Disney Princesses, de Beauvoir, and Media Depictions of Women

by Maggie Sun

(source: Google images)

(source: Google images)

Like most other girls of my generation, I grew up in the world of Disney princesses. My elementary school days were filled with daydreams of grand, towered castles, lavish gowns, and of course, the expectation of love—or at least a very primitive notion of it. As a child, the life of a princess seemed perfect to me—who wouldn’t want to pass her days singing to birds while waiting in a tower for Prince Charming? I must admit that I’ll always have a soft spot for Disney movies; however, re-watching these films now with some awareness of feminist goals and gender role portrayal shatters my childhood impression of a perfect Disney fantasy world.

Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, expresses that for girls, a significant part of growing up and becoming a woman is the acceptance of her passive, secondary place in society, one geared toward pleasing others. Beauvoir writes:

Thus the passivity that is the essential characteristic of the ‘feminine’ woman is a trait that develops in her from the earliest years… It is in fact a destiny imposed upon her by her teachers and by society… she is taught that to please she must try to please, she must make herself object; she should therefore renounce her autonomy. She is treated like a live doll and is refused liberty

(The Second Sex, 280). The passivity held by women is not a biologically feminine trait, but rather a product of society’s expectations and gender tradition. In fact, the young girl starts out by seeing herself as equal to her male counterparts and has no notion of her inferiority in any way, but through observation and experience she gradually discovers the lesser role she is to assume (de Beauvoir, The Second Sex). As she matures, the young girl is taught to overlook her oppression and to accept that her responsibility to society is to “try to please.” As a female, her ultimate obligation is to others and not to herself.

The idea that passivity equates to pleasantness, as well as the being for others that defines femininity, is well embodied by many of Disney’s heroines, especially the more classic, mid-twentieth century ones. Disney’s princess lineup can be split into three chronological groups. Earlier films, consisting of Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), generally depict a kind but helpless girl who waits, often unconscious, to be rescued by a prince (Wolf). Beauvoir points to the passivity in Disney’s early princesses as the defining characteristic of their femininity. Starting from youth, a girl “learns that to be happy she must be loved; to be loved she must await love’s coming… Woman is the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow-White, she who receives and submits” (de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 291). Disney’s one-dimensional pioneers of the princess tradition practically ask for feminist criticism. Each female lead falls neatly into a predictable formula stating that a princess, the embodiment of feminine perfection, is merely a combination of beauty and pleasant nature in the form of passivity. She has no purpose other than to please a man, and she is rewarded for her obedience through love’s fulfillment.

Disney's first and second waves of princesses. From left to right: Jasmine, Snow White, Mulan, Aurora, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Belle, Ariel (source: Google images)

Disney’s first and second waves of princesses. From left to right: Jasmine, Snow White, Mulan, Aurora, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Belle, Ariel (source: Google images)

Disney’s second and third waves of princesses, born in the wake of expanding women’s rights and progress toward gender equality, are more interesting. In the 1990s, Disney released The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998), whose leads demonstrate greater ambition and independence than their earlier counterparts, even if the majority still embrace the traditional happy ending of marriage (Wolf). The new millennium’s additions to the princess lineup, including Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), Rapunzel from Tangled (2010), Merida from Brave (2012), and Anna from Frozen (2013), also continue to be fulfilled through love, with the exception of Princess Merida, but are the most strong-minded yet. They represent modern Disney’s conscious effort to depict women in pursuit of other ambitions.

Tracing Disney’s princess history leads to the conclusion that society has invested increasing faith in women’s abilities over the last seven to eight decades. However, though Disney’s present-day female protagonists have come a long way compared to Snow White and Aurora they are still far from perfect in terms of representing liberated, empowered individuals. Media culture has left behind its most blatant gender stereotypes, but it now faces the more difficult problem of determining what kind of feminine image it wants to portray and how to address subtler gender messages that persist.

