Invited to reflect on the contemporary cultural resonance of Disney in this essay, architecture historian Lara Schrijver explores how the emancipation of Disney’s female protagonists plays out in architectural scenographies.
‘I know my place! It is time you learned yours.’ Fa Zhou (father of Mulan)
In recent years, various studiesPeggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the new Girlie-Girl Culture (New York: Harper, 2011) have addressed the female role models in Disney films, which have provided valuable insights into tropes of the feminine. The Disney princesses in particular are stock films of childhood, and their underlying messages remain part of growing up today. Nevertheless, there is a specific aspect of the representation of the feminine that has been less studied: the spatial range of action of the female protagonists. The princess franchise begins with a foundation in classic fairy tales such as Snow White, and since the 1990s has expanded into a broader constellation of princesses that include Jasmine, of Aladdin, and most recently, Raya.disneyprincess.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Disney_Princesses#Official_Princesses In this article, the classic triad of Disney’s princess films – Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959/1986) – are examined for their rendition of the ‘place of women’ in comparison to their later counterparts in Mulan (1998), Brave (2012), and Moana (2016). As Disney branched out from the more traditional fairytales, the domestically anchored tropes of the feminine began to gave way to a more adventurous articulation of the spaces occupied by their protagonists While there are also a number of ‘atypical’ Disney films such as Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Inside Out (2015) that have provided other narratives, this paper seeks to examine some of the most widely disseminated tropes, for which I have focused on the classic Disney princesses and the explicit reinvention of those classic models..
Much has been written about both the positive and negative aspects of Disney’s princesses, ranging from questionable portrayals of femininity (such as the life of a princess being determined by waiting for Prince Charming, and that much of her value lies in physical beauty), to the power and agency written into a newer generation of princesses. An important aspect of this agency is what we might call ‘spatial entitlement’: the places these princesses are expected to be, and more importantly, where they go. One manner of keeping women in check throughout history has after all been to limit their range of action. When the lives of women take place almost solely inside the home, or their ventures in public are either chaperoned or limited to shopping for domestic supplies, it is difficult to claim a level of societal agency. As such, the focus here will remain primarily on expanding the horizon beyond the home and entering the world at large, and how this is encouraged or discouraged through the role models in the Disney films.
For most of history, the presence of women in public spaces has been treated as somehow deregulating or derailing the ‘natural’ order of things. While domestic spaces might not by definition be restrictive, societal power structures have historically been strengthened by ensuring that women are tied to the home, emphasizing their roles as family and household organizer over any other roles. The second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ‘70s focused on this restrictive sense of place and identity, expanding on the basic legal rights that were sought by first-wave feminism. As the different waves of feminism developed, the position of the respective spheres of the private and the public, the vocabularies of power also shifted.
Some general developments go hand in hand with these shifting spaces and identities. With the rise of the city and its concomitant structures of anonymity and freedom, some women also enjoyed a greater freedom – the city became a place where widows, prostitutes, or young single women seeking their fortune could reside in relative anonymity, with a relatively wide range of movement, as early as the 19th century. Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992)..The first battles for expanding women’s legal rights took place here, in the public spaces of the city. Women not only organized themselves and lobbied behind the scenes for political rights, but they also marched in the streets in protest (such as 1908 in London) and explicitly laid claim to their own rights to the city at the time.
Successive waves of feminism developed their own vocabularies and were consecutively anchored in various understandings of where women ‘belonged’. Some of these assumptions are simply channelled in the Disney films, and some are challenged. As Eduardo Perez has shown, the first generation of Disney princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora) express the lack of essential legal and property rights for women that was at the heart of the first wave. Edwardo Pérez, ‘From Snow White to Moana: Understanding Disney’s Feminist Transformation’, in Richard B. Davis, ed., Disney and Philosophy (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 71-80
In this perspective, Cinderella is perhaps the most disheartening example: performing unpaid domestic duties for a cruel stepmother and her two daughters until she is ‘released’ into the confines of marriage. The romantic storylines of the Disney classics were aligned with the cultural context of the time, where women’s identities were defined by their relationships to (and caretaking of) others: someone’s wife, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother. Expanding these identities was at the core of second-wave feminism, which Perez argues was largely absent from the Disney princess franchise, although the quest for an independent (feminine) identity does return in later films such as Mulan and Moana.
Sweet captivity – domesticity as drudgery or fulfilment?
