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Writing Sample-TH - Elisabeth H. Buck

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Elisabeth Buck
Department of English/098
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, NV 89557-0098
[email protected]
Describing the Disney Princess: Analyzing the Connections Between Gender and Language
in Female Disney Royalty
Princesses are often blamed for perpetuating gender dichotomies, as well as for instilling
in children—particularly young girls—the idealistic notion of “happily ever after.” The Disney
versions of this archetype, mainly due to their current cultural prominence, receive particular
culpability for promoting materialism, superficiality, stereotypes, and other negative qualities.
This study aims to assess the correlation between a princess’s level of recognition and the words
used to describe her. By soliciting and examining responses from both first-grade elementary
school girls and older females (ages 10+), this inquiry analyzes the current standing of the
Disney Princess in the American cultural marketplace. The results suggest that there is a direct
and demonstrable association between traditionally feminine, superficial descriptors and relative
popularity, as indicated by both character preference and placement on official merchandise.
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The concept of the “Disney Princess” was established in Walt Disney’s first full-length animated
feature film, the 1937 release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie introduced
audiences to Snow White, a kind and beautiful girl with a persistent mantra: “Someday my
Prince Will Come.” The genre then grew to include other titular protagonists with similar
personas and aspirations—1950’s Cinderella and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty (Princess Aurora).
Following Walt Disney’s death in 1966, films featuring royal female characters took a nearly
quarter-century hiatus, until 1989’s The Little Mermaid produced red-headed Ariel. She was
quickly joined by Beauty and the Beast’s Belle (1991) and the first non-Caucasian prototype,
Jasmine from 1992’s Aladdin. A very different kind of princess was revealed in both 1995’s
Pocahontas and 1998’s Mulan: these two films featured, respectively, a Native American and a
Chinese woman who stood up to patriarchal norms by engaging in active resistance to cultural
and gender mandates. Pocahontas is the only royal individual thus far whose film does not end in
resolution through romantic attachment (at least, not until the sequel—1998’s straight-to-video
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World). Mulan also defies gender (and genre) stereotype by
engaging in armed combat—in order to save her father, she cross-dresses and joins the Chinese
army’s fight against the invading Huns. The most recent princesses, Tiana from 2009’s The
Princess and the Frog—Disney’s first African-American female heroine—and Rapunzel from
2010’s Tangled, return to a more conventional model: each tale ends with the pretty protagonist
wed to the man of her dreams.
These ten characters (pictured in Appendix A) comprise the official Disney Princess
“brand,” a franchise that includes more than twenty-six thousand items and—as of 2009—has
grossed an astonishing four billion dollars worldwide (Orenstein 14). And yet, though Snow
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White has existed for nearly eighty years, the “Disney Princess” as a cohesive model is a
relatively recent phenomenon, and whose development reflects a desire by Disney to coordinate
and control a particular share in the marketplace. In 2000, Disney executive Andy Mooney went
to a showing of “Disney on Ice” and noticed that many of the young girls in attendance were
wearing homemade princess costumes (Orenstein 13). Recognizing the profit potential in
targeting this interested and devoted demographic, Mooney proposed uniting the Disney royalty
on merchandise in a coherent brand. The tactic was an immediate success: according to Peggy
Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, “�Princess’ has not only become the fastestgrowing brand the company has ever created, it is the largest franchise on the planet for girls
ages two to six” (14). For Disney, the development of the Princess brand has plainly served their
interests, both in terms of accessing a previously untapped revenue stream, and unifying a
particular aspect of Disney iconography.
This does not mean, however, that all princesses are represented equally. Cinderella,
Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, and Rapunzel—as the most recent incarnation—are commonly
featured in stores. Snow White and Jasmine, Orenstein notes, “are in the pantheon, too, though
slightly less popular,” as is The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana (14). In contrast, the remaining
princesses—Mulan and Pocahontas—are so excluded from representation on merchandise that
their official inclusion within the Princess canon is frequently questioned.1 This project thus aims
to assess the extent to which this privileging of particular princesses is correlated with how these
characters are described, to explore whether increased designation through superficial and/or
gendered terminology (for instance, “beautiful”) has any bearing on overall popularity. As a
linguistic project, then, this exploration considers whether or not the ways in which we speak
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about Disney’s Princesses impacts the ways in which they enter into consumer practices and the
American cultural consciousness.
