The Changing Role of Women in Disney's Princess Movies. Feminism in the U.S.

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. The Changing Role of Women in Walt Disney’s Princess Movies
2.1 The first wave: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
2.2 The second wave: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
2.2.1 Analysis of female gender roles in Beauty and the Beast
2.2.2 Comparison of the first and second wave of Disney
2.3 The third wave: Frozen (2013)
2.3.1 Analysis of female gender roles in Frozen
2.3.2 Comparison of the second and third wave of Disney

3. Conclusion

4. Appendix

5. Sources

1. Introduction

It was only last Christmas that my five year old godchild, Mina, got the Disney Princess Movie Collection, a box including films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid, from her grandparents. They said nothing would be as timeless and classy as these fairy tales which would fascinate every little girl of every generation. It definitely fascinated Mina, as she became to love the movies instantly. Very quickly she sang along with the songs and knew text passages by heart. Mina is not the only one totally in love with Princess Movies as Disney’s success story proves. Bewitched by the magical atmosphere these films create, millions of girls are dreaming of becoming a princess themselves one day. Seeing Mina re-enact these fairy tales and in that way slip into the role of a princess the thought struck me in the context of my seminar about Feminism, in what way these movies influence little girls and also boys. Which concepts of womanhood do they foster and are these fairy tales really as timeless as the grandparents think they are?

Taking a closer look at the most successful and best known of all Disney princess movies, there are basically three waves, defined by their date of release. The first feature-length animated film Disney created was a story based on the Brother Grimm fairy tale “Schneewittchen”. The Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was premiered in 1937 and was an instant success, followed by Cinderella in 1950 and Sleeping Beauty in 1959. The next wave of princess movies were produced between 1989, starting with Little Mermaid, followed by Beauty and the Best (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995) and ending in 1998 with Mulan, so basically during the 1990s. The latest wave of Disney princess films is from 2009 on with The Princess and the Frog, then Tangled (2010), Brave (2012) and the last one was Frozen (2013). This is an enormous timeframe. The 1930s, 40s and 50s provided a completely different audience than the 1990s or the current decade, as society and especially gender roles changed a lot over time. Consequently one can also expect differences in the way the Walt Disney Company chose to depict its characters over the years.

This research paper will show that female gender roles in Disney princess movies respond to the change of society by portraying their Disney heroine much more assertive and less passive over time. To support this thesis one movie from each of the three waves which were introduced above will be analyzed exemplary for the period.

2. The Changing Role of Women in Walt Disney’s Princess Movies

What makes Disney films so appealing is the sense that the fairy tales are directly relevant to the audience (Marling). They cover all kinds of topics, from power and magic over domesticity and standards of feminine beauty to love and friendship, which open the spectator opportunities to identify. In the following the role of women is in the focus of the analysis. As every movie is a product of the time it was produced in and “reflect[s] the diverse views of society and self” (Teverson 143), gender roles are depicted differently over the years.

To not go beyond the scope of this research paper, one movie will be analyzed exemplary for each of the three periods. Nevertheless cross references to other Disney princess movies belonging to the same period will be made if possible. For the first wave which covers the 1930s to 1950s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is analyzed as an example for depiction of women and girls during these decades. Beauty and the Beast is chosen to uncover how women are characterized during the second wave of Disney princess movies in the 90s. The latest Disney princess film Frozen will serve as an example for the current period.

2.1. The first wave:Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs(1937)

“I’m wishing for the one I love to find me today.”

(Snow White in “I’m Wishing”)

As mentioned in the introduction the first Disney princess was Snow White who appeared in 1937 in the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which was an adoption of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. Jack Zipes reckons that Walt Disney changed the story to suit his tastes and believes and “cast a spell over this German tale and transformed it into something peculiarly American” (Zipes 201). Consequently one can proceed on the assumption that also the role of women is adapted to the American life during the 30s. But before this is to be analyzed there will be a short summary of the fairy tale.

The orphan Snow White is “first depicted as a kind of Cinderella, cleaning the castle as a maid in a patched dress” (Zipes 201). The queen is jealous when her magic mirror tells her that Snow White is the fairest and most beautiful in the whole country. When the wicked queen wants to kill her, the girl takes refuge in a little cottage in the forest. The dwarfs living there get to love their visitor, who is doing the household for them, very quickly. When the queen poisons Snow White, the prince who had been searching for her since they met once, brings her back with a kiss of true love. And they live happily ever after.

There are only two women appearing in the fairy tale. In the center of the story is the passive young virgin Snow White who is in a conflict with her evil mature stepmother, the queen. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar state in their book The Madwoman in the Attic that “the film follows the classic sexist narrative about the framing of women’s lives through a male discourse. Such male framing drives women to frustration and some women to the point of madness” (Zipes 202). This framing is visualized by the prince who appears at the beginning and at the end of the story as the fulfilment of Snow White’s dreams. Both women are competing for male approval. The wicked queen can’t stand not to be the most beautiful in the country and also Snow White prays later in the story for Grumpy to like her.

