The idealist perspective in the 20th century is looking at different categories and how they shape people’s world view.  Marvin Harris emphasizes that culture can be understood by looking at people’s behaviors. According to Harris’ perspective, “…Culture is the total socially acquired lifestyle of a group of people included patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling and acting.” (Moberg 2013: 266). Disney movies are a wonderful way of examining this; when you look at the overall theme of the movies being made and the years that they came out in you can see how the themes are reflecting society’s views and standards for the time.

Disney princesses in the movies change over time as the American views for female social roles change over time. First, take a look at Snow White. Snow White, which was first released by Disney in 1937, Snow Whites Step-mother is jealous of Snow White because is prettier, kinder, and more caring than she is. The Step-moms solution is to kill Snow White. Being pretty, kind, and caring is the ideal personality that a woman should have during the late thirties. This outlines what a housewife is supposed to be. Snow White runs away to avoid her imminent death and stumbles upon a cabin in the woods where seven dwarfs live. When she meets the dwarfs she takes on a motherly role and teaches them to act like “civilized beings” aka, learn to take care of yourself, be polite (again pointing to social settings and norms and learned behaviors) and maintain a cleanly living space. When the dwarfs go to work Snow White stays home and cleans the cabin happily singing while doing so; this further fits the image of what a good housewife should be. In the end she eats a poisoned apple and ends up being rescued by her prince. Then they live happily ever after.

Cinderella, which was released by Disney in 1950, is essentially an orphan (her dad died shortly after he remarried), leaving her step-mom with custody of Cinderella. It is apparent that Cinderella’s step mother has a goal of making her life hell. Regardless of being treated like crap for the later part of her life, Cinderella is still nice, kind and caring to all the little animals even the mean cat. Cinderella emphasizes the importance of always dreaming and having wishes. There is a ball held by the King for his son the prince in hopes that his son will find a wife. Cinderella’s step-mom does not want her to go to the ball so she gives Cinderella hopes that she can go and then crushes them. Cinderella meets her fairy godmother who makes Cinderella beautiful; she looks so gorgeous that the prince falls in love with her the moment he meets her. This fits into the view that in the 50’s that women should be easy on the eyes. Cinderella stays at the ball too late and has to run home before everyone can see who she is and looses her slipper. The prince has every girl in the land try it on he finds Cinderella and they live happily ever after.

In 1959, Sleeping Beauty comes out an evil sorceress is mad since she was not invited to the party for Princess Auras birth when everyone else was so she cursed Aura. There are three fairies and they gave Aura the gifts of beauty, song, and the last one weekend the curse. The fairies raise Aura in the woods to protect her from the sorceress. Aura grows up a nice pretty girl who and she frolics with animals and she is well hidden from the world. She meets a prince in the woods and they fall in love. Eventual within this plotline the curse gets fulfilled Aura is in a deep sleep her prince has to give her true loves kiss and rescue her which in order to do he must fight a bunch of goblin things and a dragon. He saves her they live happily ever after.

There isn’t another Princess movie out for 30 years and next is the little mermaid. There still are some underlying themes in this movie but there are some major changes in the social structure of this film. Arial rebels against her father and chases for the man she loves the enemy then becomes Ursula the evil octopus who hads a grudge against Aerials father. Ursula makes Arial a human with the condition that Arial give Ursula her voice and Arial must have the prince kiss her in three days or she would not get her voice back; Ursula did this to get back at king triton. Aerial was supposed to get Erik with her good looks and lovely personality the only problem is that Erik is looking for the girl with the beautiful voice on the shore he fell in love with and it couldn’t be Arial because she had no voice. In the end Ursula uses Aerials voice to try and get the prince because Arial almost has him and Ursula does not want to lose in the end Ursula is defeated and Arial and Erik get married and live happily ever after. The role for Arial that changes in this movie is that she is rebelling against her dad for love. Things that stay the same is the idea that the woman should be beautiful and kind . It also continues showing the idea that the men should fight to protect the girls because Arials dad fights to protect her and so does Erik. Then the same social theme at the end they get married and everything is happy.

Then there is a cluster of movies that follow this coming out pretty close together Beauty and the Beast 1991, Aladdin 1992, Pocahontas 1995, Mulan 1998. These all follow the changing theme Bell from Beauty in the beast still fits in to the beautiful and kind category but the new theme is she is rebelling against society’s standers of what a women should be. Her father is supportive and Bell is not looking for love she is looking for whatever will make her happy in life. The enemy is now a forceful man Gaston who is trying to force her into marriage which she doesn’t do. Bells father is captured by a beast she takes his place to save him and ends up seeing the inner beauty of the beast. They have to fight against Gaston and the village to be together. They live happily ever after. Changing roles in this include fighting to be scene as an intulect. There is the same theme of the woman having to teach the man to be civilized in the Beauty and the beast as there is with snow white having to teach the dwarphs how to act. However in this movie Beauty saves her dad and Beast.

