Most teens or young adults are aware of Disney, and many of us grew up watching Disney films and television shows. Whether you are more familiar with their live action films, such as High School Musical, animated films like The Lion King, or television programs, such as Hannah Montana, Disney found a way to become ingrained in our society and shape the entertainment industry into what it is today. In 1937, Walt Disney Productions released Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, which is about a young princess named Snow White. Like the majority of the princesses that were created after her, Snow White is thin, in her late teens, white, and at the end of the movie, she is rescued by a wealthy prince. In this article, I will focus on animated Disney films revolving around female protagonists like Snow White and consider the standards and values that these female protagonists project onto their audience, particularly young girls.

The doll company, Barbie, which is another immensely popular franchise directed at young girls, has received a lot of criticism in the past ten years for promoting unrealistic and unsafe body standards. These unrealistic body standards are the same as what the Disney princesses promote; they are all extremely thin, yet also have developed breasts and wide hips. In a study at the University of North Texas,* it was found that girls experienced greater dissatisfaction with their bodies after watching Disney movies with princesses than after watching Disney movies with only animals. This proves that the body standards exhibited in Disney films with princesses have a negative effect on the self-esteem of young girls. Furthermore, the same study concluded that girls as young as six years old have started experiencing dissatisfaction with their bodies.** 

Another issue with Disney princess characters is that they all appear to be older than the intended audience of their films. The age range of the official Disney princesses is 14-19, with the youngest being Snow White and the oldest being Tiana and Cinderella.*** By contrast, these films are targeted at children between 5 and 10. It is therefore difficult for the audience to relate to or see these characters as attainable role models. In addition, many of these princesses get married at the end of the film and all have a love interest, in some cases even two. This puts pressure on the children watching these films to engage in relationships and pursue love, even though they are much younger than the characters. In essence, this age difference skews reality for children and encourages them to act more like adults, even at the age of five, which shouldn’t necessarily be the message that we are promoting to our children. 

With the exception of Brave, in Disney princess films, the female protagonist ends up with a handsome prince, who usually saves her life at some point during the film. This narrative is also toxic to the young girls and boys who are watching these films. The act of the prince saving the princess perpetuates the stereotype that women need men to save them and are incapable of fighting their own battles. For example, in both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, Aurora and Snow White are endangered by evil witches and must be saved by their respective princes. This Disney trope also has a toxic effect on young boys, as it projects a hypermasculine stereotype onto them. The prince’s sole role in these Disney films is to save the princess in a strong and masculine way, for the majority of the princes do not see any character development or show any sign of emotion. Thus, the narrative of the female protagonist being saved by the prince exhibits stereotypical gender roles that do not encourage girls to fight their own battles or boys to show emotion. 

The final issue that I have with Disney princess films is their general lack of diversity. There are indeed some princesses of different cultures included in the Disney universe; however, the few of them that do exist have either been severely westernized or, in the case of princess Tiana, portrayed as a frog. For example, Jasmine, in the film Aladdin, was notably the first Disney princess of colour, making her debut in 1992; although this was a major breakthrough in popular culture there are many problems with how Disney handled the creation of a princess of colour. Jasmine’s cultural background is never actually specified. The film is set in the Middle East, yet the main characters have lighter skin and American accents, while only the villains and side characters speak Arabic, which is portrayed as gibberish in the film, and have darker skin. In creating a Middle Eastern princess, Disney perpetuated inaccurate Middle Eastern tropes as well as stereotypes that people of colour are less “civilized” than people in predominantly white countries. 

Princess Tiana, on the other hand, from the film The Princess and the Frog, is the franchise’s only black princess, yet she is also one of the only princesses to come from a lower-income family. Tiana’s mother is a seamstress for the wealthiest family in New Orleans, which happens to be a white family. By writing the first black princess to be poor and a workaholic, Disney is feeding into the stereotype that people of colour in America can’t be wealthy and are always catering to the needs of wealthy white people. Furthermore, when I first saw The Princess and the Frog, I was excited to see the first black princess on screen, yet most of her screen time was spent as a frog. This was very disappointing, as Disney was able to market Tiana and the film as a first in their company’s franchise, but the film mostly focuses on the two main characters when they are animals and barely even shows Tiana as a black woman. 

Disney films continue to be a staple in entertainment for children; however, it is important for us to remember that these films create unattainable body norms for young girls, perpetuate gender stereotypes, are not racially inclusive, and encourage children to act older than their age. I’m not necessarily suggesting that we should boycott all Disney films. There are many Disney princess films that I love because I grew up with them, but I believe that these films indirectly promote toxic views, and we should strive to be more conscious of their toxicity. 

In terms of children’s films that I believe promote good values and are less idealized, Studio Ghibli has produced several films which showcase young girls who are around the ages of their audience, such as My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Spirited Away. The protagonists in these films are not wealthy or princesses and in most cases are just average young girls who participate in magical adventures and solve their battles on their own. Unlike Disney princesses, young girls can actually relate to characters like those in Studio Ghibli films. When I was six years old, I wasn’t marrying a prince or being saved, I was going on road trips with my parents and exploring my neighbourhood, and it is mundane activities like these that Studio Ghibli’s films explore and normalize. Hopefully in the future Disney will begin to move away from its stereotypical princess mould, but until then we need to be aware of the effects that the media that we consume has on us.

*Asawarachan, Tanawan. THE DISNEY INFLUENCE ON KINDERGARTEN GIRLS’ BODY IMAGE. The University of North Texas, May 2013.
***Bologna, Caroline. “Can We Talk About How Young The Disney Princesses Are?” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 18 Aug. 2018.




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