The Psychology of Giant Princess Eyes

How Disney's caricature-esque women came to define "the fairest of them all"

Walt Disney Studios

If Ariel had normal-sized eyes, we might be less endeared to her—forced to focus more immediately on her disconcerting scaly tail.

If Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg were a Disney Princess, as one artist recently rendered her, she'd have no wrinkles, a smirk on her face, and some décolletage.

The debate over the merits of Disney princesses is as old as time, but it's fairly undeniable that the animated films' female leads tend to look like a "pretty girl" cliche.And when Pixar redesigned Merida, the star of Brave, in May, she got a smaller waist and bigger hair.

There's some research behind why the princess formula is so effective: Enlarged eyes, tiny chins, and short noses make them look more like babies, which creates an air of innocence and vulnerability. There's evidence that adults who have such "babyfacedness" characteristics are seen as less smart, more congenial, and less likely to be guilty of crimes.

It's true that female Disney characters' personalities have become bolder and more adventurous over time, but they still look comically homogenous, a fact highlighted by images such as this, created by the Tumblr MoopFlop and depicting the leads of the Disney movies Tangled and Frozen:

Brenda Chapman, the creator and co-director of the 2012 Pixar movie Brave, said she came under fire for attempting to make certain characters more realistic-looking.

“At one point they thought I was making the mom too big, her bum too big,” she told Time. “And that was frustrating for me because I wanted her to feel like a real middle aged woman.”

So what explains the company's emphasis on hackneyed female attractiveness?

In his extensive Disney history, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens, Sean Griffin describes Disney's transformation from a churner of slapstick, often raunchy, cartoon shorts to a producer of values-oriented animated features as it chased after box-office success.

One of the earliest Disney heroines was, in fact, anything but a fair damsel who dreamed only of taking a pumpkin-coach ride with her prince.

The star of Disney's 1920s cartoons was a spunky, live-action 5-year-old named Alice, played by Virginia Davis, who was constantly getting into scrapes and challenging authority. Her antics were captured on film and then spliced into a cartoon world filled with zany, cartoon friends. (Think proto-Blue's Clues).

In the 1924 cartoon Alice Gets in Dutch, for example, the heroine daydreams about battling her dour schoolteacher, Griffin notes. In 1925's Alice the Jail Bird, she goes to jail for stealing a pie and takes part in a prison riot.

Disney often infused these films with "butt humor," as Griffin puts it, with characters sustaining multiple gluteal injuries in a single cartoon.

In the 1930s, however, the country's new Production Code pushed studios to tone down the slapstick and appeal more to virtuous scruples.

Magazines ran "Family Movie Guides" and admonished parents against allowing children to see movies that are "harmful," Griffin notes. Disney seemed happy to fill this new niche, and journalists began to promote the company as a reliable source of family entertainment.

"By 1935, the conversation was absolute, and Walt was considered America's mythmaker in residence," Griffin writes.

The wholesome aesthetic permeated Disney offices, too, as the company tried to brand itself as purer than the rest of Hollywood. A 1936 Harper's Bazaar article noted "Law and Order reign[ed] there, without seeming unattractive."

The dress code mandated that men wear coats and ties, and it prohibited pants for women. Disney didn't employ women in creative work, only in "inking and painting" the cartoons after they're drawn. (Some researchers point out, though, that this was not inconsistent with hiring practices at the time.) At Disney, women were physically separated from the men, and their department was nicknamed the "Nunnery."

A 1937 promotional film for the Disney animation studio describes "hundreds of pretty girls" toiling "in a comfortable building all their own," coloring and tracing using sheets of transparent celluloid.

As a worker, Disney biographer Leonard Mosley wrote, "you did not carouse, raise your voice off the set, look lecherously at a member of the opposite sex, or in fact, indulge in any kind of hanky-panky."

At the same time, Disney began to promote his "illusion of life," a more realistic style of animation. It was both the moral code and this new realism that drove the company's "Golden Age" features, Griffin writes, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, Pinocchio in 1940, and Bambi in 1942.

Walt Disney attempted to reinforce traditional American values through his work, and his female characters became more traditional—in both actions and appearance—as a result.

In the 40s and 50s, Disney also began creating educational cartoons such as The Story of Menstruation, which was geared toward pre-teen girls watching in school. As Janice Delaney writes in The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, the company's sterile culture prevailed over the messiness of reality in that case, too:

"In the Disney world, the menstrual flow is not blood red but snow white. The vaginal drawings look more like a cross section of a kitchen sink than the inside and outside of woman's body. There are no hymen, no clitoris, no labia; all focus is on the little nest and its potentially lush lining."

Although smaller Disney productions in the 1940s and early 50s experimented with edgier material, including sex and comedic violence, what brought it continued commercial success were still hereto-normative family movies with dainty heroines, such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, at their center. By the time he died in 1966, Walt Disney had solidified his reputation as "The Greatest Pedagogue of Them All," as the Los Angeles Times put it.

In recent years, Disney, and its subsidiary Pixar, seem to have largely dropped the "illusion of life" directive in favor of characters that simply look more visually appealing when animated.

A study of 21 animated Disney movies published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2010 found that, "Attractive characters displayed higher intelligence, lower aggressiveness, and greater moral virtue. Moreover, physically attractive characters were more likely to achieve positive life outcomes at the film's end."

What's more, the company has continued to focus mostly on morally unobjectionable, centuries-old fairy tales, whose plots already emphasize female beauty as a positive characteristic. The Grimm brothers regularly peppered their stories with phrases like, "so beautiful the entire world considered her a miracle." One 2003 study in the journal Gender and Society found that fairy tales that promote female beauty are the ones that have been reproduced the most frequently and thus have survived into modernity. You can partly thank Disney for that.