The first wave of American feminism is marked by amazing accomplishments. While this wave officially began with the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 and ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the after-effects of this movement could still be felt well into the 1950s. In this first century of feminist activism, women earned the right to vote, became the first generation of women to attend college, and especially after the advent of WWII, began entering the workforce in droves. Ironically, between the 1930s and 1950s, the Walt Disney Company chose to market a series of princess films to the children and grandchildren of these politically active and groundbreaking women, whose sole purpose seemed to be the objectification of girls and women and the glorification of the feminine virtues of domesticity and passivity. Simone de Beauvoir was the first feminist critic to acknowledge this dichotomy between real women and those presented in “song and story” (291). In oft-quoted passage from The Second Sex, de Beauvoir explains, “Woman is the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, she who receives and submits…She learns that to be happy she must be loved; to be loved she must await love's coming” (291). This is especially true for Disney’s first generation of princesses. Undoing the work done by their foremothers, Disney’s Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty submit to abuse and the patriarchal control of domesticity in an effort to find happiness through love.
As the first full-length animated Disney film, Snow White sets the precedent for later princess films. In what will become a common motif in Disney’s animated movies, the film begins by constructing an oppositional binary between the older, assertive, “evil” Queen and younger, passive, pretty princess. As critic Dorothy L. Hurley notes in “Seeing White: Children of Color and the Disney Fairy Tale Princess,” one way Disney works to construct this opposition is through the use of a “binary color system” that equates “‘white’ with goodness…[and] equates black with evil” (223). When we first met the Evil Queen, she is inside the castle, shrouded in darkness and wearing a dark cloak.
By contrast, Snow White first appears in the light of day, surrounded by white doves; she is soon joined by a white Prince riding a white horse. With the use of this binary color system, Disney encourages viewers to identify with the good, white heroine and to associate the dark Queen with “evil or danger” (Hurley 224).
The glorification of domesticity is a theme that replays itself again in Disney’s Cinderella; like Snow White, Cinderella cooks and cleans, sews and serves, always with song and a smile. But more worrisome than Cinderella’s love of the domestic is the young woman’s utter passivity. She never questions authority, never disobeys an order and never fights back. The most disturbing scene of this Disney film comes as Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters are leaving to attend the ball. Cinderella runs down the stairs, in a dress made for her by the mice, and is immediately and viciously attacked by her step-sisters. Cinderella stands passively, crying, while Drusilla and Anastasia tear her gown to shreds. What is important to note here is that Cinderella doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t defend herself, she doesn’t tell her abusers to stop; indeed, she doesn’t even try run away before her dress is destroyed. This one scene exemplifies a pattern of passive behavior on the part of Disney princesses like Cinderella. And as Alexandria Robbins notes, in Disney fairy tales, a young woman’s acceptance of abuse is often “rewarded with a patriarchal prize—a man” (107). Like many Disney princesses, Cinderella’s life only exists within the patriarchal home—first her father’s house, then her husband’s. With her marriage to the prince, Cinderella may be rescued from a life of abuse, but in exchange, her life is forever restricted to the domestic sphere.
Disney’s deconstruction of first wave feminist ideals comes to head in their classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Like Snow White and Cinderella, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty glorifies female passivity and domesticity, but this fairy tale is perhaps the most insidious in its objectification of women. It is true that both Snow White and Cinderella are objectified; it could be argued that their beauty drives the plot of their respective tales. The Evil Queen threatens to kill Snow White because she has taken the older woman’s title as “the fairest in the land.” And it is Cinderella’s beauty that makes her the object of violence; her step-sisters tear her dress because they fear that, were she to attend the ball, her beauty would capture the Prince’s attention. But both Cinderella and Snow White are awake during the more climatic moments of their stories. Unlike these earlier princesses, Sleeping Beauty sleeps through much of her movie. The film’s title alone implies that her most import quality is her beauty. As Maria Tatar argues, in her article “Show and Tell: Sleeping Beauty as Verbal Icon and Seductive Story,” “The very name Sleeping Beauty invokes a double movement between a passive gerund (sleeping) and a descriptive noun (beauty) that invites a retinal response. Beauty may be sleeping, but we want to look at her to indulge in the pleasures of her visible charms” (143). Unfortunately for the sleeping beauty, “her visible charms” are all she has to offer. Having pricked her finger on a spinning wheel, she is cursed by Disney filmmakers to spend the rest of the film in bed. While she slumbers, Prince Phillip usurps her role as the tale’s protagonist. It is he who battles the evil queen, Maleficent, who has taken control of the castle. When she takes the form of a dragon, it is he who kills her with a sword to the heart. And it is he who saves the day when he awakens the princess, and the entire kingdom, but administering “true love’s kiss.” By allowing Prince Phillip to take on the active roles in the film, and by giving Princess Aurora (also called Briar Rose) the title of “Sleeping Beauty,” Disney filmmakers reduce the female character to a passive object.