Disney and the Case of the Sexual Shoulders

In my overwheming enthusiasm to challenge my readers to watch a fascinating documentary about beauty and the struggle of being a fashion model, I neglected to realize that the end of the semester is now upon us, and setting aside an hour plus to watch Netflix gives me a small amount of heartburn. I cannot imagine, therefore, putting any academic person reading this blog through that kind of anxiety. In the interim, then, I would like to talk about a fascinating observation that a friend of mine had surrounding two seemingly unrelated things: Shoulders and Disney.

Elsa from Frozen in her shoulderless super dress.

Elsa from Frozen in her shoulderless super dress.

If you take a look at the majority of Disney’s princesses, there is a surprising proportion of bare shoulders and wide necklines associated with the beautiful princesses. Ranging from some the earliest princesses — Ariel and Aurora — to the most recent additions of Elsa and Anna, there is always some point in the movies where their shoulders are bare, or at the very least they have a wide and open neckline to their dresses.


Cinderella before and after the Fairy Godmother works her magic

Cinderella before and after the Fairy Godmother works her magic

Take Princess Aurora. She first appears to Prince Phillip dressed in a simple dress, but when she returns to the castle and is put in her deep spindle-related sleep, the dress bares her shoulders. Princess Jasmine’s outfit also exposes most of her shoulders with a wide neckline. Princess Anna is a beautiful young woman, but the first time that she bumps into an eligible male, she is wearing a beautiful green dress — a dress that also bares her shoulders. And I don’t think we need to go into much detail about Ariel, do we?

Pocahontas' one-shouldered number.

Pocahontas’ one-shouldered number.

Who knew that this would be such an important element of the definition of beauty in the Disney movie industry? Actually, the real question that I have is why is this a thing? I’m probably just being dense at this point, but when did the whole “sexy shoulder” thing begin? Is this why so many schools have ridiculous rules that revolved around covering “distracting shoulders”. Where does the responsibility lie, with the women or with the men who are looking at them?


The closest that I can get to a reasonable explanation is that early in the production of animated movies, Disney was taking some liberties in the costume department during social eras where norms did not permit clothing that was so revealing. They made an effort to reasonably push the boundaries with the small neckline of Snow White in 1938, expanded the neckline for Cinderella’s ball gown in 1950, and by 1959 had introduced Princess Aurora’s sleeveless gown to the general public. By the time the next Disney princess arrived on screen in 1989, Ariel was wearing a bra.


Snow White’s dress marks the beginning of the neckline change…


…and Ariel is the result of more than 40 years in the Disney princess costume alterations.

Made out of shells.


What a well-cropped screenshot, internet! Now she looks naked. Bravo.

That’s it.

I’m glad that my friend mentioned this to me. It hasn’t left me disillusioned about the movies that Disney produces for the general public, but I am more aware of the undercurrents of body consciousness that each of these films carries with it. It is unclear whether or not this Disney’s purpose — perhaps the subtle wardrobe changes are due to changing societal norms, and they tagged along to make their movies more accessible to the general public.

What is clear is that an informed public is a good public, even if it is about cartoon women’s shoulders. While it may seem fun to relate to each Disney princess and fantasize about which prince you want to sweep you off of your feet, it is important to remember that what is represented on screen is merely one concept of beauty. Bare shoulders do not always make an outfit pretty, and exploring your own definition of beauty beyond what the media shows you is a process that will take your whole life. What better place to start than here?


Let’s Chase Beauty Together!

This week, I would like to extend two invitations to my readers. One of them is entirely dependent on geography, while the other is an idea that I have for my NEXT post.

First, I would like to invite anyone in the College Park area to the Honors Humanities Undergraduate Research Symposium tomorrow, April 12th. This is the big shindig that is the culmination of the Keystone projects that my peers and I have worked on for the past two years in the program. There are a lot of excellent presentations about topics that span the entirety of the humanities, and you definitely won’t be disappointed if you can make it to any of the panels. And hey, if you’re lucky, you might be able to see me present as well!

