[Theme: Production & Consumption of Culture]
[Approach: Cultural & Social Analysis]
Susan Douglas’s Cultural Schizophrenia in Disney’s Cinderella and The Princess and the Frog
In Where the Girls Are, Susan Douglas explains her idea of female “cultural schizophrenia” in the 1950s and 60s media – women struggle to identify themselves because they are, according to representations in the media, supposed to be both feminine and feminist, beautiful and strong, dependent and independent. When critiquing classic Disney movies like Cinderella (1950), Douglas points out that female protagonists are notoriously dependent and masochistic, any powerful or vain woman is automatically evil, and women are often left to fight over boys while males actually do important things. But Disney’s most recent princess, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), seems to defy these stereotypes; she has her own job, lives on her own, is self-sufficient, and thus has power in her own right. Tiana’s friend Charlotte also defies stereotypes; she is seemingly a classical perfect princess but clearly vain and self-centered. Although these characters seem to defy female stereotypes, the plot stresses gender norms. As the story unravels, Tiana still falls for the arrogant prince and actually needs to marry him to effectively achieve her dream of opening up a restaurant. Although Tiana seems to differ from classical Disney princesses by having her own independent life, she still suffers from Douglas’s cultural schizophrenia by reluctantly becoming dependent on a prince and marrying him to achieve her personal dreams.
Cinderella exemplifies Douglas’s assessment of classic Disney gender portrayals; the powerful woman is evil, the ideal woman is helpless and masochistic, and the unlikable girls are petty and vain. When her aristocratic father dies, Cinderella is left in the care of her rich and powerful stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who incidentally has two daughters that are also Cinderella’s age. Upon the untimely death of Cinderella’s father, “the stepmother’s true nature was revealed – cold, cruel, and bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty.” Lady Tremaine, a rich widow and thus the only female with power in the film, is ugly, bitter, jealous, and just plain evil. Douglas explains this with “the age-old truism that any power at all completely corrupted women and turned them into monsters.” Because she is a powerful and evil woman, Tremaine forces Cinderella to become a servant in her own home, cooking and cleaning for her stepmother and stepsisters. But of course, Cinderella “remained ever gentle and kind,” and continued to “hope that someday her dreams of happiness would come true.” Cinderella’s helplessness and happiness in the face of despair lead Douglas to label her as “the powerless but beloved masochist.” Cinderella, the protagonist and role model for thousands of American girls, does not complain about her unfair treatment or try to escape her stepmother’s wrath. She simply continues to work hard and hopes that happiness will find her one day. In the end, happiness does find her, but only through a man – Prince Charming, who falls in love with Cinderella without even learning her name, simply because she is beautiful and a great singer. In stark contrast to Cinderella, the stepsisters are ugly, untalented, and desperate for attention from men. They both swoon when they hear that the prince is having a ball, and pretend that they are the girl he fell in love with there, even though it was truly Cinderella. Competition over boys, Douglas explains, is a staple in classic Disney movies. In general, likeable girls were beautiful, hardworking, and dependent, while unlikable girls were ugly, untalented, and vain. But all girls could only define themselves through men, and any woman that does not need a man, say, a powerful woman, is portrayed as jealous and evil.
Compared to the women in Cinderella, the main characters in The Princess and the Frog portray much less traditional and more realistic gender roles. Tiana’s beauty, singing talent, and strong work ethic are common traits of classical Disney princesses, but she is notable because she is not helpless or dependent on men. Tiana, unlike Cinderella, lives on her own, is completely independent, and even has her own aspirations that do not involve getting married. Tiana works as a waitress at two different restaurants and is saving money to try to open up her own restaurant. She is not simply waiting around for happiness to find her, like Cinderella was, but taking initiative and working hard to find happiness for herself. Most notably, her dreams do not involve getting married, much to her mother’s dismay. Tiana’s mother seems to play the role of Disney’s gender traditionalist. Although Tiana’s father was unable to achieve his dream of opening his own restaurant, Tiana’s mother says that although he “may not have gotten the place he always wanted, he had something better – he had love,” which is “all she wants” for her daughter. But unlike traditional princesses, Tiana says she “doesn’t have time for dancing” or “messing around.” In fact, Tiana later reveals that she doesn’t know how to dance – a shocking revelation for a Disney princess.
Throughout the film, Tiana is resilient and always working towards her dream. When kissing Naveen, the frog prince, turns Tiana into a frog, she begins working towards becoming human again, while the prince avoids the problem and makes her solve it. Tiana denounces Prince Naveen’s laziness and tells him, “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be” and, with infamous Disney optimism, that “if you do your best each and every day, good things are sure to come your way.” Tiana does not expect to be taken care of, she has a realistic view that she must work to be happy. She does not dance, and most importantly, does not dream of a prince coming to sweep her off her feet. She is her own woman, has her own goals, and is thus a much more feminist role model than classic Disney princesses.
