The Nuances Of Disney Princesses

Over the last few years, Disney has made small steps to change the image of their typical female protagonist. Films such as “Brave” and “Frozen” have been hailed by Disney fans as  fresh departures from the usual prince and princess fairy tale to an animated narrative seeking to (somewhat) empower female characters.

Additionally, they’ve included more women of color in their cast of film protagonists. Last month, Disney announced that they will be releasing a movie in 2018 titled “Moana” featuring a Polynesian princess, Moana Waialiki, as the main character. So far, Disney stated that she is the daughter of a chief embarking on a journey by sea to help her family and encounters spiritual and mythological figures from Polynesian history. Moana will become Disney’s newest princess of color.

As awesome as it sounds to have various women and their cultures represented in these widely watched films, it’s imperative that we look at Disney’s history when it comes to portraying these stories. It’s no secret that Disney does not provide the most accurate displays of culture in their films.  Looking back on Disney’s women of color, there are hits and misses when it comes to how their stories are told.

Take Pocahontas, for instance. Though many of us know the lyrics to “Colors of the Wind” by heart, there is no doubt that the film is full of historical inaccuracies and portrays Pocahontas as an exotic object for the male gaze of white colonist John Smith. Though Pocahontas is at times painted as independent and rebellious, her story in the end becomes about her commitment to a man. Moreover, the filmmakers refused to collaborate with Native American tribes to make this movie a truer representation of indigenous cultures and the perils of colonialism. Now, I’m not saying that children, whom this movie is targeted toward, will understand what is wrong with this picture upon first viewing, nor am I saying that you should feel guilty if you loved this movie growing up, but it is important to reflect on these discrepancies. The problem is that these films have become a standard for children to watch; they then internalize these images of Native American culture and inaccurate understandings of history, which are harder to deconstruct later in their lives.

In contrast, we have a character like Mulan who broke tradition and challenged gender norms. Though her narrative is not perfect either (see: ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’), this film was one of the few times Disney got it right in terms of female protagonists breaking gender roles.

We see a little more of this in “Brave,” where Scottish princess Merida not only explores an empowering relationship with her mother, but also manages to challenge and change marriage traditions, opening up more opportunities for women.

Recently, “Frozen” attempted to follow in Merida’s footsteps, but the connection between the two female protagonists was uninspiring.

Now Disney is moving on to Moana. Let’s hope that this Polynesian princess has an accompanying narrative that both accurately represents her culture and seeks to spread a message of empowerment. Disney is capable of being completely inaccurate and a tad sexist, but it also has the potential to create a film that respects culture and uplifts women. Here’s to hoping.

 

Sarah S. Menendez is a third- year political science and literary journalism major. She can be reached at smenende@uci.edu.