It’s almost impossible to live anywhere in the developed world without knowing about Disney, and especially about Disney Princesses; Forbes reported Disney Princess as the biggest selling entertainment product of the year, making 1.6 billion dollars in merchandising in 2011 (2012/2013’s numbers are not yet available). Disney started the Princess line in early 2000, when Andy Mooney was hired to save Disney’s failing consumer-products division; he said the magic struck when he went to see a performance of Disney on Ice. The New York Times reported in 2006 how it all started:

“Standing in line in the arena, I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses,” he told me last summer in his palatial office, then located in Burbank, and speaking in a rolling Scottish burr. “They weren’t even Disney products. They were generic princess products they’d appended to a Halloween costume. And the light bulb went off. Clearly there was latent demand here. So the next morning I said to my team, ‘O.K., let’s establish standards and a color palette and talk to licensees and get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they’re doing anyway: projecting themselves into the characters from the classic movies.’ ”

The current Disney Princess lineup.

Since its inception, Disney Princesses have gained a worldwide brand community of primarily girls and women. Disney has focused on projecting a positive union of these girls, to promote femininity and togetherness of women. But not everything is a fairy-tale ending: despite Disney’s top-coat of empowering girls, their product has always come first, and they’re not as progressive as they seem. Disney uses their Princess line to brand femininity and sell an idealized female image, while empowering girls with their product promise of a “happily ever after”. However, operating under the notion of post-feminism allows them to use women’s self-esteem as a marketing tool, without contributing to real feminism. While other fans have banded together to understand the controlling undertones, younger fans susceptible to the cultural brainwashing, along with parents and older fans, are crying out for a middle ground of feminism combined with ‘Disney Magic’

THE DISNEY MARKET

As a brand, Disney Princesses does a lot of outreach to get through to their market; it’s one of the reasons they have been so successful over the years. From the brand’s point of view, consumers are everywhere, and by presenting their brand as something that’s necessary to families, they often manipulate children’s wants to sell their product.

Disney’s ideal consumer for their Princesses line is children from the ages of 4-12, but their Princess brand specifically targets little girls. With the main characters of the brand being female, Disney makes them up to be hyper-feminine accepted ideals of beauty and womanhood. In writing stories of female power and adventure, they give an ideal for girls to work towards and give them an idol to follow. In addition, Disney markets their Princess line by comparing using their products to the girls’ adventures. For instance, on their store website under the costumes section, the description for a Rapunzel dress reads: “Your artistic dreamer can paint a fairytale picture in her imagination and make it come true with this glamorous Rapunzel Costume”. The others are the same; Cinderella’s gives the best description, saying “She’ll live happily ever after in the world of her imagination dressed up as her favorite Disney Princess”. In this way, Disney equates imagination to their costumes and products, and makes it seem (especially to children) that the products are needed in order to have fun and experience happiness. This is especially so they can play on family tropes; Disney’s secondary marketing target is adults 35-55, because they are aware they are the money-markers.

Another thing Disney uses to make its Princess line appealing to women is adding traditional feminine stereotypes to its products. Every Disney Princess doll is covered in glitter and each design, even if it varies in skin tone or hair color, is traditionally pretty, with a slender waist and bigger hips and breasts. 8 out of the 11 have long hair (two more with longer hair that’s tied up), and only one of them has hair that isn’t ‘European’ or traditionally smooth. Lury talks about this in her book Consumer Culture, stating “The operation of the male gaze means that women are conventionally depicted in quite different ways from men- not because the feminine body is different from the masculine body – but because the ideal spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the female is designed to flatter him.” (Lury, p. 128). Women are always built in the way that is attractive to men, and Disney keeps with this program, despite its supposed ideas of female strength.

Disney uses tactics of female empowerment and girls’ self-esteem to sell their products. On the front page of their Princesses page on their store website they feature an advertisement they put out recently about “what it means to be a princess”. The one minute advertisement (that can be viewed below) encourages power and strength; it shows many girls and young women following their hobbies and having fun with each other, with activities that involve surfing, reading, and archery. Interspersed within the video are clips from different Disney Princess movies, along with girls wearing Disney product and costumes from the movies. Even though Disney is showing off female power in terms of being independent and strong, they equate these to their product and make it seem as though to create the fantasy, the products are necessary.

