At some point in her life, every little girl dreams of being a princess. Over the last century, the Disney corporation has built a multibillion-dollar empire by successfully repackaging established European princess fairytales and selling them to young audiences. The conglomerate owns an estimated 40 percent of the US media industry, and the Disney princess franchise alone has brought in an estimated 46 billion dollars in profit since its inception in 2000 (Nembhard, 2018; Guttmann, 2021).
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This number directly results from Disney conducting massive studies into child psychology, marketing, and advertising to effectively influence malleable childhood minds to turn them into perfect consumers (Binkley, 2016). Children construct their conception of the world by observing it, and their primary informational input nowadays is media entertainment. It has become the most ubiquitous educator of our times and teaches children “how to feel, think, belong, aspire, and be” (Binkley, 2016). While there have been no studies measuring the precise impact of Disney on young minds, their media power and profitability are a testament to their social influence. Recent studies show that in conjunction with promoting positive prosocial behaviors, Disney princess narratives also result in gender stereotyping, distorted body image, and unrealistic romantic ideals.
Disney Belief System
Disney movies are remembered with pleasurable nostalgia and are considered one of the defining elements of childhood. It is commonly accepted that they communicate valuable lessons to young children, such as staying true to oneself and persevering towards one’s goals despite possible obstacles. Disney movies contain strong messages about the importance of family and reward prosocial behavior at a rate seven times higher than other children’s television programming (de Leeuw & van der Laan, 2017). Prosocial behavior is defined in child psychology as voluntary behavior to help others without regard for your own benefit (Coyne et al., 2016).
Studies have shown that generally, children who watch prosocial media content are more likely to engage in positive behavior and attitudes (Coyne et al., 2016). Children in the Netherlands exposed to clips of Disney characters committing altruistic acts were significantly more likely to spontaneously help their friends (de Leeuw & van der Laan, 2017). Two of the three most prosocial Disney movies are about the princesses Mulan and Pocahontas (Coyne et al., 2016). Disney princess narratives have numerous favorable effects, particularly in encouraging prosocial behavior, but their underlying messages about gender performance are a potential cause of concern for young viewers.
Disney princesses present a specific value system that is then internalized by the female audience. Despite recent animations attempting to depict more ethnically diverse “feminist” heroines, the majority of Disney princess stories still follow a common formula.
The main character is typically a virtuous and “innocent” young white girl that is either misunderstood or marginalized by her society. She is trapped in unfavorable circumstances by a malevolent antagonist but ultimately perseveres because of her loyal friends and an optimistic attitude. During her adventure, she, of course, meets her “one true love,” and after the movie’s denouement, they live “happily ever after.” She attains a higher social status by becoming a princess either through marriage or through the discovery of long-lost royal parents. There is a lesson in these storylines that female viewers learn to believe in: girlish innocence and courage is rewarded by romantic love and upward class mobility.
Firstly, Disney princess storylines are dominated by very traditional representations of femininity. The princesses are demure, virtuous, and nurturing. Snow White does domestic chores for the dwarves; Belle’s gentleness and devotion literally transforms a beast back into a man. Their existential arcs mostly consist in being a damsel-in-distress saved by the brave male who is moved by their selflessness. They present self-sacrifice as the greatest female virtue rewarded by nuptial bliss and ultimately promotes female subordination to the male (Streiff & Dundes, 2017). Even if heroines seemingly prioritize self-fulfillment, they are forced to give up their romance interests and are thus operating under the gender-stereotypical assumption that women cannot have both (Streiff & Dundes, 2017).
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According to recent studies, girls that engage with Disney princess media display stricter adherence to gender-stereotypical behavior and avoid tasks that are perceived as masculine (Coyle et al., 2017). Furthermore, adult women who identified themselves as “princesses” expect to be responsible for the bulk of domestic chores, give up on tasks more easily, and place greater value on appearances (Coyne et al., 2016). Young female viewers’ identification with princesses in Disney movies results in more traditional gender performances and expectations, even into adulthood.
