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RESEARCH PAPER

THE PRINCESS PLAGUE

DOES CHILDRENS MEDIA TODAY REINFORCE GENDER ROLES?

SUBJECT: LAW AND LITERATURE

SUBMITTED TO:

PROF ALICE SAMSON

FACULTY, LAW AND LITERATURE

SUBMITTED BY:

AISHWARYA RAJ

YEAR II, SEMESTER IV

2015-5LLB-66

NALSAR UNIVERSITY OF LAW, HYDERABAD

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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction ................................................................................................................................ 3

Methodology .............................................................................................................................. 4

Aims and Objectives ............................................................................................................... 4

Research Questions ................................................................................................................ 4

Study of Literature ................................................................................................................. 4

Films .......................................................................................................................................... 5

Snow White............................................................................................................................. 5

Mulan ..................................................................................................................................... 7

Nursery Rhymes......................................................................................................................... 8

Picture Books and Stories ........................................................................................................ 10

The Paper Bag Princess....................................................................................................... 10

The Legal Perspective .............................................................................................................. 11

Conclusion ............................................................................................................................... 12

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INTRODUCTION
The Disney Renaissance refers to the era between the late 1980s to the early 2000s, during
which time Disney was able to bring back the interest of the public by producing several
successful animation films. 1 These films, along with the reversion of childrens literature to
pre-feminist plots and storylines, often set unrealistic standards and unhealthy examples for
young girls and boys alike. Though they all work on the happily-ever-after ending, which is a
fantastic way to teach kids about hope and optimism, the original plots often consisted of
themes that were too dark to be appropriate for children. Still, these books and films are, to this
day, worshipped by fans of Disney that come in all shapes and sizes. The themes of royalty and
love were sold to consumers in every way possible.

Imagine the life of the average young girl today. Her most recurrent nickname is princess, and
her colour of choice is almost always predicted to be pink. If she goes to the store to buy
anything, from bedding to stationery or party supplies and, most obviously, clothes, her options
will consist of hearts, flowers, or crowns. 2 The toys in her bedroom are likely to be dolls of all
shapes and sizes, and her movie collection is comprised largely of Disney movies that have a
princess in a sparkly ball gown on the front cover. Compare this to the lives and variety in
consumer products of boys: they can choose from sports, science fiction and fantasy or action
and adventure as themes. Though their options are limited as well, they at least have the liberty
of choosing which stereotype will apply to them.

In our society, gender stereotyping is something that always has and does still exist. However,
the brevity of this problem is steadily increasing, as it is starting to affect the youth that is
undeniably easier to influence by way of mass media.3 In this paper, the researcher delves into
various form of childrens media, such as films, nursery rhymes and story books, to find gender
bias and stereotypes in multiple forms. The central aim of the researcher is to understand how
the narratives, language, plot and characters are organized in ways that reinforce stereotypes
and roles that are typically assigned to a male or a female.

1
Leah Pickett, Ranking: The Disney Renaissance from Worst to Best, TIME. Last accessed on: 06/04/2017,
available at: http://time.com/3590521/disney-renaissance/
2
Peggy Orenstein, Whats Wrong With Cinderella? THE NEW YORK TIMES. Last accessed on 08/04/2917,
available at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html?pagewanted=all
3
Leah Pickett, How Growing Up Disney Shapes Gender Roles, WBEZ BLOGS. Last accessed on 06/04/2017,
available at: https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-blogs/how-growing-up-disney-shapes-gender-roles/02ec5c94-
e9ec-486a-9424-22b4793191b4

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METHODOLOGY

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES


Childrens media today is one of the biggest markets in the world when it comes to the
entertainment industry. Whether we look at films, toys, story and picture books or even their
nursery rhymes, we find that all the mediums are riddled with stereotypes that reinforce gender
roles and have been doing so for as long as we can remember. This paper aims to analyse
various forms of childrens entertainment and media to see just how prevalent such stereotypes
are and in what ways they could affect the way that the children think.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS
1. Does childrens media today reinforce gender roles and stereotypes?
2. How do these stereotypes and roles affect the way children think?

