Kristeen McKee is an educator and writer. She currently teaches Communications courses at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario. Her latest project examines contemporary Disney transformation quests featuring non-human, male-identified figures.
The Postfeminist Commodification of Disney’s Classic Princesses in “Ralph Breaks the Internet”
Even though Disney’s Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora were born nearly a century ago, the princesses remain timeless figures in Disney’s expansive catalogue of consumer products and experiences. They appear in merchandise, perform at theme parks, and occasionally return to the big screen.
In 2018, the classic trio re-emerged alongside princesses from later Disney animated films for cameo appearances in the movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet. For the first time in the history of Disney animated storytelling, eight generations of princesses united in a metatextual universe where the likes of Snow White and Cinderella wore trendy clothes and openly mocked the recurring tropes and templates used to animate princesses of the past. With Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney repositions its classic princesses as enlightened and empowered feminist icons, and then links their transformations to postfeminist themes.
The emphasis upon individualism and a preoccupation with the female body as a source of power are core postfeminist themes (Gill, 2007). Messages about individual choice, personal comfort, and self-fulfillment are common in postfeminist texts produced for a contemporary female audience that has been taught that changes (e.g., makeovers), consumption (e.g., fashion and beauty), and monitoring (e.g., diets) are means of achieving desired outcomes, such as sexual attraction. In postfeminist media texts, like Ralph Breaks the Internet, the female body functions as a brand or commodity and not as a source of liberation. Nowhere is the commodification of the “empowered” female body more evident than in the film’s princess sequence.
The sequence opens as Vanellope enters a dressing room reserved for princesses. Inside, the feisty nine-year-old princess-turned-racer stands at the centre of a group of armed and hostile princesses. The intrusion provokes the princesses to defend themselves against the youngest and smallest of trespassers. The image of female empowerment is connected to the unique object handled by each princess—Mulan aims a sword, Rapunzel holds a cast-iron pan, and Cinderella grips a piece of glass. The presence of pointed objects and essential kitchen tools capable of causing physical harm signals that the studio is ready to break away from the patterned construction of girlish passivity found in earlier films. At the same time, the presence of Cinderella’s glass slipper and Aurora’s spindle, for example, allows Disney to renew audience interest by cross-promoting its classic princess films while rebranding its Princess Franchise as a ‘feminist’ commodity.
Cross-promotional strategies and metatextual references intensify as Vanellope interacts with her predecessors. The conversation begins as Vanellope announces that she is also a princess. Doubts about her royal status provoke an interrogation. The princesses take turns quizzing the young girl about her magical abilities and the trauma she endured as a prototypical Disney damsel. To assess whether Vanellope is a legitimate Disney princess, Rapunzel asks: “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?” (Moore and Johnston, 2018). From this moment, an alliance is formed based on a key grievance—their shared resistance to the damsel-in-distress trope. The recognition and ridicule directed at the one-dimensional princess archetype is evidence that the studio is actively revising the formulaic gender tropes used to script its princesses. While the sequence has satiric elements, it appears that Vanellope’s encounter with the princesses was developed primarily as surface-level promotion of female empowerment. The sequence sells a particular brand of girl power to contemporary audiences by suggesting that gender-dividing tropes—such as the distressed damsel and the heroic male—are dated constructions. Nonetheless, traces of tradition reappear during the makeover episode when the preoccupation falls on the female body.
The casual and comfortable clothing covering Vanellope’s body is a source of admiration for Cinderella. A group transformation produces a universal look for the princesses. Form-fitting gowns have been replaced with bomber jackets, leggings, and graphic tees. Choice and comfort, which were once out of reach for classic princesses, are now possible thanks to old-fashioned fairy-tale magic and consumer trends for the teen girl market. The dressing room is also transformed. The addition of sofas and pillows invites the atypical behaviour of princesses (lounging). The focus on liberation and comfort in the makeover episode extends to the food consumed during casual conversation. Donuts, chips and dip, sodas, and iced drinks are backgrounded in this sequence. However, a modern princess persona is performed only temporarily and within the confines of a private setting (a dressing room exclusive to cast members). This respite from tradition is interrupted as the princesses are called to return to the stage to perform for their fans, who expect them to conform to convention.
