Feminsm and fairytales: Amy Van De Casteele takes a closer look at some of Disney’s most iconic movies…

When I was a little girl I was a huge fan of Disney movies. Being an animal lover, Bambi and Dumbo were firm favourites, but unsurprisingly I was also drawn (like a moth to the proverbial flame) to the pretty princess tales of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. On the surface this predilection might seem harmless enough. Why shouldn’t a young girl enjoy light-hearted moral tales about beautiful girls who fall in love and live happily ever after?
Well, having grown up and developed a healthy dose of wisdom, experience and cynicism, I can answer that question with some authority: there are several good reasons why not.
First of all, take another look at those films – what do they all have in common? Beautiful, thin young women with curves in all the right places; women with slender waists, pert noses and shapely mouths; women who sing and dance and are all breathy sweetness and effervescent light – and all of them yearning to fall in love and have their dreams come true.
Which, incidentally, can only happen with the advent of a certain Prince Charming, otherwise known as – a man. And there, you see, is the problem.


Because in the world of Disney it doesn’t matter how kind, intelligent or strong these young women characters are; they can only escape their unhappy, menial lives by getting hitched and yoking their fortunes to that of a handsome, wealthy young man (never mind whether he used to be a hairy 8-foot-tall beast or not). Only through marriage can they become happy and fulfilled. That is the underlying message, vividly showcased by how every movie ends – with cheery shots of the joyous newly-weds sharing a kiss or a dance – thereby encouraging every impressionable young girl who watches one of those films to believe that marriage will in turn fulfil her own dreams one day; that she won’t be complete until she has bagged herself a man.
As a young girl of 5 or 6 I had no problem with this anti-feminist premise, being as yet oblivious to gender stereotypes, misogyny and the marginalisation of women. But fast forward twelve years to the scene of my first heart-break and I began to cotton on to the fact that men and relationships – and the ghostly spectre of marriage – are not all Walt Disney and his creations make them out to be. Instead of finding myself loved and nurtured by a man, like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, I considered my first brush with grown-up love to be something akin to a knife thrust through the heart.


And it wasn’t just me. All around me, in real life, on the news, in books and in movies, men were breaking women’s hearts. Husbands were abandoning barren wives; boyfriends were cheating on their adoring girlfriends; violent men were murdering their exes in cold blood. Where was the smiling Prince Charming who wed Cinderella and turned her from a servant into royalty? Where was the Beast, with his tender heart and amusing table manners? Why wasn’t I living my own real-life fairy-tale? Where was my Prince? So far, the men I had kissed had turned out to be toads, or worse.
Jump forward a few more years and I now find myself, as a young mother, wondering whether it is such a good idea for my daughter to watch the Disney princess movies I adored when I was little. Because, while Walt Disney and his animated characters are certainly not responsible for the often brutal and unfeeling way in which some men – quite a few men, worryingly – treat women these days, his movies are partly responsible for the skewed view of marriage and romance which I grew up with. And I don’t want to force-feed that view to my daughter… I don’t want her to grow up hoping and praying for Prince Charming to appear and transform her life. Instead, I want her to take charge of her own future. I need her to know that she is beautiful and strong and smart, and she doesn’t need a man or a diamond ring on her finger to validate her existence.


Unsurprisingly, I am not the only woman in this day and age who wishes Walt Disney and his company could be held to account for his unrealistic female characters and their repetitive storylines. Last week Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep attended a National Board of Review dinner and as part of a speech she gave honouring Emma Thompson for her role as P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr Banks” she launched a scathing attack on Disney. Calling him a “gender bigot” and quoting one of Disney’s colleagues who asserted that Walt “didn’t trust women or cats”, she also read out part of a letter Walt had written to a hopeful young woman hoping to join the ranks of his artists. The letter said, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men”.
And there, in a nutshell, you have the premise for every Disney movie featuring a young female character. It is the young man who performs the “creative work”, the acts of heroism or bravery. The women don’t have to do anything other than housework, cooking and generally acting like damsels in distress just waiting to be rescued. Women are marginalised even when it is their own story being told. What’s more, female characters in Disney films always look a certain way, just as Barbie dolls do; unfailingly, the women protagonists have nipped-in waists, pert chests, tilt-tipped noses and manes of hair which almost never get ruffled. In more recent films they are sometimes scantily clad, such as Princess Jasmine and Ariel the mermaid.
In the minds of young girls this stereotypical, often sexualised appearance will be striking some discordant chimes, tolling out a bleak subconscious message – namely, that only young women who look a certain way will be able to catch the eye of their “prince” and thus win that coveted title of “Mrs” and all the perks that go with it.
This obsession with having female characters look a certain way was brought into sharp focus recently when Disney decided to give the “Brave” protagonist, Princess Merida, a make-over for her induction into The Disney Princess Collection. The “new” Princess Merida was slimmer, sexier and generally glossier than the original and this sparked a major outcry from parents, including an online petition demanding that the character remain in her former realistic state. Disney’s attempt to glamourize and sexualise Merida shows that, despite more recent “feisty heroine” films such as Tangled and Pocahontas, Disney is still – consciously or not – leading girls to believe that beautiful women only look a certain way and that looks are the most important aspect of a female; not her brain, her courage or her heart.
Thankfully these days the tides are finally starting to turn, with the likes of the aforementioned “Tangled” and other similar movies; but with films like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White lauded as classics and much adored by girls all over the world, we still have to contend with the subconscious messages our daughters are receiving.
As a bleak indicator of how pervasive and deeply penetrating these messages can be I will freely admit that I still suffer from “Disney Princess Syndrome” to some degree. Yes, despite being perfectly aware that beauty comes in many shapes and forms and that I don’t need a man to fulfil me, in weaker moments I still find myself wishing that I possessed that Barbie doll figure…and sometimes even start to daydream about getting married. The horrible part about that is that I daydream not because I have found a man I want to spend the rest of my life with but because Disney convinced me, at a young age, that marriage is a crucial rite of passage and that I won’t have lived up to my femininity if I fail to get that all-important diamond ring on my finger.
Thankfully these thoughts do only strike during weaker moments and most of the time I am able to snap myself out of my Sleeping Beauty trance. Because, unlike dear Aurora and perfect Snow White, I may not have a teeny tiny waist or hair that never falls out of place – huh, that’d be the day – but I do have the desire and the determination to forge a life of my own. And while it would be nice to have that special someone at my side, to share the ups and downs of my life with, I am not going to settle for just any old prince.
If my knight in shining armour doesn’t come along, I will quite happily rescue myself.