Disney and the Female American Dream

A white picket fence that goes around the entire well-kept luscious lawn, a loving husband with a stable job, two happy and loving children and a family pet, a small but comfortable house, the perfect nuclear family! Isn’t that every girl’s dream? If you work hard enough even you can make all your dreams come true. Live the Princess Life! 

What is the ‘Dream’: 

The American Dream, is on a very basic level a social idea that stresses on egalitarianism, more specifically on material prosperity, it is this prosperity and lifestyle that marks this success and ideal. The higher number of materials you accumulate the better off you are; these materials can be accounted for in various categories: cars, size of your home, schools your children attend, clothes and much more. The ‘dream’ is sold as a fantasy in which all people are equals with equal opportunity for achieving the highest aspirations and goals. Everyone in the United States can be successful and achieve great things if they work hard enough with determination and dedication. Traditionally, films portraying the American Dream follow a rugged manly man in his quest to find his place in a ‘new’ world or his desire to move higher up in the ranks of social status through his hard work and devotion to his dreams. The role of the female is excluded from this narrative, their role too minuscule to give any spotlight, confined in the domestic space. The American Dream relies heavily on the protestant work ethic and discipline in order to be successful.

Where does Disney Enter the Discussion: 

Walt Disney’s introduction of the female protagonist in the earliest princess films brought a change to how heroines were viewed; not only did he meet the demands of a market that had been ignored for so long, but he sold the concept of the princess life to most young females. The princess series brought with it female centric films that allowed for these characters to blossom on screen while the male characters, the princes, remained as marginal characters. Amy M. Davis concludes that “the images of women in Disney films reflect the attitudes of the numerous artists, writers, directors and producers at the Disney studio… contrary to popular perception, Walt’s attitudes towards women—far from being sexist by the standards of his time period—were in fact progressive for his time,” in her essay on Disney’s life and the women in it.  Disney abandoned the traditional structure of the American Dream genre but introduced a genre completely original to him. Disney highlights the American Dream from the female perspective engaging with a new audience and providing room for the female characters to be viewed in a new light. This progressive thinking is what put Disney ahead as a film maker and a staple in homes around the globe. Starting with the first introduction of the princess films, the three classics, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to the more modern films such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen, Disney continues to add to the princess series following the standard plan, why change when it still sells.

How is this possible (I mean we are all smart people so how could we fall into this scam?):

Disney is a frozen museum of childhood. As proposed by Jean Baudrillard there are copies that depict things that were once real, and it is through four essential stages that maintaining these copies is possible: faithful image copy, perversion of reality, masking the absence of the profound reality, and peer simulacra. The only way for Disney to be such a huge enterprise is through the disappearance of the real world but fantasizing the ‘real’ world. Disney’s worlds bring to life the make belief worlds that contain a childlike love and wonder, an innocence that leaves room for imagination and dreams. Stimulating what an ideal America should be, Disney propagates many ideas that are often overlooked or not understood at certain audiences but subconsciously inform the opinions and subjectivity of the audiences. The three stages of simulacra coined by Baudrillard illustrates that blurring the lines between film and reality can be very easy: the real as distinguished from representation, the space that blurs the distinction between reality and representation, and the real is always constructed together to create a simulation that is undeniable. Overall, Disney is a fantasy world that comes to life but conceals all aspects of the real hardships of the American world beyond the stories. These films and stories are a big part of childhood and often are the stories we look back to as a result, these films propagating the American Dream from a very young age subconsciously feeds characteristics of the ‘dream.’ As proposed by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, man has the ability to move easily up and down the ladder of social status and prosperity to become more God like, or at least go higher through hard work, determination and logic or reason. This concept allows the American Dream to become a desirable trait: everyone is trying to move up the ladder, the end goal is to always be better than we were yesterday.