Beauty and the looks play in general a substantial role throughout the story. The prince and Snow White for example fall in love from the moment they first set eyes on each other, without having spoken a word. When the prince wants to talk to her she is so shocked that she runs into the castle and only appears looking down from the balcony and sending a dove to kiss him. The whole scene reminds the spectator of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and their desperate struggle for being united despite the conflict of their families which means in Snow White’s case despite the disapproval of her stepmother. What is getting obvious right from the start with the mirror scene and the love at first sight is that a women’s appearance is valued more than her intellect. There is no scene which shows Snow White is able to read. The observer knows on the contrary that the evil queen can read, as she is doing the potion to poison the apple. This is the only time books play a role in the story, which suggests, that reading is something good girls don’t need, as it is used for evil purposes. The importance of beauty for the female characters can be found in Sleeping Beauty too, because it is the first gift little baby Aurora gets from her fairy godmothers.

The qualities that depict the heroine Snow White are extremely conservative. Working with Barbara Welter’s essay The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860, one can easily see how Snow White is the perfect representative of the four cardinal virtues. Welter states that a woman “was the hostage in the home” (Welter 151) which is perfectly symbolized by the very beginning of the story when the heroine is scrubbing the floor of her own castle. “The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.” (152) Walt Disney shows her piety for example by letting Snow White kneel in front of the bed praying before going to sleep, trusting in God to turn everything to the best. Her purity is for instance symbolized by the way she encounters the prince. She is too shy to talk to him when they are standing right next to each other at the well and runs away instead, to bring physical distance between them. Moreover her name Snow White and the white dove she sends to kiss the prince suggest purity as the color white symbolizes innocence. Her submissiveness gets obvious with all characters she meets and also from her physical appearance, the ladylike and gentle way she moves and her soft and kind voice. It is apparent at the start when she is working as a maid for her stepmother and also when she offers the dwarfs to care for their home in return for living with them. It is symbolized in the last scene again, when the prince is carrying her on his hands to his horse and leading her to his castle, like a trophy he won, without even asking what she actually wants. It is self-evident that all a woman could wish for is falling in the arms of a prince, as one can also observe in Cinderella. As Mrs. Sandford puts it: “A really sensible woman feels her dependence. She does what she can, but she is conscious of inferiority, and therefore grateful for support.” (159)

The most dominant virtue which can be found in Snow White is domesticity. Her character is introduced while working and when she comes to the house of the seven dwarfs the first thing she notices is the dirt and dust everywhere. Consequently she starts cleaning and washing with the help of the animals, “turning the dwarfs’ cottage into a nice little middle-class suburban habitation” (Zipes 204). Her first thought is that children must live there without their mother, as the mother is connected with household, order and cleanliness. Thinking of the father in that context wouldn’t even occur to her, because “[t]he true woman’s place was unquestionably by her own fireside – as daughter, sister, but most of all as wife and mother” (Welter 162). It is notable how cheerful and merry she is while cleaning, as if this is what truly suffuses her. What is also important to point out is that as soon as she is allowed by the dwarfs to stay in their cottage, she sets the rules for everything that happens inside their home, for example when they have to wash themselves before dinner. This shows that the woman’s sphere is inside the house, while the men go out to work.

Snow White is completely helpless when she is alone in the woods. She is so afraid and horrified that even the trees appear to be alive and going after her. This sends the message that a woman is not fit for the dangerous world outside, but belongs to a warm and cozy fireside, where a husband is looking after her. Consequently what Snow White, as well as Aurora and Cinderella, are longing for is a handsome prince. This is emphasized by Snow White’s song “I’m wishing for the one I love to find me today”. In this sentence her passivity is stressed. She is not the one wanting to go out, experience something and find herself a lover, but the prince should come and find her. Good women are passive – in contrast to evil women who get active to fulfill their selfish desires. The dwarfs are at one point describing how the perfect prince should be like: strong, handsome, big and tall. Again intelligence is not a desirable quality. Furthermore the progress of falling in love does not take place. It is depicted as the most natural thing on earth that if the princess meats the prince they are made for each other and they will live happily ever after. This is exactly what happens to Aurora and Cinderella and their princes, too. Marriage is their destiny and fulfilment of their dreams. It is nothing anyone would ever question.

To sum up women of the first wave of Disney princesses, are either depicted as pure, innocent virgins or evil mature witches. The person the viewer identifies with most easily is the beautiful princess, who is depicted lovely but helpless and naïve. The princess’ character is one-dimensional, flat and passive without any form of complexity or conflict within them. Their passiveness is set in contrast to the male characters who are active, like the prince in Snow White who is searching for his princess and the dwarfs who are hardworking and try to rescue her.

2.2. The second wave:Beauty and the Beast(1991)

“True that he is no prince charming,

but there is something in him that I simply didn’t see.”

