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The Princess Story

Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film


Sarah Rothschild

What is a princess story? In this subgenre, newly defined in The Princess Story, the protagonist either is a princess or is attempting to become one: the girl transforms into or identifies herself as a princess through marriage or through discovered identity, or both. Princess lessons often accompany this transformation, lessons that not only educate the fictional girl but also the reader.
Cultural expectations and anxieties about the roles of girls and women are transmitted through princess stories, and the dialogic nature of feminism and patriarchy, forces for progress and forces for tradition, can be explored through their study. In this book, feminism and progress are embodied by the first, second, and third wave of feminist princess stories; patriarchy and tradition are represented by Disney Studios’ princess stories. All of these stories influenced their readers, some of whom grew up to write their own princess stories, stories that reflected and – they hoped – furthered their ideological goals. Princess stories of the early 2000s are compelling in that they tensely balance romance and feminist assumptions.
Anyone interested in folklore studies, feminist studies, children’s literature, Disney studies, film adaptations, psychology, sociology, or theories of child development will find The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film essential reading. When contemplating the changes made by feminists to American culture, no one figure is as worth examining as the fictional princess, and no book has yet approached the topic as thoroughly as this one.


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Chapter Four: Disney’s “Feminist” Princess Stories 135


™ CHAPTER FOUR ™ Disney’s “Feminist” Princess Stories DISNEY STUDIOS revisited princess stories in the 1980s and 1990s, with a nod toward feminism and the new expectations of girls and women in American society. The princess stories produced at this time support feminist beliefs and issues—superficially. Disney Studios’ new batch of princess stories [The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998)] touted their new heroines as spunkier, more independent and more feminist than the traditional Disney princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty). But these new Disney princess stories were burdened by the patriarchal traditions out of which they came. This chapter will examine the new Disney princess stories, focusing on the ways their adaptations change the source material and on the ways that the messages remain anti-feminist, no matter how “spunky” the heroines. The Disney Response to Feminism The mid-1980s found Disney Studios in a state of flux. Critics had for decades received feature-length animated productions tepidly at best, and since the years leading to Walt Disney’s 1966 death the studio had become better known for live-action films than for animation. While older animated films were re-released with careful timing (a seven-year rotation, discussed in Chapter 2), new feature-length animated films were rare. In 1985, Michael Eisner was chosen as Walt Disney Productions’ CEO (Kanfer 216); Jeffrey Katzenberg was installed as studio head, and Frank Wells became president. This younger generation of filmmakers would revisit and change the Disney formula for animated films, leading...

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