In the first of a three-part feature, Jackson Ball looks at the evolving Disney Princess…
It is hard to see how young children could be “prepared” for women’s liberation by reading fairy tales; an analysis of those fairy tales that children actually read indicates instead that they serve to acculturate women to traditional social roles. (Lieberman, M. 1972)
The idea of a character serving to ‘acculturate women to traditional social roles’, is evident in Disney’s first ever animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In many ways, the 1937 film can be seen as the archetypal template for future Disney films, as it features many structural characteristics that transcend much of Disney’s animated catalogue. For example, Snow White tells the adapted story of a ‘princess’ character from a popular folk tale. This trend has occurred no less than ten more times in Disney’s ‘Animated Classic’ canon: Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013).
It is the quintessential ‘princess’ character that so many feminist theorists have written about in the past, particularly the initial model, Snow White herself. Arguably, the character is a fairly one-dimensional one; Snow White is young and beautiful, but appears to have no real motivation in life other than finding a handsome prince, as indicated by her musical number ‘Someday my Prince Will Come’.
Snow White, and her supposed lack of ambition, once again reaffirms the feminist theory of acculturation, as stated by Lieberman. The notion put forward by many feminists is that young girls will see the film as a model for life, wherein beauty takes precedence over personal ambition and all of life’s problems can be solved by finding the right man, or ‘prince’.
“…the film follows the classic ‘sexist’ narrative about the framing of women’s loves through a male discourse. Such male framing drives women to frustration and some women to the point of madness. It also pits women in competition for male approval…“ (Zipes, J. 1995)
Zipes builds on Lieberman’s initial point with the second caveat of women competing against each other as a result of the male discourse. This second point is clearly evident in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, embodied by the character of the Evil Queen. After being told by the Magic Mirror that Snow White is the ‘fairest of them all’, she is driven mad with jealousy and sets out to kill the titular character. Here it is the role of the Magic Mirror that represents the male discourse, assessing the female characters on their beauty and pitting them against each other out of envy. Added to this is the films central male character, the Prince, who is first seen singing to Snow White about her beauty. Not only does this fit the ‘sexist’ narrative, but also the singing only adds to the Evil Queen’s envy.
In terms of social relevance, it can be a fair postulation that the supposedly ‘sexist’ elements of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (and several other early Disney animations) are reflections of the sociological landscape of the time. Obviously in 1937, upon Snow White’s release, the social climate was very different from today. The film predates the radical women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, so the rights and expected gender roles for women were a lot more submissive. With that in mind, it is to be expected that the representations of female characters in that time differ from those of today.
Check back tomorrow for part two…
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