The ‘Disney Universe’1
has captured audiences and consumers around the world for nearly a century. On its international website2
, the company that appeals mostly to children and young adults, lists nine online destinations, seven of which are regions or continents—Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, North America, Latin America, and Middle East, and two of which are countries with large populations, India and Russia. The website lists India, a country of 1.3 billion people, with a growing market that consumes much media in English, as a separate market from Asia3
. Each tab has a drop-down menu that takes the viewer to country and language-specific content. Each region is further divided into many subregions and countries. In essence, Disney is everywhere. If not in theatres, then it can be found on electronic screens that are omnipresent, or as logos and images, posters and book covers, theme designs for birthday cakes, and even professionally painted onto the walls of young children’s rooms4
This study illustrates how Disney’s global presence mainstreams views on being a girl. Disney’s global presence has been critiqued both for perpetuating stereotypical images (England et al. 2011
) and its potential impact on cultures, especially in countries lacking domestic programming that relies on western media content (Forman-Brunell and Hains 2014
). Ubiquity of American media including Disney, and the absence of media rooted in native cultures can hamper young girls’ identification with and taking pride in their own culture. Domestic audio-visual programming focusing on culturally relevant stories and folklore can potentially empower young girls to counter Disney’s transnational but monocultural narrative (Nastasia and Uppal 2014
). Countries that do not have a thriving domestic media industry present no competition to transnational media content. Not surprisingly, Fiji, a country which lacks domestic industry,5
does not attract Disney’s interest, and is missing from its international website, possibly because it is a small market and Disney is aware that lack of competition in the country ensures viewership.
Sweden, India, and Fiji, the locales of research for this study, provide a complex intertwining of variables which allow examining the role of Disney princesses on young girls’ perceptions about being a girl. The three countries, as described in detail in the following sections, vary in culture, ethnicity, and use of transnational media.
This comparative study examines data gathered through a participatory study on girls between 8 and 15 years of age in three different countries over two time periods nearly a decade apart—India and Fiji, in 2009, and Sweden in 2018. All three countries are democracies6
with considerable differences, that function as variables. Sweden, a constitutional monarchy, has a modest media industry and leads in the use of internet and social media among the three countries. India, the largest democracy, has possibly the largest media industry, but without the same international appeal or reach as Disney. Fiji consumes mostly western media, with the exception of Indian media products mostly consumed by people of Indian diaspora. While India, a democracy since 1947, only opened its audiences to foreign media since economic liberalization in the 1990s, Sweden is a much older democracy that has a royal family and real-life princesses. Fiji, the smallest in population among the three, also has the least robust domestic media industry, where television was introduced as late as 1991. In addition, Sweden is largely a Caucasian country, whereas India has ethnic diversity that is known more by lingual and cultural rather than racial differences. Fiji, a multicultural country, constitutes several ethnicities of which Fijian and Indo-Fijans form over eighty percent.
By comparing data from two time periods and on three different continents, the study critically analyzes the intricate link between location/geography, exposure to Disney animated princesses, visualization of the concept of princess, and whether domestic cultures are articulated despite Disney’s popularity and allow culturally representative images of princesses, a concept which is an important component of playtime for girls (Wohlwend 2009
; Pollen 2011
In creating brands and homogenizing appearances, Disney’s depiction, bound by western ways of looking at the world, molds even the princesses of Chinese, Pacific, and Middle Eastern descent such that they are perceived to be western. For example, though Disney’s Pochahantas
are considered atypical princesses that challenge stereotypical images in Disney, research suggests that nonwestern girls consider them western/American and do not identify with them (Lemish 2010
; Nastasia and Uppal 2014
). In comparison to Disney, a historically girl-oriented channel, Nickelodeon, is considered more balanced in providing programming for both girls and boys (Lemish 2010
) with regard to screen time.7
Beyond catering to one gender over the other, scholars have argued that Disney’s programming creates misconceptions of the real world. Schickel
) argued that Disney animated films in creating a world with dichotomous characters that can be divided into villains and heroes, promoted the values of upper class, and supported commercial enterprises. Scholars have likened the magical realm created in Disney movies to that of capitalism where labor and work remain hidden, and most do not seem to work for the ‘necessities of life’ (Dorfman and Mattelart 1975, p. 68
), nor do they reflect realities of life (Wasko 2001
). Furthermore, scholars have demonstrated a hierarchy in Disney, where masculinity and whiteness are presented as positive, strong, and central to the plots, and female characters are shown to be frail and shy (Lawrence 1986
). Western values of individualism are upheld, as opposed to community and duty to the extent that nonwestern stories are altered to suit Disney’s narrative (Limbach 2013
). For example, in the ballad of Hua Mulan, the basis for Disney version of the story, the protagonist cross-dresses as a man with the help of her parents, but in the Disney rendition, she does so by breaking ‘away from her family to find her identity’ (p. 115); and while in the actual story, Mulan spends twelve years in training and fights several battles, in the movie, her screen time dressed as a man is comparatively short (Limbach 2013
