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Does Once Upon a Time Become Happily Ever After in Real Life

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Most adults alive today cannot remember a time before “Once upon a time.” Since 1938, Disney princesses have been a prevalent form of entertainment for young children– specifically, young girls. It is only more recent that critics have started to question whether these movies are appropriate for young children to watch due to the depiction of rigid gender roles and common misconceptions about love and relationships. The idea in question in this investigation is regarding whether or not the gender roles and romantic ideals so ingrained in these Disney princess movies affect female juvenile perception of gender roles. And whether that has any effect on women in adulthood as they start to form their own relationships. It is important to note that this study includes only a heterosexual lense in reference to romantic ideals and relationships, so it cannot and should not be applied to homosexual relationships. It is important to study the effect of Disney princess movies on the transition of girlhood to womanhood as it relates to relationship satisfaction and security because it is an under researched topic. Most studies tend to focus on the effects on girls and their perception of gender roles. However, this paper aims to take a peek into how early perceptions of gender roles later influence adult decisions made regarding relationships and love. Neglecting to include how Disney princess movies influence adult females leaves open the glaring possibility that these Disney princess movies could have detrimental consequences to the formation of relationships in adulthood.

Mass media has blown up since its inception and with each generation born thereafter, they raise the stakes by relying more and more on media. This reliance on information from various mediums like TV, movies, social media, print sources, etc., gives media all of its power. Whatever is published, is soon after consumed by millions, making the power of media instantaneous and far-reaching. Older generations are more impermeable when it comes to the subjection of media, however in generations that have no idea what life was like before, like children, are perhaps at the most risk. One cannot discuss mass media without first discussing what dimension mass media seems to exist in– and that is popular culture or a conglomeration of popular people, things, ideas, etc (West). Whether those consuming it are willing to admit it or not, media is a form of education, but not always an unbiased one. Most media publications are carefully constructed products of whichever company made them and in most cases, each publication is made with a specific purpose in mind, whether that be to entertain, teach, scare, or to make money to list a few. It is important to consider this when talking about the effects of media on the people that consume it, and in this case, children.

 Often times, TV or movies are a child’s introduction into how the world works, and are a “sociocultural framing of identity construction,” meaning that children begin to understand themselves and their positions in the world by watching TV and movies (as cited in Binkley, 2016). There are a few different ways that scientists begin to understand the influence of media on impressionable young minds. One of them has to do with models of socialization. In the case of this topic, it is helpful to understand the constructivist model, which refers to the child being active in the learning process of society, societal norms, and expectations (Tonn, 2008). Specifically, children construct their own social world by modeling it after their own experiences, and ones they witness play out in front of them– often times on the TV. Important to note is that it is easy for a young girl’s identity to be skewed by relying solely on TV and movies due to the intrinsic motivations of the ones creating them. And in the circumstance of forming relationships, identity and intimacy are doubly important and are intricately intertwined. In order to be intimate with someone, it is important that one’s sense of identity is strong and well established. So if a young girl develops a sense of identity from the TV, one that may not be the most realistic or stable, then she is less likely to achieve intimacy in her partnerships (Tonn, 2008).

In addition to the portrayal of identity and intimacy in media, there is also the portrayal of gender roles, which are the ideas society has about how women and men should act including stereotypes about feminine and masculine characteristics. Arguably one of the most glaring examples of gender role portrayal in popular media comes from Disney princess movies. In order to understand the prevalence of gender roles in Disney princess movies, and how they have changed over time, as well as how they have affected their viewers, it is necessary to highlight a few. First, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This movie was the first Disney movie produced, and is a reflection of society at the time of its release. Examples of gender roles in this movie include the classic damsel in distress conflict, in which Snow White, is the damsel (Cordwell, 2016). In the movie, Snow White and ones like it, including Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, the

“Disney princesses spend part of their narratives in death-like comas– each, of course, then wakened and rescued by a male prince. Cinderella, in a sense, is also rescued from a socially inactive state– a state of poverty and servitude. These three films thus neatly solidified Disney’s repackaging of the princess narrative, linking ‘princesshood’ to contemporary concepts of ideal girlhood, and presenting it to the public on the big screen and in vivid color at a time when such a thing was uncommon, and hence utterly captivating to its audience” (Whelan, 2012).

In other words, what it means to be a girl is to be a princess, and one that needs a man to be alive. It is almost as if the princesses are secondary characters in their own feature films because the reliance on men is so prevalent. In a more modern Disney princess movie, like The Little Mermaid, Mulan, and Beauty and the Beast, the princesses are depicted as more autonomous, yet they still rely on men. For example, Pocahontas is often considered one of the most independent princesses. However, in the movie Pocahontas, Pocahontas still falls victim to the heavy reliance on men, “I’d rather die tomorrow than live a hundred years without knowing you” (Pocahontas, 1995). It is almost as if all of the progressively feminist things she achieves in the movie are discounted by her dependence on John Smith. 

