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Bee with Dr. Robyn Muir: New Book Announcement and the Princess Phenomenon

 
Fig. 1: Cover image for The Disney Princess Phenomenon.

Welcome to our latest installment of Bee With...


This segment series seeks to highlight new and upcoming works in Disney Studies to aid such studies and provide the fantastic work being done in such an interdisciplinary field.


This week, I was provided with the amazing opportunity to interview Dr. Robyn Muir and her latest monograph, The Disney Princess Phenomenon. (You can find her on Twitter).


Dr Robyn Muir is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Surrey. She has researched and published on the Disney Princess Phenomenon, and is the Founder and Director of the Disney, Culture and Society Research Network.


Yes, DisNeteer, that Dr. Robyn Muir - the founder of our very own DisNet!

 

When speaking with Dr. Muir, as always, we stared with two of the MOST important questions:


Bee: What is your favorite Disney memory so far? It can involve anything Disney related.


Robyn: That's hard...I think for me, it's the feeling that I got when I walked down Main Street and saw the castle for the first time. I just got this sensation of being home. Even now, it doesn't matter what is happening in my life; all of that kind of melts away, and I just get to be me.


Fig. 2: The Sleeping Beauty Castle, Main Street U.S.A at Disneyland

Bee: That's a wonderfully sweet memory. This response is very reflective of your book as well, The Disney Princess Phenomenon. Particularly the introduction when you discuss how meaningful Disney is to you and the role Disney has played in your life from the time you were four years old. Not only does it show the important role Disney plays in your life, but how the book is more than just an academic interest. There is a lot of personhood that comes with studying Disney.


Bee: This brings me to my second, most important question. What is your favorite park ride?


Fig. 3: Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, at Disney California Adventure

Robyn: That's also very hard. I'd have to say it's Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom. I just absolutely love that ride. However, I do have a special shout-out for Mater's Junkyard Jamboree at Disney California Adventure. I went on that ride with my mum, and I was so into it. I was literally laughing like a child to the point where other people in the carriages around us were laughing with us. I was an adult, a full grown adult, but I lived my best life on that ride, and I was just giggling like a small child. Everybody was just giggling, and they came up to us afterwards and were like, "that was the sweetest thing ever."


 

The Disney Princesses and their Waves


Bee: That is so wholesome, what a fabulous memory. But now, with the most important questions out of the way, we must move on to our slightly more academic questions. You have an "out and about" work entitled The Disney Princess Phenomenon.


Within the first few pages of this book, it delves into the role the Disney princess phenomenon has had in your life. You also mention the Princess Fandom and the Disney franchise. I know it is not the main focus of your work, but I found this one quote really fascinating:


"The franchise now officially consists of eleven princesses: Snow White (1937); Cinderella (1950); Aurora (1959); Ariel (1989); Belle (1991); Jasmine (1992); Pocahontas (1995); Mulan (1998); Tiana (2009); Rapunzel (2010); and Merida (2012). Between them, these princesses made $1.686 bn licensed retail sales in 2018 alone (The Licensing Letter 2019). Their products and films can be found in shops all over the world" (Muir 2023 p. 3).

I was wondering if you could speak more on the buying power of the fan consumer and its importance to Disney merchandising before we really delve into your monograph.


Robyn: I am not a business studies scholar, but I think it's fair to say that a business will always respond to its consumers, and a business needs to listen to its consumers because of supply and demand. If there is a demand for it, the business is going to need to supply it. I think that's arguably how the Disney Princess franchise itself was born.


It was born with Andy Mooney going to a Disney on-ice show, seeing that young girls had dressed up as princesses in makeshift princess costumes, and Andy Mooney going, "Oh! Oh, we should do that! That's a great idea." And that's how the Disney Princess Franchise was born. I think not only is it born out of the fandom, but it's been maintained because people want to spend money on it. I think consumers have a lot of power because ultimately, the consumer will almost dictate those trends. The business will want to respond to those trends and will want to respond to those kinds of consumer demands. It is incredibly important for Disney to pay attention to it, and arguably they do. The interviews I have done for the book have shown me that.
I'm not naive; broader institutional structures are at play that mean consumers don't always have the full amount of agency, but I think consumers have more agency than we can sometimes give them credit for.

Bee: I agree entirely! Consumers do have significant power when it comes to merchandising. It is always something to think about.


Fig. 4: Disney On Ice Promotional Poster

(My full interview with Dr. Muir delved into the use of market research, the Encanto faux pas with Isabella and Louisa, and the Mandalorian faux pas with Grogu).


