Friday, January 11, 2013

Ranking Feminism, or Ranking Race? Disney's Princesses

How many girls are first introduced to the idea of romantic love not through a romance novel, but through the princess films made by the Walt Disney Company? I'm guessing a healthy majority, at least if we restrict the conversation to American-born kids, or perhaps just to English-speaking countries. Before any young reader thinks of picking up a Harlequin, a Gossip Girl, or a book by Stephenie Meyer or one of her many imitators, she's already quite likely to have unconsciously imbibed the patterns of the Disney-version romance through multiple viewings of her favorite Disney VCR tape, DVD disk, or You-Tube download.

That's why I decided to point my readers in the direction of Sonia Saraiya's "Ranked: Disney Princesses From Least to Most Feminist", even though it was originally posted on back in July 2012. I hadn't seen the post first time round, but when it appeared on several lists of "most interesting web posts of 2012" my spouse browsed during his end of year week off from work, he kindly forwarded the link.

After watching the latest addition to the animated princess annals, 2012's Brave (distributed by Disney, but created under the auspices of Pixar), Saraiya got to musing about the relative feminism displayed by Disney princess heroines. With the caveat that few could do much justice to the label, Saraiya proceeds to rank, from 10 to 1, the Disney princesses, from least to most feminist. Here are her results:

10. Aurora  (Sleeping Beauty)
9. Snow White 
8. Cinderella
7. Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
6. Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
5. Jasmine (Aladdin)
4. Rapunzel (Tangled)
3. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
2. Pocahontas
1. Mulan

Four white princesses, front and center; four princesses of color, safely contained

My first reaction to the list was "Well, yes, of course." For with one early exception, and some minor shuffling amongst the most recent, the films listed appear in largely chronological order:

Snow White (1937)
Cinderella (1950)
Sleeping Beauty (1959) 7 here; 10 above
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Aladdin (1992)
Pocahontas (1995) 4 here; 2 above
Mulan (1998) 3 here; 1 above
The Princess and the Frog (2009) 2 here; 3 above
Tangled (2010) 1 here; 4 above

Second-wave feminism emerged during Disney's dormant period (the gap between 1959's Sleeping Beauty and 1989's The Little Mermaid); given Mr. Disney's personal views, it hardly seems surprising to find that the earlier works, ones made under his own supervision, reflect far more regressive gender politics than ones made during and after the Disney Renaissance. Though it took Disney a few years to catch up to the times, its more recent films acknowledge feminist principles, at least those that have moved from radical assertion to taken for granted.

The more I looked at the pictures that accompanied Saraiya's rankings, though, the more I began to wonder about what role race played in the construction of feminism in the Disney oeuvre. Four of the top five "most feminist" Disney princesses are girls of color: the Arabian Jasmine; the Native American Pocahontas; the Chinese Mulan; and the African-American Tiana. The one white chick in the bunch, Tangled's Rapunzel, earns a  lower feminist ranking than three of these four, despite being the heroine of the most recent Disney release.

That Disney has taken strides to become more racially inclusive (even if often misguidedly so) is surely something for feminists to applaud. Yet I wonder what ideas about women and race will gradually be instilled in young viewers who watch these films over and over, as do so many American families with VCRs or DVDs, and young children. Being a strong woman is good (or perhaps even required?) if one is a person of color, but white girls need not bother? Young girls born into white privilege, but not into class privilege, may find themselves quite disillusioned when they find it takes a little more effort for all their dreams to come true than they were led to expect...

Photo/Illustration credits:
Disney Pictures logo:
Disney Princesses, group and individual: The Disney Wiki

Next time on RNFF
Men in love in the Age of Sail: Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle


  1. Brilliant and succinct. Thank you for this.

  2. Excellent points raised; I blabbed this all over my social media accounts. Thanks!

  3. You're welcome, Ellen. And thanks for sharing!

  4. Nicely put, Jackie!

    And thanks for including the images. Now I find myself wondering about the standards for "feminist" that are in play. What if one factored in some aspects of the "beauty myth," including the ratio of bust to waist?

  5. Thanks, Bev. Yes, I've been thinking a lot about body type/image in looking at these pictures. For me, Snow White looks so much like a little girl that it makes me uncomfortable thinking of her in a sexual relationship with her prince. And it makes it hard for me to imagine her having any sort of equality in such a relationship. In contrast, Pochahontas looks so much more womanly than all of the other princesses, and she's #2 on the feminist list. But #1, Mulan, is a far more slender ideal (although she has to don male clothes to enact her feminism)...

    1. "For me, Snow White looks so much like a little girl that it makes me uncomfortable thinking of her in a sexual relationship with her prince."

      I've not seen many of these Disney productions (I was brought up in the UK, and we didn't have a TV) but according to what I can find on the internet, Snow White is a little girl, at least at the beginning of the film: "Snow White is a 14-year old princess" (Wikipedia).

      "In contrast, Pochahontas looks so much more womanly than all of the other princesses"

      In what way? Not all women have the same shape, and some shapes are more common among women of particular ethnic groups than among women of other ethnic groups. Couldn't it be that Mulan's body-shape is more common among women from her ethnic group?

      Just judging by the pictures here, it seems to me that Pocohontas has an unusually tiny waist. With many of the other princesses I'd ascribe that to the corsets I assume they're wearing under their dresses but that's not so likely to be the case with Pocahontas, which would mean she'd have to have a naturally extremely hour-glass figure.

    2. Laura:

      Yes, not all women have the same shape, but I'm not convinced that cultural authenticity is high on Disney's agenda. The "womanly" body type that came to my mind was a Western male ideal, a Barbie doll shape far from realistic to any culture.