STUDY OF LITERATURE
This paper analyses three mediums of childrens media and entertainment films, story or
picture books, and nursery rhymes. The films consist of Snow White, an animation film that
has oft been criticized for its plot and its passive female lead character, and Mulan, a film that
superficially breaks the racial and gender stereotypes, but on a closer analysis is only slightly
better than the former. The nursery rhymes that have been focused on are Jack and Jill, Hot
Cross Buns, and Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie, all vastly popular rhymes that are known
by most children across the world. The book that has been analyzed is The Paper Bag
Princess, a feminist storybook that reverses the male and female roles in its plot.

The above selection was chosen particularly to show the diverse forms in which gendering can
be seen in childrens media. While some of them are explicitly sexist or stereotypical, some
were created specifically to battle the same. Through this paper, the researcher intends to
critically analyze these texts to answer the above questions.

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FILMS
SNOW WHITE
When it released in 1937, Snow White was the first full-length animated film to have been
made. The success that this movie saw in the box offices could be credited to its slapstick
humour and classic form of storytelling, that made it hugely relatable to the masses. Ever since
then, Disney has been a mascot for childhood happiness and innocence, a symbol of the
imaginative and pure thoughts of youth. However, another perspective of this entertainment
giant does exist a corporation that contorts childrens minds for capitalist ideals. While
neither opinion can be discredited, it would be prudent to see how, exactly, the latter could
even exist when Disney is still loved so dearly by people of all ages today.

Most early-age Disney films have a recurring damsel-in-distress theme: there would be a
princess with traditionally feminine traits and appearances, who would require a clever, strong
prince to rescue her from the trouble at hand. Most of Disneys princesses are white, and have
the same facial and physical features large eyes, flawless skin, silky smooth hair, long legs,
and an overly exaggerated hourglass figure. 4 There is too much emphasis on the appearances
of these characters. Snow Whites entire plot revolves around her beauty, which causes her
stepmothers jealousy and the adoration of the dwarves as well as the animals in the jungle.
Disneys princesses, along with Mattels Barbie dolls, are heavily criticised for being negative
role models when it comes to body image.

When we look at the male leads, we see that the Princes are based on the same physical model
as well tall and muscular. The stereotyping in male roles may not be as prevalent as in female
ones, but there is still the idea that men must be strong and brave. While this isnt necessarily
enough to call it sexist, there are other factors that add to the mix.

Whether we look at Snow White, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, the lead female character is
always depicted as a sweet, nave, dependent and conforming (read: obedient) young woman.
Taking into consideration the audience for these films, the problem that arises is that most
children at that age cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality. The depiction of the ideal
woman as a stereotypically beautiful one that is passive and does everything that she is told
creates the idea that women should be subservient and obedient. While obedience is not a bad

4
Kat Brown, Disney and Pixar's Female Characters All Have the Same Face, THE TELEGRAPH. Last accessed
on 07/04/17, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/inside-out/disney-pixar-characters-same-face/

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characteristic to be represented to children, such ideas remain in the childs mind and often
continue on to adulthood.

Snow White, despite being only fourteen in age, is asked to tidy up and cook for seven dwarves
in return for keeping her safe. Even when she was at the castle, Snows stepmother forced her
to work in the kitchens in rags, so that she would appear ugly. Thus, while housework could
have been depicted as important work as well, the traditionally feminine job is treated as a
punishment that Snow should accept meekly. While working for the dwarves, she sings
Someday My Prince Will Come. Romantics argue that there is nothing wrong in waiting for
love, but the context of this song makes it appear as if Snow is waiting for her Prince to come
and rescue her from the hardship she is facing. She is depicted as helpless, in need of a man to
bring her out of her misery. This passive role adds to the above idea that women should be
meek and submissive.