Distorted Beauty Standards
Secondly, Disney princesses are instantly identifiable by their drawing style, which has often been blamed for promoting an unhealthy body image and Eurocentric beauty standards. They typically have large eyes, a button nose, prominent cheekbones, and inhumanly small arms and waists. Even princesses that are meant to represent different ethnicities have whitewashed skin tones and features. Goodness and appropriate femininity become associated with European features and thinness, while the villains are usually older and heavy-set with large noses. Disney princesses constitute some of the viewers’ earliest exposure to the media idealization of thinness and Eurocentric beauty standards (Coyne et al., 2016).
This ideal is then internalized and results in girls as young as five years old expressing fears of gaining weight and developing eating disorders (Coyne et al., 2016). Disney’s promotion of unrealistic figures has been linked to teaching girls that beauty is a necessary facet of female identity since it communicates delicacy and goodness (Coyne et al., 2016). Perhaps it is not a coincidence that most popular Instagram filters enlarge the eyes and shrink the nose; modern beauty standards promote a literal “Disneyfication” of normal human features.
Unrealistic Romantic Ideals
Thirdly, love stories for Disney princesses follow a specific heteronormative formula that is absorbed by impressionable viewers. In all movies, the man pursues the princess until they fall in love and live happily ever after (Hefner et al., 2017). Love is presented as an instantaneous, destined connection between two soulmates that enables them to overcome all difficulties. Romantic fulfillment becomes the ultimate prize for satisfyingly fulfilling the female virtues of self-sacrifice and devotion. Marriage is also usually accompanied by a significant change in economic circumstances; even if the heroine was originally a simple village girl, she is the owner of a castle by the end of the movie. Upward class mobility is attained through marriage rather than individual efforts, which is an important facet of every Disney fairytale.
The majority of adult women that identified as “princesses” have also been shown to prefer being stay-at-home housewives rather than work (Coyne et al., 2016). While there have been no conclusive studies on this, Disney princesses could lead to unrealistic expectations of instant romantic connections that will relieve girls of the burden of economic self-sufficiency.
In conclusion, Disney princesses teach their viewers that girls must be thin, beautiful, submissive, and nurturing so that one day they will meet their soulmate and be rewarded with a marriage that elevates their socioeconomic status. As a result, women that identified as avid Disney fans in childhood have beliefs that closely correspond to traditional notions of femininity and prefer not to work or engage in traditionally masculine tasks. Of course, studies can only prove a correlational relationship, not a causal one. It is impossible to determine whether Disney princesses created these beliefs or these women gravitated towards them because of already existing biases formed by the larger cultural landscape.
Regardless of whether the Disney conglomerate is creating an issue or simply reflecting it, the power and subsequent social responsibility it possesses is undeniable. They control most narratives presented in our media, particularly for young children who are just starting to form their worldview. Children imitate the behavior they observe on screen, and in some regards Disney has had positive effects by inculcating the importance of prosocial behavior and positive attitudes.
However, their creators need to carefully reassess all the messages they are spreading because the current value system also subliminally promotes unhealthy attitudes and expectations around gender performance, beauty standards, and romance. The company obtained enormous market power because it knew how to exploit consumer desires; now is Disney’s time to mold them in a way that will improve our society.
Binkley, M. (2016). An argument on Disney and psychological development. URJ-UCCS: Undergraduate Research Journal at UCCS, 10(1), 11-18. Web.
Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a princess: Longitudinal effects of engagement with Disney princesses on gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behavior in children. Child Development, 87(6), 1909-1925. Web.
Da Silva, S. G., & Tehrani, J. J. (2016). Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales. Royal Society Open Science, 3(1). Web.
de Leeuw, R. N., & van der Laan, C. A. (2018). Helping behavior in Disney animated movies and children’s helping behavior in the Netherlands. Journal of Children and Media, 12(2), 159-174.
Guttmann, A. (2021). Revenue of selected media franchises worldwide as of August 2021. Statista. Web.
Hefner, V., Firchau, R. J., Norton, K., & Shevel, G. (2017). Happily ever after? A content analysis of romantic ideals in Disney princess films. Communication Studies, 68(5), 511-532. Web.
Nembhard, C. (2018). This infographic shows the terrifying size of Disney’s media empire. Highsnobiety. Web.
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Streiff, M., & Dundes, L. (2017). Frozen in time: How Disney gender-stereotypes its most powerful princess. Social Sciences, 6(2). Web.