The Disney Princess franchise never fails to dazzle its audience no matter the age. They’re timeless—until you look a little closer. While these films often lend to positive emotions built primarily on nostalgia, they do present references to harmful gender stereotypes. . These classic films function upon the narrative of women being obediently passive in their troubling lives, only finding true “freedom” or “happiness” when they are saved by a strong-willed prince who marries them. At ClassHook we implore you to ask yourself: “What message does this send to every audience member?” And with this, how does it lead to the normalization of modern-day sexism and gender roles at such a young age?
We’ve explored some of Disney’s most popular princess movies—Cinderella, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid—and their storylines’ promoting harmful implications towards a woman’s position in the world. In contrast to these dated narratives, we’ve also examined the most recent Disney princess movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, and its shift towards conveying a more empowering and feminist tale.
Visit our website to explore clips from Disney Princess movies such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and more to learn about the constructive aspects of these films we can embed into our education!
In Cinderella, Cinderella becomes a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters after her father dies. After just barely being allowed to attend the ball until midnight, she falls in love with a prince but leaves before getting to exchange names. After the infamous losing-the-shoe incident however, the prince searches high and low for his suitor, and eventually he and Cinderella rejoice in marriage.
The harmful image of women expressed here is in Cinderella’s inability to save herself from the abuse she faces at home—if not for a miraculously magical fairy godmother and a determined prince, she would have never escaped. This narrative implies that marriage is a tool to “rescue” a woman, emphasizing that without a man, a woman is in no position to take control of her life. We see this being further expressed in Cinderella’s continual depiction as a beautiful woman, never truly appearing to be in distress despite her abusive home environment. This ultimately infers that women are one-dimensional and are only meritorious when they are concerned with beauty and marriage—women are not portrayed to be decision-makers or assertive even in desperate situations.
In Aladdin, Princess Jasmine is told she must get married in order to assume the throne. Jasmine fights against marrying for a title and instead seeks to have a marriage rooted in love. Eventually finding Aladdin, they get married after the genie grants his wish to become prince.
Evident again, a woman’s worth is tied to their marriage status. Princess Jasmine is deprived from a sense of autonomy and instead of combatting this, she is obedient and looks to marriage as her savior. What is particularly harmful in Aladdin, is the obvious belief that Jasmine is not fit to rule the kingdom herself. Like Cinderella, Aladdin suggests that women are passive and unable to make decisions. This ultimately sends the message and feeds into the common belief that women cannot independently hold positions of power and therefore have inferior capabilities in contrast to men. Promoting this idea tells women that they are best in society when they are docile and uninterested in having an assertive role in their own life. This places a woman’s worth in society in quiet and submissive behaviors, needing to be accompanied by a man to feel safe and fulfilled.
The Little Mermaid
In The Little Mermaid Ariel dreams of life as a human, but she is forbidden by her father, King Triton, to pursue this. After saving Prince Eric from drowning she falls in love with him, but the issue is that she is a mermaid, and he is a human. After making a deal with Ursula, she trades in her voice for a pair of legs and three days to make Eric love her back, otherwise she’ll be enslaved by Ursula. In the end, Ariel and Erick marry.
The decision to strip Ariel of her voice while still needing to marry Prince Eric is a damaging portrayal. The film suggests that a woman’s voice is nowhere near as important as the quest for marriage—being docile and meek are encouraged to achieve this. It’s not Ariel’s character that Eric falls for, it’s her looks and submissive behaviors. In a literal sense, she cannot speak for herself. And by choosing to marry a woman without deeply communicating or connecting, the message becomes apparent that women are most desirable when they are passive and fit the beauty standard. Just like Cinderella and Aladdin, The Little Mermaid implies that women lack complexity and that their goals and dreams revolve only around marriage and doing whatever it takes—even if it means losing the most important parts of yourself.
Raya and the Last Dragon: How is it Different?
Raya and the Last Dragon was released on March 5th of 2021. This film is set in Kumandra, a fantasy world, where humans and dragons live peacefully together. When the monster, Druun, returns after 500 years and threatens the land, it is up to Raya to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.
There are several aspects of this film that both empower women and display their complexity—features that the prior Disney Princess movies failed to achieve. First, the world of Kumandra is split into five regions that have their own separate chiefs. Several of these leaders are women, implying that gender is not a defining factor in determining who rules. Displaying women in positions of power, which are also never questioned or sought the audience’s validation as to why, displays that women simply are capable of fitting whatever role they desire to be. This is massively important as it sends the message to viewers that women can be in prestigious positions without constantly having to prove to society they are worthy of it. Next, the women in Raya and the Last Dragon are shown to be complex characters, each with their own motives, beliefs, and flaws they struggle with throughout the film. Such depiction is especially important as princesses in prior movies were more merited for their beauty and ability to marry a strong prince, rather than their character. Veering away from this dated narrative followed by past Disney Princesses, Raya in Raya and the Last Dragon does not hesitate to assert her goals and plow through the obstacles in her way. The most profound difference between Raya and the Last Dragon and most other Disney princess movies is that Raya’s story does not revolve around love or marriage. This alone asserts that a woman’s concern does not revolve around marriage or being saved by a man, and that there are more important stories to tell. Raya and the Last Dragon beautifully breaks the cycle of women only being included in narratives which feature their willingness to dehumanize themselves for a chance at love.