Growing up, children are exposed to countless images, messages, and belief systems. One prominent theme in American culture is the obsession with royalty and princesses. Little children, especially girls, are brought up in a world where they are exposed to countless messages about what it means to be royalty, how to behave like a member of royalty, and how to snag your own “prince charming.” These beliefs are born out of early childhood viewing of Disney films and the media spotlight on royal families of the world.
Walt Disney began the princess phenomenon which would later come to make up $3 billion of the company’s profit with Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. In 1937 Disney released Snow White, which was the companies first full length film. This film was one of the first to introduce girls to the princess culture on such a widespread scale. Snow White was fair-skinned girl with jet black hair who was kind and beautiful who unfortunately had one little problem; her evil step-mother. So she is taken to the forrest where she befriends the seven dwarves until one day she eats a poisonous apple given to her by the evil Queen. She soon falls fast asleep. She only awakens with a kiss from a handsome prince. Then they ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. And thus, Disney began manufacturing this idea to children around the world.
After Snow White came many other tales of Princesses in films like Beauty and The Beast, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, The Princess and The Frog, and Tangled, as well as girls who still fit into the princess category. These include Mulan and Pocahontas. All of these films produced stories of beautiful girls who in the end found their very own prince charming. However, some were more courageous and resourceful then others. Those who appear this way are a product of more contemporary films which have been produced in recent years. While Snow White may have kick started the princess culture other princesses certainly helped the cause. Growing up little girls play dress up as Cinderella, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or Belle from Beauty and The Beast. And not only this, they dream of achieving what these women have achieved; true love and happiness.
The shift in how Disney princesses are portrayed has occurred gradually over the companies history in such films. The first wave of princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were all portrayed as passive, possessing domestic qualities like cleaning, and keeping up their appearance. Whereas the second wave of princesses were much more adventurous, independent, and assertive. This list of princesses includes Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. The two waves of changes in the depiction of the princesses reflect societies values at the time. The first Disney films were produced in the 1930’s-1950’s. At this time women were suppose to be seen as beautiful, dutiful housewives. Whereas, in the 1980’s-2000’s, women have expanded beyond the roles of housewife. Women are much more adventurous and assertive in achieving their goals. This shift in changes reflects societies change as well. Yet, at the same time, many of these more modern princesses still have feminine attributes. They have challenged the traditional gender roles yet at the same time remain a part of them. Each of the princesses finds true love at the end of the story and goes on to live happily ever after. So, in a way, these films are still reinforcing the stereotypes of what it means to be happy and successful.
Much like the princesses manufactured by Disney those who descend from royal lines have also influenced how society views what it means to be a princess. Throughout history people have always held a fascination with women from royal houses. From Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Pocahontas (who later was immortalized by the Disney corporation), to more modern royals like Princess Grace of Monaco, and Princess Diana of England. Society has long had interest in it’s monarchies.
However, it seems in recent years that this interest has elevated to something new. It really began when Grace Kelly, an American Hollywood movie star, married Prince Rainier III of Monaco. When they were married on April 18-19, 1956 it was broadcast to an television audience of 30 million people. People were fascinated by the what they perceived was a romantic love story between Hollywood royalty and European royalty. Those who followed the wedding wanted to know which designer the bride wore, what kind of cake they ate, what they splurged on, amongst other facts. Details such as that Princess Grace wore Helen Rose of MGM studio’s, a six-tier cake, and her parents paid 2 million for her dowry. It was little facts like this that the public could not get enough of.
The height of this obsession with modern royalty accumulated during Diana Spencer’s life. Diana was born into an old aristocratic family in England but she had never dreamed of being princess until met Prince Charles, heir to the British throne. In 1981, when she was only twenty years old, Diana married Prince Charles and became a princess. The nuptials between the two was watched by over 750 million and became known as the wedding of the twentieth century. For millions around the world they saw the wedding as a fairytale day. From Diana’s 25-foot train wedding dress designed by Emanuel, to the first kiss while waving to the crowds at Buckingham Palace, everything appeared to be a fairytale romance. This only solidified Diana’s place in history and made legions of girls around the world dream of being a princess. Throughout her marriage, until her subsequent divorce in 1996, and then for the rest of her life she was constantly watched by the media. People could not get enough of this “people’s princess” as she came to be known after her death.
American culture is obsessed with princesses which is ironic because the country does not have it’s own monarchy. Instead people look to other countries to follow the royal goings on. Perhaps, since the United States does not have it’s own monarchy, people wish for what they do not have.
Disney has capitalized on a love for royalty with it’s princess themed movies and merchandise. They have created over 25,000 Disney Princess products which has led to them on a path to becoming the largest franchise dedicated to girls. These genius of this product placement was that the need for it was apparent. Researchers at Disney found that girls were dressing up as princesses wearing generic costumes while trying to emulate their favorite princess. So why not instead create a line of products which is based off of some of the most beloved Disney princesses? So without any marketing, advertising, or anymore research being conducted the company released a line of princess related products. It became their most successful venture yet. As Andy Mooney, an executive at Disney said, “we simply gave girls what they wanted.”
So while girls may have wanted these princess related merchandise, why did they want it?
Starting with Snow White Disney began creating stereotypes of what a princess should be. A princess should always be nice, pretty, and feminine. However, research has found that girls who believe in the conventual feminine beliefs are more likely to be unhappy with themselves. So does the princess culture create a feeling of perpetual unhappiness about a person’s beauty, personality, and relationship life? Well, if Princess Diana’s life is any indication, the answer is yes.
Princess Diana lived what many people perceived was a fairytale life. She was married to her prince charming, had two beautiful boys, was a fashion icon, participated in charity work, and was kind and good. Yet, underneath all of this, lay a horrible secret. The women who appeared to “have it all” really didn’t. She was in a miserable and loveless marriage, felt a terrible amount of pressure to look and act a certain way in public, and had a eating disorder too.