). Disney, wary of blurring the lines between male and female, not only limits Mulan’s screen time dressed as a man, which could counteract concepts of gender as binary, but also portrays being a man as a more ‘active’ process in comparison to being a woman/girl (Limbach 2013, p. 119
While Disney’s universe is inhabited by diverse characters, Disney princesses have created a world that has captured girls’ imagination around the world and now command their own website as a Disney brand8
. Now worth over four billion USD, the brand was created in 2000, by the then- CEO after observing young girls dressed as princesses in homemade costumes when attending shows such as Disney on Ice (Pollen 2011
). Stories of Disney princesses are woven into young girls’ play and fantasy world, often supplemented with costumes referring to Disney princesses (Wohlwend 2009
; Pollen 2011
; Garabedian 2015
). As Forman-Brunell and Hains
) state, “Princesses are everywhere there are girls” (p. xi), and Disney’s multiple ventures supplement the princess culture with costumes and accessories to manifest a fantasy world. Childhood, suggest some scholars, is threatened by the ‘childhood culture industry’ (Pollen 2011
), which now mass manufactures clothing, toys, and accessories connected with fantasy play, limiting options available for imaginative and performative play. While young girls dressing up is a practice as old as fairy tales, mass production and growth of the children’s clothing market that manufactures fantasy costumes have driven demand for princess costumes. This trend of using costumes in play is also accompanied by a ‘pinkification’ of outfits and objects aimed at young girls (Pollen 2011
) argues that though associating pink with girls is fairly recent, the trend towards ‘pinkification’ is so prominent that it is even considered to be an indicator of a biological imperative. In a survey conducted to understand the link between available fantasy (dressing-up) outfits for girls and the issue of agency in performative play and creation/performance of femininity, Pollen
) establishes that limits on playing/performing being a girl are woven into the fabrics, colors, and the designs of the costumes available to the girls, which are often purchased and promoted by parents themselves. Whether or not young girls perform femininity normatively (as outlined by Judith Butler), girls practicing agency during playtime can challenge stereotypical concepts of girlhood (Pollen 2011
) and is considered ‘appealing and confining’ at the same time (Wohlwend 2009, p. 80
). However, the motives for wearing pink or glittery outfits is an indication that the girls associate it with being pretty and with popular characters whom they want to emulate (Pollen 2011
). Although childhood theorists stress that a child uses his/her agency just as much as an adult and is not always passively imitative (James et al. 1998
; Clarke 2007
; Wohlwend 2009
) through her study demonstrates that designs, colors, and fabrics used for fantasy costumes limit that agency. For example, in the sample used to study various outfits used for play by young girls, 14 of 52 outfits were based on princess characters, where 12 out of 52 costumes were Disney characters (Pollen 2011
). Disney’s popularity has standardized the appearance of Disney princesses, unlike original story books with more imaginative and varied princess content. Merchandise then facilitates the emulation of Disney images e.g., wearing the appropriate outfit along with tiaras or wands, etc. (Pollen 2011
). In fact, Disney’s popularity is so prevalent that a study found no correlation between screen time spent watching Disney princess films and owning Disney Princesses products, implying that ownership of princesses merchandise was not dependent on exposure to Disney films (Golden and Jacoby 2018
1.1. Standardization of the Princess Concept
The idea of royalty is embedded in the human psyche. ‘Once there was a King’ as several fables, fairy tales and historic stories begin in many cultures, usually evokes images of riches and luxury, even as it narrates trials and tribulations of a royal family. Addressing children as a prince or princess in most cultures is a form of endearment and a way of showing affection, although it can also imply someone who is pampered. Though the concept is universal, an authentic presentation of royalty must vary with culture, e.g., a crown, seen frequently in Disney movies featuring princesses, is not a universal marker of royalty. Similarly, long gowns, as featured in Disney, do not represent royal attire in many cultures. Famous princess tales such as Snow White and Cinderella, despite retaining plot and character names, were not uniformly drawn in picture books, which allowed for variation in the visualization of these princesses. Disney’s portrayal of princesses has standardized their skin color, behavior, and appearance. Other than shaping the characterization of princesses, usually depicted as young girls with long hair, Disney’s uniform presentation of princesses restricts a child’s imagination and behavior. Scholars argue that Disney princesses in movies such as Frozen (Elsa), despite being acclaimed as a norm-breaker for being independent (Garabedian 2015
) have not learnt the value of interconnectedness of human relationships (Stehn 2018
). Elsa, while embracing her authentic self, does so at the expense of personal relationships, which can be equally detrimental as forgoing self for relationships (Stehn 2018
). Princess stories and fairytales are also usually connected to being Caucasian since historically ‘power and privilege’ are linked to being white (Dundes and Streiff 2016
). Since white princesses fare better and are more successful in Disney princesses’ movies than princesses of color (Dundes and Streiff 2016
) young audiences associate princesses with being white. Young girls often translate what they see on screen into their playtime by enacting the scenes with the figurines sold by Disney (Wohlwend 2009
; Garabedian 2015
) and therefore, the appearance and behavior of Disney princesses are a significant influence on young girls.