Charlotte, Tiana’s best friend, serves as her character foil and an ironic twist on the stereotypes of the classic Disney princess. Charlotte is rich and powerful, but not evil and unlikable like powerful women in traditional Disney movies. She is, however, obsessed with finding a man and is convinced that “a marriage proposal can’t be far behind” after just one dance with Prince Naveen. Her helplessness is illustrated when she continuously uses her father’s money or wishes on the evening star to get what she wants. Since her father is an aristocrat, he invites Prince Naveen to stay at their estate, and thus introduces Charlotte to Naveen. She wishes on the evening star to dance with the prince, and thanks the star after she finally gets her waltz. Charlotte’s only goal is to marry a prince, a classic goal for a Disney princess, and she never takes any initiative to do so. Much like Cinderella, she expects happiness to find her and simply wishes for it to happen through male action. Although vain, she is not unlikable and is a good friend to Tiana; she willingly gives up Prince Naveen when she realizes that Tiana and Naveen are truly in love. An interesting mix of unlikable vanity and likable beauty and helplessness, Charlotte serves as a distinct character and does not fall into traditional Disney archetypes.
Although Tiana is clearly a more liberated female compared to past Disney princesses, the movie follows a traditional storyline that only deepens the cultural schizophrenia of women. Tiana clearly starts out as an independent, goal-oriented, generally admirable woman that stands in stark contrast to classic princesses like Cinderella. But when Tiana’s business plans fall through, she turns to the evening star and wishes for her dreams to come true. After this scene, the film follows the storyline of a classic Disney princess tale. Although the ridiculousness of love at first sight seems to be affirmed when Charlotte agrees to marry Naveen after just one day, Tiana actually falls in love with Naveen in the same amount of time and it goes completely unquestioned. When Naveen and Tiana ask Mama Odie, a “voodoo lady,” to make them human again, she tells them in song that they have to “dig a little deeper” to focus on what they need, not what they want. Mama Odie then asks Tiana if she understands what she needs, to which Tiana responds “Yes! I need to dig a little deeper and work even harder to get my restaurant.” Her comment is immediately followed by moans and groans. Apparently, Tiana missed the whole point of the song because she’s focusing on following her dream, what she wants, and not on what she truly needs. Tiana’s mother and Mama Odie both suggest that love is the most important thing; love is what people need, love is “more important” than personal goals, as proven by her father’s happiness even without opening a restaurant. When Tiana is given the opportunity to lose Naveen and open the restaurant that her family had always wanted to open, she realizes that her father “never did get what he wanted, but he had what he needed. He had love. He never lost sight of what was really important; and neither will I.” She chooses to be with Naveen, even if she cannot get a restaurant, because her “dream wouldn’t be complete” without Naveen in it.
Apparently, Tiana only wants her restaurant, but needs love. She gets the love she needs by marrying Naveen and, thankfully, becomes human again. Naveen’s parents restore his wealth once he marries, and Tiana is able to use the funds to open up her restaurant. They both live happily ever after and Tiana finally gets the restaurant she always dreamed of, but it seems more important that she fell in love. In fact, she could not have opened her restaurant without her new husband’s funding. Her happiness comes not from achieving her dream of opening her own restaurant, but from finally finding love, and thus meaning, in her life. Although Tiana is an independent woman, she only finds true happiness by getting what she needs – a man to depend on.
Tiana’s liberation but ultimate fall to traditional gender roles helps to explain today’s cultural climate. Although Douglas’s idea of cultural schizophrenia is meant to explain media representations of women in the 1950s and 60s, it seems to have only become more prevalent in the most modern Disney princess film. While classic Disney princesses were very one-sided – always dependent and helpless, never showing personal initiative – Tiana is seemingly liberated and independent, but still only achieves true happiness by loving a man. Charlotte is beautiful but vain, helpless but powerfully rich, selfish but a good friend. These character discrepancies are exactly what Douglas means by her term cultural schizophrenia; the media sends “profoundly contradictory messages about what it means to be an American woman” and women thus become “a bundle of contradictions” because “the media imagery [they] grew up with was itself filled with mixed messages about what women should and should not do.” Douglas addresses this problem in modern media in her more recent book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done. Douglas argues that seemingly liberated female characters, like Tiana, obscure the vision that females are still oppressed in the media. Although Tiana is clearly a more individual and independent character than past Disney princesses, she still succumbs to traditional gender roles. And thus, in Douglas’s words, feminism’s work is not done – gender norms are still expected of seemingly liberated female characters.
Although The Princess and the Frog was meant to be a groundbreaking film for Disney – the first black Disney princess, the first princess film of the twenty-first century, and a completely unique and independent princess character – it still falls even deeper into Douglas’s cultural schizophrenia, and sends more mixed messages than any previous princess film. The gender dynamics in the 1950 film Cinderella were much more clearly defined than Disney’s most recent princess film. While Cinderella was made at a time when many Americans were trying to reestablish traditional gender roles after the confusing gender identities of World War II, The Princess at the Frog was produced in a seemingly post-feminist era. The female character discrepancies found in Tiana and Charlotte reveal modern uncertainty about gender definition. What it means to be an American woman is still under scrutiny and ultimately up to personal interpretation; until there is a clear definition of American womanhood, the media will continue to send mixed messages to try and resolve questions of gender roles.
 Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994), 29.
 Cinderella, DVD, directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson (1950; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions).
 The Princess and the Frog, DVD, directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (2009; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions).
 Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, 17, 9.
Cinderella. DVD. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson. 1950; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions.
Douglas, Susan. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001. 27-32.
The Princess and the Frog. DVD. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. 2009; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Productions.