This project also poses an inquiry into the cultural work that Disney’s Princesses
undertake. Larger research questions at stake here concern the implications of the Disney
Princess brand as wielding substantial and pervasive economic and cultural influence, especially
since the Princesses are directed at the two-to-six-year-old demographic. What might be the
effect on young girls if the Princesses who most deflect or complicate gender stereotypes are
consistently excluded from representation? To what extent can we expect representations of
Princesses to empower, shift, or maintain perceptions of women as young girls grow into
adulthood? These questions, while outside the immediate scope of this paper, inform this work’s
intention to explore cultural studies by examining how language and representation merge in
product placement to produce particular responses. The current project thus aims to assess how
females—both within and outside the target princess demographic—conceptualize the Disney
Princesses. At the same time, the purpose of this work is neither to vilify nor to excuse Disney’s
marketing choices, but, rather, to unify language and thought. There remains much to be done in
terms of understanding how Americans make sense of this popular and deliberately constructed
phenomenon. In other words, how we think about these Princesses matters, and these first steps
are necessary to look at broader cultural influence.
Critical Analysis of the Disney Princess
Peggy Orenstein’s 2011 study, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of
the New Girly-Girl Culture, contextualizes and examines the current national preoccupation with
princesses. Orenstein provides an in-depth look at girly-girl consumerism, and approaches this
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by examining such diverse topics as the “princessification” of Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer,
pre-teen beauty pageants as revealed on the TLC program Toddlers & Tiaras, and the obsession
with Disney’s “real-life” princesses, such as Miley Cyrus.2 What makes Orenstein’s text
particularly pertinent is her analysis of the repercussions of this princess fixation; if these
characters are the purveyors of physical perfection and idealized femininity, then how does the
inundation of “Cinderella Band-Aids, Cinderella paper cups, Cinderella cereal boxes, Cinderella
pens, Cinderella crayons, and Cinderella notebooks” impact young girls? (62). This is a question
she examines by focusing explicitly on how princesses are sold: they, Orenstein suggests, are “a
cog in the round-the-clock, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters—and at us—
from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as
performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price” (183). The
privileging of certain princesses over others thus perpetuates particular attributes as most ideal;
Orenstein suggests that Mulan and Pocahontas’s absence from most princess products is due to
their lack of “bling potential.” She notes that “you can gussy up Pocahontas’s eagle feathers only
so much” and Mulan, “when she does show up, it’s in a kimono-like hanfu, the one that makes
her miserable in the movie, rather than in her warrior’s gear” (14).
Orenstein’s argument proceeds from an assumption that “princess,” as an ideological
category, serves to undermine other endeavors to build-up girls’ self-esteem, that princesses are
somehow self-evidently harmful. And furthermore, Orenstein connects this with the consumer
marketplace, in the buying and selling of identity categories. While Orenstein also briefly
engages with ideas of gender and identity formation, the ways in which people—as consumers,
to keep within Orenstein’s vocabulary—come to identity is not merely through mindless
consumption, where corporations like Disney force both products and ideology onto unwitting
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parents (and children.) Rather, the interest in and purchase of Princess merchandise comes from
both Disney’s status as a global marketing powerhouse, as well as from a host of other factors—
from gender and race, to class, regional location, religious affiliation, and, importantly, language
use—that consumers evaluate in the moment of purchase, often without their conscious
knowledge. These choices are not always made in ways that are necessarily rational, but they
nonetheless reflect a series of what might be called “non-rational” (rather than irrational) choices
that reveal what attributes consumers value. What this study examines is a particular segment of
this unconscious choice as conveyed language use, as it tracks whether there is a further
reasoning for the exclusion Orenstein wonders about. The issue is perhaps not just the lack of
“bling potential,” but that Mulan and Pocahontas are not rhetorically perceived and positioned as
embodying a physical ideal to the same extent as a character like Cinderella.
