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Children gain an understanding of the concept of sex and gender from a very young age, as early as eighteen months. This is a learnt process through cognitive recognition of the permanency of boyness or girlness – referred to as gender concept. These learnt concepts can influence the gendered behaviours which we exhibit through our development. The twenty-first century sees us challenging every stereotype as we strive to be a more tolerant and inclusive society. This essay explores some of the messages about gender roles, that are depicted to children through the Disney Princess franchise. Through viewing the feminine values that Disney portrays, this essay will review the discourse around gender socialisation in relation to the Disney Princess brand. These feminine values relate to the way in which Disney depicts the feminine qualities of their Princesses and this essay will reveal some of the hidden messages that prevail throughout some of Disney’s films.
Gender was first introduced by sociologists West and Zimmerman (1987) as an “achievement”; the product of social daily practices and behaviours that codes us as men or women. Sociologists would argue that gender is not a trait but something that is performed or ‘done’, hence the term ‘doing gender’. They believe that gender is something we learn from our environment from a young age. Psychologist Vivien Burr (1998) argued that ‘Socialisation refers to the processes by which people come to adopt the behaviours deemed appropriate in their culture’. Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, proved in a study that it is known that different cultures all around the world have some division based on a person’s sex. In 1935, Mead carried out research that demonstrated three very different cultures each had different views of the role of the female.
In western culture, males and females are often seen to have personality traits that will distinguish between them. Masculinity is equated to aggressiveness and femininity is associated with a caring and nurturing personality. In order to differentiate between gender and sex, these are referred to by scholars as ‘gender roles’. Sex relates to the biological features of a man or woman and the gender relates to the social roles and behaviours. It is argued that we are taught to be masculine or feminine. Once the biological makeup of a child is revealed, it is thought that there are preconceptions of how they should socially perform. This demonstrates how children are born sexed but learn gender. Where Bandura’s (1999) theory agreed with the concept that gender is something we learn through social processes, Kohlberg would argue otherwise. Kohlberg believed in gender constancy; that once children are aware of their own gender identity, they acknowledge that the superficial characteristics will not alter their gender. Kohlberg defined constancy as the ‘…realization that one’s sex is a permanent attribute tied to underlying biological properties and does not depend on superficial characteristics such as hair length…’. According to Kohlberg’s theory, children acquire an understanding of gender through three stages. Gender labeling, stability and consistency. Gender labeling is the recognition, at a young age, that a child is a boy or a girl based on their outward appearance. Gender stability is the recognition that gender is constant over time but not consistent across all situations. Finally, gender consistency is believed to be when children understand that gender is constant over time and situations.
Sandra Bem (1981) also introduced a theory to try and explain how individuals become gendered in society. By means of tests, Bem argued that once a person has built up a gender schema through past experiences, they are more likely to build upon that already existent gender stereotype, therefore enforcing what that person has learnt childhood. Information becomes almost encoded into ones long-term memory through rehearsal, organisation and elaboration. An example of rehearsal would be a child repeatedly verbalising information such as song lyrics from Disney films.
Organisation involves grouping together information in our mind in our mind, and elaboration is the cognitive process that involves extending or adding to material to make it more memorable. An example of this in relation to Disney Princesses is the way that the princesses act in the films. From repetitively watching the same film or even Disney princess films with the same theme, this information will become ingrained in their long-term memory.
In popular culture, social constructions of female gender and of femininity are often highlighted. It is mainly women who are subjected to social constraints in relation to their gender. Mass media play a vital role in the images they portray of females and their gender roles. They are consistently exposing girls to a one-dimensional image of womanhood. This issue is prevalent when observing Disney Princess media. The eleven official Disney Princesses, which include Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine from Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Rapunzel from Tangled, and Merida from Brave, represent much more than just animated film characters. They represent the ideals of girlhood and are cultural icons for many. The Disney franchise covers a wide range of products such as toys, make-up, clothing, household supplies, as well as their animated films. The Disney products themselves will include themes that can be biased and at times, unwholesome.
