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?


One thought on “Disney and the Case of the Sexual Shoulders

  1. Jonathan says:

    Would it be possible that the dresses worn by the Disney Princesses may be based on the fashion of their native lands in the time period that the story takes place in? I concede that Jasmine may be stereotyped “Oriental” who bares more skin than a noble lady might show, but (after a quick Google search, more research may need to be done) it seems that the dresses that the other princesses wear match the fashion of their specific areas in their specific time periods. Not all dresses in these time periods feature lower necklines or bare shoulders for sure, but dresses that do feature these did exist at the time.

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