Curse of the sexy Disney princesses

The original Snow White pictured above could have looked very different.
The original Snow White pictured above could have looked very different. Photo: Disney

Her huge eyes are framed by preposterously long eyelashes, her lips are in a delicate pout but her pink skirt reveals no more than a delicately turned ankle. Still, when Walt Disney saw this first celluloid image of Snow White, which has just come to light eight decades on, he immediately demanded that the artists come back with a more wholesome depiction.

It's easy to laugh at Walt's prudery now. And Disney himself can hardly be taken as a protofeminist - he altered the original Grimms' tale to make Snow White the perfect housewife, tidying up the dwarfs' home.

But his desire to make a character retain some innocence all those decades ago did make me think about how I am sick of my two daughters being bombarded by today's posing Disney princesses.

Too sexy for Walt Disney: The first celluloid image of Snow White.
Too sexy for Walt Disney: The first celluloid image of Snow White. 

Before I had girls I had a naive idea that I could somehow bypass our pinkified culture. To everyone's mirth, I started buying neutral clothing, a farm rather than a doll's house, a blue buggy rather than a pink one. Yet I hold my hands up: I failed.

My three-year-old and five-year-old are obsessed with Frozen and Tangled, Disney's version of Rapunzel. And there's much to praise in both films. The message of Frozen is one any parent should treasure: the importance of sisterly love, and you don't need to marry the prince (who turns out be a gold-digger anyway). Tangled portrays Rapunzel as a heroine who's more than the equal of the thief-turned-hero she ends up with.

Elsa, in Frozen, is a particularly strong character who has to learn to be comfortable in her own skin. But to achieve this, she also has to change into a clingtastic dress with a Liz Hurley-esque split, while performing a catwalk wiggle that a Miss World wannabe would judge as overdoing it.

What is particularly insidious is the merchandising, though. When I bought a Rapunzel dress via Amazon, I originally thought I'd bought a cheap knock-off by mistake. The blonde bombshell thrusting her cleavage forward on the front bore little resemblance to the plucky heroine we'd watched on DVD. But no, it was the "new" image for Rapunzel created for the Disney Princess website.

In fact, go to the official Disney Princess website, and you'll find all the family favourites have been transformed. Belle from Beauty and the Beast is sporting Kim Kardashian-style extensions, Cinderella looks like she's been heavy-handed with the Restylane lip-plumping, while Ariel's bikini pose is classic lads' mag. The only one who looks remotely like a child is Merida, the Scottish star of Brave who rejects the idea of a suitor and solves her own problems.

But there's a particular reason for that. When Merida was inaugurated into official Disney princessdom she was given a makeover. Gone were the bow and arrow, the wild hair, normal body shape and practical dress. In came a low-cut top, teeny waist and wavy locks. There was an outcry - not least from Brenda Chapman, who directed Merida, and Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, who commented wryly: "In the end it wasn't about being brave at all. It was about being pretty." After 200,000 parents signed a petition, Disney pulled the makeover, claiming it had only put Merida temporarily in a party dress for her coronation.


All girls like pink and princesses, you may say - it's just a bit of fun for girls this young. Well, research suggests it does matter. A study published in 2012 by psychologists in America found that girls as young as six were beginning to think of themselves in sexual terms. They were offered two paper dolls, one dressed in sexy, revealing gear, one in trendy, loose-fitting clothes. Asked which one they wanted to look like or thought would be popular, overwhelmingly they chose the "sexy" doll.

An analysis the same year of 13 Princess films and cartoons, such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and The Princess Diaries, saw girls repeatedly praised for their physical appearance - not just by their love interest, but also by their friends and even the narrator. Is it any wonder that my two prance round with blankets on their head telling each other how beautiful their "hair" looks?

Complaints about Disney characters being oversexualised aren't new: Tinker Bell's pneumatic curves in Peter Pan, of 1953, were widely, if erroneously, believed to be modelled on Marilyn Monroe's. But I'd hoped that there would be a few years yet before girls so young got bombarded with the message that it's all about what you look like.

Elsa's transformation in Disney's Frozen.
Elsa's transformation in Disney's Frozen. 

Indeed, even Walt's first love has had the princess makeover now - all lowlights, high cheekbones and come-hither looks. As Mae West would put it: she used to be Snow White, but she's drifted.

The Telegraph