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Children are like sponges, they are constantly soaking in representations of the world and the people in it, which make them an incredibly impressionable audience. As technology advances, children are bombarded with media from the day they are born. The many subliminal messages that media incorporates have a profound impact on youth — as identity formation begins, the internalization of these messages impacts the lens they view the world with. Threads of unrealistic depictions of romance, relationships, beauty and self worth are woven through all of Disney Princess’ stories. The assumption that these movies are innocent entertainment only perpetuates the many dangerous subliminal messages that impressionable young girls so easily internalize; which ultimately create unhealthy relationships with themselves, others and the world around them.
Princess’s are most often associated with beauty; and Disney’s characters are no different. There is no question that the physical depiction of a Princess is over sexualized and these unrealistic, twisted perceptions of beauty have a very real impact on the development of self worth. In a study done by Brigham Young University, Sara M. Coyne P.H.D explores the long-term effects of what she labels the “Princess Culture”, and found that girls with lower self esteem were more likely to engage and connect with Disney Princesses. She argued that “perfectly proportioned, predominantly white characters perpetuate a potentially harmful ideal of beauty… an obsession with beauty can increase girls’ vulnerability to issues including eating disorders, depression and risky sexual behavior” . This hyper focus on beauty and sexualization of princesses can be traced from Snow White (1937) to Frozen (2013). The concept that beauty determines worth is a dangerous message and is only exacerbated by the idolization and prevalence of Princess culture.
Perhaps even more astounding is the hyper focus on beauty exemplified in their representations of inter female relationships. Women are often depicted as the enemy in Disney films, and more often than not they are shown as zealous, vain and cruel figures who use their power out of jealousy or spite. In Tangled, Rapunzel is kidnapped by a crazed witch obsessed with obtaining youth and permanent beauty. Similarly, Snow White is targeted by the Queen simply because she is prettier than her. Creating woman villains who fight for superficial causes trivializes women in positions of power and enforces hostility and competitiveness between women. Cinderella is forced to compete with her stepsisters for the Prince’s affections. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent (the evil witch) curses baby Aurora simply because she was not invited to the party. With an already limited representation of inter female interactions, depicting the only other women as the enemy instills a pattern of aggression. Instead of exemplifying how to get along and collaborate with other women, young girls are shown over and over again that beauty is something to seek after and fight over.
The unrealistic and often unhealthy depictions of romantic relationships create false expectations for real world romance and interactions. Disney’s general recipe for marriage is as follows: be pretty, find a boy, change your life for him, get married, live happily ever after. Princess’s are frequently required to sacrifice integral parts of themselves simply to fulfill their societal and seemingly predestined purpose. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her voice for a handsome looking boy whom she’s never talked to. Belle is imprisoned and abused, but encouraged to find the beauty within the beast and “falls in love” with her captor. The romantic relationships depicted in these stories contain no real substance, placing a dangerous emphasis on outward appearance and social status. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora only appears in an astonishing 17 minutes of a movie named after her. She is given no autonomy over her own life or decisions, and subjected to happily ever after with her prince after he battles to save her and “True loves kiss” awakens her. By depicting women as entirely reliant on Prince Charming for rescue, self worth, and purpose we perpetuate a dangerous misconception of how to build and maintain a healthy and happy romantic relationship.
Possibly the most damaging effect of Princess Culture on both young boys and girls, are the distinct gender roles depicted. By pushing princess stories to the forefront of girl entertainment, we inherently limit the idea’s and messages being sent to children. Over and over Disney’s storylines emphasize a reliance on men, and incorporate sexist gender stereotypes. While Disney has addressed some of these issues in the release of their recent Princess movie’s, the threads of Disney’s original framework are still very apparent. Frozen was pioneered as a feminist movie, praised for its focus on sister relationships and supposed difference from previous films. However Anna is repeatedly belittled by male characters in the film. Ironically, each time Anna takes initiative as an independant women her efforts are depicted as comical. Her bravery and intelligence are repeatedly minimized by her love interest Kristoff, who rushes in to save the day or lead the way. She is never really given a chance to prove her capability, her every effort made out as comical and naive a very real experience most women encounter in the real world. Belle is shunned for her interest in literature and non interest in the superficial ways of her town. In the opening musical number she walks around town reading a novel as the townspeople sang and gossip about her “Look there she goes, that girl is so peculiar. I wonder if she’s feeling well/ With a dreamy far off look/ And her nose stuck in a book…./Now it’s no wonder that her name means beauty/her looks have got no parallel/But behind that fair facade/I’m afraid she’s rather odd/ Very different from the rest of us” . Her imagination and love of reading is labeled as peculiar behavior and she is simultaneously judged on her outward appearance. In addition, her rejection of Gaston’s aggressive sexual and romantic desires results in even further societal rejection. Instead of being applauded for standing her ground against an entitled harasser, she is rejected even more by her community and shunned for being different. The implications of Disney’s films only perpetuates white heteronormative/cisnormative notions of femininity – as well as the gender binary.
Princess Culture and the consumption of Disney Princess media limits the potential and goal orientation of young girls. Repeatedly being exposed to the countless subliminal messages within not only deters them from pursuing every dream, but impacts their self worth and interpersonal relationships. And while watching a movie or two may not be detrimental to a child’s development, it’s important to be able to understand the messages the media sends as well as create an open dialogue to address them. After all, shouldn’t we be teaching children their only limitations are the stars?
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