Printer Friendly

Evolution of the Disney Princess: From Damsel in Distress to Damsel of Distress.

The Disney Princess franchise emerged in 1937 when the fair and foolish Snow White ate a poisoned apple and fell into a deep sleep. She was eventually rescued by her Prince Charming and lived happily ever after. Almost 80 years later, Disney continues to introduce princesses who can survive everything from magical spells to evil mother figures against all odds. Today, the Disney Princess franchise tops the 20 best-selling licensed entertainment products list with profits of $1.6 billion in North America and $3 billion globally (Goudreau, 2012). The Disney Princess franchise continues to expand its global reach across continents and break language barriers. The franchise is also responding to calls to be more culturally representative. As of this writing, the Disney Princess franchise will expand by two Disney princesses with the introduction of Moana (the Polynesian princess featured in 2016's Moana) and Elena (the Spanish princess in the Disney Channel's Elena of A valor) (Leal, 2014; LeTrent, 2015).

There is no question that the Disney Princess franchise has significantly saturated our culture and our society. As numerous studies have suggested, the Disney Princess franchise is influencing young people's lives (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Birkbeck, 2016; England, Descartes, Collier-Meek, 2011; Towbin, Haddock, Zimmerman, Lund, & Tanner, 2003; Robinson, Callister, Magoffin, Moore, 2007). In a study with almost 200 children as participants, researchers found that roughly a quarter of the females engaged with Disney Princess media weekly and over half of them interacted with toys relating to Disney Princesses at least one time per week (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Birkbeck, 2016). If the level of saturation is as great as past research and franchise earnings indicate, then should we not take a deeper look at how these animated films construct and disseminate reality? The literature on the messages that animated movies send to children is robust and interdisciplinary. However, as the Disney Princess franchise continues to expand, it is imperative to continue documenting its evolution because of the number of children being exposed to the content and images presented in these films. In this article, we examine the 12 Disney Princess franchise animated films, adding to the existing literature the subject of conflict as it relates to the princess. While this theme has been in part covered by other authors (see Do Rozario, 2004), the present study goes further to quantify narrative conflict in the Disney Princess films. Through content analysis, the authors textually explore the relationship and roles that Disney princesses play in the creation and the resolution of conflict, which allow us to analyze and assess how gender in these animated films is represented.

Disney Princess Archetype

Disney Princess films have been around for over seven decades, influencing multiple generations of both children and adults in terms of gender and race roles, physical beauty expectations, and romantic love (Hecht, 2011). The Disney Princess narrative is arguably the most influential source to impart notions about romance and femininity in children (young females in particular) (Hecht 2011; Reznik, 2014; Whelan, 2012). A review of the Disney Princess archetype yields insight into the following major themes: physical appearance and abilities, relationships with family, romantic endeavors, conflict, and language.

Physical Appearance.

In a content analysis examining love and gender roles in Disney animated films, Junn (1997) found that female characters were often depicted with exaggerated, attractive figures and were often shown giggling and fixing their hair. The princesses are often shown with pure white skin, little waists, tiny wrists, arms and legs and have movements that mirror a ballerina's (Lacroix, 2004). Many show strength and athletic ability along with their grace; Pocahontas runs cross-country, Jasmine easily pole-vaults between buildings, and although Ariel is a mermaid, she still displays very impressive above water skills when she saves Prince Eric in a storm (Do Rozario, 2004). Classic children's fairy tales, often made into Disney animated films, frequently contain visual messages of the ideal look of female beauty (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003). For example, princesses are seen wearing makeup, brushing their hair, and having thin bodies with delicate features. This representation has been fairly consistent from the oldest princess, Snow White to the most recent princesses in Frozen. Sun and Scharrer (2004) studied college students' responses to The Little SeaMaid, the Hans Christian Andersen story that influenced the narrative of The Little Mermaid). Student responses were particularly interesting in light of the story's relationship to Disney's animated adaption. For example, one participant stated,
I realized how much the Disney version influenced me... while I was
reading the little sea maid, I was picturing Ariel, from the Disney
story. I was actually quite disappointed to see such an old-fashioned
frumpy-looking girl in the pictures..! was conditioned to expect the
long-haired, doe-eyed, big-breasted girl from Disney, not a 'normal'
looking mermaid/girl! (Sun & Scharrer, 2004, p. 50).

This research supports Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz's (2003) argument that young women formulate ideal messages of beauty from these fairy tales that subsequently shape their own self-esteem and self-image. The previous authors delve deeper into this idea when assessing 150 years of ideal female characters from Grimm's classic fairy tales, with 43% of the tales being made into movies or animations. Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz (2003) found that in the stories the representation of female beauty was five times more frequent as that of male beauty. Being beautiful often was the characteristic associated with being the female protagonist, while being physically unattractive was often linked to the female antagonists (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003). Interestingly, there is also a correlation between references to beautiful female characters and the amount of times that a fairy tale has been reproduced as a book or a movie (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003).