The male characters in these films, on the other hand, always have an active role in the plot.
They are the ones that save the princesses, whether it is from their evil stepmothers or from
sickness. Snow Whites singing draws The Prince to her initially, in search of whom he goes
hunting in the woods to find and save. At other times, these heroes are shown to be hunting,
gallivanting or performing other manly activities, while the female leads are subject to passive
domesticity.

However, the film is not entirely bad Snow gains loyalty from the dwarves and the huntsman
because of her innocence and her kind nature, not because of her beauty. The fact that the
Queen was also extremely beautiful, but ended up evil, tells that inner beauty is more important
than outer beauty. Snow was also strong-willed and adaptive. She undertook any misfortune
with grace and made the best of her situation by agreeing to work for the dwarves in the only
way she knew to, as her sole skills came from working in the kitchens back in the castle. As
the film was made in 1937, it can only be expected to have gender roles from what existed then.

Thus, Snow White is a film that appeals to little children for its optimistic setting (animals and
birds singing during Snows stay in the woods) and for its romantic alls well that ends well
ending, like most other Disney movies. The themes of hope, love and beauty are positive and
bring a much lighter atmosphere to what was originally a depressing story of deceit, jealousy,
and rape.5

5
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Little Snow White, GRIMMS FAIRY TALES. Last accessed on 07/04/17, available at
http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html

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MULAN
Although Mulan is marketed by Disney as a princess film, it actually is about a young woman
from China who becomes a soldier and then the countrys hero in pursuit of keeping up her
familys good name. She is not a subservient, traditional beauty like the other Disney
princesses, though at first, she does try to conform to societys expectations of her as a girl.
Her journey is one of self-growth and acceptance of who she really wants to be, despite the
conventional beliefs of those who surround her. She is intelligent and athletic and a fighter,
with a rebellious spirit only to the extent of doing the right thing no matter the means. Though
the story does end with a happy ever after, it is not romance-centric unlike the other films.

Mulan starts off by attending a marriage arrangement ceremony, dressed up in the ethnic
clothes and make-up that the women in her community wear. She tries her best to please her
family by being as graceful and timid as possible, but fails to do so because of her inherent
clumsiness and boisterousness. When there is a call for men of every family to fight in the
impending war, she decides that she should take on the role of a son to protect her family from
shame. She disguises herself as a man, and sets off to war camp. In her training to become a
good soldier, Mulan flourishes, and her agility and quick wit help her do wonders. Finally, she
saves her country and her Emperor from the villain, and makes her family proud to have her as
a daughter.

Where Snow White resigned herself to the circumstances at hand, Mulan decided to go out and
do everything in her power to protect her family from disgrace. Her courage and determination
only grow as the story develops, and when her act is finally revealed, she is independent enough
to continue fighting for her family and her country, despite the scepticism she faces as a female
soldier. Mulan is a refreshing break from the stereotype created in other Disney movies she
is not a conventionally beautiful, graceful and passive character. She is tough and full of spirit
and determination, and breaks from tradition by actively doing something to save herself from
the circumstances (here, her unconventional nature and her fathers lack of an eligible son.)

While Mulan does still show the sexism that exists in society, the lead character and the plot
around her does everything possible to fight such stereotypes of women and femininity.
However, Mulan reinforces male roles and stereotypes the soldiers are expected to be strong
and brave, and the leaner ones (including Mulan) are often taunted for being thin and week.
The very fact that Mulans traits are considered masculine enough for her to pull off being a
man is the irony in the film. Still, Mulan is the closest princess film to being gender neutral.

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NURSERY RHYMES
When we think of nursery rhymes, we think of innocent poems that we sang or recited as little
toddlers, not as means of gender stereotyping. A deeper analysis of these poems, however,
show a darker reality rhymes often have themes of discrimination, in various forms and
intensities.