1.2. Sweden, Royal Family, Princesses, Media, and Disney
Sweden, the largest among the Nordic countries, and the third largest country in Western Europe, combines a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary form of government, although since 1975, the royal family only serves a ceremonial role and has no executive powers (Rehmann 2010
; Åse 2013
; Jönsson and Lundell 2009
). Although until recently, the queen was recognized for her beauty and her role of providing a male heir, since 1980, the imperative of a male heir has been removed and made gender neutral, implying that it is the first born and not the first male who is the heir to the throne (Åse 2013
Often ranked quite high in media freedom, until the mid-1980s, Swedish TV and radio were a government monopoly with strict policies against commercialization. The policies that protected Swedish airwaves from an onslaught of foreign programming have gradually been relaxed and currently the majority of content on television, including the public television, is imported. Just as with any other country, despite reservations, the majority of programming on Swedish screens, other than public broadcasting, is American. Sweden’s national Donaldist society, simply called the ‘Duck’ (Wasko 2001
), has incorporated Disney into mainstream entertainment for decades; for example, Kalle Anke
(Donald Duck) is staple viewing for families on Christmas eve.
Sweden, a country that prides keeping its traditions alive, often celebrates the royal family by covering it in their media. Some scholars argue that royal families, including that of Sweden, function like a ‘corporate heritage brand’ (Balmer 2011
) where consumers, i.e., commoners, are linked to observances that connect them to a sense of continuity and a collective past (Otnes and Maclaran 2015
). Media plays an increasingly significant role in how royal weddings reach the public and maintain the myth of centrality of royal family in the lives of Swedes (Widestedt 2009
). How royal families are mediated also impacts the way gender, nation, and family life are defined in the country (Åse 2013
). In the last decade, Sweden has witnessed three royal weddings, all of which were highly anticipated and nationally televised (Åse 2013
). However, a significant change from royal weddings of previous generations is that all the three royals—two princesses and one prince--married commoners, as has also happened in some Disney films. One of the variables explored in the study is influence of exposure to a real-life royal family in perceiving the princess concept. Would growing up in a country with a royal family bring a more realistic understanding of princesses and their lives?
1.3. India, Fiji, Royal Families, and Disney
Though historically both India and Fiji9
have had princesses, or similar entities, both countries have chosen to be democracies with multiparty systems, thereby passing the role for playing princesses to celebrities. Although both India and Fiji have in the past had royal families, the tradition has been discontinued, as India became independent and Fiji ceded power to the British. Any mention of royalty or monarchy therefore happens in folktales, history, and textbooks. Disney princesses, however, have a strong presence in both the countries, where movies are released regularly, and images of Disney princesses are found in objects of everyday use for young girls such as stationery and notebooks. While India has a thriving domestic media industry, Fiji is mostly dependent on transnational media, which often originates in nonwestern countries and primarily comes from the US. However, the Indian media industry has taken a turn towards westernization as well as seen a proliferation of domestic programming in the 1980s, while Indian television has also featured several series with princesses and royalty. Disney India Limited began as a joint venture with Modi enterprises in 1993 and a decade later became an independent channel broadcasting in three Indian languages, as well as English. Relaxed rules for media and broadcasting since the liberalization of the Indian economy made it possible for Disney movies to be released at the same time as in the United States, which earlier were either never released on screens in India10
or screened years after their original release. A content analysis conducted in 2007 based on 102 hours of recorded programming established that 84% of India’s children programming was imported and only 16% was local/domestic (Götz and Lemish 2012
). By 2009, when the data were collected in India and Fiji, Disney movies featuring princesses and royalty, such as Aladdin
, Little Mermaid
, and Mulan
, had been released. When the study was conducted in 2009, both Indian and Fijian children had been exposed to Disney princesses for several years.
