Are the representations of Disney Princesses in the media ethical?

by swhite_3114 on April 4, 2015 - 12:10am

Little girls from around the globe grow up watching Disney and aspire to be a future princess. I have myself grown up constantly watching Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella. The Disney franchise has a dominating presence in our children’s lives. This then leads for the franchise to have an immense influence on our children’s perception of what is right, what is wrong, and most importantly for young girls, what they should expect when they are older. Disney has provided a very distinct image of the female characters in their movies. With a small waist, perk breasts and long beautiful hair, women are portrayed to be a kind of beautiful that isn’t realistic. This type of body image is what is being promoted to young girls around the world. This creates an unrealistic goal that girls think they need to obtain. At such a young age to be bombarded with these images, no wonder there is an increase in self-consciousness about their appearances. Girls should be told they are all beautiful and that there is not a specific idealistic image to conform to in order to be beautiful. On top of that, Disney is putting these criteria on a little girls most convoyed goal; becoming a princess. If these girls are seeing a specific beauty is required in order to be a princess, they will not feel worthy enough and try to alter their appearances to conform. Society is already have trouble with teenagers and adults feeling pressured by the media to conform to an idealized beauty; are young girls to be added in the mix as well? 

Disney’s most recent controversy on the subject revolves around Princess Merida, a Scottish teenage princess produced by Pixar, bought by Disney in 2006, was created by Brenda Chapman “To give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.” Merida was a strong female character that did not need a man to come to her rescue, if anything in the movie she was proving to her father how she is better suited for herself against all the other men competing to prove their worth to marry the princess. She was able to defend herself and fix her own problems. This was widely successful, however Disney decided to publish a new version of Merida in time for her coronation on May 11th, 2014. Immediately, there was an outburst of rejecting this glammed-up image of Merida which supported a more mature, curvaceous, dainty looking girl instead of the realistic looking princess girls loved. A petition launched on obtained almost 19 000 signatures for Disney bring down the “new” image of Merida. This petition was supported by Chapman who claimed that Merida was “a princess who looked like a real girl, complete with the 'imperfections' that all people have … By making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior.”

Following the outbreak, Disney pulled down the sexualized version of Merida and later released a statement to defend themselves for the image. A spokesperson of Disney announced the reasoning of the image was to glam up the princess for her coronation as it is a special day. They had no intentions of replacing the original image of Merida with this new one. 

In my opinion, I can see the dilemma here and to why it is presented as an ethical dilemma. On one hand, we have our children who are constantly being bombarded with idealization of one’s appearance and when finally they receive a realistic image, it gets altered. On the other hand, girls and guys will dress to their best and portray their best image during special occasions. Due to the princesses coronation, it is realistic in a sense for Merida to dress accordingly to the occasion as one would not attend such an important event looking like their everyday selves. However, due to the fact it involves how our youth are being taught what is expected of a girl too look, it can have sever damages. Therefore, Merida’s representations in the media is unethical and Disney should be more conscious when creating their characters appearances. Maybe, Disney could have kept the nice dress and the tamed hair while omitting the sexualization of her body. 



Great post! You raise some very important issues and questions about the ethics of the portrayal of young girls in Disney films. It is important for us to ask these questions and what these things say about our society. What kind of world are we creating; or if not creating ourselves, accepting for our children if we do not challenge these images they are supposed to live up to. What are we telling them? Are we telling them that they must strive for perfection that is unrealistic and unattainable? How are they supposed to feel when they are unable to live up to these expectations?
Disney also needs to be questioned on their portrayal of non European ethnic communities. Specifically alarming to me as a Métis person is the portrayal of Native Americans in Disney films. Disney has created an image of Native people that is not only incorrect historically but also plays on stereotypes. The real history of the story of Pocahontas is not a pretty one, but creating a story that is not true ignores the real history of our people. As an uncle of little Anishinaabe girls and someday a father, I worry about the image they will feel expected to live up to by society. Combining the problematic portrayal of indigenous people with the equally problematic portrayal of girl and women, they are set up to fail more than once by Disney. I guess we will be watching a lot of Wapos Bay in the future.

Everything you've stated in this post is very true. Although a few Disney movies try to portray their princesses as less "damsel in distress" and more interdependent, like Merida, there is still an undeniable amount of stories that could lead little girls to aim for unrealistic goals of what women should be like. Even for strong role models like Merida are altered to fit the "perfect" image of a woman. This is a big issue because many girls growing up will feel that there are distinct life styles that belong to women and some that belong to men. Most probably the way that the media portrays women is a big contributor to stereotypes against women. In my post explaining my final project, I'm planing of writing about how stereotypes affect women in terms of education. Your post was useful for me because it made me realize that media has a huge role in this issue. Here is the link to my final project post:

It’s a great point! Young girls are truly expecting to be like the Disney princesses and the problem is that they are stereotyped. These little girls believe they have to look like them to be beautiful. The issue is not only in the world of Disney. In the society, all the publicities are illustrated with skinny women, long hair, perfect body shape, bubbled lips, etc. Girls do not have the choice to believe these stereotypes because since their younger age, they have the Disney princesses that are illustrated with certain standards, but those standards are the same for the models on ads that appear in the streets or magazines. Because of that, girls believe all their life that, to be beautiful, they have to respect the standards, which is totally false. Fortunately, there are some companies that are starting to hire ‘’normal’’ models if we can say. Women that have forms and not that perfect flat belly. It is really interesting, you should look at Aerie! Here is the link if you want to look at it: .