The second dominant theme surrounding the Disney princesses is their connection with their father and being a "daddy's girl." Examples include The Little Mermaid's Ariel saying "I love you Daddy," to her father, while in The Princess and the Frog Tiana's mother says, "You're your daddy's daughter all right" when Tiana wants to honor her father through the dream of owning her own restaurant (Stover, 2013). Do Rozario (2004) adds to recurrences in family depiction by recognizing that none of the Disney princesses have a brother and few have living mothers, thus the princess must help their father. For example, Belle risks her life to try to save her father who has gone missing after traveling, and Mulan seeks to bring pride to her dad by taking his place in the war.

Third, romantic love is a central focus for most Disney princesses. The princesses experience love at first sight, sometimes being motivated by personality factors along with a prince's physical attractiveness (Griffin, 2014). In their analysis of Disney animated films up to and including 2009's The Princess and the Frog, England et al. (2011) note that all princesses except Pocahontas had a romantic relationship by the end of the movie. Although Pocahontas was single at the end, the movie alluded to the romantic connection that she would have with John Smith, despite their geographical distance. Additionally, many of the princesses longed for love, with Tiana being an anomaly; she wished for her own restaurant and was not prevented from achieving that goal by love or marriage (Whelan, 2012).

Fourth, in regards to conflict, the princesses always seem to find themselves involved in disputes, especially in matters of love. For many of the classic Disney Princess movies, love plays a paramount role in regards to conflict. Aurora of Sleeping Beauty can be awakened only by a true love's kiss. Ariel gets herself into trouble with Ursula and with her father when she decides to give up her voice for legs in hopes of advancing her love for Prince Eric. Aladdin's Jasmine escapes the kingdom to be with a man who she thinks is a prince. However, a diversion from this typical plot comes during The Princess and the Frog. Tiana is not driven by love and finding a prince, but by achieving her dream and overcoming obstacles in order to become a restaurant owner (Stephens, 2014). Additionally, The Princess and the Frog upsets the traditional damsel in distress framework, as no one comes to Tiana's rescue (Stephens, 2014). Similarly, Rapunzel (Tangled) does not need to be rescued by a man; in fact, she saves herself and others multiple times during her adventure as does Merida of Brave (Stephens, 2014). Lastly, Frozen's Elsa does not have a love interest in the film. In addition to conflict being related to romantic love, conflict also seems to be connected with some of the princesses' relations with her father. Belle finds herself taking a less than desirable trip through the dark woods in order to find her father while Ariel acts out against her father's wishes and creates a situation in which she constantly leaves the kingdom and continually finds herself in compromising situations.

Finally, recent research conducted by Carmen Fought and Karen Eisen-hauer has added to our understanding of the language of Disney princesses from past to present. Researchers found that men were more talkative than women in The Little Mermaid (Fought & Eisenhauer, 2016). Although this may seem like an anomaly because a large part of the plot features Ariel giving up her voice to have legs, the four succeeding movies, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan, also feature women with fewer speaking parts (Fought & Eisenhauer, 2016). This trend can partly be explained by the fact that aside from the princess looking for love, many of the other significant characters in Disney movies are male (Fought & Eisenhauer, 2016). While some newer movies (Tangled and Brave) feature a majority of female dialogue, the newest movie as of this writing (Frozen) takes a step back and reverts to male dominance as far as speaking is concerned, despite the fact that the film features two princesses (Fought & Eisenhauer, 2016). However, it is important to note how the dialogue has changed over time. Recent Disney Princess movies evince a trend wherein compliments directed to female characters emphasize characteristics other than physical appearance. While earlier movies featured more dialogue on the princesses' physical appearance, newer princesses are receiving more accolades for their competence and demonstrated skills, thus moving away from the stereotype that princesses should be applauded on their appearance as opposed to their accomplishments (Fought & Eisenhauer, 2016).

Evolution of the Princesses

The Disney Princess archetype has evolved in terms of the princesses' involvement with love and conflict, how they demonstrate strength and independence, and how they display stereotypical female traits; however, there still seems to be a lack of significant advances in the diversity of Disney princesses. To begin, while romance is a central theme in many of the earlier movies (e.g. The Little Mermaid, Cinderella), it becomes less of a focus in later movies such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Brave (Hecht 2011; Stephens, 2014). Tiana of The Princess and the Frog does not experience love at first sight and Merida from Brave is uninterested in love because of her young age (Stephens, 2014). These plots shift dramatically from the romance of The Little Mermaid where a sixteen-year-old Ariel falls in love instantly with Prince Eric and marries him as a teenager.

Second, in terms of physical and emotional strength, the latter Disney princesses have also displayed more power, independence, and control. Tiana focuses on earning a living by working, Rapunzel executes an escape from her tower to explore the town, and Merida, Pocahontas, and Mulan show strength and athletic ability (England et al., 2011). Regarding independence, Merida in particular is able to take care of herself and is outspoken about her feeling of being too young to marry (Gehlawat, 2010; Stephens, 2014).