It is easy to fall back into the trap of reducing women to passive entities dependent on others for rescue or fulfillment. Modern films often make efforts to support feminine endeavors but subconsciously reinforce traditional gender roles. We can start by considering animated feature film Tangled, Disney’s 2010 rendition of the classic fairy tale Rapunzel. Whereas in the original story Rapunzel is trapped in a tower until a prince discovers her and they fall in love, in the Tangled version she captures and bribes her visitor, a thief named Eugene, into guiding her to fulfill her lifelong dream of seeing the floating lanterns. Given that there is initially no romance involved and that Rapunzel is only using her male companion as a mechanism to obtain a personal goal, the movie is off to a good start. Unlike her traditional equal, who possesses no desire even to escape her tower, the modernized Rapunzel has a dream and is determined to reach it. Up until the sequence when Rapunzel sees the floating lanterns, Tangled can be considered pro-feminist; however, the moment Rapunzel’s dream is actualized and Eugene becomes her new dream, the movie falls back into traditional domain, as the protagonist’s existence is once again defined by her attachment to a man.

Rapunzel achieves her dream only to exchange it for another. She finally sees the floating lanterns and feels ‘that suddenly, standing here, it’s all so clear, I’m where I’m meant to be’ (Tangled). At the same time, in this same moment, she realizes that ‘all at once everything looks different now that I see you’ – now that she sees Eugene (Tangled). Thus, by the end Rapunzel’s dream has refocused on her male romantic lead

-Amanda D Wolf, “A Woman’s Ambition: A Reflection on Disney Princesses”

Whereas in the traditional tale Rapunzel heads straight into romance with love at first sight, in Disney’s newer version she takes a small diversion to pursue a dream but ultimately returns to the same, well-trodden path. Tangled makes a reasonable effort to feature a strong-minded female lead with a clear ambition, but it carelessly succumbs to the conventional doctrine that a woman’s ultimate calling is romance. Thus, the movie attempts to send a message of feminine emancipation, only to undermine it later on.

Mia Thermopolis, from The Princess Diaries (source: lowkerindo.com)

Mia Thermopolis, from The Princess Diaries (source: lowkerindo.com)

A similar formula can be applied to The Princess Diaries (2001), a modern princess remake that is more actively pro-feminist than Tangled yet simultaneously falls even shorter of ideal in terms of feminine autonomy. Focusing on the pros first, the movie is set in present-day San Francisco and stars an awkward, unglamorous teenage girl named Mia Thermopolis. Mia finds out she is of royal descent and makes dogged efforts to avoid her calling. She goes through a remarkable character transformation throughout the film, one that encourages young girls to take initiative by drawing courage from the things they care about. Reading a letter from her deceased father dedicated to her for her sixteenth birthday, Mia realizes, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all” (The Princess Diaries). By guiding Mia’s development from a conviction-less, bullied fifteen year-old whose ultimate goal is “to be invisible,” into a self-assured, capable heir to the Genovian throne, Disney makes a respectable call for female empowerment.

Mia as Princess of Genovia (source: princessamelia.tumblr.com)

Mia as Princess of Genovia (source: princessamelia.tumblr.com)

Underneath the positivity, however, there is one main point with which we might take issue. Throughout the entire movie a secondary storyline centers on Mia’s desire to find true love. This depicted need for any female lead, regardless of how favorable her circumstances may be, to have a Prince Charming is where The Princess Diaries, like many otherwise pro-feminist films, retains an element of gender tradition. The movie’s climax occurs at the Genovian ball, where Mia deems her duty to the people of Genovia more important than her fear of public speaking and declares to the press that she accepts her place in the royal lineage. Mia’s newfound charisma and maturity, paired with her authoritative position, wholly endorses the modern image of the successful and independent woman; but even with all her triumph she apparently still cannot be content until her crush, Michael, shows up to kiss her and complete the film’s happy ending. While there is nothing wrong with romance in itself, Mia’s reliance on a male counterpart to reaffirm her worth undercuts the movie’s pro-feminist momentum. When Michael asks why Mia chose him as her true love, she says, “Because you saw me when I was invisible” (The Princess Diaries). The confession may contain an important message about choosing one’s true friends, but from a feminist standpoint it suggests that any intrinsic worth Mia may feel now arose from what Michael saw in her, rather than what she should have seen in herself. Mia proves Beauvoir’s point about the modern woman that:

even when she chooses independence, she none the less makes a place in her life for man, for love