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away. 6

The sexism in the above rhyme is glaringly obvious. A young boy makes little girls cry by
making untoward advances towards them, and then ran away when other boys entered the
scene. Apart from the normalization of sexual abuse, the rhyme also reinforces common gender
stereotypes: girls are helpless, and boys will be boys. The rhyme depicts girls as weak,
vulnerable, and dependent creatures that cannot defend themselves in any way, and whose
consent means nothing to boys. Boys, on the other hand, are shown as mischievous, strong and
independent, who do as they wish and get away with anything without facing consequences.
Georgie Porgie is not scared of kissing the girls, or of what might happen if he did so, but he
fears what other boys might do to him, which is why he runs away.

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!


One a penny two a penny Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons


One a penny two a penny Hot cross buns!7

The above rhyme does the opposite it appears to favour daughters over sons. The rhyme is
noncontroversial, and has raised little to no eyebrows for the evident sexism. If, on the other
hand, the sons and daughters had been replaced, there would certainly have been calls for
banning this rhyme from schools, or at the very least, deeming it inappropriate. This, in a way,
shows how feminist theory is hypocritical; it ignores the bias against men, and focuses only on
the bias against women, which is inherently against the theme of equality. While it is true that
women have been historically oppressed for centuries, the idea of having one gender be greater
than the other to balance it out seems wrong. However, the rhyme has not been criticised for
the gender bias in it at all.

6
Billy Mayer and Gee Paul, Georgie Porgie, CLASSIC NURSERY RHYMES, (2006 GRAMERCY BOOKS).
7
Iona and Peter Opie, Hot Cross Buns, OXFORD NURSERY RHYMES (1951, 1997 OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS).

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Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

Up Jack got and home did trot, as fast as he could caper;


And went to bed and bound his head with vinegar and brown paper

When Jill came in how she did grin to see Jack's paper plaster;
Mother vexed did whip her next for causing Jack's disaster.8

The full version of the above rhyme is much lesser known than just the first two lines. While
even those two lines do underplay sexism, the latter part is much more explicit about it. Jill,
who tumbles after Jack for no reason, reinforces the idea that women follow men without a
thought. Towards the end of the rhyme, where we see that the childrens mother blames Jill for
Jacks disaster simply because she grinned after seeing him bandaged up, a worse form of
sexism is seen that women are to be blamed for anything that goes wrong, until the contrary
can be proved. The old notion that women should not be allowed on ships runs parallel to this
idea; it was believed that women would bring bad luck with them if they boarded the ship, and
consequently anything bad that happened would be blamed on that poor woman. There is also
the theme that sons are more important than daughters here, for why else would a mother be
willing to hurt one child for having hurt another?

As we have seen, many nursery rhymes that were taken for granted by younger readers make
the same readers uncomfortable once they start to understand latent meanings. These may have
been small and insignificant examples in comparison to other forms of sexism, but the fact that
the audience for such a rhyme consists of children, makes it all the more dangerous. Children
subconsciously adapt whatever examples they see and hear in their lives, which could lead to
small examples of gender bias and gendering turning into acts that are explicitly and injuriously
sexist.

8
L. E. Walter, Jack and Jill, MOTHER GOOSE'S N URSERY RHYMES (1919, 1923 FORGOTTEN BOOKS).

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PICTURE BOOKS AND STORIES

THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS


While the conventional princess story revolves around a handsome prince rescuing a beautiful
maiden princess from a fortress with a dragon guarding it, The Paper Bag Princess 9 is one take
of the tale where the roles are reversed entirely. An evil dragon destroys and burns everything
in Princess Elizabeths home, including the clothes that she is wearing. Putting on the only
material that is accessible to her (a humungous brown paper bag), she rushes off to save her
fianc prince from the clutches of the dragon. The princess then uses her intelligence, creativity,
and her courage to outwit the dragon, and rushes into the fort to save Prince Ronald. However,
when he ridicules her for her appearance, she realises that the prince is not all that she thought
he was and refuses to marry him.

