Essay: Am I a Princess, Long May I Reign?

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It seems like every little girl has their princess phase. Endless hours playing dress-up games, repeated trips to the toy store, and a newfound love of all things sparkly seem to be the defining aspects of this phenomenon. But what is it about being a princess that is so appealing to so many little girls? Is it really that they are hard wired to love baby dolls and the color pink? Maybe it is an inevitability–take a look down any girl’s toy aisle and the oversaturation of princess-themed playthings is immediately apparent. For the Walt Disney Company, this genre is so profitable that it now has its own franchise. Using the princess protagonists from their animated films as figureheads, Disney is able to make a prodigious amount of money by catering to one of the largest niche consumer markets. Although this group has no personal disposable income, their parents are more than willing to “invest” in trivialities like trademarked birthday parties and bedsheets, as they too have placed their belief in the princess mythos. It’s understandable why; the Disney princesses are attractive, safe role models whose stories are meant to entertain while teaching important lessons about goodness and the nature of love. However, in the process of branding and redesigning their figureheads, Disney has condensed the idea of “being a princess” into sugary single-serving packets of generalized character traits that not only support hegemonic femininity, but are actively teaching an impressionable population how they are supposed to interpret the world. Disney’s “I Am A Princess” advertisement in particular provides discourse on the criteria expected of a princess, including but not limited to befriending everyone and constantly smiling. This ad, although it appears empowering at a first glance, restates the same basic notions about what it means for be female that have been circulating in media for centuries. By looking at semiotics and word choice, one can see that this ad complies with dominant ideologies about femaleness in order to brand its product. The premier way to discern how Disney’s “I Am A Princess” advertisement uses codes of femininity is through analyzing the signs they employ. In any media, the most important way a message is understood is through the use of signs. Even without sound or context, one could make meaning from the ad because of the culturally understood connotations each sign has been assigned. One of the predominant signs in this commercial is the color pink. As the little girls featured in the ad wander through the woods or pile on a swinging hammock, this color is shown on their dresses, shirts, headbands, bathrobes, and even feather boas. In the United States, pink is the color most commonly associated with stereotypical femininity, maternalism, and sensitivity. The color is often the vehicle that is used in gendering children’s toys–for example, LEGO building blocks of any color are marketed towards boys while blocks that are pink and purple are marketed exclusively towards girls. Similarly, using the color so often in this commercial serves to itemize femininity and reinforce the idea that girls are supposed to like the color pink. Another symbol commonly used in the ad is nature. The girls are constantly surrounded by trees and tall grass, even while wearing dresses and crowns. Perhaps the message here is that it is natural for these girls to be princesses, and that this ideology is not being told to the viewer by the ad, but that the ad is simply reflecting the innate personality that resides within all girls. If so, this is a prime example of power attempting to normalize societally dominant ideologies of femininity. While it is easy to look at what symbols are in the commercial, it is just as vital to notice what signs are not being shown. For example, the girls are not shown doing any action that could be interpreted as masculine, such as getting messy, playing with a ball, or building something. The one sign that would have originally been interpreted as stereotypically masculine, exploring the woods, is hyperfeminized as the girls explore while playing dress-up and holding a cute rabbit. This discourse on what it means to be a girl and how one should act removes all traces of the individual, leaving behind the same concentrated “cute” personality that the hegemony has tried to convince the world outside of media is realistic.  Thus, through semiotics, one can that ascertain various ways in which the ad evokes the culturally dominant ideologies about femininity while attempting to market its product. In advertising, one important way of catching the audience’s attention is by talking to them. Though it may seem obvious, it is often overlooked that spoken language holds as much connotative meaning as do signs. Word choice is often the determinant in how media messages are decoded by the viewer. Through clever wording, the discourse of Disney’s “I Am A Princess” commercial  is able to connote “girl power” while camouflaging the notions of hegemonic femininity present in the text. Yet, when the script is separated and taken into context, these notions become evident. One line that appears to be particularly worrisome is as follows; “I think having big dreams is important. I think having a big heart is more important.” While at face value, both sentences express statements that are positive, the former suggests that one should put their feelings ahead of their dreams. This coincides with the hegemonic idea that women are meant to achieve fulfillment through others, usually their husbands. This also agrees with the societal norm that women are supposed to be maternalistic and selflessly sensitive to the needs of others instead of listening to their own needs. The matter of the fact is that no one is able to be fulfilled solely through others, and trying to do so can lead to disappointment and even depression. These notions are especially harmful to young girls, who are still vulnerable and learning how to interpret the world. Without a sense of self, these girls may grow up constantly seeking the approval of others and unable to figure out what they’re doing wrong that is keeping their prince from coming to rescue them. Another troubling line is, “I believe being gentle makes you strong. Kindness is power.” These phrases come off as enabling because of the connotations behind the words used. Even so, these ideas directly agree with the binary of hegemony; or, that hegemonic femininity fits together with hegemonic masculinity to define each other by contrast. These ideologies state that women are submissive where men are dominant, women are gentle where men are forceful, and women are kind where men are tough. As stated by the commercial, the way to gain power as a woman through hegemonic femininity is in fact to be gentle, to be kind, to be the foil for masculinity. This type of power, however, it isn’t a form power that would be esteemed or recognized by the patriarchal world and thus is fundamentally rendered useless. It’s also important to note something important that is missing in the ad’s discourse–intelligence.   Nowhere does it say that a princess should be smart, or should try hard at school, or should strive to achieve something in life through education. The meaning that is made here is the incredibly stereotypical idea that it doesn’t matter how smart you are as a woman, as long as you’re beautiful, and that there isn’t a way to be both. One can see this ideology played out in the adult world as well, with working women often having to quit their jobs as soon as they also become mothers. There is almost no way to successfully balance both without receiving some form of scorn either at home or at the workplace, and it is just as likely that these women receive no form of help. Thus, the dialogue provided by the commercial replays a discourse that sides with dominant ideals of femininity and instills dangerous attitudes in the girls it targets. In conclusion, by looking at semiotics and word choice, it becomes clear that Disney’s “I Am A Princess” commercial panders to the hegemonic femininity. While the influence it has on such a young demographic may seem empowering, it remains on the socially acceptable side of power relations and does not effectively challenge them. Although it seems Disney may be trying to change its representations of women as can be seen by the dramatic contrast in a princess like Snow White to a modern princess like Rapunzel, the way in which Disney concentrates their ideals to sell their brand to children oversimplifies the princess myth. Moving forward, perhaps they will come to understand the hegemonic undertones to their commercialized work, or perhaps they will continue to veil their intent in an effort to lengthen their reign. Either way, it’s all coming up pink and sparkly.

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