Princesses are popular and inescapable in American culture, causing the princess image to deeply influence the emotional development and attitudes of little girls. In 2010, a University of Central Florida study analyzed preschool girls who “played princess” and discovered that most girls embrace the persona of various princess figures.[i] The advent of the girlie-girl culture began with Disney’s 1990s line of princess movies: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998). The American Psychological Association directly linked the princess culture’s emphasis on beauty and princesses to later depression, eating disorders, and distorted body images in teenage girls.[ii] Thus, Disney Princesses have dramatically changed the culture of American girls since the 1990s.
An overview of each movie is required to understand the context for the rise in princess culture. In The Little Mermaid, Princess Ariel is fascinated by the human world so she makes a deal with a sea witch, trading her voice in return for the ability to walk on land. Without her voice, she must use her beauty to win the prince’s favor.[iii] In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is a provincial girl who dreams of having a grand adventure. When her father is captured by a hideous beast, Belle bravely offers her own freedom for the release of her father. When Belle and the Beast become friends, Belle sets out to change him. When the Beast lies dying, Belle breaks the magic spell by confessing her love for him.[iv] In Aladdin, Arabic princess Jasmine desires independence from her restricting father so she runs away with Aladdin, a street thief disguised as a prince. After defeating the story’s villain, Jasmine persuades her father to let her marry Aladdin, despite his lack of royal heritage.[v] In Pocahontas, the Native-American princess displays a noble, free spirit. Pocahontas defies her father to save John Smith, but in the end, chooses to stay with her people when Smith returns to England.[vi] In Mulan, a common Chinese girl runs away from home to take her father’s place in the army. She is beautiful but clumsy, outspoken, and independent. She falls in love with her military general who marries her after she saves the emperor of China.[vii]
In 1999, Disney launched its official Disney Princess line, grouping the princesses together on over 40,000 products.[viii] Former Nike executive Andy Mooney championed the new campaign after watching little girls ice-skate in homemade princess costumes because he saw the potential for defining the meaning of “being a princess.”[ix] Disney advertising campaigned to encourage little girls to personally identify with the Disney Princesses so they would purchase the new princess products. With the advent of the Disney Princess line, Disney’s marketing sales rose from $300 million to $4 billion from 2001 to 2008.[x]
Today, the newest product on the Disney marketing line are custom princess dolls which further the rise of a princess culture. For a large fee, a little girl can have her entire face scanned so that her face can be put on the head of her favorite princess doll. These custom dolls have begun another battle in the “Princess Wars,” and one irate blogger asked the question, “Why push girls into emulating princesses by literally putting their faces onto theirs?” Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that many teenagers and college students protest the age limit for having a doll made, such as one twenty-two-year-old claimed that she was still a five-year-old princess at heart. Josh Goslin, associate director for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, protested the new dolls by saying, “I have some real concerns about the body image. When you personalize by putting a girl’s face on it, that sends a real damaging message about what she should aspire to look like.”[xi]
By the end of the 1990s, parents reacted against the new Disney Princesses because they realized princesses were changing American culture. Parents reject the princess culture because Disney tells little girls that the only thing that matters in life is being beautiful so they can catch their Prince Charming and live happily ever after. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, grew concerned as she watched her daughter enter the princess phase at age three, so Orenstein researched the princess culture to help other parents of princess-minded daughters. Her research proved that the more girls were exposed to mainstream princess culture, the more concerned they became with beauty and self-image. Orenstein found that “forty-eight percent of girls in grades three to twelve in 2000 asserted that the most popular girls in school were ‘very thin’; by 2006 the number rose to sixty percent.”[xii] Another concerned parent, Dina Goldstein created a series of photographs called “Fallen Princesses,” and the photographs depict where each princess ended up in life: Cinderella drowned her sorrows in a bar and Snow White had a lazy husband and four screaming children.[xiii]
Parental fears are not unfounded, because the Disney Princesses continue to impact girls into the teenage and collage years. In 2006, Alex Kuczynski’s book, Beauty Junkies, analyzed the coincidence between the $15 billion dollar increase in cosmetic surgery and the rise of the Disney Princess market; in one decade, America saw a fivefold increase in cosmetic procedures.[xiv] In 2008 alone over “forty-three thousand children under the age of eighteen surgically altered their appearance.”[xv] In 2009, Twenge and Campbell, social psychologists, studied hundreds of American college students who grew up in the princess culture. Their study showed that young women were four times more likely to develop narcissistic traits than young men. Disney took advantage of this new study and started producing a line of princess-inspired prom dresses and bridal gowns for the new college-aged “diva princesses.”[xvi]
