Return to Article Details Review of The Disney Princess Phenomenon

The Disney Princess Phenomenon. A Feminist Analysis
Robyn Muir
Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2023.
218 p.
ISBN 978-1-5292-2209-8 hardcover, ISBN 978-1-5292-2210-4 ePub, ISBN 978-1-5292-2211-1 ePdf


I was really looking forward to reading this book and expected much of it hoping that it would guide me further in my understanding of the Disney princesses as well as the changes in their representation. However, upon finishing the book two quotations by immortal female humorists seemed to me to apply for the experience: one is from Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), which says that “[w]ith insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny” (327-328), while the other line is from a book review, written by Dorothy Parker in a 1927 issue of The New Yorker that has a timeless appeal for this book and which says that “[t]he Thames, I hear, remains as damp as ever in the face of these observations” (185). However, it has to be remarked that there is obviously tremendous research behind the book, and it was written with a visible dedication to the topic. According to the author, Muir planned to write a book that would challenge everybody’s conceptions about Disney Princesses resulting in a profound effect that would make readers and viewers rethink all their previous preconceptions. The aim is indeed grandiose and, as such, it was hardly met unfortunately. Although many observations and claims in the book are valid, applicable and relevant, they are not specifically new or groundbreaking.

The book consists of two major parts, the first one is discussing the films with a major focus on the Disney princesses. This part is further divided into 5 subchapters by the titles: 1. ‘Passive Dreamers’: The Beginning of the Disney Princess Phenomenon, 2. ‘Lost Dreamers’: A Narrative Shift in the Princess Phenomenon, 3. ‘Active Leaders’: Transgressive Princesses, 4. ‘Sacrificing Dreamers’: A Regression in the Disney Princess Phenomenon and 5. ‘Innovative Leaders’: A Progressive Era of Princesses. The second part is dedicated to the questions of the Disney Princess phenomenon beyond the films, as well as to the characters themselves and to how viewers and consumers of the Disney products engage with the princesses beyond the silver screen. The author here takes into consideration marketing strategies, merchandizing and theme parks. Just by coming up with specific labels for certain periods, the wheel was not invented again. Multitudes of Disney scholars (including, for example, Brode, Craven, Davies, England et al., Do Rozario, Ohmer, Stover, Edwards, Zipes, Tanner, Bell et al., Towbin et al., Hurley, Booker, Wohlwend, Griffin, Wilde, Cheu, Pallant, and many more) have dealt with the Disney princesses over the decades stating the majority of the claims that appear here in this book, too. Although Muir clearly states that her discussion of the materially-commercial as well as theme-park-as-service-kind engagement with the products beyond the viewing brought something new into Disney scholarly research, it is still debatable whether this post-filmic experience really matters that much concerning the characters themselves. Additionally, a heavy statistical media-studies-centered approach to the Disney products is also a possible way to interpret the phenomena of the Disney princesses and not just them, but in order to understand the issue of Disney princesses especially in the filmic narratives we need more fields to join in the discussion because simply ‘measuring the weight’ of these characters through graphs, statistics and prices can only lead to a partial conclusion.

An absolutely welcome aspect of the book is that it includes all princesses as being part of the Disney Princess Phenomenon, who were ‘originally’ left out of the Disney Princess Franchise. Such characters are Eilonwy, Kida (who are rarely taken into consideration), Raya and Namaari. Additionally, it is also a positive achievement that Muir manages to highlight the processes of how the images of women are manipulated and modified for certain purposes, as well as how audiences can understand all this. Muir does that by working with a broad definition of femininity saying that “[b]ecause the phenomenon is so present with popular culture and daily life, I argue it can be used as a vehicle to understand how consumers make meaning around images of femininity […] we must identify how femininity is depicted and how it is continually changing and evolving within the Disney Princess Phenomenon” (7-8). According to Muir, the first wave of princesses was made up of the passive dreamers such as Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, who were passive, helpless, gentle, naïve, domestic, victimized with narratives focused on heterosexual romance. The second wave princesses are defined as the lost dreamers: these are Eilonwy, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine. Here, there characteristics started to proliferate while there was still a rather traditionalist approach to their representation, with the first attempts at representing women of color. The group of active leaders belong to the third wave, who are transgressive figures first and foremost such as Pocahontas, Mulan and Kida. It is already a big question why they would belong to a third wave especially as Muir also admits, they come “in close succession to the second” (69) as well as that these princesses “formed the third wave as a progression of the second” (71) – meaning that they actually belong to the same era. What is highlighted in connection with these princesses is that they are athletic, courageous, assertive, intelligent and independent while definitely being leaders and diplomats as well as mostly also warriors, who generally lack a primary interest in romantic relationships. After a third wave, the fourth wave is quite similar although by this time a definite change occurred at the Disney company. The label of “sacrificing dreamers” (97) is a curious choice. Why would either Tiana or Rapunzel sacrifice anything although they are dreamers? The fifth welcomes the “innovative leaders” (119), with such princesses as Merida, Elsa, Anna, examined as assertive leaders, lacking romantic relationship and having female support. According to the author, these latter two characteristics differentiate most these princesses from their predecessors. The second, bigger section of the book dedicated to consumer involvement after the discussion of the animated films and the princess characters, is probably the part that gives less to readers than expected.

Overall, the general aim of the book in showing that “[t]he princess films produced five models of femininity that reinforced certain societal understandings of womanhood” (202) is not completely reached since the above-mentioned categories are not so well-defined, and they do not apply to all members of the given group. What is more, these categories do not describe models of femininity but more general human traits, with the terms themselves less gendered. Despite high expectations and obvious extensive research amassed behind this book project, the end result is less encouraging.


Works Cited