Third, the princesses' traditional gender roles evolved from representing conventional feminine traits, such as fearfulness and affection, to the antithesis of a traditional representation (England et al., 2011). For example, Snow White and Cinderella are depicted doing traditionally feminine tasks such as housework, but Ariel and Belle exhibit more masculine traits, such as assertiveness and the determination to be brave and independent (England et al., 2011). However, in The Princess and the Frog, Tiana is known for her domestic skills. She is a good cook and successful waitress (England et al., 2011). So although traditional gender roles seem to have evolved into less stereotyping, they have not necessarily developed chronologically with the movies (England et al., 2011).

Fourth, the presentation of narrative conflict is markedly different in later Disney films. In movies such as Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Princess and the Frog, princesses have become more active in resolving the final conflicts as opposed to more passive princesses as depicted by Cinderella, Aurora or Snow White (England et al., 2011). Finally, in the most recent film, Frozen, it is Anna who saves the day.

Overall it seems that the most recent Disney Princesses (Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida) represent a pivotal change in the female lead (Stephens, 2014). Tiana is not a princess (until the very end of the film) and in many ways mentioned above, does not represent the typical Disney Princess in terms of love and physical appearance (Stephens, 2014). Rapunzel is not motivated by love as a central theme and she also exhibits more independent qualities (Stephens, 2014). And finally, after 75 years, Merida is the pinnacle of female independence, straying from both love and a prince as motivation for advancing the plot, while she exhibits non-stereotypically feminine characteristics, such as being uninterested in finding romantic love and having her own goals in life (Stephens, 2014).

Considering these significant changes, it is critical to continue to explore whether or not positive advances have been made with Disney princesses by including the latest film, Frozen to the exploration of gender roles. It is essential to research the latest Disney movies because there is reason to believe that, based on Gerbner's (1998) Cultivation Theory (Gerbner, 1998), children's reality can be shaped by what they watch; therefore, it is necessary to understand what they are watching. Are princesses still being portrayed as physically attractive, submissive young women only looking for love or have the latest princesses continued the trend of being represented as more capable and independent women as we have begun to see in the third generation of princesses? And if so, what does this teach children? Is a shift to a more independent Disney Princess occurring or was Merida simply an anomaly? These ideas and how they specifically relate to Cultivation Theory will be further explored in the next section.

Theoretical Significance

Studying the influence of Disney movies on children and their gender identities can be executed through the lens of Cultivation Theory (England et al., 2011; Robinson et al., 2007). Theorists have continued to support the notion that there is a connection between children's media and the way in which those young viewers understand their reality (Hecht, 2011; Towbin et al., 2003). The idea of cultivation relating to television viewing posits that watching television influences a person's outlook on reality (Gerbner, 1998). In other words, what a person views and how much they view can impact the construction of their own reality. Gerbner's Cultivation Theory was originally developed to provide a hypothesis on the effects of television violence and audience perceptions of the world, but can also be applied to conceptualizations of age, race, and gender stereotypes, as well as perceptions of religion, science, and family (Griffin, 2012; Gerbner, 1998). Notable findings regarding cultivation include results on people's perceptions of violence and stereotypes. For example, there is a significant amount of violence shown on television and people who are heavy viewers tend to think that they are more likely to encounter violence in their own life, even though statistically that is not the case (Gerbner, 1998).

Regarding stereotypes, children who are heavy viewers of television tend to believe traditional gender stereotypes (i.e. women belong in the kitchen; men are more independent) (Gerbner, 1998). Many images are noteworthy to discuss regarding the portrayal of women on television. For example, females on television are usually attractive, thin, and receive compliments on their physical appearance (Signorielli, 2001). Additionally, they are many times depicted as "more emotional, romantic, affectionate, and domestic" compared with their male counterparts (Signorielli, 2001). The importance of recognizing this notion is because children may begin to believe the stereotypes of people that are shown on television (Signorielli, 2001). Gerding and Signorielli (2014) argue that "television provides a wealth of information for children about gender roles" (p. 45). For instance, young girls may see stereotypes of females on television which portray them as mothers who cook, stay at home, and nurture. Young women may believe their path in life is to emulate the images portrayed on television.

Specifically relating to the Disney Princesses' audience, Signorielli (2001) argues that children are some of the heaviest viewers of television and therefore they learn many stories from television as opposed to interpersonal sources. It is important to assess the potential effects these conceptualizations of femininity, romance and appearance have on viewers. Previously published studies have examined Disney princesses up to and including 2005's Tangled featuring Rapunzel, but two new popular princesses, Anna and Elsa, have emerged from Frozen. In this study, the authors include Anna and Elsa in their analysis to continue the discussion regarding the shifting representations of Disney as well as the relationship between conflict and gender stereotypes.

After reviewing the current literature, the research questions that guided this content analysis were: how has the Disney Princess franchise evolved? How does the Disney Princess franchise perpetuate the stereotypical understanding of gender in our society? What role does narrative conflict play in the construction of gender in the Disney Princess franchise?


In order to investigate the treatment of gender in relation to narrative conflict the authors conducted a content analysis of all 12 Disney Princess films. Content analysis was chosen to maintain methodological consistency with earlier studies and gave us an opportunity to not only explore the concepts previously discussed but also explore more in-depth the treatment of conflict by allowing us to code for several different factors at the same time. Furthermore, content analysis allows us to translate the gendered behavior in the movies into numbers that represent the repetition and dynamism of the behavior. The first step taken to explore the way Disney princesses communicate gender ideals was to create a code book to record and identify the princesses' behaviors, relationships, and appearance.

