Whether one is 6 years old or 60 years old, he or she is most likely familiar with Disney princesses, but what is it about a princess being saved by her Prince Charming that appeals to so many? And how has Disney’s portrayal of women through the years influenced gender roles as a result?

These are some of the questions Connie Shemo, associate professor of history at Plattsburgh State, focused on in a Gender and Women’s Studies forum titled, “We Finish Each Other’s… Sandwiches!: Disney Princesses and Love at First Sight,” April 2 in the Angell College Center’s Cardinal Lounge.

“Disney princesses are such a fascinating way of talking about gender,” Shemo said. “When you look at the evolution of the Disney princesses, I think it’s one of the most dynamic conversations in our culture, and a conversation that so many people are participating in.”

Shemo said that in her history capstone course, some students choose to write about Disney princesses as a scholarly topic.
“I think there’s a need for accessible scholarship that helps parents come to terms with the complicated, different messages about being a girl, being a woman, in our society,” she said.

Regarding earlier movies, such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” Shemo said criticizing these movies, from a feminist perspective, is like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

“They (the movies) are so horrific in so many ways,” Shemo said. “The princesses are passive; the princesses rely on men to save them; the main bad guy is an older woman.” She said one of the connections to the latter is that women with power can be seen as evil.

For Shemo, the song “Someday My Prince Will Come” from “Snow White” sends the message that women need a prince to save them. However, she was pleased that one of her sons once riffed on the idea that women can do whatever what they want, and it won’t matter because they only have to wait for “Prince Charming” to save them.

“They (Disney princesses) just seem to be so appealing to little girls, and they have a continued appeal,” Shemo said. “Whether it’s instinctive or cultural, the idea of being beautiful and glamorous and wearing lovely dresses is something that resounds very, very deeply with little girls.”

Susan Mody, associate professor and chair of the PSUC Gender and Women’s Studies department, said the forum is free and open for all PSUC community members.

To Mody, the topic of Disney princesses in regard to gender studies is not only important, but also necessary.

“So often, these things come across as entertainment, and we consume entertainment, and we consume a lot of ideas and language and images that actually shape our own thinking, and that’s especially true for children,” Mody said.

In addition, Mody said she believes Disney movies have the potential to shape people’s identities in terms of cultural expectations.

PSUC junior psychology major Marissa Heannings said she has probably seen every Disney movie.

Heannings said Disney’s portrayal of princesses as weak and needing to be saved has turned that around in recent years.

“In ‘Brave,’ she (Merida, the main character) fought for her own hand,” Heannings said.

There is an appeal, Heannings said, in classic Disney films like “Cinderella,” to being dressed up and going to a ball.

“That’s why there (are) high school dances, like prom,” Heannings said. “You want to get dressed up and be treated like a princess for a night and find your Prince Charming, but at the same time, that’s not really the society we live in.”

Email Timothy Lyman at timothy.lyman@cardinalpointsonline.com

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