill the princess expectations, but unfortunately they are not appreciated as much as Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, and Belle. I am sure the perpetuation of Disney will always exist, and I am not saying I will not watch Disney, I am just stating the portrayals of women in these Disney animations. It may be hard for some to let go of something that is so dear to them, but an alternative to making our young girls feel special/wanted is needed.

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References

Artz, Lee. Animating Hierarchy: Disney and The Globalization of Capitalism. (2002): 1.1 Global Media Journal.

Brookes, Douglass, S. The Concubine, The Princess, and The Teacher.: Voices From the Ottoman Harem. (2008). University of Texas Press: Austin.

Meriam Websters Dictionary. (2012). “Bestiality”. http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/bestiality

The Walt Disney Company Report. (2011). The Walt Disney Company Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings for Fiscal 2011. corporate.disney.go.com/corporate/pdfs/Q411_PR_FINAL.pdf

5 Comments

  1. May 17, 2012 at 6:20 am

    This is a very enlightening post. All the princesses have to give up their liberties and have to go through some form of violence in order to become a happy princess with a fairytale ending. This is why I like Miyazaki films, because the women are independent and their happiness does not rely on getting the guy in the end.

    • feministtalk said,

      May 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm

      Thank you for reading. This is something I have been wanting to write about. I am glad you thought it was enlightening. I notice that Disney does show heroines as more masculine and feminine, however, it is the ones who have become or are princesses that send the wrong message. It is unfortunate that they always have to give up something in order to gain. However, I will check out Myazaki films.

  2. opt4 said,

    May 31, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    I re blogged this!

    Yes! Yes! Yes! This is so true. I have written curriculum stating exactly what you have stated in this blog. You are so right and you are such a great writer. It’s about time we need to point out the hidden patriarchy in many of the fairy tales that we read to our children. We need to stand up for our kids…otherwise who will?

    • feministtalk said,

      June 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      Thank you so much for this comment. I appreciate your comment. I do believe that fairy-tales are something that appears so magical for some, and it may be hard for some to let go. I for one watch some Disney animation, however I am definitely aware of whats happeneing. The prooblem with some is that they dont realize how objectfied women characters are. I sure do hope that my message and other scholars messages get through to people.


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