Throughout her life Princess Diana was portrayed as embodying the Disney princesses form of femininity. She was seen as graceful, kind, and beautiful. Qualities which are all characteristics of princesses in Disney films. Yet, in all Disney films their is a morbid and sad quality to them. Almost all of the princesses deal with the loss of a loved one or experience and dramatic change in their life. And goodness knows, Diana’s life certainly had it’s fair share of sadness too.
After Diana’s marriage with Charles ended in 1996 the public began to see the cracks in the foundation. After all, the couple had only dated for a year before getting married, so it was impossible for them to really know each other. Their relationship was built on a public image not a real foundation of love and respect. As Diana said herself,
“The most daunting aspect was the media attention, because my husband and I, we were told when we got engaged that the media would go quietly, and it didn't; and then when we were married they said it would go quietly and it didn't; and then it started to focus very much on me, and I seemed to be on the front of a newspaper every single day, which is an isolating experience, and the higher the media put you, place you, is the bigger the drop. And I was very aware of that.”
The media ultimately played a role for the rest of the Princess of Wales life and even after death, she was still hounded by the press. While many girls wouldn’t like to be under constant scrutiny from the media, it is evident that many have dreamed of having a title and a prince. They look at Diana’s life and do not see where she suffered but instead see all the times where she was happy (or at least appeared to be so). And they want this happiness without ever realizing that a title will not make a person happy they must make themselves happy instead.
The media and Disney could be accused of packaging this false idea of what it means to be a princess and the duties which come with it. When Diana was asked in an interview how she handled the transition from young lady to princess she remarked, “you see yourself as a good product that sits on a shelf and sells well, and people make a lot of money out of you.” She was on every tabloid, newspaper, magazine week after week for much of her adult life. Diana Spencer was no longer just a member of the aristocracy but a product. People used her name to gain fame and make money. As Charles Spencer remarked during his eulogy at Diana’s funeral, “It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest is this; that a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.” And it is when events like this happen that it slanders what it means to be such a person in that position. The idea of what it means to be a princess has forever been skewed. In the past princesses were seen as political pawns by their families to ensure their bloodline would continue and now princesses are seen as a tabloid fodder for the media and a great source of product placement.
Recently an important event occurred in England on April 29, 2011; a royal wedding. The nuptials between Prince William and Catherine Middleton were watched around the world by about three billion people. This historic event will certainly have an impact on how future generations look at the British royal family and what it will mean to be a princess. For as Catherine Middleton has shown, one does not have to be born into royalty now days in order to become a princess. She herself is the daughter of self-made millionaires from a party planning business. Just like the marriage between Charles and Diana the marriage between William and Catherine was publicly scrutinized and adoringly watched by millions. And many of these royal watchers are little girls.
As Lisa T. McElroy remarked on her daughters fascination with the royal wedding, “somewhere along the line, my 21st-century daughters decided they wanted to be princesses. They announced that they, too, wanted extravagant weddings with fancy white dresses and tiaras and carriages. They began dreaming of the flowers, and the veil, and their three little dachshunds processing down a very long aisle at the end of which their very own Prince Charming’s would be waiting.”
Little girls do not necessarily dream about a marriage instead they dream about a wedding. The wedding day as people often say, is the happiest day of a persons life. But in reality a marriage lasts a lot longer. It seems that Lisa T. McElroy’s daughters have the same thoughts as many other young girls and thus this idea of marriage has been lost. They dream about the wedding dress, the cake, and the kiss but hardly any little girl dreams about the day to day life of a marriage. It isn’t very glamourous. But McElroy aims to teach her daughters that, “true princesses are those who commitment to the people they love is about much more than a dress, a carriage, and a tiara.”
After the wedding hoopla died down a little bit it appears that William and Catherine are reflecting the modern ideals of marriage. They were soon back to the home they have rented in Wales where William has been sent to work as a RAF rescue pilot and Catherine has been spotted grocery shopping. Also the couple has has stated they will not have butlers, chefs, or valets instead planning to make do on their own. This has been seen as a more modern way of living compared to in the past where a member of royalty was waited on hand and foot. It is these small changes which will most-likely have big results in how royalty is portrayed. Thus also changing what it means to be a princess. For as Catherine has already shown, being a princess is not all glitz and glamour, their are menial jobs too.
As the British monarchy evolves it appears that so will our thinking about the roles of princesses. Even the Disney films have changed how princesses are portrayed in films. In an interview with Ashley**, who was raised in a family where all vacations were spent at Disney World, she stated “you can always find the hints of change. It’s amazing to see in Disney how the heroines have changed from completely passive characters such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella (even their names reflect physical traits) to more assertive ones. Think Jasmine, Belle, and Mulan- and here enters the diversity as well. More recently, Princesses Tiana and Rapunzel. They all get a bit more assertive, more confident, and unwilling to settle. So things are changing. Slowly, but surely. I believe we can still have our princesses and our self-respect.”
The princess culture has grown over recent years and will only continue to grow with Disney leading the helm. And once again when Prince William, Diana and Charles eldest son, announced his engagement to Catherine Middleton the culture’s obsession with this theme was renewed. It will be interesting to see how William and Catherine’s story progresses and what it will mean for how people view the idea of princesses. Whatever the outcome may be, rest assure that the princess culture will continue to dominate little girls dreams everywhere.
*I wrote this paper for my Contemporary Women’s History class last year but thought I would share it on Cinematic Women as well. It doesn’t completely fit into this blogs niche but it’s still part of the larger issues at hand.
** Ashley is a friend of mine, who I interviewed for this essay.