Society of Bioethics and Medicine
Mad at Disney
Written By - Christine Kuang, Edited By - Anling Chen
A pre-adolescent girl gravitates to the color pink, regardless of her parents' efforts to deny the girl of the needless meaning in the color pink. Her parents wanted to prevent their daughter from falling into the stereotypical standards of a female. However, she will trade the yellow floral tights in exchange for the frilly pink dresses. Is it inevitable for girls to deny this socio-cultural norm to engage in the princess persona? What is the role of media advertisements in depicting certain desirable qualities in female adolescents?
Maryann Johanson exclaims in her blog Flickfilosopher, the exposure to media proposes, "This is what movies tell little girls: If you want to be the hero of your own story, the star of your own life, you have to be a princess. Only princesses get that option" (Johanson, 2015). Young girls, whose minds are malleable, are mesmerized by society's ideal to adopt this standard to measure their self-worth. Conversely, girls who don't meet beauty standards are disheartened, progressing to low self-esteem. Media is a vast tool that can be beneficial if used properly but can also do more harm than good. In this case, the media serves as a platform to diffuses a girl's thoughts of a princess to accommodate the Western standard of beauty. Disney princesses portray a particular feminine beauty ideal to the point where the beauty standards are unrealistic.
Every day we are bombarded by media advertisements of their ideal beauty: Caucasian, tall, slender with long legs, large breasts, and full lips. The tremendous effort of whitewashing makes a girl of color grow uncomfortable in her skin, causing girls at a young age to undergo procedures such as bleaching their skin and plastic surgery to feel better about themselves. Media consumption is a huge factor feeding into young girls' self-esteem and influencing everyday choices. This advertisement demonstrates how society deems women should look causing a lack of diverse racial representation in the media. Beauty advertisements, aware of the female's insecurities, convince them to buy a particular item (i.e. makeup products) so the community accepts them.
Kenneth Clark, a social psychologist at City College of New York, researched low self-esteem because of society's recognition and appreciation for racial diversity. Clark asked girls of color to choose which doll (white dolls vs. black doll) they wanted to play with. He had children identify the dolls with statements such as "Give me the doll that is a nice doll; give me the doll that looks bad, and Give me the doll that is a nice color" (Clark, 2005). Clark noticed when he asked the African American children to give him the dolls they best identify with, "This one. It's a nigger. I'm a nigger," illustrating the absence of self-acceptance (Clark, 2005). Overall, the children of color conspicuously preferred to play with the white doll and not the black one. This case study concludes that years of cultural suppression and disapproval lead to racial preference, subconsciously causing people of color as young as five years old to have low self-esteem and ashamed of their ethnicity. To raise children of color's self-esteem, they need to feel respected and given equal media coverage opportunities. It would make a tremendous difference if the media celebrates all ethnicities instead of preferring one over the other.
It is worth mentioning the infamous Barbie dolls that children identify with when playing. First of all, Barbie's figure has never been modified even though Barbie dolls are half a century old, embracing the same ideology of feminine beauty with a body structure of a tiny waist, full breast size, often blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. Twenty years later, since Barbie was launched, the first African American Barbie was released, but it still holds vital Caucasian features. Kathryn Gentzke, a teacher, notes in "Barbie and the Feminine Ideal of Beauty" that as children are playing with Barbie dolls, they "project themselves onto the toy and attempt to identify with it" (Gentzke, 2008). This innocent "pretend" act will cause the child to reflect the doll's image to themselves, recognizing features the girl lacks and leaving adolescent girls to question their self-image. Even the toys that girls play portray an unhealthy obsession with pursuing this Caucasian standard of beauty, which hinders a person of color's self-esteem.
To further understand a developing girl's self-esteem, we need to look at what specific activities they partake in. Children have access to the media now more than ever before. Jamie Ducharme, Time Magazine’s health writer, writes kids ages eight and younger spend, on average, two hours on screen, four times longer than the average four years ago (Ducharme, 2017). What appears on television media is predominantly white cartoon characters and white actors. Subconsciously, when viewing such media, girls of color will be cautious of their body image, measuring their self-worth to the stereotypical femininity. Rachel Michelle Johnson, an educational specialist notes, "The media teach children what is socially desirable and perpetuate sociocultural norms" (Johnson 5). The idealistic beauty standards from television pressure girls at a young age to conform to those standards, prompting a developing girl of color to grow up with body dissatisfaction, leading to low self-esteem.
Disney's franchise also plays an unsurmountable role in kid-focused media because parents divert their child's attention to the PG Disney movies. Thus, most girls encounter their first 'princess' around the young age of five through Disney Princesses’ exposure. Their first princess is most likely one of the trio classics composed of Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty, all of which fit into the society's fundamental beauty standard.
Which Disney princess first appears in your mind when you hear the word princesses? Of what ethnicity is that princess? Upon analyzing the first era of Disney princess, viewers learn how imperative a female's appearance is. For instance, Cinderella proves her identity by fitting into her glass slipper. Essentially, Cinderella's feature of her dainty feet was the most petite compared to the other women in her community. This signals that for a woman to find Prince Charming and her 'happily ever after,' she must look perfect, down to the size of her feet. Moreover, Disney also paints a negative image of characters who are older. Cinderella's stepmother is the antagonist in this fairytale. Associating Cinderella's senior guardian as immoral and evil illustrates how unfavorable it is to be old. This detail underlines that beauty can only be acquired at a young age. Rachel Michelle Johnson, an educational specialist, articulates, "Disney filmmakers have created a continuous-time loop in which the princess is a constant entity through re-releasing of films and marketing on multiple products. Its products are forever young and forever available" (Johnson, 2015). Classic princess stories have been retold numerous times, reinforcing self-loathing sentiments on girls who don't fit into a princess's unrealistic standards.