5. Sample and Data Collection
The sample, in all the countries, was divided into three subgroups of 8–10, 11–12, and 13–15, each with a minimum of five participants to allow for homogeneity of cognitive and expressive abilities in each group. In Fiji, where Fijians are the majority, the selected sample was restricted to girls of Fijian descent to allow a dataset least exposed to culturally relevant programming depicting characters with racial and cultural similarities. Girls of Fijian descent among all the three countries were also most exposed to transnational media, and characters who neither looked Fijian nor reflected Fijian culture.
Recruitment and Data Collection: Participants were recruited through personal contacts. Legal guardians of the participants were informed about the study through a written document. Those who volunteered to participate were invited to sign the consent forms. On the day of the study, participants and their guardians were invited to the research venue, offered light snacks, and encouraged to clear any doubts. Thereafter, participants were invited to a large meeting room, provided with pencils, plain sheets, and colors and asked to draw their version of a princess. No special instructions were given except, ‘Draw what you think a princess looks like’. Only in Sweden, where the participants had reference to national princesses, were participants asked to give a name and age to the drawing, whereas in India and Fiji, the question was incorporated in focus groups. Since the participants were allowed to draw as many images they wished, the final number of drawings was greater than the number of participants, and the total number of drawings in each country was different. A total of 63 drawings, 16 from India, 26 from Fiji, and 21 from Sweden, were analyzed. One participant at a time was invited for an individual interview in a separate room to allow privacy, while the rest of the group continued drawing. Once all the individual interviews were complete, a focus group with all the participants was conducted. In all countries, the author was present at all the interviews. Research associates fluent in Fijian, Swedish, and Hindi were hired and were present at all the interviews. In addition to English, the author is fluent in Hindi and has intermediate fluency in Swedish.
In India and Fiji, where media access is not universal, the study began with a short viewing of clips of Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas12
, to ensure fresh memories of the Disney princesses with nonwestern heritage and the critical events they go through in the movies.
Interviews and focus groups:
A standard set of questions was used in all the countries, with some added questions on access to technology and use of mobile media in Sweden. The age group 8–15 is impressionable, when both peers and media can have significance influence on self-perception (Blowers et al. 2003
). Studying this age group can reveal how the princess concept is accepted, rejected, or critiqued by different age groups. Since 8–15 are crucial years when gender roles are learnt and a self-image is developing, it was important to ask questions about how the concept ‘princess’ was perceived by the participants. Individual interviews began with questions that could be broadly categorized into three: What do the participants understand by being a girl (Who is a princess? What does a princess grow up to be? Does a princess have friends?) How do girls perceive Disney princess (How does a princess appear, and behave with other people?) Does the girls’ perception of princesses influence identifying with them? (What age did you start watching Disney princess films? Does a princess go to school? What kind of a school does a princess go to? How does she behave at school? Who is your favorite princess? Why/Why not? What do you like/dislike about a princess? Would you like to change anything about any of the Disney princesses? Would you like to be or have you ever wanted to be a princess? Do you think you could be a princess?’).
Questions for focus group discussions were altered in the context of each country. In India and Fiji, where a movie clip-screening was held, participants were prompted to compare nonwestern princess, i.e., Mulan, Pocahontas, and Jasmine, to explore how nonwestern girls viewed Disney’s representation of nonwestern princesses. In Sweden, where participants were not exposed to Disney movie clips, girls were asked if they knew of any nonwestern or ethnic Disney princess. Culture-specific follow-up questions were asked in each country, e.g., How do you compare real life princesses to Disney princesses (Sweden), Can you name a princesses from your country (India and Fiji). Since data from Sweden was gathered in 2018 in a different technological environment than 2009, an added emphasis was placed on the use of technology, viewing experience, reasons for preference of a platform such as computer, phone, TV, iPad etc. to access media during focus groups.
During the recordings, the primary researcher confirmed with the research associate to ensure that the correct follow-up questions were being asked. Both individual interviews and focus groups were recorded and transcribed. Transcriptions of interviews were tabulated after analyzing patterns, themes, and trends, within the context of geography, culture, and access to media. Images were subjected to a similar analysis, coding, and categorization which is explained in the following section.