(Belle in “Something There”)

The last Disney princess of the first wave was Aurora in Sleeping Beauty which was released in 1959. The second wave of Disney princess movies started thirty years later in 1989 with The Little Mermaid and ended in 1998 with Mulan. In the following Beauty and the Beast is taken as an example to show the changes that have taken place in the depiction of female characters in Disney movies over the years. First there will be given a short summary of the story. Afterwards the role of women is analyzed closely and then compared to the depiction of women during the first wave to find accordance and changes.

2.2.1. Analysis of female gender roles inBeauty and the Beast

Belle is a young woman who feels constrained within her life in a small provincial French town. She is constantly trying to avoid Gaston, the bragging star of the town, who is beguiling her and wants her to marry him. One day, to rescue her father, she sacrifices herself to live with a Beast. The ugly Beast is actually a beautiful prince placed under a spell which can only be broken by true love. Belle can break the spell in the end and the Beast and all his servants are transformed back into humans again. And they lived happily ever after.

As the title of the fairy tale Beauty and the Best and the name of the heroine, Belle, already reveal is the outer appearance playing a very important role throughout the story. Right at the beginning the spectator learns that the prince is cursed, because he didn’t give an old ugly beggar woman shelter during a storm. When he sends her away the haggard woman warns him not to be deceived because of the outer appearance as true beauty is found within. After the woman realizes that there is no love in his heart, she turns beautiful and curses him with a spell that transforms him into an ugly beast instead. The prefix of this story is very important. The viewer learns that the looks of women and people in general is not what truly matters in life. The character and a loving heart are of much higher value.

Although the story states in the very first scene that the outer appearance is not important, Disney underlines certain characteristics with it. For example they made Belle the first Disney princess with brown hair and brown eyes, while the other girls who adore Gaston have blonde hair and look completely alike except for the different colors of their dresses. This promotes the stereotype which blonde haired girls have to fight against in society. Belle, the brown haired, is intelligent, free spirited and a real bookworm, while the three blond girls are always appearing together and are depicted as superficial and stupid.

For the heroine reading books is her favorite activity. The reading symbolizes her thirst for knowledge and her intelligence. For the people of the town this is odd and peculiar. They sing it would not be right for a woman to read and that her reading is a pity and a sin. They find her strange and think she does not fit into their predictable life in town with its clear gender roles and hardworking people. Belle feels it too. She sings there must be more than this provincial life and the reading opens her mind for new worlds. Gaston, her suitor, criticizes her for reading and warns she might start thinking and getting ideas. He has already a very concrete concept of her life together: Belle, his wife, should stay at home, caring for their six or seven boys, while he would go out hunting. Belle just tells him that his ideas are medieval and totally out of date. Gaston’s rejection of her interest in reading - and consequently her intellect - is expressed by him throwing her favorite book into the dirt. He is symbolizing the typical conservative values and a society that does not accept women who stand out and do not fit into the mainstream. Belle on the contrary symbolizes self-awareness and individuality instead of conformity. Disney brings here two concepts of womanhood face to face with each other. The first one is exactly the atmosphere of the first wave of Disney princess films, with women being submissive and passive. Belle on the contrary brings a new concept of womanhood up: the woman as self-confident and opinionated character. The fact that the villain, Gaston, dies in the end and Belle’s life has a happy ending supports the new concept of womanhood.

Belle is typical for the second wave of Disney princesses in so far as she takes action, like the headstrong Mulan or the opinionated Jasmine in Aladdin, too. Belle goes out to find her father and sacrifices herself to rescue him. She is first afraid of the castle and the Beast, but her curiosity succeeds and takes her to forbidden places, just like Arielle in The Little Mermaid. When she escapes the castle and is outside in the dark forest attacked by wolves, she tries to fight them off in contrast to Snow White who is lying down crying. But in the end the strong Beast has to save Belle’s life, as she is not able to rescue herself. This shows that women are still dependent on men and inferior to them, at least in some situations. The Beast and Belle argue at one point, which shows that they both accept each other and see themselves as equal partners. Belle is not a woman who gives in easily if there are problems. She rather confronts them and takes action to solve them. This shows that women may be physically weaker, but mentally they are lying level with men. When it comes to love, Belle is making her own decisions in so far, as she decides between two suitors: Gaston and the Beast. She doesn’t care about the looks as she found out that the Beast changed his character for her and they are much more alike concerning their interests and personality. This is also the first Disney movie in which characters change and develop further.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Changing Role of Women in Disney's Princess Movies. Feminism in the U.S.
University of Würzburg  (Philosophische Fakultät I)
Feminism in the U.S.: History, Ideas, and Politics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Disney, Princess, Women, U.S., Feminism, Role, Movies, Frozen, Beauty, Beast, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Gender, Model, little, Mermaid
Quote paper
Sarah Wenzel (Author), 2014, The Changing Role of Women in Disney's Princess Movies. Feminism in the U.S., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Changing Role of Women in Disney's Princess Movies. Feminism in the U.S.

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free