In the early Disney princess films, it is clear that the house (and often more specifically the kitchen) is where women ‘belong’. Snow White, as the earliest Disney princess, presents this in a remarkably unassuming way, accompanied by the classic Disney bursts of song. – ‘whistle while you work’ accompanies her cheerful cleaning of the dwarves’ home, aided by the many forest animals she has met along the way. Snow White, 0.18 Here, the domestic is positioned as fulfilment: Snow White has an expertise in household duties, which she fully embraces upon encountering the house, directing the forest animals (and later the dwarves) in proper cleaning etiquette, which is presented as necessary to this all-male household. She is confident with a broom, she befriends the forest creatures, and in the end her relentless cheer even charms Grumpy.
From today’s point of view, Snow White seems spatially extreme. Almost immediately after being introduced to the audience, Snow White is ‘chaperoned’ to the woods by the huntsman, who has been ordered to kill her by the evil queen. Struck with compassion, the huntsman tells Snow White to run away instead. As she runs off, the woods are visibly threatening, with grimaces in the shadows. At a clearing, she falls down, sobbing with the shock of it all. Forest animals approach her, and when she sits up and scares them off, she takes on the blame for her unruly behaviour, exclaiming ‘I’m so ashamed of the fuss I’ve made!’ Snow White, 0.13 She tries to minimize her presence, and throughout the film, the world outside is presented as threatening. No wonder she feels comforted (and indeed, fulfilled!) by the domestic duties that keep her at home, safely away from that big, bad world.
Throughout the movie, how Snow White occupies the space of the house emphasizes that it is her allotted space. When she says goodbye to the dwarves as they go off to work, she remains on the doorstep, squarely in the domestic sphere. As Grumpy leaves, he reminds her to not let anyone or anything inside – by which he not only suggests that anything in the outside world could be dangerous, but also that she might not have the ability to judge. Of course, she proves this true, as she accepts a poisoned apple from the evil queen in disguise. In line with the assumptions of the time, the feminine is kept enclosed in the house, and is meant to remain inside, guarded and watchful for any threats.
In 1950, Cinderella provides a slightly different take on the hearth and home that women are responsible for: her stepmother and stepsisters have the joys, and she takes care of the drudgery. For her, the household duties are far from fulfilling – they are essentially enslavement, with little to be gained. Her room sits at the top of a series of endless stairs, hidden away high in a tower, thereby adding inconvenience and extra physical strain to the weight of her domestic duties. Though Cinderella has moments of working together with the creatures of the house (birds and mice) – similar to the portrayals in Snow White – for her, the domestic duties are clearly positioned as punishment.Cinderella, 0.22. When Gus the mouse is found under a teacup, the stepmother gives her extra tasks, presenting them as punishment for this ‘practical joke’. She must clean the carpet, the windows, the tapestries – all to keep her occupied and too busy to see to her own interests. Here, the drudgery is anchored in the castle, in the endless chores of the household, and ensures that there is no time for Cinderella to be a person in her own right. In this sense, it already hails a key issue of second wave feminism – an identity beyond caregiving, or the inability of women to become an independent person, as long as all possible time was occupied by caring for others.
Sleeping Beauty follows a similar narrative to the other two.The film did not have much of an audience initially, but recouped its financial losses with a re-release in 1986. It does provide a slightly different take on the hearth and home that women are confined to, as the danger of Maleficent’s curse that she will die from the prick of a spindle lies within the realm of the castle. Although the prophecy is softened to a 100-year slumber by the last of the three good fairies, Aurora is whisked off to a cottage in the woods in the hope of keep the prophecy from happening at all. Here, under the watchful eye of the fairies, she has the freedom to roam the woods, but her explorations are continually restricted by the fairies’ admonitions to go ‘not too far’ and to return ‘not too late’.
The personal is political: hidden qualities of second wave feminism
Maleficent doesn't know anything about love, or kindness, or the joy of helping others. You know, sometimes I don't think she's really very happy. Fauna (good fairy, Aurora)
While the Disney princess films may have had some difficulties incorporating the activist cries of second wave feminism, they do address personal values as contribution to the community at large. While often the public and the private realms are treated distinctly, Hannah Arendt also argues that family and friendship – the arena of the personal – build the foundations for the public domain as an area of rational discourse. She suggests that in the family (and in the bonds of friendship) plurality is fostered precisely by engaging with others on an equal footing. In this view, the private circles of the domestic and of friendship are not only a safe haven in times of totalitarianism, as she argues in her book Men in Dark Times, but they also build an ability to engage with other ideas.Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times On this level, Cinderella is perhaps the most troubled of the Disney princesses: not only is she confined, as are Snow White and Aurora, but she is also essentially a chattel, at the mercy of her stepmother and stepsisters, and by no means a person in her own right. In this sense, her position in the household after the death of her father represents precisely what second-wave feminism was contesting: not only restricted in terms of her own development, but fully defined by her service to others.