7. Results and Analysis
At this juncture, it is important to emphasize that the study is not implying a causal connection. However, since the study focuses on the concept of princesses, and specifically asked the participants about Disney princesses, the analysis thus concentrates on Disney’s portrayals of princesses in particular, and examines how it is reflected in the drawings. Interviews and focus groups are used to further delve into the issue to explore any transference of, embodiment of, preference for values and characteristics represented by Disney princesses and explore new insights into the use of technology and access to Disney princesses.
: Despite the geographical diversity of the participants, and data that were collected nearly a decade apart, drawings from participants not only resembled Disney princesses, but also were more similar than different from each other (Figure 2
, Figure 3
, Figure 4
and Figure 5
). There was a noticeable commonality in drawings between data sets from 2009 and 2018, a period during which Disney released several movies with a princess of color with light skin (RQ#2 & RQ#4). The consistent increase in the number of nonwhite princesses since Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992), however, has not replaced images of popular white princesses in Disney, that have a much older and global presence. The majority of participants from all countries drew princesses either with light skin or no skin color, leaving the skin as ‘white’, the color of the sheet provided during the study, with no noticeable difference between the data collected in 2009 and 2018 (Table 2
, Figure 2
, Figure 3
and Figure 6
(2009), Figure 4
and Figure 5
(2018)). Of all the participants, across all age groups in India and Fiji, two countries where light skin, akin to many Disney princesses such as Snow White or Cinderella, is rare, only two participants in India and none in Fiji, drew princesses with brown skin. In Sweden, where the majority of the population is Caucasian, even the mixed-race/nonwhite participants drew princesses with light skin color Figure 4
, Figure 5
, Figure 7
and Figure 8
(2018). Participants in Fiji, a country with negligible domestic media content in Fijian, did not visualize princesses as people of color (Figure 2
, Figure 9
, Figure 10
, Figure 11
and Figure 12
(2009); Table 2
; Figure 6
and Figure 13
), and some participants shared in interviews that they were too dark to be a princess themselves.
In Fiji, despite viewing movie clips of nonwestern princesses, six of the 11 girls in the 8–10 years group and three of ten in the 13–15 years group drew the Little Mermaid with long red hair, two participants in the 11–12 age group titled their drawing Sleeping beauty, and one in the same age group called hers a Cinderella, indicating the popularity of these movies (Figure 2
) (RQ#2). None of the participants in Fiji, where straight hair is rare among Fijian girls, drew princesses with curly hair (Figure 11
and Figure 12
). Instead, medium to long straight hair was common, three of 26 drawings had blonde hair and eight of the nine mermaids drawn had red hair, none of which are Fijian traits (Figure 9
and Figure 10
) (RQ#2). One image in Fiji (Figure 11
) had long blonde hair that almost covered the whole image. Similarly, Figure 3
from India and Figure 7
from Sweden show similarly prominent yellow hair. Although only one of 16 drawings of princesses from India had blonde hair, seven of 16 were drawn with auburn or brown hair, rather than black, the more common hair color in India (Figure 6
and Figure 13
Transnational media is critiqued for mainstreaming western beauty ideals, and aiding in deracinating young girls from their own culture. None of the participants in nonwestern countries, i.e., India and Fiji, drew princesses wearing traditional outfits, or with any cultural accessories such as anklets or nose ring for India and shell or flower jewelry in Fiji, that represented their respective national cultures (RQ#1). Both in India and Fiji, not only were all the princesses drawn in western outfits or as mermaids, indicating a trend towards deracination and westernization, but also many drawings were made with long formal gowns, similar to the ones that Disney princesses wear (Figure 2
, Figure 9
, Figure 10
, Figure 11
, Figure 14
and Figure 15
) (RQ#1&2). No drawing in India, a country where wearing a saree is still an everyday affair, and many shows on TV portray princesses and queens in sarees, was drawn with a saree. No drawing from Fiji represented sulu-chamba, the traditional attire for Fijian women, indicating that the girls equated princesses with being western. In Sweden, where participants were exposed to real life princesses, about half of the total selected sample drew princesses in dresses categorized as ‘medium dress’ that were not formal gowns, but with a crown, indicating participants’ experience with the princesses who follow a dress code for the length of dresses worn for business (Figure 7
and Figure 8
) (RQ#2 & RQ#3). However, participants in Sweden also conceived of princesses as being much younger than the both of the current princesses in Sweden. When asked to give an age and a name for the princess drawn, only one participant (from the 11–12-year group) stated 30, whereas most participants placed princesses between 10 and 20 years of age. About half of the participants identified their princesses as a teenager, closer to how Disney princesses are presented. Even the ‘cat princesses’, drawn with a youthful look of flowers on their head (Figure 16
) were given ‘two animal’ years, making them teenagers. At the time of this study, Swedish princesses, Princess Victoria and Princess Madeline, who are regularly featured in Swedish media were 41 and 36, respectively. None of the princesses were given the same name as either of the Swedish princesses, and none except one was given a name from a Disney princess, Belle (RQ #3). Possibly taking a cue from the Swedish word ‘Kronprincessa’ crown princess—crowns featured more prominently in drawings by Swedish participants than in India and Fiji. Even though during the interviews several participants stated that the princesses usually feel restricted by the rules they have to follow, out of 63 drawings in total, forty were drawn with a clearly visible smile (Figure 3
, Figure 7
, Figure 9
, Figure 10
and Figure 14
), indicating a sign of happiness and prosperity as Disney princesses are usually shown by the end of a movie. Distribution of the four categories of long gowns, smile, crown, and light skin, as shown in Figure 13
, illustrates that girls in Fiji, who had least amount of access to media in Fijian, drew princesses far removed from their lived experience, mostly with light skin.