The movie Beauty and the Beast lends itself to exemplify another common gender role. Belle is the first Disney princess that is openly inquisitive and studious, however, she is ostracized by her community for being this way and not conforming to what society has already planned for her, which is marrying the town’s most eligible bachelor, Gaston (Cordwell 2016). Even a more recent Disney princess movie like The Princess and the Frog contains a case for gender roles. Similar to the case for Pocahontas, Tiana relies on Prince Naveen, “You’re the best thing I never knew I needed. So now it’s clear I need you here always” (The Princess and the Frog, 2009). Another lesser known fact about this movie is that despite being the first Disney movie to showcase an interracial couple, it did not do well in the box office. Disney speculated that this was the case because of their “aggressive marketing scheme that began in 2000, linking all things ‘princess’ with girls,’” which is just another example of how Disney has made what it means to be a girl, the same as a princess and all the qualities she is supposed to possess (as cited in Whelan, 2012). This puts an immense amount of pressure on young girls still trying to understand themselves and the world around them. In a study done by Cordwell, 27 young girls between the ages of 6 and 12 were asked “What does it mean to be a princess?” The answer with the most votes was that a princess was supposed to be kind. Being pretty only garnered 2 votes. 

Most of the answers were unisex. Second, these young girls were given a set of both masculine and feminine scenarios and asked if a princess could perform them. Of the scenarios that were feminine, hardly any girls believed a princess would not perform that task. For example, one of the feminine scenarios was cooking and cleaning, in which almost all the girls voted in favor of this being something a princess would do. They asked the girls if a princess could perform a masculine task such as fixing a car, this received the most “no” responses, and reasons why were cited as “not what a princess would do” or that the princesses “wouldn’t know how.” Similarly, the girls were asked whether a princess could build a house, which received 3 no votes, also citing that it is “not what a princess would do.” Interestingly though, one of the masculine tasks presented to the girls was leading/ruling a kingdom, in which all participants voted in favor of this being a task a princess could perform (Cordwell, 2012). 

The importance of the results from this study is that girls were able to see princesses performing both feminine and masculine roles, however, there were some limitations when thinking of princesses performing masculine tasks, but was less the case when thinking of princes performing feminine tasks. This confirms the notion that gender roles are prevalent and perceived by girls who watch Disney princess movies, but it still begs the question of whether or not those gender roles contribute to relationship dissatisfaction later on in life.

One cannot discuss gender roles in Disney princess movies without also discussing the romantic ideals and myths about love that are just as prevalent in most of the storylines. These romantic ideals and myths about love combined create the illustrious “fairy tale love” that all of the princesses aspire to have. The following are different ways “fairy tale love” is displayed in the Disney princess movies: “love can overlook flaws, love can seek out that one perfect mate, love can happen instantaneously, and love can overcome all obstacles” (Hefner Et al., 2017). For example, in the movie Cinderella, the idea that the glass slipper left behind at the ball belongs to the love of Prince Charming’s life, is an application of “love can seek out that one perfect mate.” The question is not whether or not these ideas of “fairy tale love” in the Disney movies exist, but whether or not they affect their audience.

Minor poses this interesting question in her thesis about the influence of Disney princesses on women’s personal love narratives, “Are these influenced adult women unconsciously choosing their love lives in an attempt to model what they saw as a child?” (Minor, 2014). In order to answer this question, it is important to establish whether or not the Disney princess films have any relevance to grown women. To do this, Tonn asked 16 college women where their ideas about romance and love came from. Out of the all the women asked, 50% said that it came from TV/movies and their parents, 30% said that it came solely from TV/movies, and 20% said that it came from solely their parents. An astounding 70% of college women asked reported that TV/movies had some influence on their ideas about romance and love (Tonn, 2008). Minor did a similar study in which she gave 40 female participants aged (20-37) a survey. One of the questions on the survey asked the participants whether or not they believed a fairy tale ending in an adult committed relationship was possible. 

Out of those women, 60% answered yes (Minor, 2014). Although the population size for both studies were too small to be generalized to a greater group, this study and the one discussed immediately before it suggest that there is an indication of women learning about relationships from TV/movies, and Disney princess movies specifically in the second study. A third study was done by Hefner Et al., in which they completed a content analysis of the romantic ideals depicted in the Disney princess films. This content analysis can be used to describe the link between watching Disney princess films and making choices about love later on in life. For their analysis, the researchers posed 5 research questions, and investigated the expression of a romantic ideal or challenge to “fairy tale love” in relation to each of these questions in each of the 12 original Disney movies which include: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen. 

One of the research questions posed was “how prevalent are romantic ideals in Disney princess films?” After analyzing each of the movies, the researchers found that romantic ideals were 3 more times as likely to appear than challenges to “fairy tale love” in the Disney princess films. “Love can seek out that one perfect mate” was the most prevalent relationship ideal found across all of the 12 Disney princess films. “Love can overcome all obstacles” was the most prevalent in the modern Disney princess films which include The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen. They also found that the more modern movies had equal representation of both romantic ideals and challenges to “fairy tale love,” which Hefner Et al. theorizes that “instead of watching romantic relationships form with ease, or ‘just happen,’ young viewers who watch these movies today see that the ideal is challenged and that romantic relationships often take hard work and sacrifice to truly thrive” (Hefner Et al., 2017). So although this study provides evidence for the claim that these romantic ideals about love exist in the Disney films, it does not ascertain that those necessarily negatively affect the decisions women make about love and relationships since there has been a shift including equal representation of both ideals and hardships to “fairy tale love.”

It has been established that gender roles in Disney princess movies are perceived by children. Coupled with that and the possibility for women to gain their understanding of romantic relationships from TV/movies, then watching Disney princess movies can influence a woman’s perception of romance and relationships. However, it cannot be definitively determined whether the influence is negative as it relates to relationship dissatisfaction and failure due to unrealistic expectations.  


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