Another aspect to examine is in terms of sales in merchandise. The princess merchandise that contributes the most financially is the white princesses. Maureen Shaw, a feminist activist, asserts, "Frozen's Elsa, quite literally the whitest of all princesses, has raked in nearly $3.4 million, while The Princess and the Frog's Tiana and Aladdin's Jasmine fell far behind everyone else" (Shaw, 2014). Of all the Disney Princesses, Tiana struggled the most in the theatre box office. Is this due to the fact that people view an African American as unfit to be a princess? With the significant decreasing trend of sales of the princess's diverse ethnicities, would Disney eventually discontinue the production of the new Disney princess of color?
Nevertheless, critics argue that the Disney Corporation is initiating its latest Disney princess to represent more nationalities and display feminist qualities, increasing racial and social representation. They accentuate the morals that Disney princesses exhibit, empowering its viewers to be fearless with a "positive can-do attitude." One Disney fan comments on BBC, "My favourite Disney princess is Ariel from The Little Mermaid because she was fearless. I was the same when it came to playing football with the boys in my hometown. I had to be determined to make it" (Wilson, 2017). Being determined is good, but Ariel is not the best example of independence as she had to sacrifice her voice, her agency, in the process.
One critic Cheery Wilson, a senior journalist for the BBC, claims that a Disney princess's definition has become more ethnically diverse. Disney also integrated the notion of women's liberation with the recent princesses of color who are embodied to be influential; they are more potent than the "vintage" white princesses. For example, through hard work and dedication, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009) can open her fabulous restaurant. This serves as an inspiration showing that a black woman can take charge to achieve her goals and establish her career. Yet, for the movie's primary duration, Tiana was a frog, not a bold African American princess meant to inspire the African American girls to be their own version of a princess.
Presently, girls of different ethnicities have a princess that identifies with them, bestowing a role model for adolescent girls. Flashback to 25 years ago, black princesses in Disney were not represented. The Walt Disney Studio is using its networks to resolve racial representation in their movies. Knowingly having a princess to personify the youthful girls of color gives the impression that they are worthy of being a 'princess' too, increasing a girl's self-esteem and sense of belonging in society.
Although Disney princesses have more racial representation, Disney disregards the cultural aspects and significance, causing the movies to be culturally inaccurate. The latest Disney Princess, Moana of Polynesian background, defied her authoritative father by venturing out into the sea in pursuit of fighting Taka, a goddess, to save her island's crops. Unlike the vintage white princess, modern princesses such as Moana did not have a prince to keep the 'damsel in distress.' It is Moana who saved Maui, a demigod, from the wrath of Taka and restored Te Fiti's greenstone heart.
Morgan Godfery, a movie specialist, wrote in the article, "Disney's Moana isn't progressive — it's dangerous," and cautioned, "Disney has the power to shape how the world understands Polynesians and Polynesia...There is a danger Disney's take on Māui will displace actual Polynesian stories. Where is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism?" (Godfery, 2017). Moana is not culturally accurate. Although the backdrop is in Polynesia, the Disney movie Moana portrays Moana herself as the founder of the Polynesian culture. Although in Polynesia history, Maui is the founder of Polynesia as we know it today. Disney downgrades the significance of Maui to a sidekick to maintain a story. This portrays Disney's lack of appreciation for minority cultures. Nor is this the first time for Disney to include inaccurate portrayals of the princess's culture. This is not the first time: Jasmine's apparel should have been more concealing, and Pocahontas hair should have been braided as she was unmarried and eleven years old when she met John Smith.
It may be true that Disney is composing black princesses into its fairytale stories, however accepting a princess of color is still problematic, and feminist princesses are still not feminist enough. Princess ideals are still confining and may not even live in this romanticized idea of 'happily ever after.' Wilson accuses princesses of having to present themselves in a certain way: "A slim figure, housework skills, and the need to be rescued by a man," as well as elegant dresses, heels, makeup, long hair, tiny waist, and small feet (Wilson, 2017). Such criteria create a wary conscience that leads to a stunted self-regard for oneself. While princesses may want independence, they still need to stand by their prince's side and be a part of the kingdom's duty. How can a girl have high self-esteem if the princess's decisions are conjoined with the prince? Despite Disney's attempt to be more open-minded in having different ethnicities represented in Disney princesses, it does not help the controversy that the princesses of color still uphold white societal standards. Racial representation of people of color is still troubling because when there is someone of color plastered over the tabloids, there are bound to be some biased and hostile ideas; white people's reaction even going so far as refusing to accept that a 'princess' is anything but entirely white, petite, refined, and glamorous.
Exposure to racial representation in the media is empowering to girls of color. The former first lady was a role model that lots of girls of color look up to. It is refreshing to see in our media feeds that, along with the bombarded notifications of white celebrities, someone like Michelle Obama, someone for girls of color to identify with. A powerful quote the former first lady said, "As you go forth when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they've only been around folks like themselves when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they've never heard any other viewpoints, it's up to you to help them see things differently." Society must resolve this issue of racial representation. We can advance in society, ensure girls' self-esteem soars instead of confined to the repressing ideas that only exist in one's imagination.
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