Alladin which came out in 1992 is special because it is a switch in roles in a way instead of the girl marrying a prince at is a guy marrying the princess and the enemy is a man named Jaffar who wanted power. In that sense the roles are switched in this movie but it still does have some of the same characteristics as the previose movies. The princess does still need to be fought for and saved in order for alladin to be with her.  The princess is also rebelling against her dad in this movie. This is significant because the changes in the social roles in these movies is going along with the shift in world view . The next movie in this particular shift in time and gender roles is  Pocahontas that came out in 1995 like little mermaid she is rebelling against her dad because she does not want to marry the man he wants her to marry. John Smith who she wanted to be with was considered an enemy because the people he was with is trying to take the land that Pocahontas and her people were living on and they were going to war. The shift in this movie is that Pocahontis saves John Smiths life and instead of going home with him she stays with her father and the people in the village she lives in. The last movie in this shift of world view is Mulan which came out in 1998 she is also a rebellion because she is supposed to be a nice traditional Chinese lady when going to the match maker she did not fit the part which is bad for he families honor. Her handicapped dad gets drafted into the army so in a way she rebelled because she dresses up as a man and joined the army in her dads place as his son.  While on this adventure she meets her love but there is obsticles in the way.

Now we enter the next era. The princess and the frog comes out in 2009 11 years after the previous slew of princess movies. In this movie Tiana does not care about love what so ever she is all business. Her goal was to save money and open a resturaunt a careless prince who has had his money taken came into her life. He was looking for a princesses they get turned into frogs and have to go through various battles to be turned back into humans in the end they fell in love. The enemy in this movie is a man who does voodoo magic. This movie is very different from the other ones because the girl is not looking for love and has a set goal that can be accomplished through working all the time. The male role is the one who is the one that is in need of help and both people had different interest in their journey it is not until the very end that they fall in love. The next movie that comes out is Brave in 2012 this movie is about a girl who is a tomboy and her mom does not like it because she is supposed to act like a princess. When the girl reaches marrying age and several boys are brought in to win the opportunity to marry her. The girl is outraged and visits a witch and gets a potion to change her mom. The potion changes her mom into a bear and her dad is all about killing bears. In the end the conflict is resolved she doesn’t have to get married and the girl and her mom learn a lesson about their love for eachother. This is very different than the other themes because the role is being changed to the girl setting her own goals, rebelling, and the love relationship was with her mom. The issue was not with a person but was a bear which was a symbol of their issues that needed to be resolved.

The last movie is frozen this movies enemy is the princess Elsa power to freeze things that she cannot control and it gets worse when she is having a hard time controlling her emotions. She used to be good friends with her sister Auna but she could not talk to her anymore because she wanted to protect her from her powers. At Elsa’s crowning ceremony the two girls get in a fight Elsa accidently reveals her power accidently sets the town into internal winter and runs away into the woods. Auna who got engaged after a day ran off to find her the two girls fight and Elsa accidently freezes Auna heart and she could only be saved by an act of true love. Elsa did not know she froze Auna’s heart but when she gets back Auna is frozen because Auna and her fiancé turned out not to be true love. In the end the act of true love was a hug given to Auna from Elsa. No one gets married at the end Auna dates a guy who is better for her and does not rush things and Elsa learns to control her emotions. This is following today’s changes in the views of the world because the theme of the movies is switching to being in control of your emotions and loving your family the more time goes on the more the gender roles becomes less important and knowing more about yourself becomes important.

4 thoughts on “Princess

  1. Thank you for your summary of the Disney princesses. I never thought of those movies in this way. I believe the more changes that happen over the years they still seem to be variations on the same theme. one thing that struck me when you were summarizing Snow White’s interaction with the Dwarves is that it is a metaphor for colonialism. She is bringing them civilization, so that makes her a unilineal evolutionist.

  2. Well put, I enjoyed your argument. It is so true that these women depicted in these Disney movies reflect the culture of their release dates. We can also point out the evolution of Disney princess racial representation. Jasmine was Persian, Tiana a young black woman in New Orleans, Mulan, Pocahantas, Esmerelda… In our Western society, I think we’ve become more sensitive to racial differences and their frequent absences in mainstream media. I agree with you also in that the gender roles in these films have evolved over time and the women depicted are becoming stronger and more independent. The same can be said for the theme of “love” as it too is changing. You mentioned Frozen, and in that movie, like many other Disney movies, Anna meets and wants to marry a man she only just met. Her sister Elsa says just that “you can’t marry someone you just met” denoting the ludicrous notion.

  3. It’s also interesting to think about how the early fairy tales shifted from their original versions to the Disney versions. After all, in the ‘original’ Cinderella, her step-sisters are so anxious to marry the prince that they cut off the toes or heels of their feet to fit into Cinderella’s dainty glass slipper and the prince only realizes it once he gets them home and the blood flows out of the slipper. Somehow that got cut out of the Disney versions.

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