 

The First and Second Waves: Passive and Lost Dreamers


Bee: Now, much of your work is dedicated to discussing the 5 waves of Disney princesses. For our DisNeteers who are unfamiliar with your work, could you briefly discuss these 5 waves?

Robyn: In my work, I identified 5 chronological waves of the Disney Princess phenomenon based on analysis from my film framework. The first wave is the "Passive Dreamers." They consist of Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. They share some common characteristics such as passivity, victimhood, domesticity, and desire for a romantic relationship.



The second wave, or the first part of the second wave, contains an anomaly: Princess Eilonwy from the Black Cauldron (1985). She had first wave, second wave, and third wave traits. She demonstrates leadership and communication while being a bit rebellious and assertive. However, she also does have a desire for a romantic relationship with a domesticity quality. But there is more to her as well. There is always anomalies in research, and she is interesting in the respect, but she sits most in the second wave.


The second wave is what I call "The Lost Dreamers." They begin their respective films by building upon the previous character traits from the first wave. Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine are assertive, they are rebellious, they are brave - but they do still desire a romantic relationship, and often their dreams that they identify and want get lost in the happily ever after as soon as a romantic relationship is introduced.


 

The Third Wave: Active Leaders


Robyn: The third wave is the "Active Leaders." It consists of Pocahontas, Mulan, and Kida. These women are also assertive, but they continue to build on the second wave. So, they introduction communication, negotiation, and leadership. There is still an introduction of a romantic relationship at the end, and depending on the princess, it is interesting to watch how those dynamics unfold.



Each princess, apart from Kida, is offered a choice. You choose the prince/love interest, or you choose your leadership. Pocahontas chooses leadership and sends John Smith back to England. Mulan choose to remain at home because she wants to bring honor to her family. She rejects her leadership with the emperor's counsel. Then Lee Shang visits and is invited to stay forever.


Bee: An iconic Disney scene.


Robyn: Absolutely, yeah. But then Kida, one of my favorite princesses, she doesn't have to choose. It's Milo, the man, who has to choose. He has to choose between staying with Kida, whom he loves, or returning to his home and saying he discovered Atlantis, the lost empire. He chooses to stay, and it's never even a question put forth in the film that Kida would have to choose between Milo and her people.


Kida is the Queen of Atlantis, she is staying to lead. Milo has to decide if he wants to stay, and if he doesn't - then bye.


Bee: Right. Kida has an empire to rule, and while she is obviously romantically interested in Milo, she doesn't have time to fawn over him and beg him to stay. She has people to govern.


Robyn: Right, she literally just saved the entirety of Atlantis.


Bee: Milo is a nice to have, not a have to have, in this film.


 

The Fourth Wave: Sacrificing Dreamers


Robyn: Exactly! So, that is the third wave. Then we come to the fourth wave, and that is the "Sacrificing Dreamers." Whilst they are showing their assertiveness, they also introduce new shared trait, which is determination. This would be Tiana and Rapunzel, as each of them have a very specific dream that they are determined to achieve. Tiana wants to open her restaurant, and Rapunzel wants to leave her tower and explore the floating lights.


All of this is going very well until they shockingly meet a male love interest.

Robyn: A male love interest is introduced. Each princess is basically given the opportunity to achieve their dream, and then each princess comes to the realization that they will give up on this dream to save their male love interest.


There are some complexities to this, DisNeteers. I do go into this more in my book, and some of this does involve death. I do also give Rapunzel her fair due there. However, because they then prioritize the relationship, they do get their original dream as a reward for prioritizing the relationship - rather than it just being their dream.


Bee: I was reading an interesting article about race and Disney by Sarita McCoy Gregory, entitled "Disney's Second Line" (2010), and it discusses the change in Tiana's restaurant name. In Tiana's daydream it is known as "Tiana's Place," but at the end of the film, it becomes "Tiana's Palace" (p. 436). There is an interesting discussion about colonialism in this article, but I also find it important from a feminist perspective as well. It is no longer something that Tiana owns, but it is now something that is part of Naveen - as he is the royal aspect of their relationship. So, not only is Tiana's dream a reward for prioritizing the relationship, but it is also seen as deeply connected to her love interest.



 

The Fifth Wave: Innovative Leaders


Robyn: Precisely! However, this sort of reward system is not the same in the fifth and final wave that I discuss in my work. This consists of Merida, Anna, Elsa, Moana, and Raya and Namaari. Unfortunately, Raya and Namaari fall out of the window of analysis because it came out after my doctoral research had finished. They are part of the "to be continued."