Cinderella (1950) and The Princess and the Frog (2009): 

Most Disney princess films have the same basic foundation and structure; a motherless child, with a dream of a better life, a whirlwind of romance and courtship, usually lasting only a matter of days, and a happily ever after in a castle. The Princess and the Frog differs from this classic structure a bit, but for the most part adheres to the outline enough to be a successful Disney princess film in an ever-growing series. The 2009 princess addition is home to many overlooked hidden messages that subconsciously tricks young viewers into buying into the enterprise as a whole and their opinion on the American Dream. On the other hand, Cinderella, a classic Disney princess, is an understated American Dream story due to Cinderella falling privy to her gender. She plays a secondary role in achieving her ultimate dream and displays some characteristics very similar to the cliché damsel in distress in the end. The story of Tiana is from  an overt film representing the American Dream. Tiana is a hardworking 19-year-old girl from New Orleans, who is working hard as a waitress in efforts to make enough money to open her own restaurant. Cinderella is a rags to riches tale, of a women who, with a little magic defies her step mother and attends a ball where she catches the heart of a handsome Prince with a dance and a smile. The two characters have a very similar story line and outcome but achieve their end goal in very different ways.

Story Line Comparisons:  

As illustrated by Matthew Belinkie in the chart above, most Disney Princess films follow the same formula. 

First Meeting: 


One of the most iconic transformation scenes in film animation, true Disney magic. << Cinderella, Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson, Walt Disney, 1950. © Copyright Disney>>

In both the films, the leading female protagonist is introduced as a hard-working woman in rags, whose hard work and determination will grant her dreams of a better life. For the first meeting to be possible and plausible in both films, it is necessary for the female leads to present themselves as polished figures in society. In Cinderella, the iconic transformation scene with the fairy Godmother takes place. Cinderella and her animal friends put in a lot of effort to ‘up’ cycle her mother’s old dress which is torn apart by her cruel step sisters, her fairy godmother comes to the rescue, and with a little “bippity boppity boo” and Disney magic, Cinderella now has a ballgown that will be the envy of all girls. On the other side, Tiana is a working-class female who happens to be friends with a rich white girl through her mother’s work as her

Tiana and Naveen meeting for the first time, the beautiful blue ball gown and tiara really add to the mistaken ‘identity’ of this scene. <<
The Princess and The Frog, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Walt Disney, 2009. © Copyright Disney >>

seamstress. This friendship is what allows for Prince Naveen to meet Tiana. Prince Naveen has fallen victim to the effects of black magic, and has become a frog in efforts to make a quick fortune, now he must find a princess to kiss in order to reverse the spell and go back to human form. Tiana is delivering food to her friend Charlotte’s party and gets her own outfit soiled, Charlotte being a good friend tells Tiana to go put on one of her dresses. The Prince mistakes Tiana for a Princess and demands she kiss him in order to break free of the curse. Instead of the curse breaking, Tiana herself is turned into a frog and the Prince claims Tiana has cheated him as she is intact a fake princess.

Start Versus End Place:

Cinderella was never a poor girl, she is not necessarily part of the working-class but as a result of her controlling and fearful stepmother and sisters she finds herself working as a servant to all their demands in her own home. Cinderella did not need to leave the home in order to earn a living to sustain her lively hood, everything she needed was provided to her, food, water and shelter. Tiana, is a character that has an actual job to make ends meet, and achieve her ultimate goal. She comes from a working class family, where the father has passed away and her mother works as a seamstress. Tiana’s best friend Charlotte, a rich white girl whom she meets through her mother’s job, is a girl completely obsessed with all things Princess. Both the female protagonists end up as Princesses but with very different lives. Cinderella marries the Prince and lives happily ever after in the castle with her life of royalty. Cinderella has gone from one supporting role to another, first she was the secondary character to her step mother and now to her Prince. In her marriage, she does not have to clean, cook, or do any chores that defined her before marriage; rather, she is now in the public eye: and most uphold traditions of the royal family with no independent income. Whereas, Tiana does become a Princess by marriage there is no hint in the film that Tiana and Naveen ever visit his country, or his life of royalty, Instead, the two remain in New Orleans and work hard to open Tiana’s restaurant, to fulfill her dreams which places the importance back on the female protagonist and all she has done to achieve her goals.