Arendt’s thinking typically appears focused on the rational discourse of public arenas, and thereby on the masculine, yet her approach to the relationships of friends and family as formative for public discourse is also aligned with the basic principles of second wave feminism.Daniel Brennan, ‘Considering the Public Private-Dichotomy: Hannah Arendt, Václav Havel and Victor Klemperer on the Importance of the Private’, Human Studies 40 (2017), 249–265 If we were to conceive of this private domain as now equally influenced by the relationship with our favourite childhood characters, then it becomes even more interesting to examine the role models of the later animated films. Here, a hidden dimension of what girls can envision as ‘appropriate’ becomes important to their self-definition. Augmenting the realm of the personal, these figures become an invisible sounding board by presenting different ways of engaging with the world.
Adventure and spaces of escape: mountains, forests, waves
“But every once in a while, there's a day when I don't have to be a princess. No lessons, no expectations. A day where anything can happen. A day I can change my fate.” Merida
While the first generation of Disney princesses were defined by keeping the world at bay or finding their way back home, the later Disney princesses have a more conflicted relationship with the domestic. They clearly want to please their parental figures, but also resist the expectations and responsibilities placed upon them. They no longer follow the principles of always being kind and not making a fuss. Moreover, the quest for ‘true love’ is less dominant. In Mulan, the expectation of marriage itself begins to be subverted. At the beginning of the film, Mulan is preparing for the matchmaker to find a suitor out of a sense of duty to her family. At the same time, she has a laconic approach to her chores, having her dog feed the farm animals by tying a bag of feed to its collar.
She roams the farm freely, and when she is directed to the house, she hides or crawls onto the roof: out of sight, but still outside. When she hears that her father will be conscripted into the imperial army despite his old war injuries, she decides to leave home and join the army in his place. This decision is presented in all its ambiguities: as an escape from a potential marriage, yet also as an attempt to protect her father. In order to join the army, she must pretend to be a young man. This masquerade provides much of the comic relief in the film, as Mulan learns the conventions of male society with help from her dragon sidekick Mushu. The film has an undertone of third-wave feminism in its comments on gender, both as perception and representation (as she jumps in the lake to wash, she states: ‘just because I look like a boy, doesn’t mean I have to smell like a boy’).Mulan, … Mulan’s true strength, however, lies in her perseverance: she refuses to give up, becoming the first to complete a seemingly impossible challenge in the training barracks. Even after she has been unmasked as a girl and kicked out of the army, she returns to save the emperor from the hostile army. Her climbing skills prove indispensable, as does her ability to find all the backways in the emperor’s palace: here, the spatial tropes of traditionally feminine spaces are folded into her heroics.
Merida, the heroine in Brave (2012, a collaboration between Pixar and Disney) is quite radical and direct. Brave reinforces the narrative of Mulan, with Merida similarly resisting an intended marriage. However, rather than sneaking off to the army as Mulan does, she takes a bold stand. When her mother announces that it is customary for the princess to choose the suitors’ challenge, she chooses archery, her own specialty. Moreover, when the competition begins, she presents herself as contender: “I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan Dunbroch. And I'll be shooting for my own hand!”Brave, presentation of suitors and choice of challenge, 0.22.47; Merida’s announcement as contender, 0.26.07.
Merida’s autonomy and independent spirit are shown from the very beginning of the film. She does feel an obligation to follow her mother’s lessons, which are full of constraints such as ‘a princess does not chortle’. At the same time, when she has a day off, she rides into the woods, practices her archery, and climbs rock cliffs. In her search for self, Merida is more clearly aligned with contemporary ideas on the right of women to independently forge their future, and the film shows the joy she experiences in her adventurous pursuits, and her frustration with her responsibilities. Nevertheless, when her father fears she is in danger, he locks Merida into a room in the castle.Brave, 1.12.24 A subtle recall of the classic narratives in which the princess is locked away, now Merida finds a way to escape, persevering in her refusal to be confined to the castle.
Moana takes on identity issues by directly addressing the perception of the Disney princess: she states that she is not a princess, but the daughter of a chief. To which the retort is ‘skirt, animal sidekick – you’re a princess’. This scene shows the writers’ self-awareness if the codes (visual and otherwise) that determine identity. This is an important awareness, as these codes shape convention as well. Moana is bold, straying far from home as she disobeys her father and takes to the ocean.
