Walt Disney Corporation is one of the world’s largest media companies with regard to revenue and digital media consumption. Their products, including princess products, are purchased by millions and they earn billions every year. For example, an average of 200 million people watch a Disney film per year, 395 million people watch Disney-produced television shows every week, 212 million people listen to Disney music each week, 42 million purchases are made at Disney stores annually, and an average of 50 million people visit the Disney theme parks each year.
Due to their appeal and popularity, Disney films occupy a prominent place in children’s lives. Disney movies, the stories, and their princesses are often analyzed and scrutinized to determine their potential negative effects. The princess characters (until recently) have historically had unrealistic body types, and the earlier princesses personified women who are complacent and find happiness only through a man. Thankfully, times have changed and newer films are less focused on these same storylines.
Interestingly, the earlier princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel) don’t appear to have many female friends; they’re usually fighting against an evil female counterpart, and they’re eventually saved and protected by a man. Disney improved the princess image somewhat with Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, where the heroine is more independent; they continued that trend with Brave’s Merida. In Frozen, they use the concept of sibling love instead of the “for the love of a man” concept.
A 2006 study from the University of Western Ontario noted that “74 percent of Disney films contained references to the concept of something or someone being evil.” The authors of the study felt that this demonization of bad behavior would influence young minds to have a restricted view of right versus wrong and good versus bad.
We know that movies and television in moderation can help children develop language skills. It stands to reason that what children see and hear while growing up in the home, at school, and through various forms of media influences their self-image and moral beliefs. The question consistently resurfaces as to whether or not Disney princesses are good role models. With the advent of Frozen, some see these stories as a way to raise awareness of and empathy for people with mental illness. Young girls and boys are raised on the tales of the Disney princesses. The majority of these characters suffer some sort of depression, as the storylines often include parents who are dead or who die.
The Association for Natural Psychology says that “Although many little girls dream of one day becoming one of the Disney Princesses, it is important to note that these fantasies not only contain hidden acts of violence and stereotyping, but also promote unrealistic romantic expectations.” However, our own Medical Bag survey of women aged 16 to 45 years indicates that there is minimal negativity associated with Disney princesses as role models. Parents with concerns really don’t have a choice regarding exposure to these characters; the princesses are not going away any time soon. A good approach may be to watch the movies for their entertainment value and seek out an educational opportunity. Ask questions and discuss these characters and films with children, calling out the differences between fairy tales and reality.
That being said, what if you were practicing medicine in a tiny kingdom in a faraway animated land, and these young ladies were in your waiting room seeking your medical advice? How might you diagnose them?
Snow White presents with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Snow is the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, and that silly, big-mouth mirror just couldn’t keep it secret, so being beautiful got Snow into trouble with the evil queen stepmother, who also just happened to have killed Snow’s father, the king. The evil queen, or step-mommy dearest, now wants to get rid of Snow to retain the title of “fairest one of all.” So the stepmother sends out a huntsman to kill her, take out her heart, and bring it back as a trophy. If these are not traumatic events, what would qualify? Snow is crazy out of her mind wandering in the woods and opts to live in a house full of untidy dwarves. In the middle of all this, a gorgeous prince happens to see her by a wishing well in the woods and falls instantly in love with her. That’s a lot to take in.
Would you also consider obsessive compulsive disorder (she’s a true germaphobe) as part of her diagnosis? This girl is always cleaning! She is obsessed with cleanliness and is characterized by taking part in repetitive behaviors that reduce associated anxiety. She cleans and cleans and cleans, which works out well for the dwarves at least.
Alas, hypersomnia is also indicated by her long-lasting sleep. Some would even consider Snow comatose. Lesson to be learned: don’t take apples (or candy) from strangers! Undoubtedly, if you had prescribed treatment, it would have been much different than the prince’s true-love kiss. This fairy tale prescription of a kiss frees her from the eternal slumber and they ride off into the sunset. Heigh-Ho, indeed!
Unfortunately, you never get to see what happens later, when he constantly leaves his underwear and socks on the floor and his shoes all over the house.
Would you classify Ariel as having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as the little mermaid has many obsessions? Ariel is a hoarder and suffers from disposophobia. This rebellious teenager does not know what it is to clean up her room and just can’t throw anything away. Her cavern is overflowing with things that she has no clue how to use, and she can’t part with them.
“I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty.
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore.
You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal.
I want more!”