Before the advent of film and animation, parents would engage their children through storytelling and reading. Very often these would be legends and fairytales. Disney has taken this concept and built its empire on re-telling stories through another medium, where the heroes and heroines are brought to life in glorious animated technicolor. Some would suggest that, at age three to five years the “target market’s age is a time when the distinction between reality and fantasy is blurry”. The main theme with Disney Princesses traits always seems to be that of a “self-sacrificing and innocent ingénues whose happy ending depends on their one true love”. This reinforces the stereotype of women having a rigid set of defined roles of femininity. Disney markets to young girls through their extensive line of toys, apparel and household items. Their trove of over 40,000 princess products has awarded Disney with over $2.64 billion in 2015, despite the undisguised gender stereotypes.
The popularity of Disney Princesses media raises concerns of how the gender stereotypes which they illustrate will affect young children’s perceptions. According to Wohlwend (2012), young girls see Disney Princesses as more than just a fictional character; they idolize the characters and look up to them as role models, Disney amplifies the discourse around femininity by focusing on the princesses’ beauty and by nullifying any variation in personality or power to control their own destinies. Although in recent years Disney has tried to abstain from traditional gender roles, for example the heroine Merida from Brave, the majority of Disney Princesses are still depicted as passive or weak. A study carried out on Disney films between the years 1937 to 1995, focusing on 16 of the most favored princesses, showed that females were more likely than males to do housework. In contrast, males were six times more likely to be shown as authoritative figures. An analysis of Disney Princesses depicted the gender inequality by uncovering that on average there were approximately nine more male characters with speaking roles as opposed to women, and female characters spoke 20% less than male characters. It’s also a worrying statistic to discover that Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is the only Disney Princess that was employed as anything other than a princess, as she owns her own restaurant by the end of the movie. Despite the recent advocacy to show more heroine characters are independent, these findings expose that male characters are still dominant.
Baker-Sperrry (2007) carried out a study that indicated girls are aware of the gender stereotypes that the Disney media. The research found that children who engaged with literature about a Disney Princess were able to recognise gender stereotypes and reinforced these when discussing the story. This could suggest that girls are accepting of these traditional gender stereotypes and the feminized image of Disney Princesses. Holden (2003) draws attention to an interesting discovery about the design of boys and girls clothes. Holden discusses how the design of girl’s clothes is “traditionally designed to constrain females”. Girl’s clothes are designed to “impress”, whereas boys’ clothes are designed for action. The Disney Princess line follows the same theme as girls clothes ranges include ball gowns, slippers and tiara’s which doesn’t equip girls for adventure.
Despite there being little evidence to show that engaging in princess play has links to girl aspirations or self-esteem, there is evidence to suggest that the exposure to certain gender stereotypes can impact girls negatively and young women’s mental health. This viewpoint was endorsed by Lamb and Brown (2006) who believed that feeling pressured to conform to standards that aren’t realistic will undoubtedly take its toll on the mental health of young girls. A worrying survey of 1059 girls discovered that many girls had still accepted and internalised traditional gender stereotypes, even in the twenty-first century. Believing in these traditional stereotypes can cause issues such as anxiety as girls can feel pressured to look and act a certain way, for example to be beautiful and thin just like the Disney princesses. A study directly related to Disney princess media showed figures of three and four-year old’s, who were asked to choose from six pictures of females dressed as princesses, identifying the slimmer adult figures as the ‘real’ princesses. The perception to also be quiet and submissive also adds weight to the argument, revealed by one study, that girls who accepted characteristics of gender-typed behaviour, such as those in Disney, would deem them more feminine and therefore more susceptible to sink into a depression later on in life.
A more recent study looked at how powerful and consistent messages regarding gender norms and roles have been circulated through Disney’s eleven princesses. Thirty-one, three to five-year-old girls were included. There were four themes that were retrieved from observing children playing princess. These were a focus on clothing, beauty, exclusion of boys and body movement. The outcomes of this study suggested that educators and parents should pay attention to the images the media may portray about gender and think about the effects they might have on their children. The study suggests that they may want to reconsider the amount of media they provide to children.