(de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 369). As today’s women enjoy increasing freedom in the professional and social spheres, this statement becomes more accurate than ever. Women can “choose independence” in every sense except the romantic—in that arena they are still hindered by the belief that a man holds their missing piece. Beauvoir’s feminine passivity has taken a much subtler form nowadays: in contrast to Cinderella’s visibly demure manners, passivity now exists even in the most proactive and powerful women as a hidden yearning for love.

On the fact that more often than not, Prince Charming shows up in the end to fulfill the female protagonist’s existence, Jenna Wortham of the University of Virginia remarks:

Modern remakes of the classic princess genre aim to convince female viewers of this mysterious and desirable destiny—the meeting of, and marriage to, Prince What’s-His-Face… The insidiousness of these films is that they encourage women to look for fulfillment outside of herself—in a man or in magic—rather than through her own active choices.

Modern interpretations of fairy tales, like The Princess Diaries, may present more progressive images of women through their increasingly proactive protagonists, but when it comes to seeking affirmation of their worth within a man instead of within themselves, these remakes are just as conventional as their original counterparts. Abiding by the notion that a princess movie is incomplete without romantic fulfillment, and consequently suggesting that it is impossible for women to be self-fulfilling, results in an infantilizing mechanism in media culture that is cast onto the female gender.

To understand the infantilization of women, we must first be able to define infantilism in general. In The Ethics of Ambiguity Beauvoir suggests that infantilization is being kept in an immature state, being kept dependent on others, within a microcosm of ignorance. She states,

There are beings whose life slips by in an infantile world because, having been kept in a state of servitude and ignorance, they have no means of breaking the ceiling which is stretched over their heads

(de Beauvoir, “Personal Freedom and Others”, 37). A characteristic normally associated with children because they have not yet discovered their subjectivity, infantilism in adults implies a type of willful ignorance of their oppression. The “ceiling… over their heads” is allowed to persist because they remain unconcerned with their non-autonomous state. Combining this ignorance of oppression with Beauvoir’s idea that women are taught to forsake their sovereignty in order to please, we can assume that feminine passivity, whether in the form of visible behavior or waiting for romantic fulfillment, is cultivated from willful ignorance and is not inherent. The indoctrinating forces girls experience starting from childhood teach them to charm others without stopping to question why femininity necessitates this kind of behavior.

To illustrate in detail how willful ignorance provides the breeding ground for passivity in women, Beauvoir notes:

Even today in western countries… there are still many who take shelter in the shadow of men; they adopt without discussion the opinions and values recognized by their husband or their lover, and that allows them to develop childish qualities

(“Personal Freedom and Others”, 37). By seeking “shelter in the shadow of men” and blindly adopting the values of those to whom they submit, women allow themselves to be treated as grown children. They welcome the beliefs of others and, by waiting for realization through love, offer themselves as objects to be possessed through marriage. Even with more emancipated contemporary attitudes toward gender, the belief that a woman herself is incomplete and needs to be cared for remains, hence the tendency for female characters to always default on romance.