The link to the event’s website is here, and you can find the schedule on there as well.

Honors Humanities Undergraduate Research Symposium logo, courtesy of Grace DeWitt

Honors Humanities Undergraduate Research Symposium logo, courtesy of Grace DeWitt

The second invitation is a bit of an interactive adventure with all of you. A friend of mine told me about a great documentary entitled Chasing Beauty, which follows the path of men and women pursuing careers as fashion models. It discusses the stresses and pressures of this lifestyle, and I think that it would be a great thing to watch and think about. It is definitely on Netflix, and I think it may also be found on YouTube.

Chasing Beauty, a documentary

Chasing Beauty, a documentary

What I am kindly asking from you all is to take some time to watch the video yourselves before I post next week about it. I would be really curious to see what everyone thinks about this topic, and also would like us to think about how each and every one of us chases beauty in our own way. How do you define beauty? Has watching the video changed your perspectives of beauty?

Watch it, think on it, and I hope to here your thoughts soon!

The Female Brain: Science is cool!

Did you know that…

Astronauts can’t burp because there is no gravity to separate liquid from gas in their stomachs?


That one million, million, million, million, millionth of a second after the Big Bang the Universe was the size of a pea?


That there are 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body?

Isn’t that interesting? These are just a few examples of why science is SO COOL! And also why you should read this piece about a book that takes a scientific approach to the female brain!

I came across The Female Brain when I was walking around Barnes & Noble with a friend of mine over winter break. He was the one who found it and said, “Wait, they have books about this now? This would’ve been helpful YEARS ago!” When I took a look inside the book, I realized that it definitely wasn’t a relationship help book. It was a book written by a neuropsychiatrist, Louann Brizendine, M.D. I borrowed it from the library when I came back to school and proceeded to have an enlightening experience with her work.

female brain book

The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine

Her thesis throughout the book is that many of the behavioral differences that society acknowledges between men and women are actually legitimate, and can be explained to a certain extent to hormonal differences between the sexes. Basically, the balance of certain hormones in women and men effect certain changes in their behavior. For the purpose of this book, the woman is the central focus, and she covers the entire lifespan of the women using engaging anecdotes and accessible scientific explanation.

Before anyone gets up in arms about explaining away a woman’s feelings using hormones and chemicals, I want to say that I’m definitely on your side about that. Nothing burns me up faster than when someone tries to write off my sour attitude as simply “her time of month.” It invalidates my emotions and channels their source to an area of myself that I can’t exactly control. What I think that Dr. Brizendine does well is write this book in a way that simply provides some information that may be a factor in our daily lives. And a good amount of it acknowledges excellent qualities in women’s behavior as well.

Women may be better at reading body language cues, which may explain why it seems as though they are reading minds

Women may be better at reading body language cues, which may explain why it seems as though they are reading minds

For example, Brizendine posits that the female brain is wired for excellent communication skills. According to her research, women are more receptive to hand gestures, body posture, breathing rates, gazes, and facial expressions, all of which make communicating with people that much easier. Infant girls were shown to focus on the faces of people far more often than infant boys, who were more concerned with the rest of their environment.


There is also evidence that, since men may not have as developed a sense of communication as women, it is quite possible that women learned to use tears to let men know that they are upset. Rather than support an irrational claim that “all women are weepy”, Brizendine tactfully employs science to make her point, and the evidence that supported her argument was convincing.

Ultimately, you can’t just chalk up everything that someone does or doesn’t do to pure science — that would take away a person’s sense of being and willpower, as well as displacing blame when poor decisions or bad choices are made. I also can’t deny the fact that, while I thought this was an interesting read, the book has received mixed reviews and criticism for its content.  It is interesting, however, to see that every now and then, our social constructs and expectations may be more than just broad assumptions or stereotypes.  There are exceptions to every rule, but this book provides a fascinating look upon some of the science that might inform both men and women about another facet of the human condition.