Julie Garlen and Jennifer Sandlin, “Happily (N)ever After”

. . .the feelings of love and happiness we associate with Disney Princess films bind us to particular representations of femininity.

Julie Garlen and Jennifer Sandlin, “Happily (N)ever After” in Feminist Media Studies, vol. 17, 2017, pp. 959
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The article that we’re reading for this module was published in an issue of the feminist scholarly journal Feminist Media Studies. As the authors put it on page 2, their goal is to “examine one of the many ways that Disney operates pedagogically by exploring what Disney Princess films teach us about love and happiness.” As their rich bibliography and in-text citations should reveal to you, there is a large body of scholarship in the humanities, communication studies, and studies of education that explores the impact and influence of Disney. The authors take Disney seriously as a form of popular representation that tells specific stories about gender, and specifically about happiness and love.

This article is organized into three sections. The first section describes romantic love depicted in Disney movies as a happy object. This term, happy object, comes from the scholarly work of feminist cultural theorist Sara Ahmed. In 2010, Ahmed wrote a book called The Promise of Happiness, in which she urges us to think about happiness as a political project, which is to say that she wants us to think about the connections between happiness and power.

Happy objects, for Ahmed, are things that we come to believe will bring us happiness. They can be objects like cars and clothing; they can also be projects like marriage, career, or good looks. They are often gendered. So for instance little girls are encouraged and expected to find happiness in pink, boys in blue. Girls are expected to find happiness in soft toys, and boys in hard toys. We are all encouraged to find happiness in our families, even when our families are sites of domestic violence or injustice. We are often encouraged to find happiness, and indeed ultimate fulfillment – in dating, coupling, marriage, and children.

What happens when happy projects don’t make us happy? Ahmed argues that we are made to feel as though something is wrong with us, rather than something being wrong with limiting our hopes and dreams and imaginations by tying them to singular and predefined goals. Drawing on the concept of cruel optimism, the authors of this article suggest that Disney is part of a larger cultural machinery that promotes a belief in heterosexual romantic love as inevitable, transformative, and magical.

Disney films, like so many other cultural representations, fill us with optimism that true love is possible, but this optimism is cruel because, as the authors put it, the romantic ideal “creates a loving attachment between us and the very patriarchal social structures that limit our agency and narrowly define our categories of being in the world.”

Ultimately, Sandlin and Garlen argue that the good feelings that so many of us attach to Disney, to Disney movies, and to Disney’s heroines prevent us from taking up critical positions to these “happy objects.” Many students are reluctant to apply feminist theories of gender and power to Disney heroines because of a desire to “not ruin” Disney. The article – and this module – doesn’t set out to “ruin” Disney, but to provide tools for understanding the ways that Disney’s representations of gender align with and indeed help to perpetuate gender dualism and systems of domination, including patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and heteronormativity.

As you read:

  • Pay attention to how your connection to individual stories and characters impacts your reading of this article. Do you find yourself wanting to protect your favorite story or character from critique?
  • Reflect on the authors’ choice to use the term “heteropatriarchy” throughout this article—how does combining heteronormativity and patriarchy into a single concept support their overarching arguments above love?

Before you read, take a few moments to think about your own relationship to Disney. Was there a specific story that appealed to you as a child? Is there a story that you still love today?

Find the Garlen and Sandlin reading here.