On one hand, parents opposed the 1990s Disney Princesses for various reasons. First of all, the new princesses attracted male adult audiences to what used to be considered children’s movies. Secondly, four of the new princesses rebelled against parental authority and traditional female roles: Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Ariel challenges the traditional gender role by being independent and assertive. When Ariel runs away from home after being tyrannized by her father, it is her father who repents and begs Ariel’s forgiveness, thus undermining the view of parental authority. Jasmine also defies her father to be with Aladdin, and in the end of the movie, her father seems to learn more from his daughter than she from him. Pocahontas also defied her father to save John Smith. Mulan broke the princess stereotype by disguising herself as a man and fighting to save her nation, but the movie still denounced traditional values by portraying most men, including the prince, as stupid, ignorant buffoons. However, Mulan does not appear in the princess products dressed in her warfare garments, but in her ceremonial gown, the very feminine gown she rebelled against. Thirdly, three of the princesses—Ariel, Jasmine, and Pocahontas—wear immodest clothing. Roy Disney admitted that Disney designed Pocahontas to be “the most ‘incredibly beautiful and sexy female cartoon’ in the company’s history,” and the Indian princess was drawn with the aid of posing supermodels.[xvii] Only Belle seems to have redeeming qualities as a gentle, brave female, but even her story claims that “the right woman can turn a beast into a prince.”[xviii] In the end, Disney cannot stop portraying the ultra-feminine model it created.
On the other hand, some parents endorsed Disney Princesses in the 1990s. Supporters view the princesses as good role models because they are even-tempered, kind, and resourceful. Parents love Belle because she reads books, cares for her ailing father, and sees beyond appearances to the truth hidden within the Beast. Pocahontas advocates for the environment and genuinely cares for her people, and she is also a natural-born leader who crosses cultural barriers to embrace a new destiny.[xix] Mulan is courageous and fights for what she believes in. Most parents do not see princess culture as a threat because a recent study proved that most princess fantasies fade for girls by the first grade.[xx]
Since the 1990s, Disney Princesses have changed the culture of American girls by capitalizing on make-believe. Because Disney Princesses have such a huge impact on young girls, parents should be discerning about which princess movies they allow their girls to watch, and parents should point out the good and bad character traits each movie has. Parents should also maintain a balance between the princess culture and educational materials that promote scientific discovery, exploration, and problem solving.[xxi] Orenstein aptly concluded her book by saying, “Our role is not to keep the world out but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it.”[xxii] Princess culture is pervasive and cannot be avoided. But above all, parents must remember that when most little girls play princess, they are doing just that—playing. Parents can help their daughters navigate through the princess culture by teaching them about true love and real life so that each little girl can hopefully some day find her own happily-ever-after.
– Hannah S. Bowers
[i]Allyson Jule, “Princesses in the Classroom: Young Children Learning to be Human in a Gendered World,” Canadian Children 36, no. 2:33-35, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2013).
[ii]Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011), 6.
[iii]The Little Mermaid, DVD, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1989).
[iv]Beauty and the Beast, DVD, Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1991).
[v]Aladdin, DVD, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1992).
[vi]Pocahontas, DVD, Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1995).
[vii]Mulan, DVD, Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1998).
[viii]Schuyler Velasco, “New battle in ‘Princess Wars’: Disney dolls featuring … your daughter’s face,” Christian Science Monitor, August 10, 2012, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2013).
[x]Dawn England, Lara Descartes, and Melissa Collier-Meek, 2011, “Gender Role Portrayal And the Disney Princesses,” Sex Roles 64, no. 7/8:555-567, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed January 30, 2013).
[xii]Orenstein, 16, 206.
[xiii]Apostolos Mitsios. “The Fallen Princesses of Dina Goldstein.” Yatzer, September 18, 2009. http://www.yatzer..com/The-fallen-Princesses-of-Dina-Goldstein (accessed February 26, 2013).
[xiv]Soraya Chemaly, “Disney Princess Recovery Program: Not Just for Kids,” Huffington Post, December 30, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/disney-princess_b_1167422.html (accessed January 30, 2013).
[xvii]Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer, Disney: The Mouse Betrayed – Greed, Corruption and Children at Risk, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1998), 145-146.
[xix]Kristen McManus, “The World According to Disney Princesses,” The Next Great Generation, January 26, 2011, http://www.thenextgreatgeneration.com/2011/01/the-world-according-to-disney-princesses/ (accessed January 30, 2013).
[xxi]Jenna Goudreau, “7 Ways You’re Hurting Your Daughter’s Future,” Forbes, June 28, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2012/06/28/7-ways-youre-hurting-your-daughters-future (accessed January 30, 2013).