This fifth wave is called the "Innovative Leaders." These princesses are assertive, demonstrate leadership, and they introduce a new concept and shared trait of female support. This trait of female support is the most defining thing of the fifth wave as it shows the way that these princesses lead. The way that they navigate throughout the trials and tribulations of the storyline is often helped by female support, and it is through this support that they become more innovative.

What is also important is that the relationships change as well. It is no longer "girl meets boy." Merida turns her mom into a bear to avoid that. Elsa's love interest is not even mentioned. Anna first has Hans, but then enters into the healthiest relationship we have seen within the Disney Princess franchise with Kristoff. However, we then go to Moana and once again, the love interest isn't mentioned. It is not relevant to her story.


Now thinking about this more, I do not think Raya and Namaari would fit with the fifth wave. In fact, they may be the beginning of a sixth wave. Of course, this requires more research, but I also think it depends on what comes out of Wish (2023).


Bee: I think so as well, however, I believe that Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) is the start of a new wave. This is based on my understanding of your book, and what I am aware of in regards to the plot of Wish (2023) and what that entails. I see that we are getting into a new wave with the princesses, and getting further and further away from the 'classic' Disney fairy tale background with a 'true love's kiss.' Instead, we are going more into modern retellings which are combining multiple tales into one.



Robyn: Yeah. I agree that's what we may see happen with Wish and beyond.


Bee: We will just have to wait and see, but what a great discussion about the five waves! Now, a while back you mentioned that Princess Eilowyn from The Black Cauldron surprised you as an outlier. When studying these five waves, what other findings surprised you most when studying the princesses?


Fig. 24: The Little Mermaid Poster.

Robyn: I think it was when I got to the parks. The only third wave princesses I could meet were Pocahontas and Mulan. You can't meet Kida. When I spoke to these park princesses, they also embodied key characteristics of female support. It was quite nice to see how everything is subject to change. Everybody is allowed to grow, which is really important. These characters have grown beyond their films. But, I believe that we are going to start seeing this in the live action films. There is a redressing of the characters to provide a different perspective on princesses who traditionally have been very problematic. The Little Mermaid (2023) is an example of this, as Ariel's character had a fantastic sort of development.



(For more on TLM (2023), see Robyn's DisNet blog post: "Part of her World." And, stay tuned for a collaborative work from Robyn and fellow DisNeteer Rebecca Rowe!)


This surprised me, as I don't think some of the previous Disney princess live action remakes did the characters justice with their redressing. However, I am looking forward to seeing what they do with the Snow White story line, because everyone is entitled to grow and change for the better.


Bee: I agree with that assessment. I don't think some of the previous live action princess films did justice as a redressing or a retelling of these characters. They simply just made them live action, and there was very little growth in the characters, and very little change overall.


I think it is really fascinating that the parks surprised you. In particular, this change and growth in the characters that you have noticed. It is a very interesting phenomenon that can be found in Disney as these characters exist beyond their films. Disney Princesses have a large fandom, and they have the princesses, but they have also built franchises out of these characters. So, Disney extends these characters into sequels and television shows and into their videogames like Kingdom Hearts and Dreamlight Valley. These characters have continuous growth beyond their films. This can be found with characters like Ariel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa, and even the Mickey and Friends characters.


Like you said, they exist outside the films, at the parks, and beyond. We get to see their characters change in ways that we would never get to see in film. That, to me, is a very important aspect of the parks. Whether it is realized or not, there is an interaction with a modernized version of that character.

I am happy to see that female support has leaked its way into the other characters at the parks. It is one of the best shift in the princesses and helps to combat that negative stereotype of "girl vs girl" that has plagued female representations for years.


Fig. 25: The Disney Princess Selfie with Vanellope.

 

Princesses are Political


Bee: Continuing on with our discussion on the importance of princess representation, there is this term found throughout The Disney Princess Phenomenon as it is one of the arguments you are making: "the princesses are political." You repeat this phrase more than once, and it is a very strong phrase. Without giving away too much more of the book, can you explain a political princess?


Robyn: So, that is my overall argument. The princesses are political. It's inspired from a feminist quote that came about during the second wave of feminism: "the personal is the political" (Hanisch 1969). This came around to remind society that politics are not just about the big institutions and voting and international relations. It is actually the personal, like reproduction rights and women's rights. Identity politics is political.