Orenstein, for her part, is aware of the ways in which language inflects how we see the
world, and incorporates some amount of rhetorical inquiry into her work, though in a limited
way. As she explains, Disney Princesses are associated with particular language descriptors.
Orenstein cites a Disney-sponsored survey in which preschool girls’ mothers were asked to
describe the characters; the results indicated that “rather than �beautiful,’ the women more
strongly associate princesses with �creating fantasy,’ �inspiring,’ �compassionate.’ And �safe’ ”
(24). Orenstein suggests that the princesses’ apparent embodiment of sweetness and charm fends
off premature sexuality—the princess exists as the wholesome alternative to Kim Kardashian. If
parents, however, tend to disassociate “princess” with “beautiful,” then there may be a
fundamental difference in how princesses are being negotiated along the age spectrum. This
aspect is something that is readily juxtaposed with the aims of this study: Are the children of
these parents also able to focus on the “character” of these princesses and not describe them in
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terms related to physicality? In other words, parents contribute important early vocabulary to
how the Princesses are understood—from “authorizing” the Princesses as an acceptable
plaything in the act of purchase, to language use when explaining the Princesses to their
children—and so that vocabulary needs consideration as well.
In their multi-disciplinary social science study, “Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney
Princess” (2011), England, Descartes, & Collier-Meek perform a content coding analysis of the
Disney Princess films (with the exception of the most recent, Tangled.) As they describe it, their
intention in this study is to “provide a systematic, quantitative comparison of the main
characters’ attributes, actions and outcomes in a thematically unified, highly popular grouping of
Disney films” (557). England, Descartes, & Collier-Meek also include an extensive literature
review on theories of how children learn and perform gender roles, placing special emphasis on
the constructionist approach and cultivation theory. The former suggests that children “develop
beliefs about the world based on experiences,” and consequently introduction to stereotype will
influence how children view gender; the latter “posits that exposure to television content helps
develop concepts regarding social behavior and norms” and thus higher levels of exposure lead
to stronger impacts on gender socialization (557). With these potential implications in mind, the
present study will add to this discussion by assessing if children—and the adults who buy
princess products—view these characters as associated most prominently with superficial labels.
The Disney Princesses, because of their prominence and cultural influence presented at such an
early age, may therefore contribute to the perpetuation of gender stereotype.
England, Descartes, & Collier-Meek’s study identified thirteen “masculine” qualities—
such as brave, independent, and assertive—as well as sixteen stereotypical “feminine”
qualities—like fearful, helpful, and tentative—and used these for content coding analysis (558-
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560). The researchers assessed each prince and princess in the nine “Princess films” and
determined which characters are most emblematic of gender stereotypes. The protagonists were
assessed using both the masculine and feminine traits; therefore each character has two “scores.”
Cinderella, Snow White, and Ariel embodied the three highest levels of feminine coding
characteristics, and, similarly, the earliest three princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and
Sleeping Beauty) had the least usage of the masculine traits. The researchers’ analysis of their
results is particularly useful when paired with the aims of the current study. England, Descartes,
& Collier-Meek note that “the three most recent movies, Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), and
The Princess and the Frog (2009), had princesses who displayed more masculine than feminine
characteristics in their three most frequent characteristics. This suggests a chronological
movement towards a more androgynous princess” (562). This is in distinct contrast to a character
like Aurora (Sleeping Beauty’s real name) who the authors describe as “the most frequently
affectionate, described as pretty, and tentative” (562). In this way, we see how the transference
of value is encoded by language, and carries with it immediate interpretive possibilities.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Princess is her physical appearance, as the
integral part of each Princess’s character is necessarily portrayed in large part by her
representation in animated feature films, which are then transferred to the products. This concern
communications scholar Celeste Lacroix takes up in her 2004 article, “Images of Animated
Other: The Orientalization of Disney’s Cartoon Heroines from The Little Mermaid to The
Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Lacroix performs a “critical textual analysis of both the White
heroines and the women of color” and particularly notes the variations in physicality among
these female protagonists (219). Although she assesses only five characters—Ariel, Belle,
Jasmine, Pocahontas, and non-princess Esmeralda3 from 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre
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Dame—Lacroix makes several interesting comparisons between how the Caucasian princesses
are represented in contrast to the ethnic characters. She notes that there is
an increasing focus on the body in the characters of color. Whereas the costuming of
these characters [Jasmine’s harem-like, midriff-revealing outfit and Pocahontas’s
miniskirt-like Native American garb] reflects stereotypical images of each woman's
ethnicity, the overall effect, taken with the increasing voluptuousness of the characters,
works to represent the White characters as more demure and conservative, while
associating the women of color with the exotic and sexual. (222)
Since it is two of the ethnic “other” princesses who are most constantly excluded from princess
merchandise, Lacroix’s analysis validates an important consideration: How does representation
as “exotic” or “othered” influence the terms applied to Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Tiana?
