Sunday, September 21, 2014

Synthesizing Disney: A Feminist Analysis of the Evolution of the Disney Princess

I am teaching my first Disney-themed course this semester, which means I spent much of my summer researching and reading books, as well as popular and scholarly articles on Disney films, products and theme parks. While the theme of the course is Disney, this topic is simply the medium through which I am attempting to teach college-level writing skills to students who might otherwise be resistant; each week, my students use one or more Disney related articles to practice skills like summarizing, quoting, rhetorical analysis, and most recently, synthesis. To help my students understand the complex process of combing multiple ideas in an effort to create one, cohesive argument, I decided to create a sample synthesis. What started as a "simple, easy-to-follow example" quickly got away from me, however, and I ended up creating what could be the start of a new and interesting research project. What follows is a half-day's reflection on Disney, feminism and the roles each play in our developing American society:

In her article, “The Disney Princess Effect,” author Stephanie Hines quotes a Disney Corporate Executive who argues, “For 75 years, millions of little girls and their parents around the world have adored and embraced the diverse characters and rich stories featuring our Disney princesses.... [L]ittle girls experience the fantasy and imagination provided by these stories as a normal part of their childhood development” (para. 9). In other words, Disney has been educating girls for the better part of a century, teaching them what it means to be “normal” as they develop from girls into women. While Disney clearly views their effect on girls and the institution of American girlhood in general as overwhelmingly positive, many authors have criticized the underlying messages provided by “stories featuring …Disney Princesses.” Alexandria Robbins, author of “The Fairy-tale Fa├žade,” claims that Disney princesses like Cinderella encourage passivity in girls and women. Other authors, however, are noticing a positive change in the representation of girls and women in Disney films. In “On Disney, Daughters and Dads,” author Michael Corso concedes that, while early Disney princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are “utterly passive” (para. 3), the next generation of Disney princesses, Jasmine from Aladdin, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and Ariel from The Little Mermaid, provide girls with more active, adventurous role models. Even more promising, says Laura Sells, author of “Where do the Mermaids Stand?,”are the covert, feminist messages present in many Disney films; she argues that films like Disney’s The Little Mermaid encourage women to reclaim the voices they sacrificed during the era of Second Wave feminism, when women first began entering the predominately white, male workforce. The collective voices of these critics make it clear that there has been a shift in the way Disney represents girls and women. 

While it’s true that Disney often misses the mark, each new generation of Disney princesses appears to be stronger and more powerful than the last. More interesting, however, is that each of these marked shifts in the representation of women in Disney films seems to follow a wave of feminist activity in America. Disney’s Snow White (1939), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were released in the generations between First and Second Wave Feminism; Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) appeared in the generation following the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 70s; and most recently, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013) have appeared in the wake of the Third Wave Feminism of the New Millenium. Each successive generation of Disney princesses reflects the advancement of women in American society, but each film falls short of being truly feminist.  While the films of the 1980s and beyond show a marked improvement in the representation of girls and women, each film relies heavily on traditional stereotypical beliefs about gender roles and modern-day cultural assumptions about female beauty to achieve its “happily ever after” fairytale ending; in this way, Disney films act as cultural representations of the positive effect feminism has had on women in American society and the violent cultural backlash that often follows it.