Kant’s idea that humans are born into a state of natural immaturity supports Beauvoir’s argument. Kant defines immaturity as dependence on others for understanding and argues that in order to achieve self-sufficiency, people must break out of that immaturity through enlightenment. However, he cynically supposes that because it is easier to turn to others for guidance than to exercise independent judgment, most people would gladly retain their immaturity (Kant, 58). Kant recognizes that society’s “guardians,” preexisting notions, ideals, and authority figures that tell us how to behave,

…take care that the far greater part of mankind (including the fairer sex) regard the step to maturity as not only difficult but also very dangerous. After they have first made their domestic animals stupid and carefully prevented these placid creatures from daring to take even one step out of the leading strings of the cart to which they are tethered, they show them the danger that threatens them if they attempt to proceed on their own

(Kant, 59). Women, who are included in Kant’s “immature” population, are raised to be complacent with their state of dependence. This allows society as a whole to fashion them into “domestic animals” that are “made…stupid”; women lose the desire to test their own choices and instead willingly submit to following those others.

Some of the earlier princesses with their respective princes (source: fanpop.com)

Some of the earlier princesses with their respective princes (source: fanpop.com)

For women in media, fulfillment through romance continues to serve as the main infantilizing mechanism. Despite Disney’s increasingly autonomous and diversified heroines, rather than introducing ambitions through their newer princesses in place of the traditional aim of scoring a prince, Disney has merely added these professional and personal aspirations to complement the original goal of romance, keeping them “tethered” to a man and allowing immaturity to persist. Disney may give its princesses more credit now in terms of their capabilities and accomplishments, but the infantilization is still present in their powerlessness to find true happiness within themselves.

While confused media portrayals of women continue to hinder female emancipation by simultaneously delivering empowering and infantilizing messages, they can only take so much of the blame. Eventually we return to the fact that media does more to reflect society’s preexisting values than to shape them. True, Disney has not yet been able to decisively illustrate the ideal role of the modern woman, but can the rest of society do any better? Are we yet able to say how a woman can stay true to herself as an individual without compromising her femininity? Flawed media depictions of womanliness originate from society’s own uncertainty toward the female identity. Through desire for self-sufficiency and romantic fulfillment at the same time, the modern woman is pressured to conduct herself professionally but is still enslaved by a subconscious knowledge that “the supreme necessity for a woman is to charm a masculine heart” (The Second Sex, 291). Beauvoir aptly articulates this “contradiction between [the young woman’s] status as a real human being and her vocation as a female… Oscillating between desire and disgust… declining what she calls for, she lingers in suspense between the time of childish independence and that of womanly submission” (The Second Sex, 336). In past societies women may have been infantilized through their confinement to the domestic sphere, but the modern female is still infantilized through her knowledge that society calls for the emancipation of women but silently endorses traditional gender roles. Jill Pellettieri, author of “The Cinderella Complex: What do Modern Fairy Tales Tell Us About Our Culture?” points out:

Today’s tales act out society’s dueling fantasies and realities, exposing the deep cultural ambivalence we have about the role of women in society. We may pay lip service to the idea that a woman should be educated and capable, but there remains an unspoken belief in our culture that happily ever after only comes with a prince.

However, while media messages and society’s attitudes toward women continue to vacillate, there are signs of hope for the future. Only time will resolve the conflict between competing modern and traditional gender messages, but we have already begun to take steps in the right direction. Walt Disney Pictures’ animated feature film Mulan, set during Han Dynasty China (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), exemplifies how even when traditional ideologies are present, a film’s progressive message can triumph. The movie depicts a young woman who impersonates a male soldier to join the army in place of her father during conscription. Early sequences are packed with gender stereotypes, which are meant to be disproven later, but many of these exaggerations have a ring of truth to them, even in modern perceptions of gender. The following scene in particular, in which the Matchmaker tests Mulan to find her a husband, makes standards for female behavior explicit. Mulan is rebuked for speaking without permission and asked to pour the tea. It is implied that if she can please the Matchmaker, she will make a pleasing wife to her future husband.

Despite the gender stereotyping, however, Disney’s intent for Mulan’s character was to defy the female typecast, which the film successfully accomplishes. Given that the movie depicts a woman behaving heroically within a patriarchal sphere, upon its release in 1998 the film was largely hailed as Disney’s most pro-feminist movie yet (Epstein). While it is true that Mulan, like her predecessors, is still branded as a trophy wife after saving China from the Hun invasion, and that her being followed home by General Li Shang marks her final success as having found a husband rather than having rescued her country, Mulan’s ability to accomplish the same tasks as men—and to do so more successfully than her male counterparts by employing the strengths of her natural femininity—provide a strong case for female empowerment. What Mulan lacks in physical ability, she makes up for in persistence and cleverness.