Another point of scrutiny that is also noteworthy in Lacroix’s piece is when she notes, “we ask
ourselves, what are children being taught? First and foremost, they are taught to consume. Young
people are imbricated into a material practice of consuming these films and products and are
taught from a young age how they are to experience them” (226). If individuals are literally
buying into certain princesses, they are privileging them as the paradigm. Disney Princess
commodification is thus critical to the reading of these characters as having significant
implications on perceptions and conceptualizations of gender and femininity.
Experimental Method
The present study focused on two distinct populations: female elementary school students in first
grade, and a range of older girls and women outside of the target princess demographic. Most
first graders are in the 6-7 years old age range; they are consequently the group most able to
articulate their opinions while still remaining within Disney’s “target audience.” The only
restrictions placed on the latter group were that participants needed to be female and at least 10
years of age; the purpose in including this population in the analysis helps assess whether views
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on Princesses alter as a result of maturing outside the target demographic. Males were excluded
from this assessment, primarily due to the tie to commodification: men are generally not the
demographic that Disney targets for the purposes of princess consumption. A subsequent study,
however, might consider how gender stereotypes are revealed in male Disney Princess
preference, as well as a more specific approach that would include larger samples of older girls
and women split into age groups. As a start, though, the information garnered from this work I
suggest will necessitate the need for this further study.
Two different surveys were designed for the purpose of assessment (see Appendix B).
The first survey, distributed to 39 female first grade students at an elementary school in Reno,
Nevada, requested the participant’s age and ethnicity. It included an illustration of the current
roster of Disney Princesses, with the names of the princesses labeled underneath the drawing.4
Due to the age of the participants, the survey strove to be simple in its direction and intent,
simply requesting that the student state her favorite princess and write two words to describe her.
This was done to measure to what extent these students would engage with superficial markers
of description: Would students comment on the character of the princess (by using words like
kind, fun, good, etc.) or adjectives commenting on some physical aspect of the princess (pretty,
beautiful, tall, or some reference to hair/clothes/eye color)? The second survey, given to the
older participants, was designed to be more complex in its aims. In addition to asking age and
ethnicity, the poll requested that respondents identify their favorite princess and the reason for
that choice. The other portion of the survey required participants to match particular, previously
chosen adjectives with each princess. The adjectives utilized came from a range of descriptors,
some used in the studies previously cited: brave, kind, innocent, independent, sensitive,
rebellious, pretty, attractive, affectionate, and beautiful. The respondents were asked to use each
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word only once and apply the adjective to the princess that they believed best suited the term. By
forcing participants to be exclusive in their choices, the goal was to discern which princess is
viewed as exemplifying each trait; the princess who the participant considers most beautiful will
likely be given that designation. These particular adjectives were chosen because they can be
classified under three categories: superficial descriptors (beautiful, pretty, attractive),
traditionally feminine adjectives (kind, innocent, sensitive, affectionate), and androgynous
descriptors (brave, independent, rebellious.) These adjectives were also selected because each
one (with a few exceptions) could feasibly be applied to any of the princesses. Mulan, for
example, could certainly be described as “beautiful,” and even the most stereotypically feminine
princesses still perform actions that could be considered “brave.5” This survey was dispersed by
hand to 39 individuals; a digital version was distributed through the social networking site
Facebook. Surveys filled out by male participants and those that failed to follow the directions
(for instance, those that used the same adjective multiple times) were discarded. Thus, a total of
134 viable responses to this second survey were collected.