Coding Procedures

In order to systematically collect data from the Disney Princess movies, the primary author created a code book to conduct content analysis. Code book design incorporated feedback from undergraduate communications media students who study film and are familiar with the movies; this study's two coauthors and previous related research further helped to shape the code book (England et al., 2011; Do Rozario, 2004). This code book was divided into four main categories: relationships, behavior, physical appearance, and conflict. Each of these categories was further broken down and defined by subcategories chosen by two criteria. Firstly, relationships and physical appearance were selected in order to revisit some of the previous research conducted regarding the Disney princesses. Additionally, the authors explored how conflict is situated in the movies. The authors included and coded for behavior in order to take note of its relationship with conflict. England et al.'s (2001) operational definitions guided the creation of a code book that explored similar attributes and expanded them into the Disney Princess movies produced since 2011.

Once the code book was created, the researchers set out to reach inter-coder reliability. In order to reach inter-coder reliability each author (coder) watched two movies, Mulan and Pocahontas, out of the 12 Disney movies (approximately 16% of the sample). These two movies, were chosen because they were easily accessible on Netflix. This first run was not successful (a=.53). After this unsuccessful run, the principal investigator revised the code book after consulting with the co-authors. Once the three authors discussed the first set of films several times and re-coded the original two movies, strong inter-coder reliability was established (a=.95) (Krippendorff, 2013).

Next, the first and third authors watched two more movies, Brave and Tangled. These movies were chosen because they were available to borrow from the primary author's social circle. This third round of coding established strong inter-coder reliability (a=.83). The remaining eight movies were divided into two and the first and third authors watched and coded them. The movies were divided according to accessibility for both of the authors. Once the coding was done, the primary author checked for patterns and trends in the results as well as the mode for each variable in order to study which codes were most commonly used for each of the categories set forth by the code book.

Coding categories and operational definitions

The code book was divided into four main categories, relationships, behavior, physical appearance and conflict, in order to investigate the relationship between gender and conflict. Although previous research has explored these categories (England, Descartes, & Collier-Meeks, 2011), three movies, Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), and Frozen (2013) have been added to the Disney Princess franchise and were thus previously unexplored. The films were coded only for the Disney Princess in order to focus on her and her relationship to conflict.

Relationships. Coding for relationships was relatively simple as the coders were only concerned with what relationships were portrayed and how often this relationship was observed in the film. Notations were taken for mother, father, siblings, and mentors. Significant other, defined in this research as someone in a scene with romantic undertones, and friend status were assumed given behavior relationships. If there was a scene with romantic undertones, the person was coded as the significant other. For friends, if there was time spent together, sharing of thoughts and feelings, they were considered a friend. The authors examined how frequently the mother, father, siblings, significant other, mentors, and friends were present. This was broken down into five different codes: (1) mentioned briefly meaning they were mentioned once, (2) visible briefly meaning they were seen once, (3) visible a few times meaning they were seen twice, (4) visible or heard several times meaning they were seen or heard from five times or more (sometimes although characters are not seen, their voices can be heard), and (5) present throughout meaning they were in the majority of the shots.

Behavior. Coding for behaviors involved every scene where the Disney Princess was on screen. Using England et al.'s, (2011) operational definitions the authors coded for masculine and feminine characteristics for the following: emotions (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and whether they were in control of them or not), hobbies/activities (outdoors, indoors, feminine, masculine), strength (weak or strong), violence (not violent, few violent acts, several violent acts, very violent), and courage (not courageous, a few times, throughout, foolishly).

Emotions. Emotions were defined as manifested by facial expressions and dialogue. Additionally, the authors were interested if the princess was able to keep control of her emotions or not. Being in control was defined as absence of being out of control, or screaming at someone, running away. These behaviors are feminine characteristics, which, according to England et al., (2011) include "collapses crying" and that "the character must have thrown him/herself on or against something" (p. 559).

Hobbies/Activities. For this section, England et al.'s (2011) definitions of masculine and feminine characteristics were again used as a guide. According to England et al. (2011), masculine characteristics include having the desire to explore, being physically strong and assertive, being athletic, and being interested/capable in intellectual activity. On the other hand, being physically weak, showing affection/helping/nurturing towards animals or others, and seeking advice or help are classified as feminine. (England et al., 2011). The activities were further divided into indoors (doing anything inside as a hobby such as painting, reading, sewing) and outdoors (out in the wilderness talking to animals, taking a walk, singing).

Strength and Weakness. Strength can be of mind or body. Doing things that require strength ranged from pulling someone up from a cliff to making the right decision for the greater good. Weakness could be illustrated by physical weakness and weakness of character such as being selfish or immoral.