This variation of the typical happily-ever-after tale shows a young woman being witty, brave,
and independent. Elizabeth does not look or act like a typical princess either, with her messy
hair, dirty attire and frolicking around after refusing to marry the prince. Though she does
initially seem like a proper princess, dressed in fancy clothes and with pretty blonde hair, she
stops caring about her appearance after the dragons attack and prioritises her objective of
saving her prince over superficial beauty. She uses not her strength, like a male hero would do,
to fight the dragon, but her intellectual capacity and power of persuasion to tire the dragon out.

The moral of this story, as all childrens stories do have one, is that little girls neednt imagine
themselves to be pretty maidens waiting for a chivalrous knight in shining armour it teaches
them to fight their own battles and to care about more than their appearance, while also shutting
down anyone who tells them that the latter is more important. 10 It explores the possibility of
being a princess, but one that takes things into her own hands and fights conventional
stereotypes. In this way, The Paper Bag Princesss plot and lead character is similar to the one
seen in Mulan, albeit depicted in a different way.

9
Robert Munsch, THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS, (1980 ANNICK PRESS).
10
Jessica Villaneuva, FEMINISM AND THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS. Last accessed on 07/04/2017, available at:
https://rhetoricandpopularculture.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/feminism-and-the-paper-bag-princess/

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THE LEGAL PERSPECTIVE
In light of the above revelations, one might ask, why is it that there are no cases of any of these
works facing legal repercussions for their inherent bias and for reinforcing gender norms and
stereotypes?

Perhaps the answer to this lies in the maker of such literature. Disney is a corporate
conglomerate whose clientele consists of children, teenagers, and even adults across all
continents. The Walt Disney Companys turnover in 2016 alone came up to around 55,000
million dollars, with its studio entertainment unit comprising a fifth of the amount and
consumer products making half as much. Disney is hardly ever seen as the evil stepmother it
is pictured more as a fairy godmother that gives people of all ages something to dream and
hope about.

If one were to take Disney to task for its subtle gender stereotyping legally, not only would
such a person face ostracism from most children, parents, and the rest of the Disney community
that worships it, they might also fail to win such a litigation battle. While the films do reinforce
gender norms and roles, they do so in a manner that is not blatantly unwholesome. They are
not sexist per se, but they fail to be feminist, as we might want them to be, considering the way
in which children idolize them. In addition, films such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty show
women as passive, but that is how society expected them to be when they initially released.
The recent versions of the classic romantic princess story, as seen in Brave or Tangled or
Frozen, show strong female leads that are rebellious, independent and adventurous, and move
away from the damsel-needs-rescuing plot that earlier films had.

It may be relatively easier to ban poems and nursery rhymes from schools and kindergartens,
for example when the Birmingham City Council asked schools not to teach Baa Baa Black
Sheep on account of racial undertones.11 However, since even this ban was later scrapped after
black parents condemned the move as ridiculous, it remains to be seen if such action would be
at all effective in achieving the objective.

Thus, there is a distinct lack of any legal action being taken to prevent childrens media from
reinforcing gender norms and roles.

11
Nursery Rhyme Ban Scrapped, BBC. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/600470.stm

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CONCLUSION
In this paper, the researcher has attempted to analyse the different ways in which various forms
of childrens entertainment and media reinforce gender roles. While some, like Snow White,
are conspicuous about this stereotyping, other stories like Mulan and Brave do as much as
possible to break away from the same and create healthy role models for young children. The
presence of sexism even in mainstream media such as nursery rhymes show how deeply
ingrained such gender norms and roles are there is no hue or cry when children are exposed
to it.

We have seen, in the above examples, that it is not only the plot of the story that makes it more
or less sexist, but also the context in which it happens, and the way in which the characters,
both major and minor, affect the storyline. Even the way in which a particular film or story is
marketed changes the way it is perceived. Children pick up the smallest signs of sexism and
gender roles and idolise them until these ideals play out in society in much graver
circumstances. In light of the above, the researcher concludes that while the presence of gender
norms in films and books today is much less harmful than the kind that existed earlier, it still
plays an equally important role in shaping the way that children think. Thus, it is even more
important to have childrens mass media to be more relatable and feminist.

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