Princess to Prince-less: How Disney has Reshaped its Animated Female Leads (Post 4)

August 20

I altered and evolved my plan for analyzing song lyrics since I last posted.  My original vision was to compare male characters’ lyrics to female characters’ lyrics within each film.  However, after thoroughly reading numerous songs, I changed my mind in favor of a more longitudinal approach: I compared the lyrics of the princesses’ main sung soliloquy from each film.  The songs I believed best fit that label were “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, “Just Around the Riverbend” from Pocahontas, “Let it Go” from Frozen, and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana.

My initial research questions were 1) how do the soliloquy lyrics portray each princess’ dreams for the future?, and 2) how do the soliloquy lyrics characterize each princess’ place in society?  The former was of particular interest to me because it’s about agency, about having a plan.  I posit that true agency must be premeditated action.  Someone who uses what she knows and feels to come up with a strategy for the future has a much higher potential for agency than someone who idly waits to see what the future will bring.  Thus, I wondered if the soliloquies would present developed aspirations or aimless wishing, and whether agency would increase as film age decreased.  On another note, the latter question would allow me to delve into views on women in relation to matrimony and power.  As I observed previously, the earlier set of films featured prominent, male, romantic love interests (the Beast, John Smith), whereas the later set introduced female protagonists in positions of considerable power (Elsa, Moana).  If I could analyze how the princesses’ own, undiluted thoughts on marriage, men, and power were presented, I could better understand how Disney has influenced women’s perceptions of female social roles.

To answer the first research question and to generate visualizations of the patterns I found in the song lyrics, I decided to use computer technology to conduct primary humanities research.  Specifically, I learned the basics of  XML (eXtensible Markup Language), a schema language RelaxNG (Regular Language for XML Next Generation), XSLT (eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformation), and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), a graphic format in which the shapes are specified in XML.  To manipulate these languages and technologies, I mastered Oxygen XML Editor (https://www.oxygenxml.com/).

As I had practiced marking up text before the start of the summer, I was able to initially plan what I would mark up in the songs.  I concentrated on two main categories: pronouns and verbs.  For pronouns, I differentiated between nominative cases (“I” or “my”) and oblique cases (“me”).  More cases of “I” and my” indicated the princess defining herself, whereas “me” cases were examples of passivity, something else acting on the princess.  For verbs, I examined verbs that came after “I” in the soliloquy songs.  I specifically focused on the use of different tenses as well as the use of modal verbs.  A princess who never uses future tense is not making decisions about her future, and I was curious about the ratio of verb types in each of the four songs.  In order to use Oxygen, I had to do a bit of reading beforehand, as I had no prior experience with XML, other than that practice markup.  After completing homework assignments provided by my advisor, I worked with XML, Relax NG, XPath, XSLT, and SVG.

All in all, I’ve learned more than I had expected to during this research project.  It was especially fun to use a markup language for the first time, and now that I have started learning, I will hopefully continue to use the knowledge in future research projects.  If I do, I will attempt more advanced coding, improving the elementary models I started off creating.

I began my project wondering about the identity of the third wave of feminism.  I knew it was the current wave, the one we are experiencing now, and I wanted to find concrete evidence (in so far that that is possible) of the wave’s continuation into the present, to the most recent years, to as recent as possibly perceivable.  Given what I’ve seen, from things as small as princesses singing plans of action to as deep as themes of sisterly love, I am confident that film’s portrayals of women continue to progress.  Yet, the question I ask myself now is whether the attempts at complex female characters could ever become a norm in film industries worldwide, or will they only eventually plateau before they can reach their full potential.

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