Some limitations of this experimental method should be addressed. First, the pool of
participants was limited to individuals within the author’s own geographical position and
situation. Although distribution through Facebook permitted a more diverse sample population,
the results likely privilege the opinion of a certain demographic that included technologically
savvy participants with access to the Internet, as well as within the middle range of Facebook’s
user age profiles. The average age of the participants in the second survey was 25.21, and the
ethnic breakdown of the respondents was as follows: 76% Caucasian, 13% Hispanic, 5% Other,
3% African-American, and 3% Asian/Pacific Islander. Additionally, some participants noted that
there was no “unknown” or “unsure” option when pairing the adjectives. There is therefore a
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margin of error, as some individuals were likely forced to apply an adjective to a princess whose
movie they had not seen and/or were not familiar with. The large sample size of respondents,
however, should theoretically negate some of this inaccuracy, not to mention that, in terms of
practicality, the possibility of finding an ideal group of knowledgeable Disney Princess
enthusiasts would produce a sizable error in its own execution. The survey to first grade students
was distributed to three different classrooms, and one teacher neglected to note the students’
demographic information. Since the absence of this data represented a third of the overall
respondents, the decision was made to exclude the ethnicity component from analysis in this
The survey to older females was analyzed along several criteria. The first of which was a simple
analysis of the overall favorite princess among all 134 respondents:
 The second aspect measured in all responses was the adjective associated with the participant’s
favorite princess. This was not measured using the “why” comment section, but was instead
discerned from the adjective-pairing portion. For instance, if a participant identified Belle as her
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favorite princess, it was then noted what adjective was given to Belle in the second portion of the
survey. The results of this analysis are as follows:
В The results for each princess were also analyzed individually. For the sake of clarity and
strength of claims, the adjectives were pooled categorically: scores were combined for pretty,
beautiful, and attractive (“superficial adjectives”); sensitive, kind, innocent, and affectionate
(“feminine adjectives”); and independent, rebellious, and brave (“androgynous adjectives”). The
percentages of adjective selection for each category and princess are noted in the following
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В В В !"##"
В В В В В !"#$%
* .$/'0'0$
В В В В Buck 15
В В В Quantitative Results
В Snow В White В Cinderella В Sleeping В B eauty В Jasmine В Tiana В Belle В Ariel В Mulan В Rapunzel В Pocahontas В В "Favorite" В Adjective В В Beautiful В 8 В 16 В 45 В 16 В 8 В 22 В 4 В 0 В 10 В 6 В В 25 В Brave В 3 В 1 В 1 В 5 В 2 В 8 В 5 В 76 В 6 В 27 В В 23 В Attractive В 5 В 14 В 7 В 39 В 17 В 5 В 15 В 5 В 16 В 10 В В 6 В Independent В 1 В 2 В 0 В 21 В 44 В 11 В 8 В 11 В 4 В 32 В В 14 В Innocent В 55 В 8 В 20 В 3 В 1 В 4 В 13 В 1 В 29 В 1 В В 10 В Pretty В 11 В 27 В 23 В 6 В 14 В 7 В 14 В 7 В 19 В 5 В В 4 В Kind В 17 В 31 В 5 В 5 В 13 В 37 В 2 В 3 В 9 В 13 В В 20 В Affectionate В 18 В 18 В 11 В 9 В 13 В 24 В 14 В 4 В 11 В 10 В В 10 В Rebellious В 1 В 1 В 2 В 25 В 2 В 2 В 51 В 25 В 9 В 19 В В 15 В Sensitive В 14 В 16 В 21 В 5 В 19 В 14 В 8 В 2 В 21 В 13 В В 7 В Favorite В 6 В 13 В 16 В 9 В 3 В 39 В 15 В 19 В 9 В 5 В В В Buck 16
The responses to the survey taken by first graders are noted below: В ?+"*&
Note: In the above chart, “other superficial descriptions” refers to responses that mentioned something about the
princess’s eyes, clothes, or hair (for instance “purple dress” “green eyes” or “blonde hair”). This chart also only
includes responses that received more than one mention; words that received only a singular reference were not
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This data reveals interesting trends as to how princesses are conceptualized, especially in terms
of the set taken from older females. The first revelation is that both Mulan and Pocahontas,
among all princesses, have the highest percentages of androgynous markers (83% and 57%,
respectively) and the lowest percentages of superficial description (10% and 16%).
