115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Gender Identity Construction, Subversion, and Drag in Disney Princess Films 

Suzy Woltmann, University of California, San Diego

I examine the cultural production of gender norms in Disney Princess films through the lens of drag. Drag, the most conspicuous form of gender transgression in these films, has traditionally been articulated through marginalized, foolish, or villainous characters; however, more recent additions to the canon have recreated acts of drag to be acceptable and even desirable.


Disney films both reflect and also create social norms, particularly as demonstrated through the articulation of gender and its performative acts. The films have historically insinuated a gendered dichotomy in which males are valued for their wit, courage, and other active personality characteristics and female value is assessed through passive virtue and piety, as externally reflected through physical beauty. Disney films act as cultural texts that reflect contemporaneous values
while simultaneously shaping these values. However, while they have historically authorized stereotypical heterosexual gender role fulfillment, patriarchal structure, and a specific set of gender,
sexuality, body, and identity politics, there has been a recent movement toward progressive depictions of gender which subvert stereotypical roles and allow for conventional gender performance to evolve into gender play and individualized, rather than imposed, identity constructions. Drag,
which represents the most conspicuous form of gender subversion, has traditionally conveyed heteronormative values in Disney films by being represented through marginalized, foolish, or villainous characters; but more recent additions to the canon have allowed instances of drag to be
acceptable and even necessary and gender identity to be malleable. The Disney Princess canon provides a particularly fascinating scope through which to view performative gender acts and instances of drag. The “Princess” title both invokes and also implies a specific construction of gender and identity that takes place within a formulation of what is feminine. The Princesses have conventionally portrayed value found in feminine passivity, beauty and silence, and have relegated gender inquiry and play to the realm of silence and subjectification. However, the open gender subversion in Mulan and the fight against stereotypical gender roles in Brave have indicated a more progressive paradigm. Mulan incorporates active portrayals of drag, which the characters must perform in order to protect their country from invasion. Although this film sometimes depicts drag in the realm of camp and there is still a patriarchal romance structure, its focus on drag as both necessary and enjoyable demonstrates a deconstruction of the gender binary Disney has so long sought to establish. Brave likewise represents a move away from heteronormativity and systematically constructed gender performative roles and toward the possibility of a frenzy of identities, which are capable not only of subverting traditional gender roles but also of creating and proliferating unique, individual conceptions of gender and identity.