Violence and Courage. Violence and courage were related to the main plot of the story; for each movie this revolved around conflict. Violence was not outwardly stated in England et. al.'s (2011) code book, though assertiveness was. Our code book defined violence as using some sort of force against someone or something. Slapping, hitting, holding down, were all examples. When coding for courage, the authors followed the guidelines set by England et al. (2011) labeled brave under masculine characteristics: "courageous, daring, intrepid. Bravery often involved a rescue or leadership in the face of danger" (p. 559). In addition to coding whether they were courageous or not and how often, the authors also coded for instances when the princesses were portrayed being stupidly courageous. Stupidly courageous was defined as acting courageously without thinking of the consequences, thus leading to more trouble. Similarly, according to England et al. (2011), being troublesome is a feminine characteristic involving "causing trouble, turmoil, disturbance" (p. 559).

Physical Appearance. In order to assess physical appearance, the authors coded for hair color (blonde, brown/black, red, white), clothing (conservative--mostly covered up, shows a lot of skin--shoulders, legs; very tight--can hardly breathe, can't move, being fastened into; feminine--dresses, skirts; masculine--pants), and body type (childlike--no curves; curvy--visibly defined hips, butt, breasts; large breasts--visible cleavage; large bottom--is it very visible, especially in silhouette; delicate--small feet, wrists, waist; strong--not delicate).

Conflict. When coding for conflict, the authors were interested in investigating the princesses' flaws, which according England et al. (2011) are characteristics labeled as troublesome; these include timidity, speaking out of turn, resolution of conflicts, who was involved in creating the conflict (partner/significant other, friends, family, strangers, the princess), and who the victims were.


As mentioned previously, the authors were interested in exploring not just the Disney princesses' relationships, behaviors, and physical appearance, but also how the Disney Princesses were represented regarding conflict. More specifically, how they handled conflict and what role they played in causing and solving it. This objective created an entry point to investigate our second goal. Instead of solely focusing on the physical representations of the characters, investigating their relationship to conflict created an opportunity to explore how the Disney princesses have evolved over the last seven decades. To that goal, the authors examined the spreadsheets for patterns in the ways that the Disney princesses engaged with conflict. In the background of this was the representation of gender and an examination of what this representation is communicating about and to our society.


The authors found that throughout all the Disney Princess movies, friends and significant others were the most present characters. Friends were found to be present throughout the film in 7 of the 12 films (58%). Significant others were present throughout the film in 6 of the 12 films (50%). Fathers were also a common presence in the movies and they were visible or heard several times (five times or more) according to our coding sheets in 4 of the 12 movies (33%) and present throughout in 3 of the 12 movies (25%). Mothers were third most common, with the codes "visible a few times" (33%), "not visible" (33%), and "mentioned briefly" (33%) being the most common occurrences. Interestingly, it was not until 1998's Mulan that the code for mothers changed from nonexistent to mentioned or visible briefly to visible a few times. This finding is imperative to the discussion of gender stereotype and the relationship between mother and daughter. Of the 12 movies, Brave (2012) was the only movie where the mother received the code of 5, meaning visible throughout. The most common code for siblings and mentors was 0 (66%), which means they were not present.


The most common code for emotions was happiness. Thirteen out of the 13 (100%) princesses were portrayed as happy at one time or another (although there are 12 movies, there are 13 princesses since Frozen has two). Of these 13 princesses, 11 (84%) experienced sadness and fear, 8 (61%) experienced anger, 7 (53%) demonstrated controlled emotions, and 6 (46%) demonstrated emotionally spiraling out of control. According to England, et al. (2011), showing emotion is a feminine characteristic, and one that certainly all of the Disney princesses demonstrated. Additionally, the authors argued that collapsing while crying, which was coded as out of control was also a feminine characteristic.

The only trend noticeable in the progression of the movies is that Disney princesses after the 30-year hiatus that started with Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and ended in 1989 with The Little Mermaid tended to show a larger range of emotions. Starting with Ariel, the Disney princesses that followed were Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna, and Elsa. Out of these Disney Princesses, 7 demonstrated all 4 emotions (anger, fear, happiness, sadness) that were coded (70%). The 3 princesses who did not demonstrate all 4 emotions, demonstrated at least 3 of them. The Disney Princesses before the 30-year hiatus, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora only demonstrated 2 of the 4 emotions coded for this research. This shift illustrates the trend to portray the showing of emotions as a feminine stereotype continues to be central in the depiction of the Disney princesses.

For hobbies/activities, 11 (85%) princesses were viewed engaging in an activity or hobby considered feminine according to our definition mentioned earlier and derived from England et al. (2011). Second in hobbies was the princesses depicted as engaging in hobbies outdoors (61%). Six of the 13 princesses' (46%) hobbies were coded as indoors and considered masculine, the trend here being that none of the princesses exhibited masculine hobbies until The LittleMermaid. This is consistent with England et al.'s (2011) findings. Next in behaviors, the authors coded for strength, violence, and courage, three codes that according to England, et al. (2011) are typically considered masculine characteristics. Ten of the 13 princesses (77%) displayed weakness while 9 of the 13 (69%) displayed strength. Furthermore, 6 of the 13 princesses (46%) did not participate in any violence and 4 of the 13 (31%) were involved in a few or several violent acts. All of the princesses of the 2000s participated in some form of violent act. When it came to being courageous, it was found that 8 of the 13 (61%) princesses were courageous throughout the films; 5 of the 13 (38%) a few times; 3 of the 13 (23%) foolishly, and less than 1% were not courageous. The only one not coded as courageous was Snow White.

