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For Princesses, the Question Remains: Who’s the Fairest?

While girls “playing princess” may define themselves by looks, Disney films evolve to focus more on heroines’ actions.

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A girl wears a Sleeping Beauty costume for photographer Blake Fitch’s project “Dress Rehearsal,” in which Fitch poses this question: Is dressing up as princesses a harmless phase for girls, or does it encourage them “to define themselves based on appearance and passivity”?


This story appears in the January 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In classic Disney animated films, a female character receives seven times the praise for her appearance as for her skills and actions. When linguists Carmen Fought of Pitzer College and Karen Eisenhauer of North Carolina State University analyzed the dialogue from 12 Disney movies, they found that in early films 60 percent of compliments to females related to looks and just 9 percent to abilities. Such patterns send children “a message about what it means to be a girl or boy,” Fought says—suggesting to girls that “their value is based on their appearance.” In newer films Disney has flipped the script. The analysis found that in movies such as Brave, girls get more nods for courage and abilities than for beauty.

Compliments on skills have trended upward, while those based on appearance have decreased.

Compliments related to appearance

Compliments related to skills

Classic Era

These groundbreaking films establish Disney’s mastery in bringing fairy tales to the big screen.

Snow White

83%

1937

Cinderella

36

18%

1950

Sleeping Beauty

1959

58

8

Renaissance

After a long hiatus, the company returns to the genre with larger casts and more musical numbers.

The Little Mermaid

44

28

1989

Beauty and the Beast

67

17

1991

Aladdin

46

1992

Pocahontas

18

36

1995

Mulan

25

42

1998

New Age

Disney expands more into computer-

generated imagery films, capitalizing on their popularity and production advantages.

The Princess and the Frog

2009

11

41

Tangled

27

45

2010

Brave

18

56

2012

Frozen

35

31

2013

PERCENTAGE OF THE TOTAL COMPLIMENTS RECEIVED BY FEMALE CHARACTERS IN THE FILM. THE REMAINING PERCENTAGES TO 100 ARE COMPLIMENTS ON POSSESSIONS, PERSONALITY, AND OTHER ATTRIBUTES.

ÁLVARO VALIÑO, KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI

SOURCES: CARMEN FOUGHT, PITZER COLLEGE; KAREN EISENHAUER, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY

Compliments related to skills

Percentage of the total compliments received* by female character in the film

 

Brave

The

Princess

and the

Frog

Tangled

Mulan

Pocahontas

Frozen

Beauty

and the

Beast

56

The Little

Mermaid

Cinderella

45

Sleeping

Beauty

42

41

36

35

Snow

White

Aladdin

28

18%

17

8

Compliments on skills have trended upward, while those based on appearance have decreased.

Compliments related to appearance

83%

67

58

46

44

36

31

27

25

18

18

11

2012

1950

1998

1992

1995

2013

1937

1959

1991

2009

2010

1989

Classic Era

Renaissance

New Age

These groundbreaking films establish Disney’s mastery in bringing fairy tales to the big screen.

After a long hiatus, the company returns to the genre with larger casts and more musical numbers.

Disney expands more into com

puter-generated imagery films, capitalizing on their popularity and production advantages.

*THE REMAINING PERCENTAGES TO 100 ARE COMPLIMENTS ON POSSESSIONS, PERSONALITY, AND OTHER ATTRIBUTES.

ÁLVARO VALIÑO, KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI

SOURCES: CARMEN FOUGHT, PITZER COLLEGE; KAREN EISENHAUER, NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY



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