Disney princesses are just so easy to hate. The films that go with them have too many flaws to count. From their misogynistic undertones and patriarchal roots, to the lines that make up their petite bodies, to the fact that Disney aggressively markets them towards children, how can we possibly ignore them? How can we possibly call them empowering? In contrast, how can we possibly call them disempowering? I wasn’t going to comment on the Disney princess phenomenon because as you can see, they’re a loaded package. There’s so much to unwrap that I’d be here for days and not even scratch the surface, but I think that says a lot about them already. The Disney princesses seem so innocent and mindless, yet there’s actually a whole iceberg underneath them. They shouldn’t be glanced over as “just girl stuff” because girl stuff is important. They should be analyzed and held under a microscope every once in a while, so we don’t become placated consumers, but rather, cultural critics. For this essay, I’ll only be talking about them in the context of violence against women in film.
First off, about the two questions I posed above about how Disney princesses fit in with feminist discourse. Can we call them empowering? Are they objectively disempowering? I don’t think I can answer those questions. The only person who can say if they’re empowering or not, is you. If you like Disney princesses, power to you. Though they do “tell us how to play,” you can really make them do whatever you want. However, when you start to push your opinions onto others, that’s when it gets tricky. Likewise for people telling you they're nothing but Satan’s spawn. Secondly, who cares if they’re empowering? If you like wish fulfillment stories about princesses and princes, magic and dreams, who am I to stop you? We, as feminists, can like things that aren’t empowering as long as we respect and note the flaws in those things. Thirdly, don’t hate the Disney princesses because you don’t want to be “one of those girly girls” because that undermines what feminism is all about.
Now before I dive into my analysis, I want to note that I am not going to mention the historical context of these stories. I know the original Beauty and the Beast was written by a female author, so what? Things that are written by women, can also hold sexist/patriarchal ideology. Yes I know “times were different back then and such and such was normal/acceptable.” Again, so what? Just because patriarchy was normal doesn’t mean everyone liked it. Disney chose to make these fairy tales their way and changed a lot from the originals, and that is what I’m judging them on.
So this all started after I watched this video about Cinderella (1950) and victim blaming. I’m really glad this take exists because I think a lot of us love to hate on Cinderella without actually taking into account the situation she was in. I think we do tend to reduce her story in the majority of feminist discourse, when in reality she does do what she can to escape her abuse. She doesn’t fight back in a traditionally masculine way, so we think of her as less than. Cinderella resists by using her imagination to cope with her trauma. That’s “girly” so we distance ourselves from her rather than empathize with her. In the end of the film, she does devise a plan to escape the room, and even keeps the other shoe and uses it, to quote the video, “as a tool to escape.” The 1950s version was a lot better than the “updated” live action film that came out in 2015. In the original, we never see Cinderella outside of her house. We only see her outside when she goes to the ball. However, in the one where she has “more power” she has the ability to leave the house, yet doesn’t.
I agree with most of the analysis in the video. I just wonder if the marriage to the prince was a good way to end it. Did they live happily ever after? What if he was just as abusive? Why didn’t the fairy godmother use her powers to get Cinderella out of there permanently? Why didn’t Cinderella runaway the night of the ball when everyone left?! But if we’re looking at the story as is, we should try to re-educate ourselves on some of the most contentious points of it. We should realize that Cinderella isn’t passive and is a victim of abuse. I just wish marriage wasn’t the only way she could be free. It’s as if she’s property exchanging hands with different owners. Maybe if they changed out the ball/prince for something else it’d be better. Lastly, did she love the prince? Or did she just use him to escape? Was he another tool she used?
I watched Tangled the other day and realized that it actually may “fix” this problem that Cinderella had. Rapunzel was actually the heir to the throne, which lead her to be saved by her biological family and Flynn Ryder (not a prince). Though Flynn does cut off her hair without her consent, it does kill her abuser - Mother Gothel. Rapunzel does still kind of “save herself” because she’s able to make a deal with Gothel to get near Flynn. In addition, it’s her idea to leave her home in the first place, not to mention, she saves Flynn earlier in the film. The ending of Tangled seems like a better way out of her abusive situation than Cinderella’s because Rapunzel isn’t just property to be exchanged.
What I want to know is, why are so many princess stories about women being locked up or punished? I’ve already mentioned that Cinderella and Rapunzel are locked up in single rooms, but there’s also many more women that have been put away. Jasmine is locked up by Jafar and to an extent her own father. Belle is imprisoned by the Beast. Aurora is imprisoned in a home in the woods until her 16th birthday. Tiana is imprisoned and punished unjustly when she’s made into a frog. Lastly, Ariel is a prisoner of her father and to the ocean itself. Disney is moving away from that trope with newer films like Mulan, Moana, and Brave, but the majority are stories about women who have to fight out of horrible circumstances to find “happily ever after.” Most of these women are abuse victims. It seems as though we have a cultural fetish for women being enchained and battered. Is it only after women are punished do they learn their lesson and deserve happiness? Even Rapunzel is put into literal chains and gagged by Mother Gothel. I guess it raises the drama in the movie when there are two extremes, but it’s getting a little old, isn’t it? I wish we had female heroes who could be heroes in their own right, that don’t need to be locked away to deserve freedom. I want women heroes that have a good life and use that life to do more good in the face of evil.
In all, if being a Disney princess is your fantasy and you watch and love the movies for wish fulfillment that’s fine. Just don’t ignore the dangerous patterns the movies have made. Women don’t deserve violence just for being women. I’m glad they’re moving away from the abused princess archetype and I hope they continue on making female centered films. Who knows, maybe they’ll even make a film when we see the princesses dealing with the aftermath of their abuse. One of the most recent Disney Pixar films, Coco, was great. It tackled the connection between a great grandmother and her grandson. A connection we barely ever see on TV or in film. I’m happy with the way Disney is changing, but wary for their live action princess films, which seem to be less empowering than the already questionable originals.
21 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.