Physical Appearance

Most of the Disney princesses (6) had brown or black hair (46%) and 5 of the princesses had blonde hair (38%). Their clothes were mostly feminine (61%). Additionally, it was found that their clothing was also conservative in terms of coverage, (54%) but also very tight fitting (46%). In coding body types, the authors found that princesses were mostly shown to be delicate (77%) and curvy (69%). Six (46%) princesses had a large bottom and 5 (38%) had large breasts.


The content analysis data illustrated that the princesses' number one flaw was that they acted without thinking as 10 (77%) princesses exhibited this quality. It was found that when it came time to resolving the conflicts, the resolution was out of her control most often (12 of the 13 princesses-92%) and that it was done with the help of a man (10 of the 13 princesses-77%). However, 9 princesses (69%) were responsible for resolving the conflict and 7 (54%) resolved it with the help of their friends. Beauty and the Beast's Belle was the first Disney Princess to be involved in the resolution of her conflict. That being said, 11 princesses (85%) were involved in creating said conflicts. However, in 10 of the 12 films (83%) their friends are responsible for the creation of conflict, and in 8 of the 12 films (67%) their families are the responsible parties. Lastly, when exploring the victimization of the characters, all 13 (100%) princesses were depicted as a victim at one time or another. The princesses' families were the second most likely portrayed as victims (10 of 13-77%). Six of the 13 princesses' (46%) friends and 7 of the 13 princesses' (54%) significant others were victimized.


This research concluded that the consistent portrayal of femininity communicated by the Disney Princess franchise remains true. Princesses are delicate and beautiful creatures with athletic abilities (Do Rozario, 2004; Junn, 1997; Lacroix, 2004). Additionally, it was found that fathers played a much more important role in most of the princesses' lives compared to their mothers, however fathers were third to their significant others and friends. This continues to perpetuate the patriarchal power struggle in which the Disney Princess finds herself. Fathers are usually there, albeit powerless most of the time and mothers are typically nonexistent. Instead, the mother role is relegated to stepmother or evil queen who is often the main villain in the film. Do Rozario (2004) argues that this common portrayal turns female characters against each other in a battle for dominance of the kingdom, which is commonly the end result of the film. That being said, these stereotypes are less commonly present in the latest set of Disney Princess movies, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen. Mother had more of a presence in Tiana's life and was not an evil villain. Rapunzel on the other hand had two mothers, her biological mother and an imposter who served as the evil villain. The authors found that mothers and fathers had equal screen time in Brave. Merida struggles with her mother's expectations, ultimately betraying her (her mother is turned into a bear). However, Merida eventually rebuilds her relationship with her mother and fights to save her mother's life. In this conflict, we still see a struggle between two women--mother and Merida. However, this struggle is resolved and forgiven. In fact, Brave was the only film where the mother was present throughout. Anna and Elsa's mother does not play a large role in the development of the film nor is she considered evil or part of the conflict other than unexpectedly dying. Similarly to Merida and her mother, Elsa and Anna must work together in order to resolve the main conflict of the story, rupturing the common Disney stereotype that sets women up against each other.

Within the exploration of conflict, the researchers were interested in observing the relationship between the flaws associated with the princesses (acting without thinking, not knowing her place in society, jealousy) and the roles they played in the creation and solution of the conflict. It must be noted that none of the princesses exhibited the flaw of jealousy. This code was chosen by the primary author after several informal conversations with undergraduate students who suggested that jealousy was certainly something that was a stereotypic Disney Princess characteristic and feminine. This apparent disconnect between reality and perception is something to keep in mind for future research. However, the Disney Princess has not learned how to think before acting. Although we applaud the two newest movies Frozen and Brave because these princesses exhibit independence and strength, the main conflict in the story emerges from their lack of thinking and their rash reactions. Merida is angry with her mother and thus turns her into a bear. Elsa unknowingly freezes her entire kingdom, unable to control her emotions or powers. Only 3 of the princesses did not display this character flaw; there was no trend in the findings. Furthermore, as part of the exploration of conflict, the authors were interested in exploring which characters were victimized within the films. In the background of all of this, the authors kept in mind how gender roles are created and maintained by the princesses' depictions.

Every Disney princess was depicted as being a victim at some point or another in their films. This means the princesses continue being the damsel in distress as they have been for the last 80 years (Reznik, 2012). Of course, the nature of victimization was different in each film. It must also be noted that the seriousness of the victimization of each film ranged from being entrapped by an enchanted prince in The Beauty and the Beast to being in the throes of war in Mulan. The researchers did not code for the duration or the extent of the victimization, only if at any time the Disney Princess had been the victim of something or someone. In the future, it is worth exploring the percentage of time the princesses spend being a victim compared with the percentage of time they spend being a heroine. The princesses were not the only characters who were depicted as victims in the films. The princesses' families fell victim to something or someone in 8 of the movies and the princesses' friends and significant others were also victims in almost half (n=5) of the movies.