In order to spread the visibility of their Princess line, Disney’s main tactic is movie-making. The stories they tell aren’t created by Disney; every Princess story is an old fairytale that Disney has animated and created their own characters for. By telling an old story on their terms, they can create the characters and control the marketing as they see fit, allowing Disney to make new characters and new stories whenever they want, since they always have a starting point. From the films, they can market dolls, clothing, accessories, costumes, shoes, jewelry, toys, and anything else they can think of to ‘re-create’ the story in small, easy-to-purchase pieces. In addition, Disney will hire actresses to play these characters in their theme parks, giving a real-life equivalent for these girls to experience. By making their product an ‘experience’ instead of just a product, and marketing the sets, Disney makes it so you have to buy everything to achieve the unrealistic standard they create using movie magic. Disney creates over-the-top standards, and then sells products claiming to fulfill these standards, even though they will never get there, because no product will equate reality to a movie. As John Berger summarized in Lury’s book, “The publicity image steals [a woman’s] love of herself as she is and offers it back to her for the price of the product”. (Lury, p.126).

The main demographic Disney doesn’t market to with their Princess line is men and boys. Every image for their product marketing is girls and women, even for things that can be used by both genders, such as plush toys or slippers– the only thing that makes it “for girls” is the product design. This is a line marketed very specifically to women and girls, and men are left almost entirely out, with the small exception of the Princess’ love interests throughout their movies. Disney has taken an extra step to making it about women especially with their last film, Brave (who had no love interest and whose only male connection was with her father), and especially with their newest movie, Frozen, whose main characters are two sisters. Despite this, Disney does take the time to make dolls and merchandise of these men, but it isn’t for the men; it’s still for women. Disney focuses on one ideal of a woman’s life- that to be fulfilled, a woman can be strong and brave, but should also be in love and be incomplete without a man. Even in Frozen, where the main interest is the sister’s relationship, an entire song (listenable below) is dedicated to the fact that one of the main girls, Anna, needs to get married. They make their movies like they market their product- no set is complete without a trophy husband for a woman’s adventure. Even though this seems like a feminist ideology, this is a pitfall of post-feminism. In Banet-Weiser’s book, Authentic Disney does a lot to reach out to their consumers, but their biggest outreach is through their films, and it shows their ideologies best. Not counting Frozen (which has just premiered), there are 11 Disney Princesses; out of these, 10 of them found their prince to live happily ever after. 7 of them are white (and once Frozen’s princesses get added to the lineup in 2014, 9 out of 13 will be). All of them are conventionally attractive. Through their movies, Disney creates an ideal of women and of life and then markets their products towards the women they hold up to these adventures. They keep their consumers in a cycle of needing and wanting, and creating further adventures that people never knew they needed. All in all, Disney Princesses takes young girl’s self-esteem and dreams and make them marketable into products- all of wish are branded by Disney, for purchase from their website and theme parks.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FANBASE?

The Disney Princess brand may be one of the biggest brands to have such an involved engagement with their fans. With a product-producing timespan of over 75 years (spanning from the 1930’s through now, including the newest film, Frozen, that premiered last week) it’s easy to see how the Disney Princess brand spans generations and has been around for longer than most of its fan base’s lifespan. With years and years of ideas, merchandise, and advertising, Disney has had a lot of time to build their Princess brand, and the community has had a lot of time to solidify the way it sees and experiences the brand. Despite the brand not becoming unified until 2000, being able to draw on this long history was a bringing-together of their same branding techniques across separate movies; the same idea of promoting the women and their adventures, despite being part of the ‘male gaze’.

While the Disney Princess brand is primarily marketed to young girls- and young girls are still a large part of the brand community- a new vocal majority of the Disney Princess brand are teenagers and young adults, specifically from the ages of 15-30. These are the people that grew up during the “Disney Renaissance”- the time period ranging from 1989-1999, where Disney produced 5 of its iconic 11 Disney Princess films. Because their first encounters with Disney were right around when Disney solidified their Princess brand in 2000, there’s very little dissonance between what the brand projects and what people experience in the brand community. There are more Disney Princess fanblogs on the internet than could be surveyed and accounted for, such as TheDisneyPrincess, Disney Princess Things, Hell Yeah Disney Princess, Those Disney Princesses, Glitter Disney Princesses, Disney-Princesses, and Little Girls With Disney Princesses. Even though these are an extremely small sampling, they all enforce the same idea of the Disney “magic” that’s been instilled by the brand. As Hell Yeah Disney Princess notes in their blog description, the blog is “Dedicated to the Disney artists whose creativity and talent allowed us to believe in magic and dream about someday becoming princes and princesses.” Disney emphasizes that any and all girls can be princesses, and that the potential for this magic can become reality, as long as you follow and pay attention to the example they’ve set forward- and in order to get you there, you should buy their products. The Disney Store has their own blog, The Buzz, which has a section for Princess-related news. With each news article, Disney links products, linking the experience to things you can buy. People are invited to interact with each other, and the blog, through their comments section, where people leave messages about their thoughts on the post. Meanwhile, the tumblr blogs interact with their fans by posting gifs, merchandise, music and commentary and having their followers ‘reblog’ it from them. However, since Tumblr is a more mature site (you have to be over 13 to sign up for a blog), fans have a more mature discourse on the Disney Princess line. For instance, fans often enter into discourse about the true Disney Princess message; for example, this post is one of many that discusses what Disney was really portraying for the Disney Princesses. Many of the fanbase will also joke about the shortcomings of the male princes, or of Walt Disney’s original intentions for Cinderella. While it cannot be said definitively what Walt Disney would say about the modern-day treatment of the Disney Princesses, the modern-day Princess fanbase seems to have agreed that even if the films have their shortcomings and may not be perfect, there are still valuable things to be gleaned from their messages. De Certeau writes about this, stating “Words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable transforms itself into the memorable (…) a different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place. This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient.” (De Certeau, p. xix). Even if Disney does pretend to promote feminism and steps back on its word, the fanbase steps forward to fill in the cracks.