Many participants in Fiji and India were not familiar with Aladdin, Mulan, and Pocahontas before the study, but almost all had seen classic Disney princess, namely Cinderella and Snow White, which explains why heels and wands were the most common accessories drawn in both the countries. The three main colors used across the countries were pink, red, and blue, followed by yellow and green (RQ#2). Black, a color often used in Disney movies to depict evil, was used the least in dresses or accessories. No princess was drawn wearing trousers, even in India, where loose trousers are both casual and formal wear.
Interviews and focus groups: Participants in all three countries shared that Disney princess viewing had been a part of their childhood viewing from before they could remember. Both in India and Fiji, girls between 13 and 15 stated that they were slightly old for discussion on Disney princesses. In Sweden, girls of all age groups (2018) expressed that Disney princess movies were for girls in preschool, indicating an increase in availability of diversified age-specific media. Analysis of focus group and individual interviews identified popularity of Disney, and certain assumptions and trends, related to idea of princesses and being a girl, and media viewing, respectively.
Disney’s popularity: Disney was equally popular in the three countries. Classic Disney princesses, such as Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and the Little Mermaid, were more popular in all the three countries than Mulan, Pocahontas, or Jasmine. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were mentioned by participants of all age groups in the three countries. It is important to note that several girls in India and Fiji had not watched Mulan or Pocahontas. However, most participants were familiar with other princesses not mentioned in the briefing, e.g., Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, which have been part of popular culture much longer and before the creation of Disney movies. Princesses of color, such as Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas, were not as popular in any of the countries as Cinderella and Snow White (RQ#1). Since 2009, Disney princesses have also been released as feature films, which participants of all age groups in Sweden preferred over animated versions (‘I like to watch real people’ (8–10, Sweden)).
Beauty, luxury, and youth: The most common feature in defining a princess in the three countries in all age groups was beauty and luxury. Princesses were defined as belonging to royalty, being the daughter of a King and a Queen, who lived in palaces, had expensive things, and wore fine and expensive dresses. Responses such as ‘They will marry a prince’ (13–15, India), ‘They are waiting to be saved by a prince’ (13–15, Sweden), ‘They like boys, because they are always with a prince’ (13–15, Fiji) indicated how girls in the 13–15 age group in all countries considered a prince and marriage being significant to princess’s identity. A reflection of age (13–15) when the participants interest in the opposite sex is increasing, the need for a prince was expressed differently in each country. In India, the focus was on marriage, in Sweden on princesses’ helplessness in Disney movies, and in Fiji, the focus was on socialization. This difference also reflects cultural differences; for example, Sweden’s commitment to gender equality encourages girls to be self-reliant, weddings and marital status are significant in India, where many Bollywood movies use wedding as a plot, and in Fiji culture, social standing is significant in everyday socialization. This, however, does not imply that no girls in Sweden wish for a marriage/long term commitment, or that girls in India and Fiji are not encouraged to be self-reliant.
Consistent with drawings, girls in all countries associated princesses to be young girls, no more than 21 years of age, with the exception of one participant in Sweden who listed a princess age of 30.