It is clear that victimization is a prevalent theme in the Disney Princess franchise. This should come as no surprise given that the general ideas for the films come from the much more violent Brothers Grimm fairy tales (Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz, 2003). Although the princesses were not the only victims in the films, they were victimized much more often than other characters. Of course, this could be due to the fact that the Disney princesses also served as the main characters. That being said, what is strikingly significant is that they were not only the victims in their own stories, but they were also often the ones who instigated the conflict and subsequently in charge of resolving the conflict. This means that although the princesses continue to perpetuate the damsel in distress narrative, they also play a role in rupturing it by being their own heroines. It is not only significant that they are able to play these conflicting roles but also that the Disney Princess as a heroine does not exist without the Disney Princess as a victim. So, although we see the Disney Princess take charge of her conflict, this conflict always occurs because of her--she is cleaning up her own mess. This juxtaposition perpetuates feminine gender stereotypes that dictate that emotions get the best out of the princesses with the Disney princesses' abilities to solve her own conflict and save herself.

Ten of the 13 princesses were directly responsible for creating the very conflict that turned her into a victim. The three instances when this was not the case were in Cinderella, Mulan, and Pocahontas. This study did not explore if the flaws were causally related to the major conflicts the princesses found themselves in, though this would be an interesting area to further research. That being said, the princesses were also actively engaged in the resolution of their respective conflicts. Nine of the 13 princesses helped resolve the conflict in one way or another. Furthermore, content analysis demonstrated that 11 of the princesses' resolutions were out of their control. Pocahontas and Tiana were in control of their resolution, however. Ten of the 13 princesses had the major flaw of acting without thinking, excluding Cinderella and Tiana. This flaw is inherently tied to the way gender is communicated within the Disney Princess franchise because as the victims of the films, the princesses, are always somehow to blame for everything that eventually goes wrong. Therefore, we see the damsel in distress narrative alive and well in the Disney Princess franchise because the latest princesses (although playing a part in solving the problems) still have been involved in the creation of the main conflicts in the movie.

Interestingly, in a time when we have Disney princesses such as Elsa and Merida, who are at first glance so different than earlier Disney Princesses, we can still easily categorize them as victims. What we see here is that the princesses are gaining considerable skills, power, even autonomy, yet they continue to fall victim to their mistakes. What this pseudo-evolution seems to point to is the repackaging of a Disney Princess to appear strong, powerful, even independent. However, has the storyline really changed? The princesses continue to be the victim of every story, they continue to act without thinking, not knowing their place, and for the most part, are responsible for causing conflict. This means that there has not been a significant change over the years as to the proclivity for these actions in terms of conflict. That being said, as the content analysis illustrates, the princess often plays a role in the resolution of conflict. The idea that the Disney Princess plays a role in resolving her conflicts is not a new one, however. With the exception of Belle, it seems that since 1995, Disney princesses have been playing an important role in resolving the major conflicts of the stories. In Frozen it is the two princesses who come together to resolve the main conflict and their true love for each other saves the day. Interestingly, at some point in the movie they confuse true love with the common Disney narrative, thinking it should come from a Prince Charming. Instead, true love is manifested as sisterly love, breaking the spell and resolving the main conflict. This disrupts the narrative in Do Rozario's (2004) findings and at the same time reaffirms the princesses' status as their own heroines. That being said, the main culprit of the conflict is Elsa, one of the two princesses who is blonde, delicate, athletic, and unable to control her emotions.

Although it is apparent that the Disney Princess franchise continues to perpetuate the same gender norms throughout its history, some norms have changed that are worth noting. Most notable among these is the evolution of the Disney Princess as someone who is responsible for saving the day. Although the conflict resolution is still out of her control for the most part, and there seems to be a trend toward the Disney Princess playing a larger role in that process. This illustrates that although the Disney Princess franchise perpetuates gender stereotypes of women as the weaker, more emotional gender, we may be witnessing slow progress. Continuing to explore these trends is critical from the perspective of Cultivation Theory. If children are learning about gender norms from what they watch (Gerbner, 1998; Signorielli, 2001), then it is important to know the content of the storylines and the portrayal of the characters in what they are watching, especially in widely viewed Disney films.

Future Research

The Disney Princess franchise continues to grow through new additions to its film library. Stories are being re-told and re-presented to fit more modern ideals and there is a need to analyze whether or not these newer and seemingly more modern depictions of princesses are truly modern. Has the Disney Princess franchise evolved its representation of beauty and gender or does it continue to employ traditional conventions? Anna and Elsa's debut into the Disney Princess franchise sent waves of celebration for princesses who finally can take care of themselves and are strong and proud, but is this truly what is being depicted and represented to society? Are they still not victims of patriarchal societies that try to define them through their feminine characteristics? Despite Frozen's emphasis on sisterly love over romantic love, the princesses were still depicted as emotional, delicate creatures that played a part in the central conflict of the movie. Future research may explore parents' roles in what the films are communicating about gender roles to assess whether parents serve as mediators between the films and how child audiences construct their own understandings of gender roles. As films continue to be released, we must follow the princesses' evolution in gender roles, especially relating to conflict, to observe how and if these stories are changing and what that means for the children who are watching them. Future research could also explore how the merchandise generated by these films supplements the gender roles portrayed in the films.

