Why Do Women Want Fairy Tale Weddings?

How Disney's princes and princesses have shaped our sex roles

Posted Nov 29, 2014

The stereotypical Disney heroine’s story ends in a fairy tale wedding. Whether it’s Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, her dress sparkles as she captivates not only her prince but millions of little girls captivated by those sparkles. A column in the New York Times tells us to “Blame the Princess” for women’s preoccupation with finding the perfect wedding dress. Abby Ellin, the author, notes that “Many women still dream, feverishly, about their wedding, even those with no groom or boyfriend in sight.” According to Ellin, it’s the white gown, and not the marriage, that figures prominently in those dreams.

This article made me wonder about the general effect of Disney princesses on women- and men- as we think about our roles in society. Arizona State’s Dawn Elizabeth England and colleagues (2011) wondered the same thing. They took on the daunting task of content analyzing scenes from 9 Disney films beginning with Snow White (1937) and ending with 2009’s Princess and the Frog. The article was written before the blockbuster hit Frozen, but I’ll talk about that one later.

England et al.’s content analysis focused on the portrayal of princes and princesses in the Disney films over the years in terms of their stereotypical masculine and feminine qualities.  Some of the masculine ones you might predict included being assertive, unemotional, athletic, brave, physically strong, independent, and masculine in appearance. Other less obvious masculine qualities include being curious about the princess (due to her captivating mystique), wanting to explore, showing thought, giving advice, and being a leader

The feminine qualities in the princesses included, also, several you would expect such as being physically weak, submissive, emotional, affectionate, nurturing, sensitive, helpful, and feminine in appearance.  Perhaps less predictable were the qualities, in the princess, of being a bit narcissistic (tending to her appearance), being tentative, causing trouble, and being fearful, ashamed, and tending to cry. She might also be portrayed as the victim and in need of help or advice.

Following this time-intensive coding process, England and her fellow researchers put to the test the question of whether the princes and princesses would differ in their actual tendencies to show these stereotypical behaviors. As they expected, princes were significantly more likely to show masculine behavior than princesses who, in turn, showed more stereotypically feminine behavior. Furthermore, half the behaviors shown by the princes were stereotypically masculine compared to about one-third of the behaviors of the princesses. Somewhat surprisingly, half of the princes displayed feminine behaviors, but this was far less than the overwhelming 2/3 of the feminine behaviors shown by the princesses.

With the span of 70 years at their disposal to investigate, England and her team were able to investigate trends over time in the expression of stereotyped gender roles among Disney princes and princesses. As they expected, the earlier films were far more likely to reinforce the traditional male-female distinctions in gender roles. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were particularly likely to be affectionate, helpful, troublesome, fearful, tentative and “pretty.” When they behaved assertively, it was toward children and animals rather than toward other adults.  

Disney princesses, when they’re assertive, might also be so toward a father figure (think of the rebellious Ariel in The Little Mermaid). The princes, for their part, were hardly around in the early Disney films, and it wasn’t even clear why the princesses loved them. Other than the prince in Sleeping Beauty, the objects of the princesses’ affection tended to be stoic. Princes in Disney movies don’t experience a loss of power, feel hopeless or ashamed, or collapse into tears.

Over time, as England and her co-authors point out, Disney princes and princesses have become more complex. The women might be oriented toward stereotypically masculine activities such as conducting diplomacy and war, though they tend to abandon these orientations during the all-important grand wedding at the end. Some of the later princes were occasionally unsure of themselves and even incompetent. Aladdin was the first prince to be the center of the story.

The trend toward less gender stereotyping of the Disney royal family is perhaps most clearly evident in 2013’s Frozen. To the outrage of some ultra-conservative groups, the princess sister duo possessed fewer of the feminine and more of the masculine qualities shown in the early films. Elsa didn’t even seem to need a prince at all to establish her own happy ending. Captured in the now-iconic song Let it Go, Elsa tells the world that nothing bothers her, not even the cold, and presumably not even the lack of a male love interest.

Did Frozen change its portrayal of female princesses to reflect changing times, or will its non-stereotypic princesses change how future generations view themselves?  The unprecedented popularity of Frozen among today’s girls- and boys- suggests that the androgyny of its female leads appeals to some untapped need. 

Perhaps children experience it as reassuring to view the protagonists overcome the suffering caused by separation from each other, not to mention from their parents.  The fact that it’s the women who show strength in this film, particularly compared to the somewhat bumbling male leads, is perhaps an added bonus that will help to counter the stereotyped portrayal in most of the other marketing directed toward children.

Whatever the cause, the huge financial success that Disney is enjoying from Frozen may lead it, as one of the world’s most powerful child-oriented industries, to rethink the way it portrays princes and princesses in the future. Women may still want the Disney princess dress for their wedding day, but when they wear it, perhaps that dress will represent a little more Elsa and a little less Cinderella. 

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 

Reference:

England, D. E., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. A. (2011). Gender role portrayal and the Disney Princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7-8), 555-567. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

Image source: http://pixabay.com/en/ball-gown-cartoon-woman-chic-518117/