Love Interest: 

In the Disney princess series, the prince usually plays a very marginal role in the film itself, it is all about the female and her story. The 1950’s prince is a true prince, he is a typical prince who owns all aspects of the royal life. Prince Charming is a traditional royal character who enjoys his life of royalty and all the perks that come with it. For example, his meeting with Cinderella is possible because his father has planned a ball for him to find an appropriate partner, to find his Princess. Also, the entire plot of the story relies on the Prince’s ability to locate Cinderella by her shoe, he has the resources to have a man take the glass slipper and go around town getting all the fair maidens to try the shoe on. On the other hand, Prince Naveen is a prince that has not only been rejected the perks of the royal life but he fully acknowledges the wrongness of his reliance on money to get what he wants at all times. Half way through the film, Naveen has a revelation that allows him to realize how money and royalty have caused him to be handicapped in a way, “Hey, I admit, it was a charmed life. Until the day my parents cut me off. And suddenly I realized I don’t know how to do anything,” (Prince Naveen). He is genuinely embarrassed that he is incapable of even brushing his own teeth without assistance. Although, the film starts with Prince Naveen traveling to New Orleans in efforts of marrying a rich woman to continue living the life of royalty like a sloth. Naveen’s personal growth allowed for the film to create a new happily ever after, the life of royalty and living in a castle is not all that great. In the final musical montage, the audience gets to see the Prince getting down and dirty in an old building, to help his wife fix it up by themselves and open a restaurant, he too believes in working hard. In the end, Naveen rejects his life of royalty to live in New Orleans with Tiana and support her dreams and establishing her restaurant, “Tiana’s Palace” as the world’s best establishment.

Female Protagonist (Characteristics)

Cinderella works hard under the rule of her Stepmother and by default her step sisters. She cooks full course meals, cleans the entire house, babysits the animals in the barn and meets the various demands of her step sisters and step mother. Through all this psychical labor, she stays grounded the entire time, which is something Lady T despises. Even the pets in the film reflect the characters: the cat is Lady T, bitter, mean, hates Cinderella but is dependent on what she does for him and the dog is Cinderella, sweet, naive and has an odd sense of loyalty.. Cinderella’s loyalty lies in taking care of her home, where all her memories are, for both her mother and father. Tiana, on the other hand is a very clear illustration of the American Dream. As quoted by Tiana herself, “The ONLY way to get what you want in this world is through hard work,” Tiana is the first Disney Princess to truly epitomize the traditional American Dream as a female protagonist. The story of Cinderella is an American Dream to a certain point: she works hard and ‘earns’ the right to marry the Prince, but she plays no role in actually meeting the end goal. The story is a glorified tale of the American Dream, that ends with the female protagonist becoming the marginal character in the royal life. Whereas, Tiana has an active role in making her dreams come true, she works hard her entire life to ensure her goals are achieved. Tiana does everything she can in her power to make sure she is not in the back seat of her life, and in the end the Prince remains a marginal character or becomes an equal in the now successful story of Tiana. He is not the reason the dream was achieved, nor is he the primary provider.


Looking at the two Disney Films, Cinderella and The Princess and The Frog, we can see how much the idea of the American Dream has changed within these two films. In Cinderella, which was released in 1950, we can see that the man being the provider and the woman doing the housework and taking care of the children was the ideal American Dream at that time. Woman were secondary characters to their husbands just like how Cinderella was a secondary character to the prince. Over the years though, much has changed within the world. More women have begun entering the workforce which in turn has changed the idea of the American Dream. We see what the dream has changed into when we are introduced to the first Disney Princess with the dream to open up her very own restaurant. Princess Tiana is a character who is independent, hardworking, and self-reliant, which is completely different from the movie, Cinderella, from 1950. Tiana represents the hardworking women today who work their jobs in order to keep their families happy.



Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.




Works Cited

Baudrillard , Jean. Simulacra and Simulation . Translated by Sheila Glaser, Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Belinkie, Matthew. “The Princess and the Frog: A Comparative Analysis .” Overthinkingit.com, 12 Dec. 2009, www.overthinkingit.com/2009/12/17/the-princess-and-the-frog/2/.

Cinderella, Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson, Walt Disney, 1950.  © Copyright Disney

Davis, Amy M. “The ‘Dark Prince’ and Dream Women: Walt Disney and Mid-Twentieth Century American Feminism.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, June 2005, pp. 213–230., journals-scholarsportal-info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/details/01439685/ v25i0002/213_tpadwwdamcaf.xml.

Mirandola , Giovanni Pico della. Oration on the Dignity of Man . bactra.org/Mirandola/.

The Princess and The Frog, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Walt Disney, 2009. © Copyright Disney


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