Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power Over Disney Princesses
The Disney Company is a $130 billion dollar net worth corporate giant, responsible for the output of 200 children’s fantasy movies, which holds a significant amount of socioeconomic power, evoking complex issues in a number of disciplines. As a leading player in family entertainment, the portrayal of controversial stereotypes within the Disney Princess franchise has been criticised for its negative social impacts. To evaluate how Disney has been shaped by power imbalances within sociology and economics, this argument explores the main tendencies in the representation of women since the first Disney Princess, Snow White. These disciplines have shaped the perception of princesses, and have engendered changes to their representation according to sociological and economic paradigms. One can disclaim the scope of this argument as qualitatively restrained, since it comes from a Western social stance, as Disney’s initial target audience was the middle class US family.
Power of patriarchy
Each Disney princess has reflected the American gender stereotype from their respective time period. The first princess was released in 1937 as Snow White, illustrating a story of a domestic worker being heroically saved by her true love’s kiss. This mirrors the regression of women’s rights in the post-Great Depression era, where many workers were forced out of their jobs and thus, working women were unfavoured and seen as ‘un-American’. Thus the power of men within society restricted the role of women within the household. A profound change in the characterisation of Disney princesses only came after the mass cultural paradigm of the 1970s, where women gained rights such as equal pay and higher education. Subsequently, Disney introduced more independent princesses such as Belle and Ariel, who rebel against Gaston and King Triton, both characters embodying patriarchy. The result of Disney exhibiting social norms within their entertainment medium means that gender stereotypes are reinforced and subconsciously sowed into the minds of the audience. Moreover, as a family entertainment provider, Disney has the responsibility of shaping young people’s social perspectives and standards. Therefore, the recurrent relationship between society and media is crucial in understanding how power in sociology has a cyclical effect on how social norms are created and reinforced.
Power of objectification
The discipline of animation carries the outdated stigma of depicting the female body as sexual, that has been so prevalent throughout Art History and society: the male gaze. This is an issue in Disney’s cartoons because of how most female characters (both human and not) are drawn and animated in an inappropriately sexualised way, epitomising a Westernised idea of beauty. Animation also holds power in the way that it influences the psychology of its viewers, in this case children, as children best absorb information through moving image and sound. This is a sociological issue because of the concern that young girls could be influenced in the long-term by exposure to misogynistic stereotypes of women in Disney movies; for instance, believing that it is acceptable to use their physical appearance and sexual power over men to their advantage, as displayed by the character Megara in Hercules, who is used as a sexual tool, a seductress. This supports the sociological misconception that the physical appearance of a woman is more powerful than her intellect: objectification. Disney Princesses seem unable to keep themselves out of danger, regardless of their intellectual merit, to the extent that they almost always need rescuing. When a character, for example Pocahontas, does defy this stereotype, the focus still comes back to her marital status despite her display of independence and strength as a female heroine.
Power of Consumerism
The power of the economic system is evident in how Disney princesses have been depicted as domestic characters. After the Second World War, the US experienced an economic boom. Mass production resulted in a period of expansion, which established their current economic system where overall higher living standards and prosperity settled in. Furthermore, the emergence of a consumer society emphasised the hyperproduction of goods, especially household products that were specifically aimed at women through targeted advertising (toasters, laundry machines). Women were then associated with household chores and voluntary unemployment in the sense that it suggested them a recurrent consumption pattern which idealized the idea of the housewife. Ways of consuming were transformed by the economic conjuncture. Disney was influenced by this power that endorsed a certain representation of women. For instance, Cinderella is pitiful and purer than her sisters because she takes care of the home, in the hope of acquiring the freedom to attend the ball. The economic situation has led Disney to create princesses who complied with American standards (their initial place of mass distribution), to later attempt to develop universal princesses, representative of countries where their merchandise is distributed. To capitalize on this success with children and to satisfy the consumer society's demand, Disney trademarked Princesses into a franchise to promote their image.
Power of Globalisation
The power of globalisation influenced Disney to aspire for their Princesses to better reflect the diversity of their viewers. Globalisation is an economic phenomenon that has had a paramount effect on transforming the representation of culture on American media. Augmentation of trade, critics and contestation of American Imperialism, through the acceleration of information exchanges have completely transformed the vision of princesses. The power of globalisation influenced Disney to aspire for their Princesses to better reflect the diversity of their viewers. Films of the latter decades of Disney, illustrate the need to represent more races. Indeed, new princesses come from different countries, for instance Mulan 1998 (Chinese princess), Jasmine 1992 (Arabic princess) which stand as a products of a globalized world and the universalization of Disney’s audience. Although it is crucial to note that minorities are misrepresented that Disney’s vision remains mainly Western-centered. This fundamental change is fuelling the need to represent more cultures in children’s cartoons, for example Vaiania, Disney’s first a Polynesian princess and the latest princess announced by Disney will be latina american.