First off, I just wanted to say that I thought your post was well written and to the point. Also, I completely agree with what you said. Mass media corporations and Disney especially, should be promoting healthier body images. It is highly unethical to promote unattainable body images, as they can cause self-esteem issues, and in some extreme cases cause eating disorders. Disney is therefore unethical from a utilitarian perspective, as it is not creating the greatest good for the greatest number. In fact, it is doing the complete opposite; it is harming the self-esteem of many young girls.

Moreover, as you mentioned in your essay, the representation of Merinda during her coronation was unethical, as it went against the intentions of the creator of Brave, and it promoted the idea that feminine beauty is reliant on physical perfection.

The only point that you failed to discuss sufficiently is the fact that most Disney princesses depend on men. This depiction of women raises serious ethical issues that merit further attention. Young girls should not be encouraged to believe that they must rely on men in order to reach their goals.

I must say, that as a real life princess, Disney does make it hard on a daily basis. You are right it imposes standards that are unattainable upon all of us. However, you failed to consider that we princesses are creatures of fantasy, as young ones grow up they eventually realize that they can never be like us and have to simply be the best they can be. Education is key. People must understand that “the following images may contain unrealistic images of the female body and/or gender stereotypes.” Maybe this type of disclaimer would help.

From a teleological perspective, Disney is profit driven and will therefore show the people what they think will sell best. It is the consumers’ job to say “I want Cinderella to be represented as a realistic, middle-aged, working mother of two.” But where would the magic be in that? Would singing mice help her deal with her eldest’s bullying problems and her youngest’s attention deficit disorder? Sounds like a movie I would watch.

And then there was Frozen. Need I say more or should I just let it go. The movie showed young ones that friendship is as powerful as true love and that it is truly “sisters before misters.” As a princess, this movie was simply an added pressure to develop female friendships on top of my daily cardio, singing my feelings, and trying to be an independent yet loveable woman.

Us princesses are unattainable standards. You should just let it go.

First of all I would like to say amazing job at being clear on your argument and explaining the cause and effect. However, I would have to disagree with your side of the argument. Yes, princesses are shown as wearing revealing clothes or represented as having this unrealistic body size but other than appearance Disney has brought up other important issues that are relevant to people’s lives especially children. In every Disney movie there’s always an important moral to be thought, whether it is that looks do not matter like in the film Princess and the Frog or how friendship and family always come first such as in the film Frozen. In Frozen the most important thing they showed the audience was the bond between two sisters surpasses any man. Yes, I know Elsa is not an official princess however; she brings about the same influence as any other Disney princess. Furthermore, you said it would influence children on what they would expect when they are older, however, Disney Princesses is based off fantasy. Children can expect anything out of a fictional movie; the important thing to remember is that as they grow older they will realize what’s real and not real. Therefore, according to a teleological perspective, Disney is being ethical because they are using their power of the media to bring about important and simple morals that children should be thought at a young age. Children like to see things that are extravagant, magical, and colorful and thus Disney’s trying use the magical realm of Princesses to entertain these children while still trying to teach them something. Yes, they are teaching how girls should look but the lessons that they teach are more literal and put out there, that the kids would notice that before the details of the princess’ body.

I agree with you and you bring up a lot of important points as to how the portrayal of Disney princesses is unethical. Although Disney has begun to let go of the typical princess that waits around for her true love and is dependent on a man by creating new characters like Princess Merida that you mentioned as well as the two sisters from the movie Frozen that are strong and independent woman, Disney can’t seem to let go of the unrealistic body image ideals that they have been promoting for years to young girls around the world.

The most important thing you mention is that “Disney is putting these criteria on a little girls most conveyed goal; becoming a princess” and this is the ethical dilemma here because young girls look up to these princesses therefore they will conform to these standards. Furthermore, during childhood, a child’s brain learns morals, language, recognizable patterns, and social skills. When a movie is consistent with its physical indication of beauty the physical indication begins to stick with the child watching because their brain has correlated beauty with a thin waist, large breasts and flawless hair and skin. Having young girls look up to these unrealistic characters is why so many of them develop mental and physical problems in the future. This is why it is Disney’s job to change the message they’re sending out to young girls and empower them rather than make them feel like they need to conform to their unrealistic standards to be considered beautiful. Here’s a link that you can look at if you want to learn more about Disney’s history of promoting the beauty ideal with the first six princesses:

Great post and I totally agree with you on the fact that it creates a certain pressure on young girls to attain impossible standards of beauty especially now that the media has reached a “pervasive” degree of omnipresence in our lives. Not only that, it also dictates the behavior and extremely stereotypical gender roles of women in society; being gracious and delicate, do choirs, sing songs, being vain, talk to animals, be innocent, fragile and passive. Especially Sleeping Beauty, the whole story revolves around her, but she spends the whole movie passed out, waiting for her prince to save her and deliver her from the tower to live happily ever after. However, keep in mind that it was a movie released in 1959 just as Snow White was released in 1937 and Cinderella, 1950 and so on. During that period, the mentality was not the same and the woman was in a way financially dependent from the man because after Second World War, there was not a lot of working or education opportunities for women. Their most important asset to achieve financial stability was their physical appearance in order to marry. Most of them were full-time mothers and housewives. The Disney movies just as any movie would reflect the culture and mentality of the society they were produced in. The princesses are outdated and no longer represent the normative female model of our society, but they are still classics that remain as cultural heritage. Disney is aware of that and they have been recently producing princesses movies that young girls of the present generation can relate to such as Frozen where Anna leaves to go build her own glace castle, we see much more independent female protagonist and an emphasis on female empowerment. As for the pressure of the Disney princess beauty standards, beauty standards have always been existent throughout history, but its inevitable increasing intensity comes along with emergence of media. In sum, Disney is not the only actor responsible for the pressure and the harm done to the young girls. Therefore, self-confidence and awareness should be raised among girls so the effects of media pressure would be diminished.