Influence of Disney Princesses on Children's Self-Esteem and Self-Identity
Numerous academic research journals can be found into the study of the progression and portrayal of Disney princesses and their impact to children’s self-esteem and self-identity. This literature was reviewed to determine the conclusion on if both environmental and biological processes are included in the discovery of the impact that Disney princesses have on children’s self-esteem and how the two approaches interplay.
Both quantitative and qualitative approaches to such research have found negative representation of women (Lacroix, 2004; Dundes, 2001; Do-Rozario, 2004; Béres, 1999). However, that newer Disney princesses portray a character of more modern feminine behavior (Streiff & Dundes, 2017; Dundes & Streiff, 2016; Dundes et al., 2018).
Comparing the traditional versus the modern literature of Disney princesses, the portrayal identified has key similarities in the approach of the research, which focuses on the environmental impacts on children through themes surrounding the princesses’ beauty and independence, together with the prevalence for a male suitor. However, literature has left limitations on the outcome of how biological influences could represent the impacts on children’s self-esteem and self-identity.
Literature surrounding biological processes defining beauty and gender stereotypes was reviewed for contextual purposes, however is not addressed in this thematic analysis beyond addressing key similarities in how these processes have been framed and researched to date.
Disney created their very first Disney princess, Snow White, in 1937. Snow White was described as ‘the fairest of them all’, with plump child-like features, accompanied by fair skin, red lips and black contrasting hair. The storyline of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ sees the Queens magic mirror announce that the Queen is no longer the ‘fairest of them all’ in favor of Snow White. The Queen also witnesses how a prince falls in love with Snow White after hearing her sing. In retaliation the Queen orders her Huntsman to take Snow White to the forest and kill her. The Huntsman could not carry out this task and begs Snow White to run and never look back. In taking the advice of the Huntsman, Snow White stumbles upon the home of the seven dwarfs. The seven dwarfs willingly invite Snow White into their home after she offers to cook and clean for them. The Queen eventually discovers the truth about Snow White being alive and attempts to kill her again, however only placing her into a sleeping death curse which can only be broken by ‘love’s first kiss’. Ironically, the prince who heard her sing was able to break this curse with a kiss.
Reflecting on the Disney film the perception of beauty is established from the beginning. With Snow White’s features defined by the magic mirror, and the portrayal of ‘love at first sight’ sending a strong message on the importance of having beautiful feminine traits – that, together with being the submissive female who concerns herself with domestic duties and later waits passively to be rescued.
Disney’s most recent princess, Moana, created in 2016, intends to portray a brave and independent young woman, destined to be her people’s leader and chief, and with no male suitor. Whilst Moana possesses inherent beauty, Disney steered away from their typical ‘beautiful’ features of fair skin, slim build, pristine hair, ball gowns and quietly spoken nature usually associated with Moana’s peers.
Moana’s story sees her chosen, as a baby, by the ocean to return the heart of Te Fiti, to which her grandmother, a perceived ‘drifter’ or free-spirted, encourages throughout her life. However, Moana’s father, the dominant male figure in her life, discourages Moana’s desire for exploration and makes it his life’s work to make sure Moana leads their people the way he has deemed proper, suppressing her desires for the person she wants to be and how she wants to lead. Moana sails on her mission to convince Maui, the Demigod, to return the heart of Te Fiti. For Moana to leave on this mission, whilst heroic, she had to sneak away in the middle of the night in what is perceived to be a rebellious and selfish act based on her father’s intentions for her. Moana leaves on her journey unites with Maui, who then takes on the male-lead role in the film, teaching Moana to sail and becoming the means to the end of Moana’s mission – without Maui, Moana would not have succeeded.
Whilst Moana’s character in the film is not perceived by children to be a princess or beautiful, Moana continues a tradition of Disney princess movies that perpetuate gender stereotypes, whilst without a romantic distraction, but rather by the usual undercurrent of a male dominating figure leaving Moana needing to seek approval of her self-identity to her overprotective father, and then the reliance on the overtly hyper masculine, Maui.
Traditional literature of the Disney princesses uses social cognitive theory, with a focus on of gender development, and identity theory, to suggest that Disney princesses are a model within the environment, which teach children to develop beliefs through their interpretations, highlighting the impact of media consumption as a powerful force to developing self-beliefs. Differences in modern literature to that of traditional literature of Disney princesses focuses on the evolving change of the role the princesses play, the perception of beauty, independence and gender stereotypes. The modern research explores these perceptions with children used as the subjects to characterize such traits, and explores the impact to the children’s self-esteem and self-identity through the children’s own observations and not the hypotheses which look at film to theory only. Observing the literature, the concept that biology plays a role in the perception of beauty, independence and gender stereotypes is absent. Both modern and traditional literature on Disney princesses frame the research to identify whether environment plays a key role in the perception of beauty, independence and gender stereotypes with the resulting self-esteem and self-identity being formed as part of the environmental influence.
The exploration that perhaps Disney is portraying characteristics which stimulate biological processes that stem from the biological definition of human beauty, which has existed long before Walt Disney Productions, could be explored further to gain a better insight into cause and effect of self-esteem and self-identity. Such studies exploring the biological aspects of beauty have been carried out independently of Disney princesses. However, the literature on what defines beauty when observing physical features, chemistry of love at first sight, vocal attractiveness, submissive behaviors and gender roles could consciously or subconsciously be the cause of deciphering of such story lines where the princesses meet beauty ideals. As observed in the films, the beauty ideals lead to love at first sight through physical features, signing and carrying out domestic duties. Regardless of whether these aspects of a person are reflected in the way humans are conditioned to live and behave in modern times, such exploration of both environmental and biological causes could add an aspect of conclusion to the cause and effect of impacts to children’s self-esteem and self-identity.
Through the review of the literature into the impact Disney princesses have on the self-esteem and self-identity of children it seems that story lines within Disney films have changed favorably to improve the outcomes of the impacts. Beauty ideals have changed, the role of female characters have changed, and the idea that princesses need male suitors have changed. However, there remains the gender stereotype undercurrent where dominant male figures seem to have taken the place of romantic distractions. Whilst progress in the impacts of these films has been made, consideration of the environment where female characteristics come from internal empowerment are yet to be explored.
The research often concludes that children consuming media surrounding these story lines are impacted through environmental exposure of ideals portrayed in the films. However, there is a lack of evidence on how biology plays a part in where ideals should or should not be upheld by the intended audience. Research reviewing cause and effect of beauty ideas would make an interesting addition to the literature on the topic of Disney princesses.
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