Comparatively, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, and Cinderella have the highest percentages of
superficial distinction (55%, 46%, and 43%). This is suggestive of several things. First, it implies
that Mulan and Pocahontas are not perceived as the most physically attractive princesses. This
does not mean that they are not attractive; rather, Pocahontas’s curvaceous figure is perhaps
problematically attractive, given that the historical figure on which her film is based was a
twelve-year-old girl. This simply indicates that, when given the option of assessing physical
beauty, individuals are more likely to associate Princess Aurora with physical attractiveness than
a character like Mulan or Pocahontas.
The reasons for this trend are beyond the scope of this study, but it may be contingent on
the continued perpetuation of the blonde haired, blue-eyed prototype as explifying standards of
beauty. It may also be explained by how Disney propagates the concept of beauty through its
films. This is perhaps best illustrated in Aladdin’s Jasmine, who also scored very highly in the
superficial descriptor category. Consider the following exchange between the characters Aladdin
and the Genie in the film, as they consider options for the former’s first wish:
Aladdin: Well, there’s this girl…
Genie: Wrong! I can’t make anyone fall in love, remember?
Aladdin: Ah, but Genie, she’s smart, and fun, and…
Genie: Pretty?
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Aladdin [with emphasis]: Beautiful! She’s got these eyes that just…and this hair, wow!
And her smile? (sigh) (Aladdin).
Neither Pocahontas nor Mulan is ever commented on in such a capacity; thus, the frequent
inclusion of Jasmine on princess merchandise may be due in part to her common designation by
the film itself as beautiful. The other non-Caucasian princess, Tiana, as shown by her survey
results, is also perceived as quite physically attractive. She is comparable not just to Jasmine, but
also to Ariel: although these three princesses ranked high in terms of androgyny (Tiana-36%,
Jasmine-38%, and Ariel-48%), at least one-fourth of respondents also identified them as either
beautiful, pretty, or attractive (their superficial markers stood at 29%, 46%, and 25%.) The
argument that race (or racially typed by traditional or generally ethnically-other clothing) plays a
role in Mulan and Pocahontas’s exclusion is therefore partially negated by this data. If
Pocahontas and Mulan had been explicitly emphasized as attractive and given a ball gown (and,
consequently, marked as “pretty”) their representation on merchandise might be markedly
Although there was too much variation in response to make a quantitative assessment of
the portion of the survey in which individuals were allowed free space to comment on why a
particular princess was her favorite, two general trends emerged: females selected a princesses as
their favorite because she embodies some trait that the respondent identifies with, or because she
possesses a characteristic that the respondent considers admirable or desirable. Examples of the
former type of response include: “She is the one I relate to the most. I had/have a deep love for
singing, and, on the negative side, a total �grass is greener’ syndrome just like her”; “She reads a
lot and I love reading. She is a brunette like me”; “She's smart, witty, beautiful, I look the most
like her, she fights for her family and never lets anything scare her away”; and simply “I identify
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with her the most.” Examples of the latter type of reply include: “I grew up with her. She was
one of the first and I thought she was wonderful, and brave, and kind”; “Because she was unique
compared to the other girls shown in her town, she focused on knowledge rather than guys, and
she was able to see past the superficial exterior of the Beast to see who he could really be other
than a monster”; “I love the classic fairytale theme of a prince swooping in to rescue her. She
endured a hard life and was rewarded in the end, the whole time remaining gentle and kind”; and
“I always wanted to have her hair.” This is only a small sampling of the responses, but
identification and/or admiration seem to be key factors in princess preference. This is noteworthy
in consideration with which princesses emerged as most popular. In contrast to expectations,
given her low representation on products, Mulan ranked high in terms of overall popularity;
many individuals who selected her noted her capacity for bravery and her admirable disavowal
of gender norms. A particular limitation of this research project, as previously noted, is that
recipients were selected based on accessibility to the author. It can thus be inferred that a large
proportion of the survey respondents are college-educated, and many are pursuing graduate
degrees; this demographic may therefore be more inclined to admire/identify with attributes not
associated with physical attractiveness. Additionally, the high proportion of preference for
Caucasian princesses may also be contingent on the large quantity of respondents who identify
with this ethnicity. A subsequent, more expansive study would strive for more equal distribution.
