SUNY Plattsburgh Professor Explores The Complicated Evolution Of Disney Princesses

Mar 31, 2015

The historical role of the princess within the Disney franchise is fairly predictable: a handsome, wealthy prince appears and it’s love at first sight, and the immediate solution to any problems facing the princess that she couldn’t solve on her own.

But many say that Disney’s recent blockbusters have upset their old, “love at first sight” formula, including their most recent hit, Frozen. Connie Shemo, a history professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, has been examining this shift in Disney’s portrayal of female princesses and joined Vermont Edition to talk about her thoughts on the issue.

“I think Disney princesses are one of the ways that people are now exploring what it means to be a girl,” says Shemo. “I think it’s one of the most profound conversations people are having.”

Shemo says that although Disney princesses have evolved greatly, starting with Ariel in The Little Mermaid in 1989, the media giant hasn’t completely let go of their old, stereotypical princesses. “And this is a debate about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a girl, what we’re showing our children,” the professor says. “I don’t think there’s almost anything, to me as a parent or to me as an academic, that’s more important than the messages we’re giving our children about the kind of people they’re going to grow up to be. And not just our girls, I think that gender is important to girls and boys.”

"I think Disney princesses are one of the ways that people are now exploring what it means to be a girl. I think it's one of the most profound conversations people are having." - Connie Shemo, history professor at SUNY Plattsburgh

The idea of how life and love works is very cut and dry in older Disney movies, Shemo says, such as Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. She explains that a lot of people critique these films for the same issues. “The [princesses’] passivity, the lack of activity, the lack of ability to help themselves … but one of the most important critiques of those is the idea that you meet somebody and you fall in love,” says Shemo. She argues that the big problem with the common Disney scenario is that it doesn’t give the characters any room to develop. It doesn’t allow for the formation of a relationship based on kindness, bravery or personal qualities. “It’s all about looks, and in the case of the prince, usually about wealth, because if he’s a prince you know he’s wealthy,” she says.

"It's all about looks, and in the case of the prince, usually about wealth, because if he's a prince you know he's wealthy."

To prove this point, she uses the film Cinderella. “We see that [Cinderella] is kind beforehand, we see her helping the mice, we see her making clothes for the mice,” says Shemo. “The prince doesn’t see any of this … He loves her because she’s the most beautiful girl there.” The professor explains that the prince doesn’t like the stepsisters not because they are mean to Cinderella, but because they are ugly.

Shemo says that along with the Disney films there has also been an extreme gendering of toys, starting in the '90s and becoming even stronger in the 2000s, which has affected both genders. “You see princesses are generally directed towards girls,” says Shemo. “But a model where you have to be dashing and handsome and rich to get the girl, it’s not good for boys, either. It’s not a good model of human relationships.”

"A model where you have to be dashing and handsome and rich to get the girl, it's not good for boys, either. It's not a good model of human relationships."

Shemo says it all – well, most of it – changed in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. “[Ariel] is active, she’s curious, she takes her fate in her own hands, she disobeys her father … She’s determined. Then she sees Eric, falls in love, and then she makes one more decision to become a human. Then, once she gets on land, she becomes completely passive … And she does fall in love at first sight, and then she gives up everything, she gives up her life in the sea and goes with him,” explains Shemo. Many call this movie the start of the Disney “Renaissance,” but Shemo says it is also critiqued due to Ariel’s actions in the second half of the movie, in which she almost reverts back to the old Disney princess standard.

The real shift in dynamic of the Disney princess movie can be seen in Beauty and the Beast in 1991, Shemo says, in that loving someone based solely on their appearance is mocked through the character of Gaston. But it isn’t until Frozen, in 2013, says Shemo, that the idea of love is completely turned upside down in a Disney movie.

"At the same time Disney is critiquing their old model, they won't let go of their old model. If you get the DVD of Frozen, the very first preview is a re-mastered edition for "Sleeping Beauty." Lots of mixed messages."

A brief plot synopsis of Frozen for those who may not have seen the movie: Anna is a young princess who is very isolated. She takes the one chance she gets to break out of her castle and meets a very handsome prince, Hans. They sing a song and fall in love, just like past Disney movies, but in this film, he ends up being the villain. Anna is freezing to death and requires an act of true love to warm her heart, which she assumes is a true love’s first kiss. She meets with Hans and right before their lips touch, Hans says, “Anna, if there was only someone who loved you.” He tells her that she is needy, that he never loved her and that he was only using her. He then leaves her in the room to die.

Shemo says that although Disney is making a big statement about love in this movie, that children shouldn’t believe in love at first sight and that people can be deceiving, it's refusing to let go of its old ways. “At the same time Disney is critiquing their old model, they won’t let go of their old model. If you get the DVD of Frozen, the very first preview is a re-mastered edition for Sleeping Beauty,” she says. “Lots of mixed messages.”