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Unfrozen: The Evolution of Walt Disney’s Princesses


Unfrozen: The History of the Modern Disney Princess

Returning Visitors: In the first podcast of 2014, I take a look at the evolution of the Disney Princess over the past twenty five years. New year, a new series of podcasts.  Future episodes currently being developed are “Love, Laughter, and Despair in the Silent Era” (series) and “The Politics of Star Wars”.  Click Here to download the latest episode (right click and select “save” to download).

First Time Visitors: It’s time for a new season of lectures and documentaries exploring the history and cultural significance of American film, illustration, music, literature, and art.  The Artist in American History looks at American history, from the colonial era to the present day, through the lens of the artist. This series explores race, gender, class and the ways in which artists have challenged (or supported) assumptions about them.  You can listen to the latest podcast lecture (Unfrozen: A Brief History of the Modern Disney Princess) by clicking the banner above or Clicking Here (Right Click and select “Save”) to download the file.

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Lecture Script:

The Walt Disney Company is often, rightly, singled out for criticism of its depictions of gender and female characters in its animated films. The argument, which is pretty well known and, in many cases, seems self-evident, goes that Disney, with only a very few exceptions, has clung on to severely out dated gender stereotypes which often take centre stage in their animated output.  These stereotypes, and I’m talking about the pretty well established ‘Disney Princess’ here, create inaccurate, even damaging ideas about gender roles; how women, and men for that matter, should look, dress, and act are pretty well covered in Disney’s mighty animated pantheon.  Disney princesses seem fixated upon finding a man; they are active agents in their own right, sure, but their world view seems completely wrapped up in finding a man. It’s a story which, in one form or another, I imagine you are quite familiar with.


In that context, the company’s recent mega-hit, Frozen, seems like a breath of fresh air – it’s still problematic, sure, but its twist on the traditional Disney love story moves it into much more interesting territory than the company’s typical animated fare. And yet Frozen is only the most recent step forward for Disney. For quite some time, longer than they are often given credit for, the company has been trying to adapt how its films deal with their female characters and, Frozen aside, there are some really interesting examples that show that the House of Mouse has been much more conscious of its problematic approach to gender than they are perhaps given credit for.


Disney’s Princesses have been evolving, albeit at a pace that is often ponderously slow and far behind the curve.  As far back as 1991 the company released Beauty and the Beast, a gorgeously animated film which seemed to encapsulate oh so much of the company’s lopsided approach to gender. As is so typical of Disney’s princess-vehicles, the film stars an anatomically implausible woman who is ultimately defined by the love story in her life; so far, so typical.  Things start to get interesting when we start to consider the relationship between Belle, the films leading lady, and Gaston, the films hyper-masculine antagonist.  Quite unlike her relationship with the frankly abusive Beast, Belle’s relationship with Gaston is defined by her willingness to resist his boorish advances and puerile attitude towards traditional masculinity.  Gaston is, and I’m sure if you’ve seen the film you remember, forceful and abrasive, a local sex symbol dedicated to self-worship and the adulation he receives from others.


The Beast is not much better but his eventual transformation into a log haired, handsome prince is meant to speak of a more fundamental transformation in his character, his outer beauty meant to reflect his newly attained inner suitability for Belle; and yet fundamentally the film is a power play between two men.  The leading lady, in spite of everything, is little more a pawn in that duel.  That being said, Belle can hardly be described as a passive passenger in her own story.  Yes, she is ultimately defined by a relationship with a man, the Beast, and that relationship is ultimately summed up by visions of unrealistic physical perfection, but as passive as Belle is in one setting, she is active in another.  Whatever can be said about her relationship with the Beast, her relationship with Gaston shows some real depth. Gaston is the symbol of masculinity in Belle’s hometown – his entire first song is dedicated to his own sense of manliness and body, but, far from falling for his charm, Belle utterly rejects Gaston as boorish, crude, and undesirable. That is a really interesting gender commentary in an animated Disney film. The fairy tale ending and the Beast’s transformation, a scene which is spectacularly turned upon its head in Dreamworks’ Shrek, does much to undo the film’s subtler commentaries but Belle’s rejection of Gaston should not be ignored. She may not always be the most empowering character, but in the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, Belle set a new standard for Disney’s animated female characters.


