Disney’s Distressing Damsels

By Imogen Hunt

As a child of the 90s, I am lucky enough to have grown up in what’s sometimes referred to as the golden age of Disney films. Mulan, Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid, provided me with an education in romance, betrayal, justice but above all things beauty. How I longed to be a princess just like them, with beautiful long hair, big eyes and a perfect musical number to fit every mood. I still know every song from those films, every outfit my favourite characters wear and have always longed for my own ballgown so that I could truly be a princess. Clearly I am not alone in this, Alfred  Angelo designed a range of Disney inspired bridal gowns, launched in 2010, and are still producing gowns for this product range. A wonderful thing to be sure, but where does this love of princesses become damaging? Surely it’s fine for children and young women to dream of princesses? I would firmly argue yes, everyone deserves to have dreams even if they are a bit pie in the sky. What I do disagree with, however, is how Disney presents its ideal image of beauty, particularly to the generation of children that are watching their films and buying their merchandise now.

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With its recent release of Frozen, Disney had been heavily criticised on social media platforms for the way that women in the film are presented. With skinny bodies, rather large heads and disproportionately doll like eyes, these new characters are not just presenting a largely unattainable ideal of beauty but a downright impossibility. Even newspapers such as the Daily Mail have noticed that Anna (one of the female protagonists) has eyes that are actually larger than the width of her wrists.

In earlier Disney films, yes, the female characters were beautiful but they were also realistically drawn in accordance with the idealised form of beauty at the time. In Sleeping Beauty, you can clearly see her hour glass figure, and whilst her prince is slightly taller and broader than her, she looks to be an idealised version of a 1950s female shape. Perhaps this is a product of the use of live models as reference points for the animators, a practice which with advances in technology is no longer necessary. In recent Disney films, however, female characters are simply no longer representations of ideal beauty but are completely unattainable. Rapunzel’s waifish, child-like figure could perhaps be passable for a real woman, as after all we must recognise that all women are different and are perhaps this represents the current ideal of beauty. What, however, is incredibly unbelievable, is Rapunzel’s size in comparison with Flynn Rider, her love interest, something that is also seen with Anna and Hans in Frozen. Whilst Flynn Rider is not quite one of the hulking beasts that frequent the Snuggly Duckling ,he is still much larger than Rapunzel, perhaps reflecting the ideal that a woman should be dainty and petite and in need of the protection of the big strong man/prince/beast.

In this post, on the theme of age and beauty, I should also probably touch upon the importance of age, particularly to female characters within the Disney world. Often reflecting earlier fairy tale stories, many of the older women within Disney films are evil maternal figures, driven by jealousy, usually of their beautiful, humble step-children. One classic example of this is the evil queen in Snow White, a nameless woman, yet she provides the most memorable moment of the entire film, beseeching her mirror to tell her “who is the fairest of them all”. The lengths the Queen is willing to go to in order to preserve her status as the most beautiful shows both her shallow attitude and her vanity but also reveals a sad poignant truth, the older beauty must make way for younger beauty, unless of course you find you a willing huntsman to rid you of the problem. Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s kidnapper and maternal figure also fills this role, coveting her own youth and beauty, she is willing to resort to the kidnap of a magical baby and raise her as her own in order to maintain her youth and retain her beauty. She is also seen primping and preening herself and at one point even refers to Rapunzel as “chubby”, further characterising her as the villain. However, surely it is unfair to completely villainise these characters that go to great lengths to be seen as beautiful, as clearly they feel themselves outside of societies accepted ideal, one which their respective princess seems to fill completely. In addition, other characters such as Ursula, Maleficent all seem to fit this pattern of older women that are jealous and often presented as less stereotypically beautiful than their victims.

The attitudes that Disney presents towards beauty, whilst only a small part of a greater cultural issue, seem to perfectly sum up how beauty is propagated in society. The princess character has always been idealised version of reality but in recent films this has further progressed to become completely unrealistic. Tiny women compared to their love interests, these new female protagonists seem only to serve as a demonstration of an outdated system of values where the handsome strong man must protect the little woman. Whilst this may seem like an incredibly small detail to pick up on, it must be considered that Disney has been accused of being nonrepresentational and outdated in many instances, particularly due to the stereotypical narratives it affords to its non-white characters, such as Mulan and Pocahontas, and it’s almost tokenistic attitude towards such characters as part of the princess franchise.

Whilst I could never turn my back on the films that seem to define my childhood, I feel that, as a legitimate grown up, these films surely must have influenced the way that I view beauty. Although they are certainly part of a larger cultural issue, where unrealistic representations of beauty are seen on a daily basis, Disney should recognise its responsibility to its viewers and recognise its influence upon young children, and show them that beauty is much more than simply having the straightest hair and the biggest eyes.

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3 thoughts on “Disney’s Distressing Damsels

  1. It is very interesting how the style of the Disney princesses has changed over the years. They seem to have changed in line with the current fashion for looks in dolls – these days, dolls seem to have huge heads and massive eyes. I can only hope that, as a result, little girls view these characters as a complete fiction and not something to aspire to.

    It’s a different story when it comes to aspects other than the way the ‘princess’ looks though. Like you say, having the male characters so much larger than the female ones could have a subconscious effect on kids. In addition, the treatment of older female characters has always been poor. Disney used to have the excuse that it was working to ancient fairy tales but they’ve always made changes to them, and… don’t they write their own stories these days?

  2. Where does this big head big eye thing icome from anyway? Can it really just be a ploy that makes it easier for companies to create dolls and more merchandise? I remember my Sindy dolls having a 1950’s body shape but still massive eyes and massive heads! I am deeply cynical about all of this and strongly believe that corps like Disney and doll manfacturers couldn’t give a stuff about the mental well being and body image of young girls; if false beauty images sell then exploitation of young minds and the harvesting of fertile self esteems are fair game – its all about the money!

  3. I totally agree @lipsticklori, but I think the huge number of YouTube hair and makeup tutorials showing how to get Rapunzel’s or Elsa’s look (and not just for costumes, but in a normalised fashion) show that there are young women who certainly do look at disney characters as aspirational.
    As far as I’m aware, they are still using the old folklore/ legend/ historical angle to justify their characterisation of certain princesses. For instance, Mulan is still marketed in full geisha costume, despite the fact that in the film narrative, Mulan rejects this in favour of going to war dressed as a man.
    I also think that toy companies have a huge amount of (rather unchecked) influence over children, and again, I’m picking on tiny details, but the wedding Rapunzel doll sold in the Disney Store, has long blonde hair, even though by this point in the film narrative, Rapunzel’s hair is short and brown. Are Disney telling children subconsciously that it isn’t desirable to have short brown hair, even though it signifies Rapunzel’s freedom in the film?
    Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but again I feel that this is part of a much wider issue affecting young children, partly because of the media they are exposed to, but also due to the clothes and toys that are bought for them, I could write about this forever!
    Imogen

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