Today, Disney itself, thanks to a piece from Olga Khazan, one of my editors at The Atlantic and a great writer, has a piece on Disney and gender that starts with the GIANT PRINCESS EYES and works from there.
"It's true that female Disney characters' personalities have become bolder and more adventurous over time, but they still look comically homogenous, a fact highlighted by images such as this, created by the Tumblr MoopFlop and depicting the leads of the Disney movies Tangled and Frozen: "
She then talks about the pressure that Disney artists, including the creator and co-director of Brave, feel to make women all fit the cartoon mold, then asks, "So what explains the company's emphasis on hackneyed female attractiveness?"
What indeed. My gut reaction was - "money." Princesses sell.
This is still my answer, but the rest of the essay is well worth the read, as Khazan moves through available literature on the history of Disney and its transformation into the princess-fueled empire that it is today.
One of the earliest Disney heroines was, in fact, anything but a fair damsel who dreamed only of taking a pumpkin-coach ride with her prince.Khazan then links to a clip of "Alice the jail-bird."
The star of Disney's 1920s cartoons was a spunky, live-action 5-year-old named Alice, played by Virginia Davis, who was constantly getting into scrapes and challenging authority. Her antics were captured on film and then spliced into a cartoon world filled with zany, cartoon friends. (Think proto-Blue's Clues).
But times change, pressure to be educational comes down at the entertainment industry, and Disney is happy to comply, carefully removing all messiness from their world - even when they release the "Story of Menstruation."
Ultimately, though, what Khazan's piece and the many books and articles to which she links shows us, at least to my reading, is that while Disney did have a moral message and wanted to craft a kind of perfect world, in the end it came down to money. Princesses sell. Stories about beauty transcend the ages.
We have only ourselves to blame.
So this raises the question - to what extent do media companies have ANY obligation other than to profit? Plenty of companies do claim morality as a purpose, but it's not always clear that stands up when faced with a choice of profit vs less profit.
The only solutions, in such a world, are regulation and the free-market - but government regulation that media companies (say on the public airwaves) offer educational programming has not really worked. So that leave the market. It means persuading people that these images, at least when offered exclusively and without other kinds of models, are not good for their kids, or for ourselves, while persuading other companies that there is a market for toys that don't reinforce the worst kind of gender norms.
So that's the challenge of us.