Disney has existed for nearly a hundred years, but a lot has changed since Disney’s very first film, “Snow White”, made in 1937. Since then, Disney has made dozens of movies, and there’s been a gradual change in how they portray women.
Typically, in Disney movies, the male protagonists would be the more dominant, heroic characters. They would be stronger and braver and more independent than the female characters. On the other hand, Disney portrays women as weak, fragile and passive—the stereotypical damsel in distress.
For example, in “Snow White”, after she ate the poison apple, she could only be saved from the kiss of a “handsome prince”. Also, in “The Lion King”, when Simba’s father died, all the lionesses were dependent on Simba to take over the kingdom. The female lions were shown as very weak, useless and dependent on the males.
“I think that a lot of times Disney movies portray girls as waiting for the man to save them,” says Sophie Moore, Vista del Lago’s Feminist Club’s president. Not only did Disney portray girls as weak and helpless, but they also created unrealistic and false beauty standards to the point girls think they aren’t pretty unless they look like a Disney princess.
Snow White was given her name because of her fair skin tone, and in the movie it makes it seem like a girl is only attractive if she has fair skin. For example, the queen always asked the magic mirror, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” When the mirror said Snow White, the queen was upset that Snow White was “prettier” than her, as if people can only be pretty if they have fair skin.
This trend of pale skin kept going until 1992 when “Aladdin” was released with the first non-white princess. Princess Jasmine has a tan skin tone but is still portrayed as beautiful. When Aladdin is talking to Genie about Jasmine, he says she is “smart and fun” and “beautiful.”
This was also around the time when they started including diversity in their movies. Three years later, “Pocahontas” was released and is the first female heroine who is Native American.
In the late 1900s, a different shift happened in Disney movies with “The Little Mermaid”. According to Disney Wiki, she was the first princess to show any emotion and facial expressions. Before her, all the princesses looked and acted like porcelain dolls with little emotion, facial expressions or movements other than the basic happy, sad, angry or scared. Disney Wiki describes Snow White, the very first Disney princess, as “gentle”, “polite”, and “sweet” while Ariel is described as “free-spirited, confident, [and] curious.”
They started creating stronger protagonists and personalities. Ariel saved the prince from having to get married to the other girl. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle was the first Disney princess to be recognized for her intelligence and unique personality because the then Disney C, Jeffrey Katzenberg, wanted to add a “feminist twist” to it and did not want “another insipid princess.” Then, a year later “Aladdin” came out where Jasmine was not only the first non-white princess, but also the first princess who didn’t wear a dress. She is described as “feisty”, “rebellious” and “sassy”. Then in 1998, Disney’s “Mulan” brought a legendary Chinese warrior to life, showing a woman dressed as a man to save an entire nation.
Some newer Disney princesses are Merida from “Brave” and Anna from “Frozen”. Merida is an outlier from all the other Disney princess but also a symbol of feminism and women empowerment. She is the first Scottish princess, the first tomboy princess, the first princess to be recognized for her talent and personality and not beauty, and the first princess without a love interest. Unlike all the other princesses, she wears no makeup and has unkempt hair. Just as remarkable, “Frozen” was the first Disney movie where a female saved another female and the males didn’t have any heroic roles.
However, an overwhelming majority of the princesses have perfectly skinny bodies to the point where it’s unrealistic. “It makes the way they look unrealistic. Most of them are white; it sucks because it makes people self-conscious,” said freshman Sophie Moore.
Young girls who have grown up watching Disney movies might feel as if that’s how they are supposed to look; like they aren’t beautiful unless they look like an unrealistic Disney princess. And with all the merchandise and the model-like girls they hire to be a princess at Disneyland or Disney World, they are being bombarded with images of Disney princesses everywhere. This gives girls a limited perception of what’s beautiful. It wasn’t until 2016 when “Moana” came out where they had the first non-slender or tall princess. Moana is short and has muscular build.
As feminism becomes more popular in western countries, Hollywood is trying to keep up by making females more dominant and capable. “[Sexism is] going away in superhero movies and they are doing equally as well,” said Moore. “Women are highly sexualized [and] wear revealing and tight-fitting outfits for the male audience.”
Clearly, there is still more room for improvement. In many movies and TV shows, women are still less dominant than men and are predominantly white women. It is evident that a change is trying to be made, but there’s still a long way to go.