Indeed, many interesting conclusions could be drawn from analyzing how both age and ethnicity
of respondent influence princess preference. This notwithstanding, the initial responses begin to
tell a compelling story about how we respond to Disney Princesses in aggregate.
Beauty and the Beast’s Belle emerged as most popular by a fairly wide margin, capturing
29% of the vote. Her results indicate that she is viewed as possessing a fairly large variety of
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attributes: she has a distribution of 59% feminine, 25% superficial, and 16% androgynous. In
her film, she is portrayed as being both bookish and bold: she is ostracized from her town
because of her penchant for reading, and bravely volunteers herself as a prisoner in the Beast’s
castle in place of her father. She is also referred to explicitly as beautiful; it is of note to mention
that the characters whose films specifically reference their physical appearance in the title were
first and second in terms of number of votes for the adjective beautiful: Princess Aurora
(Sleeping Beauty) and Belle (Beauty and the Beast). In the film’s opening song “Belle,” the
townsfolk extensively comment on the princess’s physical appearance. The implication is that
her eccentricities are tolerated and interesting only because she is beautiful:
Townsperson 1: Now it’s no wonder that her name means beauty / Her looks have got no
Townsperson 2: But behind that fair façade/I’m afraid she’s rather odd
And later in the same song, the shallow antagonist Gaston notes that Belle is “the most beautiful
girl in town….That makes her the best” (Beauty and the Beast). “Beautiful” also emerged as the
adjective most often coupled with favorite princess, capturing 19% of the overall tally (although
“brave” was a close second, capturing 17%). First graders also showed remarkable attachment
to superficial adjectives when describing their favorite princess: 65% noted something about the
character’s appearance. Only 4% of responses indicated an active quality as describing a
princess (“helps/saves people”); the remaining 31% deferred to the stereotypically femaleoriented, passive adjectives “nice,” “friendly,” and “kind.” It was entirely unanticipated that no
first grader identified Cinderella as her favorite princess (especially given her omnipresence on
merchandise, so much so Orenstein uses her as the stand-in for all Princess-types); however, it is
not surprising that blond Rapunzel emerged as most dominant, given her current marketing push.
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This discussion has several crucial implications on rhetorical studies of gender. Since
identification with princesses is so critical to forming a preference, the reiterated references to a
character’s beauty—among both older and younger females—suggests that physical
attractiveness remains a significant factor in defining female identity. This research also
indicates that a particular kind of physical exterior—the Caucasian and delicate model
exemplified by Sleeping Beauty, Belle, and Rapunzel—is perceived as the most beautiful
representation. Though this must be assessed in relation to demographics of the participants, it
cannot be denied that the Caucasian Princesses are also those that are most commonly
represented on merchandise. Belle’s victory as favorite princess is also relevant in relation to
current gender expectations for women. Orenstein comments on this situation in Cinderella Ate
My Daughter:
According to a 2006 survey of more than two thousand school-aged children, girls
repeatedly described a paralyzing pressure to be �perfect’: not only to get straight As and
be the student body president, editor of the newspaper, and captain of the swim team but
also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin, and dress right.” . . . Instead
of feeling greater latitude and choice in how to be female—which is what one would
hope—they now feel they must not only “have it all” but be it all: Cinderella and
Supergirl. Aggressive and agreeable. Smart and stunning. (17)
Even though her beauty is a significant factor, Belle is not just beautiful, but also intelligent,
kind, and brave. In short, she is the princess most emblematic of what contemporary society
dictates women should be.