      Pochahontas isn't smiling at her audience, unlike most of the other princesses (at least in this picture from the Disney Wiki site). Less playful, more inwardly-directed, that expression. More grown-up, at least to my eyes.

  6. Since Mulan and Pocahontas are historical figures, even though the history about them may be wrong or folkloric, some of this may be ascribed to cultural differences, which if anything only reinforces the thought that patriarchy has a stranglehold on Western culture.

    1. Yes, the films make it appear that Pochahontas and Mulan are fighting against outmoded cultural norms, norms that are in the PAST, and thus are norms that those of us in the present have put aside, too. Which makes their feminism easier for contemporary viewers accept -- it doesn't challenge any of their own beliefs.

  7. I also meant that they don't challenge today's patriarchy either because they're from a different culture and time -- historical curiosities, so to speak, rather than direct challenges to the powers that be.

  8. Yes, point taken and quite agreed with!

  9. I was going through my bookmarks, and this Tumblr post on deconstructing Beauty and the Beast in an intro to women's studies class has some bearing on this discussion.

  10. Thanks, Lawless, for sharing the link. It's terrific! As a former professor of Children's Literature, I was often on the receiving end of students' ire about having their childhood favorites put under analytical scrutiny. This Tumblr post is so great at explaining why it's so important to be open to such analysis.

  11. I actually like Belle the best. :) I know many women who object to the "rescue the bad boy" element, and I understand their reasons, but that's one of my favorite fairy tales anyway, and I just think she is very steady and smart and stands up for herself and others even when it's scary, and that even though she's an introvert. (Or somewhat presented as one, at the beginning.)

    Mulan drives me nuts. I really like it in some ways, but the ending, with the grandmother saying, "Forget about China, did you bring home a man?" just kind of blows my head off. Plus, "her man" left her lying wounded in the snow after she did save China because he cared more about what people thought of him than her. That really ruined him in my eyes.

    Tiana really bothers me. She's strong, but the pairing of a strong woman and the goof-off play-around hero do not work for me. I have mixed feelings about Pocahontas.

    I would put Rapunzel first like you, I think, in terms of strength in herself, or maybe second after Belle--I really like Belle in her quieter way. :) But I have to say she had the worst effect on my daughter's self-image of any of them...she now longs to turn her lovely dark hair into gold, and looks at it in the sunlight and tries to convince everyone there is some gold in it, and she hasn't let it be cut since the movie came out.

    Let me underline that I enjoy all these stories, per se, but their representation of female roles really bother me in the end.

    My favorite Disney females are actually Lilo and Nani, from Lilo and Stitch. They are awesome. They do need a little help from aliens, but since Nani has essentially become a teenage mother via the death of their parents, it makes sense that society (or aliens) should intervene to offer some support. Anyway, I don't think a "feminist" female means the female never needs help. Not at all. (In fact, I would argue that's a very harmful message.)

  12. Laura:

    Thanks for adding your thoughts on the Disney princesses. I definitely appreciate Belle as a character; as a bookworm myself, I loved having a Disney heroine who's favorite pastime was reading. I'm just not that fond of the situations in which the film places her. A heroine with feminist potential placed in a decidedly non-feminist film, perhaps?

    Your note that you enjoy all the films, but are ultimately bothered by their depiction of female role models makes me think about conversations I used to have with my daughter when she was younger (6-10?) about books we had both read. She would be devastated if I criticized a book she liked, even if I told her that I enjoyed it, too. In her mind, you either liked something or you didn't; there was no in-between.

    Being able to both like and analyze a book/film/text, to recognize ambiguity, and to realize that just because someone criticizes something you like doesn't mean they are criticizing YOU -- when, developmentally, do these skills start to kick in? From my teaching of college students, I can say that the when varies so widely, from person to person. Some might never get there at all, alas.

    You make me want to go and watch Lilo and Stitch -- no pretty costumes, but far more positive role models.

  13. Love Lilo and Stitch. So much love there. It should get points just for NOT being a princess movie, but then I suppose it doesn't really hit the romance tangents.

    I love Sleeping Beauty...but I don't really care about Aurora and Phillip. I care about Flora, Fauna, Merryweather, and Maleficent. While Aurora barely does anything, and if one is ranking solely on princesses, rather than ALL THE OTHER WOMEN...then sure, Sleeping Beauty isn't very feminist. However, it does something that almost no other Disney princess flick does until The Frog Princess: It has women helping each other. (I'm hardly counting the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella who shows up for a single song while the mice do the heavy lifting, or the tree-woman in Pocohontas.)

    Belle is my favourite of the actual princesses. (I like Merida too, but I didn't see Merida as a young'un, and I am more inclined to sympathise with her mum now. I do love the mother-daughter storyline though.)

    It's no coincidence that my favourite Disney movies are the non-princess ones. (Oh, and Robin Hood, who has Maid Marian, but it's bucking the class theme.) And my favourite Disney villains are Yzma (who is understandably ticked at having to give up power to an underqualified runt who happens to be given charge of the kingdom because he is a dude who inherited it) and Maleficent (I don't care about her motivations, she's just awesomely eviiiiiil.)

    1. PixelFish:

      Thanks for stopping by, and adding your thoughts. I had forgotten about the three fairies who work together -- definitely a feminist moment, even if it is all in the cause of helping Aurora get to the ball...

      You make me want to go and watch Lilo & Stitch again :-)

  14. I enjoyed your article up to a point, the last bit, women of colour need to be strong whilst white women need not be, was just silly. As you pointed out before this has to do with the chronology of feminism and race relations. I highly doubt a child will have that sort of impression instilled on them by the films. As you pointed out, Rapunzel, one of the new spunky heroines, is white. So obviously, the new take is that all women need be strong, regardless of colour.