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The Disney princess divide

The Disney princess franchise, in recent years, has made a gradual effort to introduce a variety of multifaceted leading ladies. However, fans are unsure if recent changes in progression are enough to fight the grotesque stereotypes women face in our world today.

Although Disney movies bring about a sense of joy and nostalgia to millions around the world, fans feel that Disney’s infamous reputation concerning gender stereotypes is discouraging.

During an interview with Dr. Shannon O’Sullivan, a communications professor at Salisbury University, O’Sullivan discussed Disney’s neglectful representation of different body types concerning both protagonists as well as antagonists, known as "lookism."

“If villains are depicted as overweight or unattractive in a conventional sense and are paired with heroic characters that are attractive … It’s a message that suggests good looks imply good character, while bad looks imply bad character," O’Sullivan stated.

Viewers can easily recognize this pattern when evaluating villains such as the Queen of Hearts from "Alice in Wonderland" or Ursula from "The Little Mermaid."

In addition to body image, O’Sullivan stressed the need for diversity. While Disney has much distanced itself from its stereotypical princess, O’Sullivan feels the company could further improve by diversifying the writers and creators of the stories as well.

Hyla Wildt, a current Salisbury art major, also expressed her eagerness for Disney to strive for greater change.

"They have the means to explore other cultures and their stories and adapt that into different races and different ethnicities, but we haven’t been seeing that a lot," Wildt said.

Wildt feels that Disney needs to drop the “typical princess” that we associate with the words “Disney princess."

“The first princesses that come to mind are Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty ... so, thin, white, blonde and the fancy, colorful dresses," Wildt said.

Even though the movies Wildt mentioned were made many years ago, they still have a significant contribution to how we define our female heroines today, showing the importance of changing stereotypical patterns now. However, looking at Disney from a more optimistic perspective is equally important in evaluating the company’s own thought process.

Professor James Burton, a communications professor at Salisbury University, is currently teaching a class on Disney and culture. Although Burton acknowledges his hopes for more diversity and representation in larger movies, he feels that Disney Junior is doing particularly well in representing more diverse cultures.

“One of the main progressive areas of Disney is Disney Junior. [They have] 'Sofia the First,' 'Elena of Avalor' and 'Doc McStuffins," Burton said.

These are characters of different races, ethnicities and cultures. Yet, Burton recognizes that the actual movies themselves are not as progressive in comparison. However, Burton does not believe this to be due to hesitation, but rather an economic concern.

“I don’t know if this is necessarily fear or if it’s pragmatism, economic pragmatism," Burton said. He explained that it is much easier for Disney to push for diversity in its TV shows, as its budget is not as economically challenging.

Burton also stressed his desire for Disney to push itself further regarding LGBTQ+ representation. An example Burton shares is Disney’s missed opportunity to represent the LGBTQ+ population with Elsa in Frozen 2.

However, Burton also stressed the strong feminist message Elsa creates by demonstrating strength without a romantic partner by her side.

“It’s always this push and pull. They make strides in some areas, and don’t gain ground in others," Burton said.

We can acknowledge Disney is making strives to push societal boundaries. That’s not to say the company couldn’t strive to push itself further. Yes, Disney certainly isn’t perfect, but recent strides toward representation, no matter how small, can give us hope for the future.



Staff writer

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