Aside from hoarding, another obsession is a serious case of species dysphoria, wherein she cannot reconcile her mermaid existence to accurately reflect her identity. The 16-year-old mermaid princess (fish) meets up with a sea witch and makes a deal that turns her into a human mute, giving up her voice so she can hook up with a good-looking human prince of another species. This little fish will give up her whole identity to gain a human figure and be with her human prince.
But, oh no: Prince Eric is under the sea witch’s evil trance and is set to marry the witch at sea. Abandon ship! Eric saves the day by stabbing and killing the sea witch in lieu of marrying her, breaking all of her evil spells. Ariel and Eric get married and sail into the sunset. Anchors aweigh!
On first impression, Belle presents as an intelligent, thoughtful, kind-hearted young lady. She simply loves to read and get lost in her books. There could be a little OCD going on, or social anxiety disorder, as she doesn’t have any friends. Belle becomes the captive of the Beast and expresses empathy and sympathy for him. Would you say a diagnosis of Stockholm syndrome is in order, as a result of traumatic bonding? Belle was trying to rescue her father. She could also be considered a kleptomaniac: put down that candlestick holder and leave that teapot alone!
The Beast has a gruesome persona, but carries an underlying tone of being misunderstood. Really? There is nothing to misunderstand about keeping someone as your hostage. First imprisoning Belle’s father, then Belle herself, the Beast should be considered a serial abductor. Regardless, Belle and the Beast fall in love; Belle’s wannabe beau Gaston tries to save her, but gets pushed to his death by the Beast, who is stabbed in the struggle. Belle provides the Beast with the magical true love’s kiss, and the Beast turns back into a human prince! All is forgiven and they live happily ever after, minus the candlestick holder and teapot because they turn human again. At least there wasn’t an evil step-witch to deal with. Roar!
Cursed at birth to die at age 16 from the prick of a spinning wheel needle by the evil witch Malificent, who was upset because she wasn’t invited to the party, the infant Aurora is whisked away from her home and family. Through a stroke of genius, a fairy put her into a deep slumber to escape death. She is subsequently raised by 3 fairies in an isolated cottage in the woods under a false name and identity. She has little to no interaction with anyone other than a brief contact with a handsome stranger in the forest (who happens to be a traveling prince).
The big reveal of being a princess occurs and undoubtedly could be somewhat traumatic, though it is not addressed. She goes home to her castle to meet her family, and her destiny of being pricked is fulfilled. Off to dreamland she goes, into a state of hypersomnia or even coma. Other than the fact that she is deeply sleeping, there isn’t a lot more information to include in making a diagnosis. Here, again, the treatment is a kiss from a handsome prince, after he has slain the wicked Malificent en route to rescuing Aurora. Aurora and her prince rejoice and dance the night away, with Aurora wearing a dress that magically changes from pink to blue. Life is but a dream for some princesses after all.
Living with her evil stepmother and awful stepsisters, the little slave girl has to tend to all their demands. She cleans and cooks, and needs to be ever-so polite to those who abuse her. The “Cinderella complex” was first coined in 1981 and describes women who are motivated by an underlying desire to be taken care of due to a fear of independence, and who stay in dysfunctional situations.
Cinderella is lovely, hardworking, graceful, polite beyond comparison, and is maligned by the females in her immediate circle. She is not capable of changing her situation through her own aspirations and must be helped by a male (an outside force). She wants to be freed, but can’t find the means to get there on her own.
Dependent personality disorder (DPD) is characterized by being emotionally dependent on others and making tremendous effort trying to please them. It’s also characterized by being unable to make decisions about things, such as what to wear, without the advice of others, like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and animal friends. Cinderella didn’t exactly choose that glass slipper herself.
Yes, your waiting room would be very interesting indeed.
- Dowling C. The Cinderella complex. New York Times Magazine website. March 22, 1981. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/22/magazine/the-cinderella-syndrome.html.
- Garofalo M. The good, the bad, and the ugly: teaching critical medial literacy with Disney. Social Behav Sci. 2013;106:2822-2831. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/18770428/106/supp/C.
- Langham RY. 24 steps in positive parenting. Association for Natural Psychology website. http://winmentalhealth.com/children_parenting_advice.php.
- Robinson T, Callister M, Magoffin D, Moore J. The portrayal of older characters in Disney animated films. J Aging Studies. 2007;21(3):203-213. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0890406507000047.