The APA (2007) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls was formed in response to public concerns. It has long been involved in reporting issues involving children and media content. Studies showed that women, more often than men, were portrayed in a sexual manner. In addition, there seemed to be a heavy emphasis on beauty standards portrayed in the media. The APA concluded that those with great levels of exposure to mainstream media held physical attractiveness and appearance at the heart of their values. The APA was able to link this exposure to mass media and skewed views of female beauty with eating disorder symptoms.
There is a worry that the target market of these products and Disney media are of an age where the distinction between fantasy and reality are blurry. Although between the ages of three and ten years of age children become more aware and able to distinguish between what is real or fantasy on television, some children still believe that everything they see on television is real such as Howard’s (1998) research that suggested children at the age of four still believed that a fictional character such as Bugs Bunny was real. These studies give some evidence that there are links between Disney princess media and gendered behaviours, however, due to the small sample sizes it is difficult to generalise the results with any certainty.
Learning gender is essential for children to help form their identities as performing the gender roles that they observe helps them feel powerful, happy and desirable. Although with maturation a person’s ideas of gender may change, the early years are the most important years for children’s development as they begin to understand themselves and the world around them. Ramsey (1998), discusses that this understanding of differentiation between the genders and dominating gender stereotypes is of concern to children who are beginning to construct their genders. Children are restricted to certain types of dress, toys, games and friends due to the expectation of certain gendered behaviours.
Compared to other types of media models, that some parents view as highly sexualized, Orenstein (2011) noted that parents generally like Disney Princesses and view them as “safe”. Others, such as Ehrenreich (2007), would argue the sense of safety in the Disney Princess brand and are concerned about the potential negative impacts it may have on young girls growing up.
There are key themes that seem to run throughout the Disney Princess films, where the princesses’ goals and aspirations are those not of careers and independence but that of domesticity and the idea of a romance with their one true love. One of the earliest films released by Disney, and one that is still a family favourite today, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White is depicted as the “perfect housewife” (Haynes, 2010) who cooks, cleans and looks after the seven male dwarfs who are hard at work every day. Zipes discusses the recurring domestication of Disney Princesses and describes them as ‘…helpless ornaments in need of protection, and when it comes to the action of the film, they are omitted’. Similar themes continue in the film Beauty and the Beast. Belle is portrayed as intelligent at the start of the film when she is seen reading a book, however when she engages with the baker about the book, she is ignored and is viewed as an outsider. It gives off the impression that being intellectual is unnatural for women and builds upon the stereotype that men are the intellectuals that go to work and women should stay at home looking after the house and children. Maoi (1998) discusses how young women are seen as “…natural-born happy homemakers who lie in a state of suspended animation until a man gives them a life”. Eventually in Beauty and the Beast, Belle gives up her ambitions of adventure to settle down to marry like many of the Disney Princess characters.
One film Disney released in 1995 challenged the typical Disney Princess story and portrayed a more ambitious and adventurous character, Pocahontas. Pocahontas was a woman who stood up for what she believed and “she continues to stand out as one of the few female protagonists whose story does not end in matrimony.” Even in this film, Pocahontas still follows her love interest at the end and leaves her home country for the man she loves.
In addition to Disney Princesses, it’s important to discuss the roles and characteristics of villains in the Disney media. In most of the Disney films, the villains normally possess the qualities that woman are taught are not attractive or desired by men. For example, in the film The Little Mermaid, Ursula’s physical appearance completely contrasted that of Ariel. Ursula had a larger than life personality, was outspoken and a much larger figure. Ursula is never desired by men when we see her with an “ugly, overweight figure”, but when she transforms into her petite figure, she succeeds in attracting male attention and diverting Eric’s attention away from Ariel. This sends yet another negative message to girls, that women are not desirable by men unless they have slender figures and beauty.