Being a girl: When asked which princess they thought represented their country, most participants in India and Fiji did not have a response, although some pointed at Jasmine being relatable. Girls in Sweden (8–11) said that Elsa from Frozen seemed like a Nordic princess because she was surrounded by snow and fjords. Responses to question about learning from a Disney princess varied by age, despite several common factors. Age groups 8–10 and 11–12 in all countries stated they could learn to be kind, polite, and brave. However, both in India and Fiji, girls added qualities of learning how to dress up and look nice. A participant in Fiji stated (after viewing Disney princesses) ‘now I ask my parents to buy me more dresses’ (8–10 year, Fiji). Both 11–12 and 13–15 age groups in all the countries were critical of princesses and stated that they were not real people, ‘only cartoons, only stories’. Both the age groups in all the countries also recognized that princesses had little freedom, and their lives seemed boring. When asked if princesses go to school, some girls in India and Fiji stated that ‘princess do not need to learn anything because they would have servants for everything’. Indicating a low media profile kept by the Swedish Royal family, participants in Sweden in all age groups stated that they were not sure which school princesses attended but ‘they are likely to attend a ‘private or special schools or even be homeschooled’ (11–12 Sweden).
Most participants across age groups and in all three countries denied wanting to be a princess, but reasons were different across age groups and between the countries. Some reasons, reflected even in drawings, seemed to coincide with images perpetuated by Disney movies, such as princesses being beautiful and light skinned. Standardization of beauty in Disney princess movies was reflected in responses and drawings from all countries. As many participants stated, ‘princesses are beautiful, wear long dresses and have long hair’. Lived experience of participants was reflected in some of the responses. For example, girls in Sweden mentioned being ‘blonde’, as one of the qualities, more so than in India and Fiji. However, since beauty and wealth in nonwestern countries that were colonized is usually associated with being light-skinned (Ralson 1997
; Glenn 2008
), participants in India and Fiji, both colonized by the British, stated ‘fair skin and long straight hair’ as being princess traits. The most common responses in Fiji were ‘I do not belong to a royal family, am not light skinned, and not as polite, so cannot be a princess.’ (across all age groups in Fiji) Girls in both nonwestern countries emphasized skin color more than those in Sweden as a prerequisite for being beautiful (and how a princess was envisioned). In addition, girls in Fiji always had someone they knew was prettier than they, and more likely to be a princess, because she was ‘slim, tall or long haired’. Disney’s representation of princesses reinforces the same beauty ideals of the west and caucasianizes their lead characters in features, body traits, and mannerisms, even when they are not Caucasian. A participant in Fiji (11–12) stated ‘Pocahontas is palangi
(white), because of the way she talks’. Another participant in India (8–10) said that ‘only Jasmine was Indian’ among the three princesses they watched in the movie clips and ‘Mulan and Pocahontas were American’.
In comparison, participants in Sweden, stated not wanting to be a princess because their lives would be boring. The concept of a royal’s life being ‘boring’ may result from seeing real princesses’ in official gatherings where they perform a merely ceremonial function, i.e., cutting a ribbon, shaking hands, etc. In many televised events, such as the Nobel Prize Ceremony, the royal family has a minimal role to play. However, one participant in Sweden (11–12) lamented that ‘it was not fair that the media gets to talk about princesses’ birthdays, while ordinary girls never have their birthdays celebrated on television.’
Girls in all countries, especially between the ages of 11 and 15, stated lack of freedom as one of the reasons for not wanting to be a princess; however, there was a sense of agency in participants from Sweden. The word ‘beauty’ was used more often in India and Fiji than in Sweden. Although characteristics identified for princesses were the same in all the three countries, e.g., long hair, dresses, and expensive jewelry, girls in Sweden did not label those characteristics as being ‘beautiful’. Being Caucasian removed the pressure to be someone else in order to be labelled attractive, which is a colonial residue for many post-colonial states, where beauty is equated with having light skin.
Language and Culture: In countries with colonial history, the language of colonizers is associated with being sophisticated and well-educated. Participants in India preferred to speak in English during the interview.
Participants in India and Fiji, who watched movies in English, did not see much difference between Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, all of whom looked ‘American’. ‘Because they look, behave and talk like an American’, was a common explanation, but they were considered different from ‘Snow White, and Cinderella’ because of their skin color.
