Fairytales. Beloved, well-known stories of princes, princesses, and magic passed down by word of mouth through generations. But fairytales are not as light and easy going as they may seem to be. Stories that were once told to listeners to teach lessons in terms of what not to do in life have now become twisted by modern interpretations, such as Disney, that enforce the expression of gender and sexuality through clothing as well as body ideals on young girls and boys.
In Bianca van Dam’s teacher’s thesis; “Disney’s Fashionable Girls: Signs and Symbols in the Costume Dress of Disney’s Female Characters”, she expresses concern in the repercussions on children who embrace the world of Disney. Though the stories are often heartwarming, memorable, and can be inspirational for some, one cannot dismiss Disney’s transformations of such fairytales to fit into society’s ideals and the teaching of social constructs and behaviors to children.
Regarding sexuality and gender, they often tend to go hand in hand when discussing one’s expression of themselves. Within Disney’s animations, female characters/princesses are often seen dressed in pastel colored dresses or skirts, seemingly with their hair and makeup done. These princesses are displayed to young girls as what is expected of them. They aspire to be princesses. In terms of sexuality, the enforcement of wardrobes takes away the characters’ abilities to fully express themselves and show who they truly are. The clothing they are expected to wear defines who they are, leaving no room for them to differ from the norm of heterosexual princesses and princes.
Additionally, the color choices of the clothing of princesses compared to princes and other characters, both male and female, defines them, not only by their sexuality but also by their gender. The use of pastel colors for the animation of the princesses’ clothing defines their gender as female. The choice of these colors for the dressing of the princesses can be seen as stereotypes of women. The colors define the characters as being dainty, refined, soft spoken, lacking in strength compared to their male counterparts; both in their personalities and in their physiques. The princes and other male characters are often dressed in bold colors such as red, white, and black, contrasting with the pastel dresses of the princesses. Likewise, the coloring of their clothing also appears to be within darker shades of such bold colors. While still maintaining a child friendly image, the female villains of Disney’s interpretations of well-known fairytales are often overtly sexualized, portraying the characters as seductive and hypnotizing. The women are often dressed in black dresses with heavy makeup and jewelry, expressing their evil yet seductive qualities.
Outside of the clothing of the characters within Disney’s animated fairytales, their physical appearance is just as important. There is a noticeable trend of characteristics within the group of princesses that Disney has animated where they are often presented as white, thin, blonde, and young. The presentation of these physical qualities of the female characters that young girls often look up to can cause girls to want to look a certain way and repress their own appearance instead of encouraging them to love their own beauty, as well as go out of their way as they age to look like the princesses they admired as children later on in life. There is also noticeable praise around the princesses who do not fit within this “Disney mold,” such as Mulan, Tiana, and Moana. They are all praised for their non-conformative appearances because their skin is not white, their hair is not blond, and they are a part of different cultures, yet they are still drawn as young and thin women.
Furthermore, the animation of the physical appearance of the male characters/princes within Disney’s interpretations are just as harmful for young boys as the appearance of the princesses is for young girls. The characters are often drawn as muscular with broad shoulders and wide chests (able bodied), young, with dark hair, and effortlessly handsome. The appearance characteristics of male characters have the possibility of effecting young boys just as much as it does for young girls and should not be dismissed or forgotten by society.
Overall, fairytales mean well but unintentionally enforce aged views upon innocent children. Within Bianca van Dam’s teacher’s thesis, she provides her audience with educated thoughts and views regarding fairytales when looking at them through a feminist lens. The proclaimed heroine like princesses of Disney’s fairytales are limited in their choices and power, often submitting themselves to their male counterparts. The idea of a “happy ending” or “ever-after narratives” can also be seen as quite harmful for children as it creates unrealistic expectations as to how one should live their life; in a heterosexual relationship that begins out of nowhere and occurs with no disagreements and arguments as real relationships do.
Though Disney’s intentions are innocent, the outcome of their unknowingly heteronormative and sexist views when animating and adapting stories can be harmful. Disney’s animated fairytales, when focusing specifically on the expression of one’s gender and sexuality as well as body ideals, can be disastrous to a young child’s life. Such depictions of gender, sexuality, and body ideals can shape a child’s views and expectations of life, making the real world seem that much harsher to them.
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McKenna Kobosko is currently a junior at Old Dominion University. She is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Women’s Studies. She has been interested in Women’s Studies from a young age, before she even knew what Women’s Studies was. She is a fan of learning, especially when it comes to learning from what she is reading. She enjoys reading news stories on social media, as well as educational articles that focus around minorities, sexuality and its fluidity, biased dress codes, and much more. She seeks to learn as much as she can while also providing herself with many different perspectives of our society and how we as a society are socialized.