The brand community surrounding Disney Princesses is very much a buying and owning sort of community. Disney releases new products for its Princesses all the time; for instance, its biggest seller, the poseable, Barbie-style dolls, have movie releases (the first dolls made when movies premiere), and “Classic Dolls” (the dolls that fit in a set, with the same models as the other Princesses). Check out Amazon, Target, or Toys R Us for examples; all of their top sellers are either dolls or doll accessories. The Classic Princess dolls get re-vamped every few years, to reflect new outfits, movie anniversaries, or new redesigns. For instance, a very popular Disney blog, Disney Dolls and More showcases doll collections from all across the internet, including re-paints and customized dolls. In this way, the owning of these dolls is ritualistic; Lury writes about possession rituals, stating “‘Possession rituals’ is the term used by McCracken to refer to rituals involving the collecting, cleaning, comparing, showing off and even photographing of possessions (…) These rituals allow the owner to lay claim to a kind of personal possession of the meaning of an object that is beyond simple ownership. They are a way of personalizing the object, a way of transferring meaning from the individual’s own world to the newly obtained good…” (Lury, p.14-15)

To have a complete Disney doll collection is a feat- to have multiple releases of a doll is almost unheard of and costs a lot of money. Many collectors have Disney dolls- even I collect my favorites from each release (though I have nowhere near the amount of many collectors). There are collector subsets much like this one for almost every kind of Disney merchandise, including plush toys, dinnerware, outfits and clothing, miniatures, figurines, and films in different releases or cases; just one scan of DisneyBloggers blog complilation site, , Disney Princesses is very much a brand put forward by its merchandise, and fans are considered more important the more merchandise they own, and how hard it was for them to obtain. Muniz and O’Gunn talk about this ‘legitimacy’ concern in branding. “Legitimacy is a process whereby members of the community differentiate between true members of the community and those who are not, or who occupy a more marginal space. (…) Brand communities are generally open social organizations in that they do not deny membership, but like most communities they do have status hierarchies. Ostensibly, anyone who is devoted to the brand can be a member of the community, regardless of ownership. However, the devotion to the brand must be sincere and for the right reasons. Differentiating between those who are true believers in the brand, and those who are merely opportunistic is a common concern voiced by brand community members. (Muniz and O’Guinn, p.419). In the Disney Princess community, your ‘legitimacy’ is determined by the merchandise you own.

While the standard brand community of Disney Princesses is very positive, with such a large brand comes a large opposition. It’s hard to tell how much opposition there is in Disney’s brand community because of the strength the Princess line carries; most opposition is drowned out by the overwhelming positive. Many blogs that stand in opposition to the Disney Princesses have much less to do with their products and much more to do with the ideas that Disney puts into its Princesses line. For instance, the blog Disney Princess Recovery is a blog run by a mother that intends to bring about ‘recovery’ in her child; she claims her purpose is to “reclaim my daughter’s imagination after it was hijacked by Disney Princesses.”. Even if the opposition is big, the scope of the Disney Princess brand and its community is so large, it’s hard to see where the problems lie.

Through Disney Princesses’ emphasis on merchandise and their continuous re-releasing of new products, it’s easy to see where the hook of the company comes in. Combined with well-liked values of female strength and empowerment, it’s easy to see how Disney gets so much support for its Princess line; there’s something for every type of girl, old and young, to celebrate throughout the generations and be made part of their family. As long as Disney can keep producing Princess movies that are likeable, there’s no reason to think this brand will weaken anytime soon, and the community may just grow larger with each new generation introduced into the Disney Princess state of mind.

Works Cited

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York UP, 2012. Print.

Certeau, Michel De. “General Introduction.” Introduction. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. N. pag. Print.
Lury, Celia. Consumer Culture 2nd Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2011. Print.

Muniz, Albert M., and Thomas C. O’Guinn. “Brand Community.” Journal of Consumer Research 27 (2001): n. pag. Print.