Rather than using her presence among men to point out the shortcomings of femininity, Disney dedicates Mulan’s character to accentuating how a female voice can be innovative and refreshing. When the outnumbered Imperial army faces the Huns in battle, Mulan recognizes that they have no chance of winning with face to face combat; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche instead and buys the Imperial troops more time. Later in Imperial City, the soldiers are unable to use strength to overpower the Huns; Mulan disguises them as women to outsmart the enemies. The film may feature some flagrant gender labels, but through Mulan’s character it ultimately puts faith in female potential to succeed in all domains, including the public sphere. To reward Mulan for her courage, the Emperor offers her a position in his cabinet, revoking any earlier implications that women belong in domestic roles. In regards to Mulan’s implicit marriage to General Li at the film’s conclusion, the communion differs from romance in other princess films in that rather than searching for love, Mulan returns home independently, an assertion of her self-fulfillment. Her Prince Charming is the one to follow, seeking her hand in marriage, after the Emperor tells him, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all… You don’t find a girl like that every dynasty!” (Mulan).

(source: Google images)

(source: Google images)

The flower motif in Mulan delivers a message of feminine emancipation from which modern society and media can both learn. It encourages a “letting be” of women, of allowing them to bloom without hindrance, each in her own place at her own time. As the flower that “blooms in adversity,” Mulan shows how carrying out the role expected of her in society is not the only way a woman can stay true to her femininity. By portraying women in an emancipated light, Mulan also demonstrates how womanhood can be turned from a perceived weakness into a strength. Given that femininity is largely defined by a consciousness of pleasing others, and therefore being among others, women are raised to be more mindful of the needs and conditions of those surrounding them. If we are able to understand this condition well, of our presence not only as individuals but as a collective unit, then femininity can be used to empower individuals rather than to limit them.



Works Cited

de Beauvoir, Simone. “Personal Freedom and Others.” The Ethics of Ambiguity. By De Beauvoir. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Kensington, 1948. 35-73. Print.

– – -. The Second Sex. Trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Epstein, Allison. “Disney Deconstructed: A Feminist Watches Mulan.” The Body Pacifist. WordPress, 9 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Trans. and ed. James Schmidt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996. 58-64. Print.

Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Walt Disney Studios Buena Vista Distribution, 19 June 1998. VHS.

Pellettieri, Jill. “The Cinderella Complex: What do modern fairy tales tell us about our culture?” Slate 23 Apr. 2004: n. pag. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard. Walt Disney Pictures, 24 Nov 2010. DVD.

The Princess Diaries. Dir. Garry Marshall. Walt Disney Studios, 3 August 2001. DVD.

Wolf, Amanda D. “A Woman’s Ambition: A Reflection on Disney Princesses.” Sailing Dreams. WordPress, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Wortham, Jenna. “Pretty Pretty Princess.” Iris 49 (2004): 69. GenderWatch. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

2 thoughts on “Disney Princesses, de Beauvoir, and Media Depictions of Women”

  1. “Pocahontas” isn’t an A-movie in the Disney catalog, but it’s a solid second-tier film that, despite its romanticizing of the “noble savage,” nonetheless features themes that are wholesome and consistent with Disney’s messaging.

  2. I disagree with the analysis of Tangled. Just because Rapunzel fell in love doesn’t mean that Eugene was her sole focus for the rest of the film. At the end it’s made quite clear that she is working hard to learn how to properly take on her new role as a leader. She reforms the army, gains support and respect from her subjects, and aims to be prepare for her eventual rule. And it’s also implied that Rapunzel has taken on a far more active leadership role than Eugene.

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