From Glass Slipper to Glass Ceiling

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Disney Cinderella Fairy Godmother by Julius Seelbach - Creative Commons License
Disney Cinderella Fairy Godmother by Julius Seelbach – Creative Commons License
by April Lewis
August 15, 2016

I never played with dolls when I was a child.

I didn’t have time for Barbie and quite honestly, I never gave her a second thought.

Neither of my daughters played with Barbie although my elder daughter did occasionally decapitate her Jem dolls. I wonder if I should have been worried. The younger daughter preferred Lego.

I can’t say I paid too much heed to princesses either although I am sure I read Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty when I was young. I seem to recall they were all white, beautiful, slim, caring, subservient, submissive, thoughtful and selfless.

The Disney princess has certainly evolved over the decades to possess less of the aforementioned stereotypical, feminine characteristics and more masculine traits such as defiance, strength, assertion and independence.

My favourite princess was portrayed in Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. Our heroine single-handedly slew the dragon, only to be reprimanded by the prince, as she was dirty and disheveled after her magnificent feat.

Our modern-day princesses are portrayed in Disney’s Frozen, where the newly crowned Queen Elsa accidentally uses her power to turn her kingdom into an infinite winter and her sister, Princess Anna, teams up with a mountain man, his playful reindeer, and a snowman to change the weather condition and save the day.

Do the gender-stereotyped character portrayals of Disney princesses contribute to how little girls think they should act?

In their academic piece, Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses, authors England, Descartes and Collier-Meek hypothesize that “Disney and its princess phenomenon have been identified as a powerful influence… contributing to a new “girlhood” that is largely defined by gender and the consumption of related messages.”

They suggest that “consistently portrayed gender role images may be interpreted as “normal” by children and become connected with their concepts of socially acceptable behavior and morality.”

As all of the Disney films have a romantic happy ending, the princesses are often portrayed as idealized feminine role models. They usually demonstrate feminine attributes of caretaking and mothering and are conventionally beautiful, with social power or wealth and are adored by others. Her compliance, generosity, and selflessness often garnered her many rewards, as demonstrated in the film’s resolution of the storyline.

You only have to look at real contemporary princesses such as Princess Grace and Princess Diana. They speak to this and are both white, slim and beautiful. And dead. So much for happy endings.

But surely I digress.

In the name of empirical research, I set out to test this hypothesis by attending the recent White Rock Princess Party.

Beautiful princesses were in abundance, all aglitter in their sparkly tiaras and colourful, frothy attire. All were in adulation of Queen Elsa and her sister, Anna, as they waited in line to have their photos taken with them.

I asked a Zoomer grandmother, who was accompanying her two beautiful little princesses, what kind of message such an event evokes. She replied that it gave her granddaughters “permission” to be girls.

A twenty-something volunteer emphasized that the Princess Party was empowering for young girls.

Yet, as I observe what is happening with the impending U.S. election, I see a contradiction here. Hillary Clinton, a woman, has just made history in her bid to be elected the first female President of the United States.

She is neither young, slim, beautiful, subservient nor docile with stereotypical, feminine traits. She is strong, tough, intelligent, opinionated, resilient, aggressive and independent which are considered masculine characteristics.

She left her glass slipper at home while she crashed through the glass ceiling.

Princesses, pay attention!


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