The point that I wanted to make with this statement is that all of these princesses are political because they provide representations of different complex femininities. They are one of the biggest girl brands in the world, and they contribute to the shaping and understanding of how we as a society view women - and what that means for both women and men.


The personal is political, and the way that people are represented is important because it is not just a film. It is more than that. It can shape people's experiences. It can shape people's opinions and beliefs. Media plays such an inherent part of people's lives, and what can be found within it becomes incredibly important to study. We need to look at that properly rather than just brushing it off and saying it is just a film, or videogame, or this or that. It is not. It is more than that. It always will be.

Bee: What a powerful message for us to end on. Representation is important. It doesn't matter if you're talking about media for men or for women, because representation impacts everyone. That is the role it plays in our world.


I would sincerely like to thank Dr. Muir for her time and for answering my questions.


 

My dear DisNeteers, if you have not had the chance to obtain a copy (physical or digital) of The Disney Princess Phenomenon: A Feminist Analysis (2023), I advise you to do so.

Order your copy here.

For more on Dr. Diana Leon-Boys, see her website.

 

We are so excited to promote new and upcoming Disney scholarship that Dr. Robyn Muir will be speaking about her work during another DisNet Book Launch event to celebrate the release of her new book, The Disney Princess Phenomenon. Dr. Tracey Mollet will be in conversation with Dr. Muir to discuss her explorations of Disney's princesses.



Please join us by signing up for the FREE event here:




 

If you love all things Disney, if you had a presentation that you would love to see written down (and citable) come out into the world, email Bee! Do you have a book coming out and would love to have a launch with us? Email Bee! Did your book, or someone else's book, come out and you want to see us do a book review or an author interview...that's right, email Bee!


Check out our Want to Write for DisNet post.


(Bee's email is also disnetblog@gmail.com)


 

References:


Gregory, Sarita McCoy. “Disney’s Second Line: New Orleans, Racial Masquerade, and the Reproduction of Whiteness in ‘The Princess and the Frog.’” Journal of African American Studies 14, no. 4 (2010): 432–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41819265.


Muir, Robyn. The Disney Princess Phenomenon: A Feminist Analysis. Bristol: Bristol University Press (2023).


 

Images:


Fig. 1: Muir, Robyn. The Disney Princess Phenomenon: A Feminist Analysis. Bristol: Bristol University Press (2023).


Fig. 2: B64 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16638194


Fig. 3: Vincent-Phoenix, Adrienne. "Cars Land Test Drive: Mater's Junkyard Jamboree." MousePlanet (blog). June 14, 2012. https://www.mouseplanet.com/10009/Cars_Land_Test_Drive_Maters_Junkyard_Jamboree


Fig. 4: "Disney On Ice Promotional Poster." Disney on Ice (blog). 2023.


Fig. 5: Cottrell, William et al., dir. 1937. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. RKO Radio Pictures.


Fig. 6: Geronimi, Clyde, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske, dir. 1950. Cinderella. RKO Pictures.


Fig. 7: Reitherman, Wolfgang, et al., dir. 1959. Sleeping Beauty. Buena Vista Pictures.


Fig. 8: Berman, Ted and Richard Rich, dir. 1985. The Black Cauldron. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 9: Musker, John and Ron Clements, dir. 1989. The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 10: Trousdale, Gary and Kirk Wise, dir. 1991. Beauty and the Beast. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 11: Musker, John and Ron Clements, dir. 1992. Aladdin. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 12: Gabriel, Mike and Eric Goldberg, dir. 1995. Pocahontas. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 13: Bancroft, Tony and Barry Cook, dir. 1998. Mulan. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 14: Trousdale, Gary and Kirk Wise, dir. 2001. Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 15, 17, and 18: Musker, John and Ron Clements, dir. 2009. The Princess and the Frog. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 16: Greno, Nathan and Byron Howard, dir. 2010. Tangled. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 19: Chapman, Brenda and Mark Andrews, dir. 2012. Brave. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 20: Lee, Jennifer and Chris Buck, dir. 2013. Frozen. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 21: Musker, John and Ron Clements, dir. 2016. Moana. Walt Disney Pictures.


Fig. 22: López Estrada, Carlo and Don Hall, dir. 2021. Raya and the Last Dragon. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 23: Still from trailer for Veerasunthorn, Fawn and Chris Buck, dir. 2023. Wish. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. https://movies.disney.com/wish


Fig. 24: Marshall, Rob, dir. 2023. The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


Fig. 25: Moore, Rich and Phil Johnston, dir. 2018. Wreck It Ralph: Ralph Breaks the Internet. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.


 






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