Consistent with findings of an earlier study (Nastasia and Uppal 2014
; Nastasia and Uppal 2010
), girls in both the nonwestern countries, who watched movies in English considered all the nonwestern princesses as American, indicating that young girls did not recognize any Indian or Fijian or nonwestern traits in princesses of color. The earlier study that included participants from three nonwestern countries—India, China, and Fiji—and the US, established that princesses were considered synonymous with beauty in all four countries and across all age groups (Nastasia and Uppal 2010
). However, participants from all three nonwestern countries considered Mulan and Pocahontas as American and not Chinese or Native American. Participants from the US, who were divided into four racial groups to explore how race and nationality influence participants’ perception of Disney princesses13
, were ‘color blind’ and identified with Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan regardless of race (Nastasia and Uppal 2010
). This identification may be attributed to the participants being American and identifying with language, accent, and mannerisms, the same attributes that distanced girls in China, India, and Fiji from princesses of color, indicating that Disney princesses, regardless of their ethnicity, are perceived to be western and American. Girls both in India and Fiji stated that princesses of color such as Jasmine or Mulan were actually American. ‘Jasmine’s skin is like an American, but hair and face is like an Indian’, said a Fijian participant (8–10) who watched the movie in English, and indicated that ‘Jasmine behaved like an American’. A participant from India (8–10) stated that ‘only Jasmine was Indian, but others (Mulan and Pocahontas) were American. In comparison, girls in Sweden who watched the movies in Swedish considered Jasmine to be from Egypt and could pronounce ‘Aladdin’ appropriately, rather than with American pronunciation, as it is in the English version. The language in which movies are viewed seems to have had an influence, because viewing movies in English, for girls whose first language was not English, made the girls feel the characters were American and distant from them. Disney movies have been critiqued for using accents inconsistently and inappropriately, e.g., several negative characters have non-American accents, and orthodox or old-fashioned characters such as the Sultan in Aladdin are depicted with a non-American accent, even though his daughter, the lead in the movie, talks with an American accent. Such creative liberties use accents to label characters as progressive, evil, or orthodox, can be confusing for young viewers.
When asked to name princesses from their culture, girls from Fiji and India either had no response or took a long time to come up with historical names like ‘Jhansi Ki Raani’ (India). Girls in India, where stories of several princesses have been made into TV series, did not consider Disney princesses and ‘Indian’ princess in the same category, because ‘Indian princesses are always related to war, Disney princesses have their personal issues’ (13–15, India) (RQ #1). One girl in Fiji named ‘Princess Ruby’ that she said she had read about in a book.
Responsibilities and Rights: Participants in all the countries articulated that princesses, despite being rich and leading a luxurious life, had responsibilities towards their ‘people’. Girls in all countries emphasized kindness and responsibilities of a princess, but those in Sweden emphasized ‘real work’, e.g., attending meetings, representing the country to other countries, taking care of animals, etc. (RQ# 3). Understanding of princesses and their responsibilities both in India and Fiji were consistent with Disney’s portrayal. However, participants in Sweden derived their understanding from coverage of the Swedish Royal family.
New media, New interaction, New princesses:
Data from Statistics Sweden
) indicated new trends and directions in media viewing and media consumption. Participants in all age groups stated being too old for Disney movies; however, they shared their interest in the Disney princesses in feature films such as the recent Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. ‘They look like real people’. However, girls in the age group of 11–15 mentioned following several YouTubers, such as Terese Lindgren, who is also ‘blonde, has many things, loves animals, and has nice things’. (RQ #5). When asked in the focus group, ‘but don’t you think that they have the same qualities you mentioned in Disney princesses?’, the girls (13–15), responded, ‘maybe, have not thought about it’, but they considered the YouTubers to be ‘real people’ An earlier study (Lövheim 2011
) has established popularity of young girl bloggers in Sweden, where bloggers conduct themselves with a certain distance and provide limited access to their blogs, much like royalty or celebrities, resulting in their popularity. Other shows mentioned by girls in Sweden, such as High School Musical and Soy Luna are also Disney productions and perpetuate the same concepts of being a girl, such as being beautiful and independent (RQ#5). Despite the change in media viewing, from TV and DVD playback in Fiji and India at the time of data collection (2009) to mobile media, such as iPads, Laptops, and smartphones, as the primary viewing platform in Statistics Sweden
) the concept of beauty and how a princess looks has not altered with time (RQ#5).
All age groups in Sweden indicated having access to mobile media and the internet. Girls in the 13–15 age group in Sweden stated that they had owned smart phones for four to six years and accessed media mostly on their phones. Multitasking, viewing several programs simultaneously while using snapchat was common among 13–15-year-olds. Most girls had access to Netflix on their phones and there was no restriction on screen time by their parents, but some participants indicated that they had school and house work-related chores that they needed to complete, which limited their screen time, indicating the role parents can play in regulating media usage.