It is evident that Disney Princesses have mirrored the power imbalance within socioeconomic norms of the US. By intertwining the quantitative nature of economics and the qualitative aspect of sociology, a more objective conclusion can be reached in understanding how power within various disciplines regarding the role of women have influenced one another to create a globalized effect. The influence of a growing consumerist economy prescribing gender stereotypes to its products is significant in upholding traditional gender roles, parallel to the ongoing culture of the male gaze within contemporary art forms. Accordingly, power disparity in sociology and economics has led to a vision of woman that is now being challenged.
An obstacle to approaching issues through this interdisciplinary perspective is that both disciplines rely heavily on research at an extensive scale in society, and individual experiences are neglected. Thus, in order to reach a more balanced conclusion, integrating psychology will be beneficial for further research.
- Hoffower H. A family feud over a $400 million trust fund, a massive fortune that left one heiress with an inferiority complex, and a sprawling media empire. Meet the Disney family. [Internet]. Business Insider. 2019 [cited 7 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/disney-family-net-worth-fortune-media-walt-2019-6
- The Walt Disney Company [Internet]. En.wikipedia.org. 2019 [cited 7 December 2019]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Walt_Disney_Company
- Moran, M. (2019). 1930s, America - Feminist Void? The status of the Equal Rights Movement during the Great Depression. [online] People.loyno.edu. Available at: http://people.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1988-9/moran.htm [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].
- Barber, M. (2019). Disney’s Female Gender Roles: The Change of Modern Culture. [online] Scholars.indstate.edu. Available at: http://scholars.indstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10484/12132/Barber_McKenzie_2015_HT.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].
- Hansen M. Disney Culture John Wills. Rutgers University Press, 2017. The Journal of American Culture [Internet]. 2018;41(3):324-325. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1p0vkn3?turn_away=true&Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=disney&searchText=television&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Ddisney%2Btelevision&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_SYC-4802%2Ftest2&refreqid=search%3A238bece503a82822710392780d79c631
- Johnson RM. The evolution of Disney princesses and their effect on body image, gender roles, and the portrayal of love. Educational Specialist. [Internet] 2015 [cited 2019 December 8] 6:10-12. Available from: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=edspec201019
- McBride J. Phys.org. [Internet] Study finds Disney Princess culture magnifies stereotypes in young girls. [Updated 2016, cited 2019 December 8] Available from: https://phys.org/news/2016-06-disney-princess-culture-magnifies-stereotypes.html (accessed 8 December 2019).https://phys.org/news/2016-06-disney-princess-culture-magnifies-stereotypes.html
- Primo C. Balancing Gender and Power: How Disney’s Hercules Fails to Go the Distance. Social Sciences. [Internet] 2018 [cited 2019 December 8]; 7(240): 6. Available from: doi: 10.3390/socsci7110240.
- Leek C. sociologylens.net. [Internet] Masculinity and Disney’s Gender Problem. [Updated 2017, cited 2019 December 8] Available from: https://www.sociologylens.net/topics/communication-and-media/masculinity-and-disneys-gender-problem/12550
- Gill I. Feminist Figures or Damsels in Distress? The Media’s Gendered Misrepresentation of Disney Princesses. Young Scholars in Writing [Internet] 2016 [cited 2019 December 8]; 13:105-106. Available from: https://arc.lib.montana.edu/ojs/index.php/Young-Scholars-In-Writing/article/view/330
- Unknown author. The Rise of American Consumerism | American Experience | PBS [Internet]. Pbs.org. 2019 [cited 4 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/tupperware-consumer/
- Fredericks, M. Media portrayal of Gender Stereotypes in the 1950s: Walt Disney‘s Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty [Undergraduate Senior Thesis]. Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; 2009. [cited 3 December 2019] Available from : https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/35528/Fredericks.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y
- Guizerix, J. From Snow White to Brave: The Evolution of the Disney Princess [Undergraduate Senior Thesis]. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University; 2013. [cited 4 December 2019] Available from: http://fau.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fau%3A31027/datastream/OBJ/view/From_snow_white_to_brave__the_evolution_of_the_Disney_princess.pdf
- Ray, E. G. Part of Their World: Gender Identity Found in Disney Princesses, Consumerism, and Performative Play [MA Thesis]. Brigham Young University - Fine Arts and Communications; Theatre and Media Arts; 2009. [cited 4 December 2019] Available from: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2972&context=etd
- Garcia Zarranz L. Atenea. Mayagüez, P.R.: Facultad de Artes y Ciencias, Universidad de Puerto Rico; 2007. Available from : http://ece.uprm.edu/artssciences/atenea/Atenea-XXVII-2.pdf#page=56
- Williamson J. Welcome to PIIE [Internet]. PIIE. 2019 [cited 8 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.piie.com/commentary/speeches-papers/globalization-concept-causes-and-consequences
- Globalisation and the Evolution of Disney [Internet]. Cultural Economy of the media. 2017 [cited 8 December 2019]. Available from: http://yvonnestillie.blogspot.com/2017/02/globalisation-and-evolution-of-disney.html