DISNEY Princesses have had a lot of bad press recently.
First actress Keira Knightly revealed she has banned her three-year-old daughter Edie from watching Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, saying they don’t portray strong women.
Then Kristen Bell, who voiced Princess Anna in modern Disney classic Frozen, laid into them saying she tells her little girls that Snow White shouldn’t have been kissed without consent.
The actress claimed she tells Lincoln, five, and Delta, three: “Don’t you think that it’s weird that the Prince kisses her without permission?”
So are Disney princess films really such a terrible influence on our kids?
Here Dr Victoria Cann, a lecturer in Humanities at the University of East Anglia, and Dr Laura Coffey-Glover, a lecturer in Linguistics with a special interest in gender and sexuality at Nottingham Trent University, give their views…
Snow White (1937) – Promotes jealousy and female rivalry
What’s the plot? In the first of the Disney princess movies, Snow White goes to sleep after eating a poisoned apple given to her by her wicked step-mother disguised as an old hag. She falls into a coma until a prince finds her in the forest and kisses her. She wakes up and they get married.
Dr Can said: “This is less about Snow White and more about the jealousy of an older woman towards a younger one.
“It sets up the idea of female rivalry and sends the idea that an older single woman can never be happy.”
She also points out that while Snow White falls for the handsome Prince at first sight, the Seven Dwarves never get look in because they aren’t tall, dark and handsome.
Dr Cann says: “The dwarves have jobs and personalities. But because they’re not tall and conventionally attractive, they never get considered as her potential love interests.”
Snow White also sends negative messages about women’s roles, says Dr Cann.
“Her only useful role is seen as cooking and cleaning for the Dwarves.”
For Dr Laura Coffey-Glover, Snow White is the first of many princesses who set up unrealistic expectations for little girls.
“They are portrayed as helpless characters who wait passively to be swept off their feet,” she says.
“These are very powerful messages that teach young girls that their value in life lies in their attractiveness, rather than their achievements.”
Beauty and the Beast (1991) – Promotes domestic violence
What’s the plot? A prince who has been turned into a bad-tempered beast keeps Belle in his castle in return for letting her father go free. They fall in love and her devotion turns him back into a Prince.
For Dr Cann, this is the Disney film with the most worrying message of all.
“This is the most dangerous because the Beast always feels on the verge of violence,” she says.
“What it shows is a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captive falls in love with their captor to ensure their survival.
“It also gives the unnerving idea that if a woman perseveres long enough, she can change an angry partner.
“At the end, the beast then turns into this blonde-haired white man for another happy ever after, giving the idea that now he’s good looking, he can’t possibly be angry or threatening.”
Aladdin (1992) – Racist
What’s the plot? Princess Jasmine is being forced to marry by her wealthy father. He tells her she needs a well-off husband to protect her. She resists and instead falls in love at first sight with street urchin Aladdin, who she ends up marrying instead.
“Princess Jasmine is feistier as a princess,” says Dr Cann.
“But she is still portrayed as a possession of wealthy, powerful men.
“Dress-wise, she is basically in a bikini top to show off her very slight stomach which seem to be an attempt by white film-makers to make the dress of Middle Eastern women look more exotic and sexual.”
There is also the fact that “good” characters, like Aladdin, are portrayed as pale-skinned, while “bad characters”, like the villain Jafar, are darker skinned.
Dr Cann says skin tone “is a really important concept for how good and bad come to be represented in films.
“It’s the same in another Disney film, The Lion King, where the Scar, the evil lion, is a darker colour than the good lions, like Mufasa.
“This can be especially damaging to the self-esteem of people with darker skin tones.”
Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Promotes anorexia
What’s the plot? Another princess is sent to sleep with a spell – once more from an older, bitter female character taking revenge for not being invited to her Christening. The evil fairy then puts on a curse on the child saying she will die by pricking her finger on a spinning wheel before her 16th birthday. Her finger does get pricked, she falls into a deep sleep and it also takes the kiss of a Prince, stunned by her beauty, to wake her.
“Aurora can only be woken up by the true love’s kiss of a prince, which sets up the idea that once you find the person you are supposed to be with, everyone lives happily ever,” says Dr Cann.
“It creates unrealistic expectations of relationships.”
Dr Cann also points out Sleeping Beauty barely has any dialogue. Instead she’s an object to be looked at.
“Sleeping Beauty is also a case of glorified thinness – it’s impossible to have a waist that small,” Dr Cann observes.
“Studies have shown that when little girls are shown ideals that they have no chance of living up to, it can be damaging for how they feel about their worth.”
Like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty is also kissed while she is asleep (and looking dead), sending the message that women are passive objects to be lusted after.
“There’s definitely a question of consent in these films,” says Dr Cann.
“They normalise men’s sense of entitlement over women’s bodies.”
The Little Mermaid (1989) – Gives up everything for a man
What’s the plot? After falling in love at first sight with Prince Eric, mermaid Ariel makes a deal with sea-witch Ursula to give up her voice in return for swapping her tail for human legs.
According to Dr Cann: “The premise of the film is that it’s OK to abandon your family, drastically change your body and give away your voice to get your man.
“Ursula, the sea witch, is another case of an evil woman being portrayed as older or less conventionally attractive.
“The message is that you can’t be a single woman without being jealous or unhappy.”
The fact that Ariel gives up her voice to get her man sends a message that marriage is more important.
Dr Coffey-Glover says: “The lead female characters don’t do much else in the films apart from seek out enchanted love – other life goals are very much secondary.”
Cinderella (1950) – Promotes gold diggers
What’s the plot? Cinderella is forced to be servant to her cruel stepmother and her jealous, less pretty daughters. So she can go to the ball, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother transforms her into a princess for the evening. In her finery, she enchants the Prince but in her rush to get home before midnight, she leaves her glass slipper. When the Prince finds out she is the only woman in the kingdom who fits it, they get married.
“The message here is that if you’re beautiful enough, a rich man might fall for you and take you to live in luxury,” says Dr Cann.
“The film also encourages the idea that how you look and dress is what’s most important about you. Before she has fine clothes, Cinderella is invisible.”
The film also makes out all stepmothers to be evil and scary.
Dr Cann says: “At a time when fewer children live in traditional nuclear families, the idea that all stepmothers are jealous gold-diggers – and that only biological mothers can be kind – also gives off damaging messages to children.”
Frozen (2013) – Girl Power
What’s the plot? Anna and Elsa are princesses who have to be separated because of Elsa’s magical ice powers. When Elsa freezes her sister’s heart by accident, she is told it can only be thawed by true love. When her own tears fall on Anna’s body, she wakes up.
While it’s not perfect, Frozen is an improvement on what’s gone before, says Dr Cann and Dr Coffey-Glover.
Dr Cann says: “This is a film where there are two female lead roles. It shows that love can take different forms and a woman does not need to be saved by a man.”
Although the characters still have stereotypical white faces and tiny figures, Dr Cann says this is a Disney movie that gives off more positive messages.
“When children are younger, these sort of Disney films send more positive message to children, so it might be better to show these first,” she says.
Overall, Dr Cann advises: “There’s no need to ban kids from seeing Disney movies, but maybe wait until they are little older to show them the older films. Then use them as a way to raise some questions about what they see there.
“The Disney films can be a great way to teach media literacy.”
Dr Coffey-Glover agrees: “I’m not saying that we should necessarily boycott Disney films, just that it’s important we encourage our children to consume them with a critical eye.”
In the same debate, Fabulous Daily editor and Disney superfan Joely Chilcott shared her view on the films.