Welcome to anyone who comes across this page! This is the very first entry to my Disney Princesses blog. Basically, this blog started because I came up with this idea for doing my undergraduate thesis on the Disney Princess Franchise- looking into how this incredibly popular line schools girls into certain modes of femininity, affecting how they perceive themselves and their relationship to the world. My supervisor suggested that I make a blog about it, and since I love blogging, I thought I’d go ahead and get started on that! My thesis doesn’t technically start until September, so keep that in mind while reading the posts over the next few months. Things will likely get more interesting as I get further into my thesis and have more research and experience to draw on.
But for now, I wanted to talk about a trip I had been looking forward to for a long time. My best friend and I are both huge Disney fans, and we both proudly describe ourselves as “eternally five years old”. We had been planning to go shopping at the Disney Store since school ended. But we were incredibly disappointed to find that the mall we had gone to no longer had a Disney Store. So our trip was postponed, and we finally made our way to a still-open Disney Store just yesterday!
As we walk in, this is the first thing we see:
As I’m sure you’re all aware, Disney is currently gearing up to release its latest installment to the Princess line, Brave. There are walls and walls of dolls depicting the main character Merida in a variety of forms- baby dolls, plushies, Barbie-style dolls, etc. And I have to admit, the immense amount of advertising is working. I really want to see this movie. Aside from the obligatory slapstick humour, the film looks incredibly stylish and I have high hopes that Merida will set a positive example for young girls looking to break from typical gender norms.
My goal for this trip was to buy one of the Disney Animators’ Collection dolls (which is what the Merida you see above is from). If you’re not familiar with these dolls, they are basically heavily stylized young versions of each of the most well known Disney princesses (the anime fan in me wants to call them “chibis”).
That’s just a small zoom in of an enormous wall full of these dolls. Being the 90s kid that I am, I had already narrowed down my choices to between Belle and Ariel. Both are adorable, and I had a lot of trouble deciding which one to buy, but eventually I settled on Ariel. When I excitedly opened the box after getting home, I was amazed at the amount of effort that went into ensuring that no part of the doll could possibly move out of its place while in transport, not even a single hair on her head. But I’m used to this, I have a box full of Barbies in my basement, after all. I was a little bit disappointed to find that despite claiming to be a depiction of a young Ariel, she has feet- you know, the thing that she, as a typical rebellious teenager, so longed for, and yet couldn’t remember the name of? I am, of course, not surprised in the least by this, despite my disappointment. Clearly this makes them easier to manufacture, when each probably has an identical mold with only slight superficial modifications. And that way she can stand up with the rest of the dolls in the collection- each at identical height, looking up at you with a coy, sidelong glance.
It’s an absolutely adorable doll, and I love it very much. But I can’t help but think that many of these dolls fail to capture what made me fall in love with the stories they’re meant to represent. Each of these Princesses is an individual, with unique characteristics, interests, and flaws. The more modern ones tend to push for this individuality more explicitly, rebelling against expectations to come into their own, to become their own kind of woman instead of the kind of woman others want them to be. But as I’ve already said, these dolls, for all the variety in their outfits and hairstyles, seem oddly uniform. Should Belle not be buried in a good book? And Ariel not be investigating some new human gadget she’s discovered? Rather, each looks up with almost the exact same expression.
I’m currently reading a book called “Cinderella Ate my Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein. She points out the same thing that I have just done: that the Disney Princesses merchandise doesn’t seem to project the same values, or the same constructions of femininity, as the films do. An excellent example of this is basically every doll made of Mulan ever:
Getting past the fact that the Animators’ Collection doll doesn’t look much like Mulan at all, have you noticed that Mulan is always depicted in the same outfit? This is pretty typical of Disney merchandise, of course. Many of the princesses only have one outfit (and yes, I know Mulan isn’t technically a princess, but as you can see she is always included in the standard princess set). My problem is the specific outfit they chose to represent Mulan: the very one she wore to the matchmaker, the one that represented everything she hated, the typical way that a female could bring honour to her family but that she rejected. I could not find a single doll of any variety that depicted Mulan in her warrior clothes, or even the simpler dress she wears at the end of the film. I’ve heard that there was a Barbie style Mulan doll that had her warrior clothes as an extra outfit. But even still, it is not showcased. Even when the film celebrated Mulan’s individuality and willingness to break away from gender norms and fill a “male” role (and by the end of the film coming to embrace her femininity without relinquishing the power and skills she had gained when posing as a man), the merchandise reverts back to the views of the women and men at the beginning of the film. Apparently, the way a woman should be seen is in an ultra-feminine outfit ready to head off to the matchmaker so she can be deemed a suitable bride.
Back to where I started, I have high hopes for Brave. Pixar films seem to be able to take more risks, and I am truly hoping that Merida can redeem, even in merchandise form, what issues I take with the representation of Mulan in the franchise. Merida seems to be a strong young woman, she embraces her femininity (from what I can tell she continues to wear a dress throughout the film), and yet isn’t afraid to defy gender norms, to take on the challenge rather than letting a man do it for her. She also looks amazing with a bow. And the aesthetic of a girl in a beautiful dress wielding a bow… how can I resist?