Beauty and the Beast portrays an alarming message to children about the way the Beast interacts with Belle. Belle constantly lives in fear of the man she supposedly loves as Beast is seen to emotionally abuse her and lock her in her room. Belle is seen as responsible for controlling the Beast’s anger in the film which puts across a message that women can stop the abuse if they are “pretty and sweet enough”. As well as Disney films, television viewing as a whole could impact children’s gender stereotypes as the media is a culprit for indulging gender stereotyping. In the twenty first century, most children have grown up with multiple televisions in their homes and therefore television observation is high among children. Neale (1973) and Davidson (2008) approximate that children born in the early 70’s, by the time they reach the age of eighteen, other than sleep, will have spent more time watching television than they would have any other activity. Not only television programs conform to stereotypical gender roles but adverts are also a huge contributor to the way women and men are portrayed. Recent reports from the Advertising Standards Authority shows there is evidence to suggest that harmful stereotypes can restrict the aspirations, choices and opportunities of children, young people and adults. Reinforcing these harmful stereotypes through advertising can risk unequal gender outcomes for individuals but also cost the economy and society. The ASA are developing new standards that should come into effect later on in the year in 2018. Adverts will be banned if they are seen to “mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes” and some that follow stereotypical gender roles will be accountable to stricter regulations. Due to a lack of evidence to suggest that adverts containing women carrying out household chores or men doing DIY tasks, these adverts will not be included in the ban. Evidence does however suggest that “certain types of depictions are likely to be problematic. For example, an advert which depicts family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up or an ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks because of stereotypes associated with his gender.” would come under scrutiny. With vast audiences viewing television media, it is not surprising to discover that those who with higher rates of television watching have been linked to displaying a stronger gender stereotype.
An interesting online article questions the notions surrounding gender stereotypes and poses the question “why, when left to our own devices, do so many men and women freely conform to them?”. Ester Boserup (1970) argues that the differences in gender roles follow their origins to when agriculture was traditionally practiced. Boserup (1970) reveals that men had an advantage when it came to farming as it needed significant upper body strength to use the large equipment for ploughing and digging the land. This meant that men were typically the ones who left the home to work and women generally stayed in the home and carried out activities within the house. Alesina, Giuliano and Nunn (2013) “division of labor generated norms about the appropriate role of women in society”. These cultural beliefs persisted even once the economy had moved away from agriculture which affected the participation of women in roles performed outside of the home such as in politics, entrepreneurship or market employment. Wakefield and Gascoigne (2018) discuss the twenty first century girls who still spend time applying make-up and making themselves look their best, just as Victorians would have done. When reviewing what men and women were most likely to Google, they found that overwhelming, men looked at sport and sex and women would swipe through cookery, childcare and gardening. These traditions suggest that it would be difficult for the ASA or for anyone else who sets their heart on eliminating gender stereotypes as “evolution can’t be undone by right-on thinking”. This essay has examined some of the hidden messages to children, about gender roles, that Disney has portrayed through its Princess franchise. The role that media and advertising could have on learning and constructing children’s gender roles has also been explored. Many theorists work was discussed in relation to gendered behavior and the process of ‘doing gender’. Finally, some suggestions as to the origins of gendered behaviours were put forward to support evidence showing that these same behaviours are still prevalent in the twenty-first century.
In my opinion, I believe that the Disney Princess brand is not a good influence on young girls as the persuasiveness of Disney media could have some implications when it comes to children forming their gendered identities. Even though there seems to be a lack of extensive research in this specific area, I feel the many theorists prove that it is extremely possible for prolonged exposure to Disney and gender stereotyped media to have an influence in the way children view gender roles. Some of the messages such as an unrealistic image of the female figure, passive nature of the heroines and the lack of any ambition are not the ideals that we should be bringing up children to believe in. I think that the Disney Princesses should be portraying more positive messages in a number of different ways. For example, why not portray a princess who works while the male stays at home to take care of the family? Do the romantic relationships always have to be between males and females? Could a story end in something other than marriage or motherhood? Children should be provided with more knowledge surrounding the issues of gender, by teachers and parent and should pay particular attention to critiquing popular culture. This will allow children to question and develop issues that may appear through the media or Disney.
Although I do believe that Disney and the media should be more careful in the feminine images they portray, I continue to question the extent to which these affect children’s gender stereotype and whether these stereotypes can actually ever be erased. The interesting notion I am still left to question is that although the “terrific thing about our day and age is that everyone feels much freer to be who they are… in general, they freely behave according to stereotype.”
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