The current princess paradigm will be tested in 2012 with the release of the next film in
the franchise, Disney/Pixar’s Brave. Pixar is well-known for its use of nonstandard characters,
and Brave will be the company’s first film featuring a female protagonist, Princess Merida.
Preliminary character models and film trailers show Merida looking like Ariel’s Scottish cousin:
red-haired and blue-eyed (see Appendix A). Merida is described on the official website for the
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film as “a skilled archer” who is forced “to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo
a beastly curse before it’s too late” (“Brave-Story”). The critical question is this: if Disney is
relying on Merida to perpetuate the $4 billion princess industry, what will the company do to
avoid a similar fate as the franchise’s other warrior, Mulan, who has all but disappeared in
mainstream stores? Will girls buy Princess Merida dolls, shoes, costumes, and toothbrushes if
she is only brave? If this research is any indication, the likely answer is no.
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Appendix A
Images of Disney Princesses
The current roster of official Disney Princesses, from left to right: Snow White, Pocahontas,
Belle, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Tiana, Sleeping Beauty (Aurora), Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan.
Image: “Princess Lineup”
Princess Merida, from Pixar’s upcoming film Brave
Image: “Disney Princess Merida”
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Appendix B
Survey 1: Distributed to first grade elementary school students
Ethnicity (please circle one): White
Who is your favorite Disney Princess?
Asian/Pacific Islander
Please write down two words that you think best describe your favorite princess:
Jasmine, Snow White, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Tiana, Belle, Ariel, Rapunzel
В В В В В Survey 2: Distributed to Older Female Participants
Who is your favorite Disney Princess?
Why is she your favorite princess?
Please match the following adjectives with the princess that you think best suits the term. Please use each adjective only once.
Snow White
Sleeping Beauty (Aurora)
Tiana (from the Princess and the Frog)
Rapunzel (from Tangled)
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В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В 1
As a character who was neither born royal, nor married to a prince, Mulan’s distinction as an
official princess seems even more arbitrary. Since “princess” is often synonymous with “female
protagonist,” Mulan’s inclusion within the canon, as well as the exclusion of Peter Pan’s Wendy
and Alice from Alice in Wonderland, seems to suggest that Mulan is “official” because she
represents an opportunity to expand the diversity of products and target an additional
It is of note to mention that, in 2007, Disney did create a real-life Disney Princess in the film
Enchanted. Plans were made to include actress Amy Adams’ Princess Giselle in the official
princess line-up, until the studio realized that doing so would necessitate the purchase of lifelong rights to Adams’ image (Marr).
See earlier footnote on the arbitrary nature of inclusion within the princess canon. Esmeralda is
another of the female protagonists who could feasibly be included in the line-up because of her
status as a main character, even though she lacks royal heritage.
I acknowledge here the assumption that the children were equally familiar with all the
princesses, and would thus be able to recognize them based solely on the picture with the
included label.
Cinderella, for instance, stands up to her stepmother, and Snow White escapes the Evil Queen
by dashing through a dark and frightening forest.
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В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В Works Cited
Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clemets. Perf. Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin, and
Johnathan Freeman. Walt Disney Pictures, 1992. Film.
Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White,
and Jerry Orbach. Walt Disney Pictures, 1991. Film.
“Brave-Story.” Disney/Pixar. Web. 11 December 2011.
England, Dawn, Lara Descartes, and Melissa Collier-Meek. "Gender Role Portrayal and the
Disney Princess." Sex Roles 64.7/8 (2011): 555-67. Print.
Lacroix, Celeste. "Images of Animated Others: The Orientalization of Disney’s Cartoon
Heroines from The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Popular
Communication 2.4 (2004): 213-29. Print.
Marr, Marissa. "Disney Reaches to the Crib to Extend Princess Magic." The Wall Street Journal.
19 Nov. 2007. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.
Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New
Girly-Girl Culture. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.
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