Belle’s early appearance in Beauty and the Beast raised the bar for Disney’s princesses, far above most of the company’s prior output – and far above most of what the company, Pixar’s contributions aside, would achieve afterwards, at least until the release of 2007’s Enchanted. Starring Amy Adams as a deliberately clichéd Disney princess, transposed from her animated world into ours, the film highlighted, rather charmingly, just how ridiculous the Disney Princess phenomenon has become. Amy Adams played her role with enthusiasm and charm whilst the supporting cast likewise did an admirable job of bringing long term Disney clichés to life in a live action context. Perhaps most interesting is the way that the film attacks critics of Disney’s approach to gender and romance. On the one hand Adams’ character, Giselle, shows just how ridiculous Disney’s princesses are, whilst on the other her blind faith in the power of love serves to constantly reprimand those grumpy critics, this one included, who are so quick to dismiss the sweeter implications of Disney’s animated universe. Enchanted shines a light on the good and the bad, and it does so by being extremely aware of *precisely* what the weaknesses and strengths of Disney’s princesses are. Parents looking for unqualified empowerment will be disappointed by Enchanted -ultimately the film fails to really challenge some of the company’s bigger problems, and Giselle is infuriating naive throughout much of the run time- but there is *something* here that really is worthwhile. Love still conquers all, but Enchanted goes out its way to show just how ridiculous the Disney princess, in its purest form, really is and that is an admirable quality. It adds depth and real word sass to the princess concept, tearing down ideas like love at first sight and one kiss winning out the day, even as it tries to convince its audience that love really does make the world go round.  Perfect, Enchanted certainly is not, but for Disney this film was a huge step forward that deserves much more recognition than it has received to date. It may not be Frozen, but it was a huge evolutionary leap for a company typically defined by its archaic gender values.


Following up Enchanted, Disney again returned to the hand drawn well in 2009 with the release of the Princess and the Frog, another beautifully animated film that saw the company further evolve its princess concept into something that was starting to approach the minimum standard which the twenty first century should demand.  Enchanted‘s Giselle was self-parody, a deliberate embodiment of all the clichés and weaknesses that had become a part of the princesses’ collective identity. The result was a farcical, ironic character. Tiana, on the other hand, is a much purer realisation of Disney’s attempts to reform its princess line. Giselle has a lot to say to adults; Tiana, however, speaks directly to the younger part of its Disney’s audience.  There’s no irony in Tiana’s driving ambition to become a business owner and to shape her own destiny. It was a huge step forward for Disney, one that would lead straight into the much more popular Frozen.  It was also a flop, Disney’s last hand animated major feature, a confluence of unfortunate events that limits the story of Disney’s evolving vision of gender and, more problematically, race.  Disney’s animated canon is not one of the most inclusive bodies of work but, to their credit, The Princess and the Frog‘s failure did not stop the company from continuing to evolve its attitude towards gender even if their attitude to both race and hand-animated films suffered as a direct result.


2013’s Frozen, then, is the most recent stage in an ongoing process that has seen Disney haltingly and unevenly drag itself into the modern era – at least as far as gender is concerned.  Every Disney princess has been used to reinforce traditional, uneven expectations about the role of women in society, particularly when the company’s related toy lines are considered, but the films upon which those toys are based have been evolving.  It’s been a difficult process with false starts and uneven results but the Disney Princess is changing. To be sure, even Frozen is far from perfect -Disney seems determined to convince the world that impossibly small waist sizes are fundamental to beauty in women- but that film nevertheless marks an important moment in the evolution of the company’s princess line.  When compared to some of the company’s other output, particularly Pixar’s Brave, the last twenty five years of Disney Princesses feel really quite backwards but they have been evolving, transforming into something a bit more progressive and a bit more modern. Disney still has a ways to go but, at the very least, it has been evolving and changing for a generation now. The changes have come slowly and are not yet complete but they are an inseparable part of the princesses’ story.


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