These later Disney princesses all set off on adventures that define their coming of age – whether in search of romance, adventure, or faraway lands, this has traditionally been a primarily masculine narrative, a way for young boys to grow, and to engage with the world. For the first generation of Disney princesses, their main adventures consisted of finding their way home or into (presumably benevolent) domestic bliss.
Reconfiguring the space of the feminine, from enclosure to extension
Although it would go too far to ascribe malicious intent to the writers who brought the original three princesses to movie theatre audiences everywhere, Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora did notably little to challenge conventions of femininity as anchored to and constricted by the domestic. In this, they essentially showed the conditions of women’s everyday life (such as living in fear of the outside world, filling their days with the domestic duties of laundry and cleaning) and romanticized them, idealizing these constraints as admirable and worthwhile. In Snow White, the household cleaning serves to improve the living conditions of the dwarves, and she executes it with cheer, while also instructing the forest animals on appropriate hygiene. At the end of the day, she rolls into bed tired and satisfied with a job well done. In Cinderella, the drudgery is more visible, as she struggles to fulfil the unreasonable demands of her stepmother and stepsisters. Her domestic duties fill her day but are not fulfilling as they are for Snow White. In both cases, however, the limits of the action radius are the doorstep, or even the hearth. When the prince’s representative comes by with the glass slipper, Cinderella is locked in her room at the very top of the tower; the locked door, the stairs, and the full size of the castle are employed to push her as far away from a public encounter as possible.
As counterpart to the confines of the domestic, the outside world is portrayed as dangerous and threatening – even life-threatening in the case of Aurora.The story of Aurora adds yet another layer of spatial significance, particularly in the original fairy tale. While her parents believe her safe while hidden away, it turns out that the gravest danger is within the walls of the castle – echoing the hidden societal patterns of domestic abuse that are rarely spoken of, even when visible.Snow White’s forest is full of grimaces and scary sounds, Cinderella’s trip to the ball is constrained by the threat of turning back to herself, and Aurora is hidden away in a tiny cottage in the forest, chaperoned by no less than three good fairies to ensure she stays alive.
These scripts show how limited the range of action was for women at the time: the early princesses are confined indoors, and when they venture out, they are chaperoned. The greatest adventures of Cinderella and Aurora take place in a magical or dreamlike space. In each of the three original princess stories, time and space are threats: they are portrayed as best off when staying at home, and they are constrained by time, whether it is a curfew or an impending prophecy. In these portrayals, the films form a perfect reflection of the caging of the feminine in order to prevent both identifiable and unidentifiable threats.
This stands in stark contrast to the scripts of later princesses, such as Mulan and Brave, where the princesses explore the spaces outside of their homes. Mulan fights in the mountains alongside the men, Merida roams the woods alone, and Moana takes to the seas despite her father’s admonitions that ‘we don’t go there’. On this level, they reflect changing ideas of the feminine, where adventure is also part of their maturing, and they forge an identity of their own beyond the confines of the house.
Other models of the feminine: expanding boundaries beyond cultural restrictions
Even with the spatial freedoms of the new generation of princesses, many questions remain. For example, the evil stepmothers in Disney films have not yet been examined in detail, while they are a rich ground for studying women who fall outside the traditional categories of beauty and success, and who therefore have a much greater range of action.Fien Meynendonckx, ‘De monsterlĳke vrouwen van Disney’, rektoverso 28 march (2020) Additionally, the freedoms gained are not yet enough to tip the scales. As Samantha Sebold notes,
“Judy Hopps and Moana act independently, but each woman is relegated to a tenuous relationship with a domineering male character whom she must defer to and emotionally nurture. Intentionally or not, Disney empowers Judy and Moana only to the extent that both women manage and control themselves, rather than allowing them to exercise power to contest the relationships and societies which oppress them.”
At the same time, the later princesses provide a foundation for real-life issues and reflect their presence in everyday life. Mulan struggles with being ‘weird’ and not wanting to conform to the expectations of feminine. As she is brought to the matchmaker to seek a husband, her struggle with these conventions is more than visible in the accidental wreckage she leaves behind. She heads out not so much to seek adventure but rather to protect her father by ensuring he does not need to fight in the emperor’s army. Her more or less coincidental foray into the domain of the masculine is made possible only by her cross-dressing and hiding her femininity. Her achievements are real, however, earning the respect of her commander and her fellow soldiers, who in turn end up cross-dressing as women to invisibly enter the castle and save the emperor. Similarly, Merida resists the expectation that she will marry the best competitor for her hand: she enters the competition to ‘compete for her own hand’, suggesting that partnership is not itself a goal. She rides into the woods to escape the castle grounds and seeks freedom more consciously than Mulan. In her narrative, it is a question of integrating the freedom of the woods and the safety of the castle: her father locks her in the castle when he is worried, preventing her from roaming, but her mother encourages her to speak up for herself in the public hall, setting her own rules.
