While analyzing the role Disney princesses play in American children’s lives, one uncovers the stereotypes and tropes that Disney films have transcended throughout the years regarding sex, culture, and societal norms. Since the release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937, Disney built an entire franchise, which is not only marketed towards children but also engrains values and beliefs that continue with these consumers throughout their lives. Through the use of princesses and fairytales, children learn the societal and gender norms that correlate to the specific time period in which these films were made. Although the classical Disney princesses – such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora – emphasize the importance of beauty, domestic skills, and marriage, the modern wave of Disney princesses – Tiana, Merida, Anna, and Elsa – instill values of independence, ambition, and intelligence. Thus leading us to question, how the new idea, image, and representation of the Disney princesses affects young children’s perception of their identity and gender in today’s society.
In hopes of creating a clear understanding of the progressive or modern princess, one must examine the heroines, which preceded these dynamic and vibrant characters. When looking at Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora one acknowledges the fundamental similarities between each of these stories. In its earlier years, Disney uses fairytales to portray to children how young women and men act in a heteronormative or “appropriate” society, where women rely on men for support and their overall happiness. In all these classical princess tales, the heroine undergoes a physical makeover in hopes of attracting a prince, which in turn allows her to move up in the hierarchal structure of society. These one-dimensional characters use their beauty to lure men in with the intention of creating a better economic situation for themselves. Moreover, the films reiterate the patriarchal society in which we live in, which encourage children – specifically young women – to pursue prosperity through superficial means rather than intellectual curiosity and career-oriented goals.
The modern princesses –Tiana, Merida, Anna, and Elsa – encourage children to disregard gender norms all together and uncover their identity by focusing on their personal growth without the influence of outside forces. Specifically, Merida and Elsa challenge traditional Disney storylines in the fact that they do not marry a prince at the end of the film. These strong independent women become role models for children and reinforce to them that they do not need someone in their life to give them purpose or credibility. The song “Let it Go” in "Frozen" reveals to the viewers that the people who surround them do not determine who they are or what they will become. The lyrics say, “It’s time to see what I can do/ To test the limits and break through / No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free.” Elsa inspires children to pursue their abilities in all aspects of their lives, in order to unveil their individual and unique personalities. She reminds them there is “no right,” and “no wrong” way to uncover one's identity. Moreover, her decision to remain single at the end of the film supports the idea that traditional gender norms from the classical Disney films have evolved and princesses no longer need a man to have a happily-ever-after.
In Elsa’s example, along with the other modern princesses, Disney has a positive effect on helping children understand gender, which differs from the classical princesses. The classical princesses support the traditional, heteronormative, and self-constructed ideas on gender. While, the modern princesses overcome well-established ideas and deconstruct the roles of gender altogether. As a result, children receive the ability to discover themselves in a liberating and boundless environment.