As a feminist, I feel like I should hate the Disney Princess franchise. I don’t, for the record. I enjoy them a great deal. Yes, they have… copious problematic aspects, but I think my enjoyment of 1) female-centric stories, 2) fairy tales, and 3) musicals outweighs that. I want them to improve, certainly, but if I try, I can turn off the feminist part of my brain for 90 minutes.
One of my favorite aspects of Disney Princess movies is the art. The animation of these movies was groundbreaking back in the Snow White days, and although the limits of technology are now being stretched by other companies (I’m lookin’ at you, Dreamworks), the more recent Disney Princess movies are still beautiful. Within that, one of my favorite things to watch for is the Disney artists’ masterful use of color symbolism. Color symbolism is stronger than a lot of people think, considering how strong of a signal it can send within visual media.
One of the most obvious examples is the colors of the princesses’ outfits. Right now, pink is associated with girls and blue is associated with boys. It hasn’t been that way for long though, and for a very very long time blue was associated with femininity (often linked to the common portrayal of the Virgin Mary wearing a blue cloak). But Disney is still a somewhat traditionalist company. Almost all of the Disney princesses have a major blue component in their outfits. Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Tiana, Merida, Jasmine, and Elsa all wear blue dresses. Mulan and Snow White have blue bodices on their dresses; Belle and Anna have blue skirts. Even Pocahontas’ necklace is blue, and is a focal point in her outfit (wasn’t it her mom’s or something? Am I misremembering that?). Blue means the sort of traditionalist femininity that’s endorsed in the early movies and denied in the later ones. For example, the light blue dress that Merida’s mother forces her into is restrictive and painful until she switches back to her more neutral green one. It even works retroactively; Cinderella’s dress just looks white in her original movie. The only one with no blue at all is Rapunzel, who has some other interesting color symbolism going on.
The other predominant colors for the princesses are pink and purple, and several of them have some dress or accessory in these colors. Notably, Rapunzel spends 99% of her movie in the same dress, a lavender one, which denotes her royal heritage. At the very end, when Flynn’s voiceover talks about marrying her, she switches to pink and pink dresses in these movies often mark a significant moment with a love interest. Ariel as a human wears her simple blue dress most of the time, but switches to a pink one for the dinner scene with Eric. The elements of Mulan’s and Anna’s outfits that aren’t blue are pink. When Mulan wears her first pink dress, it’s during the matchmaker scene; the blue and pink one comes later when she saves China and gets the guy. Anna switches from her green summer dress to her pink and blue winter dress just before she meets Kristoff. Aurora probably demonstrates it best; her fairy godmothers argue whether she should wear pink or blue and they magically change the color of the fabric several times as she dances with Philip.
Purple tends to denote one of two things in a given princess movie – royalty or evil magic. Besides Rapunzel, the kings and queens often wear purple clothing, which is hardly surprising given that we use the same symbolism in real life. In ancient times, some places (possibly Phoenicia?) actually banned the use of purple dyes for anyone who wasn’t royal, or at least rich. But evil magic? That’s a little weirder. But look at Ursula, the evil witch who tricked Ariel – not only are her tentacles a dark purple, her human skin is tinted lavender. Dr. Facilier, the shadow man from The Princess and the Frog wears purple and black clothes, and his magic is all unnatural shades of purple or green. Contrast to the good voodoo witch, Mama Odie, whose scenes are all lit with natural greens and bright gold (hey, the story does take place during Mardi Gras).
One color you seldom see in princess movies is red. And when it does appear, it’s almost never associated with the princess herself. When Jasmine is mind-controlled by Jafar, in his red robes, her outfit also turns red – because all evil sorcerers want their mind slaves to… color coordinate? Although it is also notable that at this same time, Jasmine also gets vamped up; she looks distinctly sexier when she comes under Jafar’s control. Because that’s what a man does to a 16-year-old girl. Mother Gothel, from Rapunzel also wears a red gown, and is obsessed with her youth and good looks. Red seems to be primarily associated here with villainy, but specifically villainy related to vanity and appearances.
Another interesting association? The more green is in a princess’s primary outfit, the more in touch with nature she is. It’s actually a direct correlation. The only one almost always shown in a full green dress is Tiana, who… was a frog. For at least two-thirds of her movie. That’s pretty close to nature. Next is Merida, whose main dress is a teal or blue-green, and all she wants is to be wild and free and climb mountains and ride her horse in the woods. Her mother tries to make her wear a blue dress and reject that wild side. When Ariel is a mermaid and lives in the ocean, her tail is a lighter blue-green – as a human, she lives in a civilized castle, and loses the green in her color scheme. The only other princess who has green in any of her common outfits is Mulan, who I guess rode a horse around the Chinese countryside, but even that outfit doesn’t show up until the end of the movie.
The last one I want to point out is actually a lack of color – Disney princesses are never shown in white. At least not in their main movies. In the short Tangled Ever After, Rapunzel’s wedding dress is white, which is to be expected. As I pointed out earlier, Cinderella’s original dress was a silvery white, but that’s long since been retconned into blue. As in the case of the wedding dress, white most often symbolizes purity, but it can also mean sterility, blandness, and emotional distance. That is the last thing Disney wants any of their princesses to be. They want you to love these girls, and relate to them. Any mileage they might get out of the purity symbolism is outdone by the possible perception of being boring, especially when blue works just as well for traditional light femininity.
Color symbolism is everywhere, especially when you think to look for it. The color of a character’s clothing or surroundings are the simplest visual shorthand for what the movie wants to make you feel at any given time. It’s a simple thing that, together with things like the musical cues, can manipulate you into an emotionally receptive state for the story they’re trying to tell you. It’s one of the greatest advantages of visual media, that they can use color and light to change the way you feel about something. So, next time a Disney Princess movie comes out, pay attention to the princess’s outfit in the promotional materials – you’ll probably find out exactly what kind of character she’s going to be.