Do these films then suggest that the tropes of the feminine have fundamentally changed? Are we providing our daughters with the role models that will allow them to venture out into the world with the conviction that they are equally welcome?
The Disney princess franchise presents its feminine roles to a wide childhood audience, making these representations relevant to individual self-image and collective cultural conceptions. As such, Disney’s articulation of the spatial rights of their female protagonists contributes to the way young girls internalise a sense of spatial rights, and how Disney’s princesses enter the world influences how the presence of women is received, in both the private and the public domain. As children, we learn models of behaviour and assumptions that are insinuated in the habitual expressions of life. As Arendt shows, we first learn to be part of a pluralistic society in the family, where different opinions of different, autonomous selves are present. Similarly, we (now) often learn what is acceptable behaviour from ideals and aspirations presented in childhood films. If that ideal is a chattel-like bond to Prince Charming, this is what is reproduced. Introducing the condition of rebellion in the storylines of Disney has been a crucial step – the very ability of the princess to resist expectation, rather than fulfil it.A further study of these ideas would ideally include the property development of Celebration, Florida (1996) and Golden Oak (2011), to understand to what degree the ‘magic of Disney’ reproduces the early tropes of the domestic, idealizing a nuclear family with a strongly anchored sense of femininity.
Changes in gender roles might take more substantial hold when (pop) culture incorporates the option of an adventurous foray into extensive space as part of the feminine: Moana’s taking to the waves makes the option of adventure not only possible for girls, but also tangible, plausible and worthwhile.
But the invisible lines of where we are allowed to voice opinions, and what the consequences are, is still a field of opportunity. The hidden encouragements to remain within the castle walls, to seek fulfilment indoors, and to see the outside world as fraught with danger rather than adventure, is still something to be aware of. If instead, the spatial narrative becomes that of exercising one’s views, of questioning and challenging them as a training ground for engagement in society, then the perspective radically widens into private space being the first step into the world, rather than cordoned off from it. While being unruly is one (public) way of challenging boundaries and norms, transfiguring the domestic within those norms is less visible but can also aid in transforming cultural assumptions of the ‘place’ of the feminine. This is beginning to show in Brave and Moana, and we can only hope that it continues to expand.
I argue here that the intentionality is less important than the continuing evolution of the narrative. Disney’s narrative may create problematic representations of the feminine, but it also reflects existing problems. As such, making it so clearly visible, each new gain also includes with it a clearer view of what must still be done. Compare the self-perpetuated captivity of Snow White to the bold moves of Merida and Moana, and we can perhaps conclude that Disney has come a long way since 1937. Is it enough?
Walt Disney strongly believed in the potential impact of the creative imagination in shaping reality. For nearly 85 years now, the imaginary figures of the Disney princess franchise have played an important role in the self-definition of girls. While Disney’s own ideas about the feminine may have been at best reactionary, the franchise has developed since the original triad of Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora. As a longstanding Disney fan, I certainly hope the princesses continue to evolve, not only for the sake of our daughters, but also for our sons. As the world at large becomes increasingly entangled with the visual codes that both reflect and shape its conventions, providing more brazen and more nuanced role models can help girls see their own rights to be in public space – and they can also help boys envision the value of having equal partners in the world.
Lara Schrijver is Professor in Architecture at the University of Antwerp, Faculty of Design Sciences, and DAAD guest professor at the Dessau Institute of Architecture in 2013-2014. Her research focus is on twentieth-century architecture and its theories.
Daniel Brennan, ‘Considering the Public Private-Dichotomy: Hannah Arendt, Václav Havel and Victor Klemperer on the Importance of the Private’, Human Studies 40 (2017), 249–265
Fien Meynendonckx, ‘De monsterlĳke vrouwen van Disney’, rektoverso 28 march (2020)
Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the new Girlie-Girl Culture (New York: Harper, 2011)
Edwardo Pérez. ‘From Snow White to Moana: Understanding Disney’s Feminist Transformation’, in Richard B. Davis, ed., Disney and Philosophy (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 71-80
Samantha Seybold, ‘“It’s Called a Hustle, Sweetheart”: Zootopia, Moana, and Disney’s (Dis)empowered Postfeminist Heroines’, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 34 (2021), 69–84
Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992)