by Shavon L. McKinstry
In recent years, Disney has been toying around with their “Princess” brand, making their popular films and characters even more marketable to children–namely, to young girls. This isn’t really new: Disney has changed the designs of their princesses to fit with market trends numerous times since the first princess, Snow White, debuted in 1937. Controversy arose, however, when Disney began retooling their princess brand for new products last summer, tweaking their make-up and outfits, and changing other, more integral aspects of their characters.
The redesigns are noticeably more glamorous and more bedazzled. Princess Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty, 1959) and Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991) no longer have the visually-flat hair of their movie counterparts, and are instead featured with the shimmering, flowing locks frequently seen in magazine ads. Each princess is now donning enough jewelry to keep a reporter on the red carpet busy for a good while. The added make-up and glitz being marketed to young girls is problematic. These images aren’t “just” cartoons, they’re prominent and effective marketing products (so prominent, in fact, that on the day this post is published, Toys R Us lists 987 different Princess products). Disney is the largest media conglomerate in the world, and the Princess brand is one of its most successful marketing tools. It’s impossible to ignore the significance that these characters have with children, and how Disney uses this influence to make money. But inspiring young children to be conscious of make-up and beauty isn’t Disney’s biggest crime this time around. What’s most troubling about this redesign is how it deals with race.
In 2009, two doctors, Sharon Hayes and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, did a study on animated characters and young girls’ self-image. After watching clips of cartoon characters who were princesses, the participants were asked what made a “real princess.” The results might be different from what you would expect: these girls, around the ages of six and seven, generally did not report having a desire to be thinner after studying and watching the narrow-waisted princesses. Instead, when asked how they could become a princess, many of the girls reported that they would need to change their skin color. They responded with things like “I’d paint myself white” and “I would change from brown skin to white skin.”
Of the canon ten Disney Princesses in the brand, six are white. This summer, Merida from Brave is slated to become the next Disney Princess. In 2014, Anna, the protagonist of Disney’s next animated film, Frozen, will become the twelfth Disney Princess. Both Merida and Anna are white.
This is why these redesigns are so troubling: Pocahontas and Mulan became whiter. Pocahontas’s skin was lightened, her face has become more narrow, her nose has also been dramatically narrowed, and her eyes have become larger. Mulan’s skin changed from the darker tone she was in her film to straight out white; her eyes were given prominent blue undertones; her lips were made thicker. Her dramatic make-up and new, glamorous, dress seem to be directly counter to her personality and character in her film. Jasmine, the first non-white Disney princess, is white washed, too. In fact, save for Tiana, all of princesses of color have been whitewashed. To add on to all of this, in new merchandise, these princesses have been noticeably pushed to the back or left out completely.
Now, Disney has taken some notice to these complaints. In February, the official Disney Princess Facebook re-redesigned Mulan with darker skin and eyes. This is their re-redesign, compared to Mulan in the film:
Even with this change, Disney and their characters and princesses are still overwhelmingly white, and that doesn’t look like it will change in the near future. This Could’ve Been Frozen, a blog that started up in December, showcases fan art for Frozen featuring indigenous peoples instead of the light-skinned, blue-eyed cast, pointing out to fans–and to the company–that Disney could have diversified their princess line-up.
So many people are fans of Disney. Not just little girls, but people of all genders, all sizes, all orientations, all abilities, and all ethnicities. For their popular princess line, Disney prefers to portray one demographic of princess, simultaneously alienating so much of their fanbase.