By entering into a private space where princesses rest between their performances, Vanellope opens the door to an alternative universe in which convention is in tension with reinvention and where physical transformations inspired by trends enable the princesses to recuperate a sense of individuality and power. At first glance, it would appear as though the self-reflexive princesses are being released from tradition. Through self-directed makeovers, the princesses become active, controlling subjects rather than desiring objects for an imagined male gaze. The sequence’s preoccupation with the female body as a source of individuality and empowerment, and as a canvas that can be recopied and reconstructed, is characteristic of Rosalind Gill’s (2007) account of postfeminist media culture. Additionally, the self-reflective statements critiquing Disney’s narrative conventions are presented as problems of the past—a strategy that might function to deflect future criticism. In this way, the sequence aligns with Angela McRobbie’s (2009) assertion that “post-feminism positively draws on and invokes feminism…to suggest that equality has been achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meaning which emphasizes that it is no longer needed” (12).
Postfeminism is a complex concept. Perhaps this is because its meaning has been variously interpreted since it entered the feminist lexicon in the 1990s (Banet-Weiser et al., 2020). Gill (2020) explains that some have used the term to refer to a period after the women’s movement of the 1960s to 1980s (otherwise known as second-wave feminism). For others, postfeminism represents a different kind of feminism (a third-wave) associated with critical attitudes and approaches, such as poststructuralism and postcolonialism. Overall, however, there is consensus among scholars that postfeminism does not challenge but contributes to dominant capitalist ideology (Banet-Weiser et al., 2020).
The sequence reinforces the princesses’ role as empowered consumers by linking liberation and comfort to contemporary products and consumption practices, while constraining their consumption choices to food and fashion (i.e., consumption is tied to their bodies). Disney also addresses multi-generational audiences as empowered consumers whenever it simultaneously promotes criticism and consumption of its films, merchandise, and theme parks.
- What makes a film or series postfeminist? What kinds of contradictions might you uncover in other postfeminist media texts?
- The Disney princess sequence continues as Ariel articulates her dream through song. Does Ariel’s musical moment engage with some of the postfeminist themes described in this vignette? If so, please identify the contradictions and paradoxes in the lyrics to Ariel’s song. If not, please justify your response.
- Later in the film, the princesses return to rescue Ralph. It is the princesses who mastermind a male rescue mission. In your opinion, does this sequence represent a significant shift in the way Disney princess films will be scripted moving forward? Or is it simply promotion for the Princess Franchise, dressed up as a critique? Can it be both a promotional tool and a meaningful critique? Why or why not?
In the last decade, Disney has changed the looks, qualities, and backstories of its classic princesses on several occasions, appealing to contemporary audiences that may be critical of the traditional tropes found in its early films, while also appealing to audiences who grew up watching these classics. Cinderella (2015) is a case in point. The studio’s live-action retelling of the animated classic retains the image of the passive- and kind-natured girl, but with one unique twist—the Disney remake positions Ella (Cinderella) and Kit (Prince Charming) as equals. In all other aspects, the remake stays true to the animated classic. Is this also the case with the version of Cinderella introduced a year earlier, in the movie Into the Woods (2014)?
Watch the live-action musical before discussing whether Disney transforms the demure damsel into a postfeminist princess to appeal to a multi-generational audience.
Imagine you have been hired as a consultant to help Disney create another version of female empowerment for its next princess film. Your task is to develop a profile for a princess whose appearance, qualities, and backstory depart from past princesses. Please describe this new princess without resorting to themes common in postfeminist media culture.
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Moore, R. & Johnston, P. (Directors). (2018). Ralph Breaks the Internet [Video File.] Walt Disney Animation Studios. https://www.disneyplus.com/.
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Seybold, S. (2020). “It’s called a hustle, sweetheart”: Zootopia, Moana, and Disney’s (dis)empowered postfeminist heroines. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 34 (1), 1-16. DOI: 10.1007/s10767-019-09347-2.
Whelan, B. (2012). Power to the princess: Disney and the creation of the 20th-century princess narrative. Interdisciplinary Humanities, 29 (1), 21-34.