As this research illustrated, the Disney Princess of today continues to perpetuate similar gender stereotypes of 1937's Snow White. Although a shift appears to be occurring, especially with modern princesses, scholars should continue studying these representations as they have the potential to impact newer generations of young girls and their understanding of gender.


Baker-Sperry, L., & Grauerholz, L. (2003). The pervasiveness and persistence of the feminine beauty ideal in children's fairy tales. Gender & Society, 17 (5), 711-726. doi:10.1177/0891243203255605

Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a princess: Longitudinal effects of engagement with Disney princesses on gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behavior in children. Child Development, 87(6), 1-17. doi:10.1111/cdev.12569

Do Rozario, R. C. (2004). The princess and the magic kingdom: Beyond nostalgia, the function of the Disney Princess. Women's Studies in Communication, 27(1), 34-59. doi:10.1080/07491409.2004.10162465

England, D. E., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. A. (2011). Gender role portrayal and the Disney Princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7), 555-567. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

Fought, C., & Eisenhauer, K. (2016, January). A quantitative analysis of gendered compliments in Disney Princess films. Paper presented at the 90th annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Washington, DC.

Gehlawat, A. (2010). The strange case of The Princess and the Frog: Passing and the elision of race. Journal of African-American Studies, 14(4), 417-431. doi:10.1007/s12111-010-9126-1

Gerbner, G. (1998). Cultivation analysis: An overview. Mass Communication & Society, 1(3-4), 3-12. Retrieved from:

Gerding, A. & Signorielli, N. (2014). Gender roles in tween television programming: A content analysis of two genres. Sex Roles, 70(1), 43-56. doi:10.1007/s11199-013-0330-z

Goudreau, J. (2012). Disney Princess tops list of the 20 best-selling entertainment products. Forbes. Retrieved from

Gregory, S. M. (2010). Disney's second line: New Orleans, racial masquerade, and the reproduction of whiteness in The Princess and the Frog. Journal of African American Studies, 14(4), 432-449. doi:10.1007/s12111-010-9138-x

Griffin, R. N. (2014). A Disney romance for the ages: Idealistic beliefs of romantic relationships held by youth. Unpublished master's thesis, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA

Hecht, J. (2011). Happily ever after: Construction of family in Disney Princess collection films. Unpublished master's thesis, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.

Junn, E. N. (1997, April). Media portrayals of love, marriage & sexuality for child audiences: A select content analysis of Walt Disney animated family films. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Washington, DC.

Krippendorff, K. H. (2013). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lacroix, C. (2004). Images of animated others: The orientalization of Disney's cartoon heroinesfrom The Little Mermaid to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Popular Communication, 2(4), 213-229. doi:10.1207/s15405710pc0204_2

Leal, S. (2014, February 24). A Latina Disney Princess: Would we ever be happy with the result? Latina. Retrieved from http: //

LeTrent, S. (2015, January 30). Disney introduces Elena, its first Latina princess. Retrieved from

Reznik, S. (2014). It must be love: The role of media in the construction of the 'romantic love' concept. Televizion, 27, 22-25.

Robinson, T., Callister, M., Magoffin, D., & Moore, J. (2007). The portrayal of older characters in Disney animated films. Journal of Aging Studies, 21 (3), 203-213. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2006.10.001

Signorielli, N. (2001). Television's gender role images and contribution to stereotyping: Past, present, future. In D. G. Singer & J. L. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of children and the media (341-358). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Stephens, J. (2014). Disney's darlings: An analysis of The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave,and the changing characterization of the princess archetype. Interdisciplinary Humanities 31(3), 95-107. Retrieved from

Stover, C. (2013). Damsels and heroines: The conundrum of the post-feminist Disney Princess. L UX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and research from Claremont Graduate University, 2(1), 1-10. doi:10.5642/lux.201301.29

Sun, C. F., & Scharrer, E. (2004). Staying true to Disney: College students' resistance to criticism of The Little Mermaid. The Communication Review, 7(1), 35-55. doi:10.1080/10714420490280189

Towbin, M. A., Haddock, S. A., Zimmerman, T. S., Lund, L K., & Tanner, L. R. (2003). Images of gender, race, age, and sexual orientation in Disney feature-length animated films. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 15(4), 19-44. doi:10.1300/J086v15n04_02

Whelan, B. (2012). Power to the princess: Disney and the creation of the 20th century princess narrative. Interdisciplinary Humanities, 29(1), 1-21.

Anna V. Ortiz Juarez-Paz, Rhiannon Kallis, and Yiwei Xu

Indiana University of Pennsylvania
COPYRIGHT 2016 Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Department of Communications Media
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Journal of Communications Media Studies
Author:Juarez-Paz, Anna V. Ortiz; Kallis, Rhiannon; Xu, Yiwei
Publication:Journal of Communications Media Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2016
Previous Article:It's More than Support: Application of Online Community Attributes.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |