Beautiful and feminine, slim and elegant, the Disney princess embodies traditional values somewhat incongruent with post-feminist attitudes of modern society.
Through an array of ‘princess’ movies - beginning of course, with the three originals: ‘Snow White’ (1937), ‘Cinderella’ (1950) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) – Disney constructed an idealistic image of the female, whose prime pursuit was the securing of a male love interest who, energetic and courageous, was the active counterpart to the passive female. Though recent films such as ‘Tangled’ (2010) and ‘Frozen’ (2013) have encouragingly sought to present stronger, far less polished female protagonists, Disney’s squeaky-clean origins are proving impossibly hard to shake.
And yet, this is exactly what a growing string of real-life Disney stars are seeking to do. Though not cast as ‘princesses’ per se – ranging from wizards (Selena Gomez in ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’) to superstars (Miley Cyrus in ‘Hannah Montana’), to high-school students (Vanessa Hudgens in the ‘High School Musical’ franchise) to psychics (Raven Symone in ‘That’s So Raven’) each character is youthful, pretty, popular and fresh.
But how fresh can a young woman be when living every waking minute of her developing years on screen? The effect of this pressure appears to be not just detrimental, but dangerous. We’ve all seen the downfall of actors such as Lindsay Lohan, who ABC News described as “the poster child for Hollywood vice”, and later literally became the poster woman for drunk driving in a 2008 USA Today spread opposing alcohol ignition interlock devices, which featured her mugshot.
With a young target audience, it is understandable why so many Disney movies stars are children. However, when faced with increasing pressure to perform and mounting media scrutiny at such an impressionable age, it is hardly surprising that, given the popularity of the company, many of its recruits come to face hardship as they grow older. But what exactly is it that pushes these young actors to breaking point?
Common to many child actors seems to be the desire to escape Disney’s control and crush pre-established stereotypes, as demonstrated in The Guardian’s 2013 headline: “Miley Cyrus has bared her breasts, hoping to break free of Disney”. In an article for Cracked, Mara Wilson, who starred in films such as ‘Matilda’ and ‘Mrs Doubtfire’, looks back on her childhood experiences, criticising parents who pressure their children into acting as a means of financially supporting the family. Though recognising her own parents as “supportive and responsible about money”, Wilson laments about the lack of control they were able to have over what she was exposed to at an early age. Gaining massive attention, suffering “the hedonic treadmill”, fear of being in the press and even being sexually exploited are often issues for the child actor, according to Wilson.
We have seen it time and time again; the angelic young girl, propelled into fame and fortune, only to fall from grace in her later years, dressing provocatively, suffering alcohol and drug addiction, and having run-ins with the law – all of which, of course, is meticulously documented by the press.
In 2016, Miley Cyrus is perhaps the first person who springs to mind when it comes to the subject of provocative media appearances. Her father, singer-songwriter, Billy Ray Cyrus, is not shy about revealing his thoughts on Disney’s role in his daughter’s downfall. When discussing ‘Hannah Montana’, which aired from 2006 to 2011, Cyrus told GQ Magazine: “The damn show destroyed my family.” He continues, “I'd take it back in a second. For my family to be here and just be everybody okay, safe and sound and happy and normal, would have been fantastic. Heck, yeah. I'd erase it all in a second if I could.”
Despite this, Cyrus’ starring role in Hannah Montana could arguably – and quite worryingly – represent progress. In January 2016, the Washington Post discussed Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer’s findings regarding the lack of female dialogue in Disney films. Startlingly, in seven out of the twelve princess movies Disney have thus far made, male characters hold more than half of the dialogue. Ratios in films of the 1980s and 90s are considerably worse than the rest, with the highest proportion of female speech being in ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989), in which women still held just 32% of the film’s dialogue. Though the real-life Disney shows break free from this imbalance, affording many young girls what can easily be described as their ‘own’ show; elements of spotless perfection are retained. With the added pressure of long hours on set and an invasive attack to privacy, perhaps it is no wonder these young women seek to break free from Disney’s stereotypes.
And yet, this drive for youthful perfectionism is not installed in the girls alone. In his article for New York Magazine, ‘Joe Jonas: My Life as a Jonas Brother’, the renowned singer and actor discusses the issues he faced during the time he worked for Disney; in particular the control Disney has over its employees. He writes: “I had to shave every day because they wanted me to pretend like I was 16 when I was 20 (when the show was done, I cut my hair off and grew as much of a beard as I could).”
Intentionally or not, Disney’s attempts to put feisty young boys and girls (too often played by young men and women) at the heart of their shows has applied a pressure and control over their ‘stars’ that has become too much to bear. Only time will tell if the latest additions to the Disney family will fall as others have. With the seemingly endless list of Disneyers who gain bad press, is the latest of Disney’s leading ladies, Girl Meet’s World’s squeaky-clean Rowan Blanchard, destined for the same fate?
In trying to protect a young audience by presenting good, clean role models, it appears that Disney stars may have instead been pushed too far, ironically exposing Disney’s young audiences to drug-taking and drunkenness at the hands of their favourite characters. The balance between maintaining a successful studio and the wellbeing of the child actor is yet to be found. And, with young eyes watching every move, perhaps it’s Disney’s turn to face the pressure?
Words: Alice Tuffery