The long history of Disney princesses may seem like a deeply touched subject. But under the slick guise of journalist-turned-author Emily Zemler, it turns out there’s still plenty to explore.
In Zemler’s thoughtful, deeply researched, compelling, and beautifully illustrated new coffee table book, Disney Princess: Beyond the TiaraZemler examines the long history of iconic Disney characters, from Snow White to Ariel, through a myriad of lenses, from marketing and how they fit into their times to today’s perspective.
I spoke at length with Zemler about which princess she wanted to be as a child, how princesses have changed over the decades, why everyone wants to be a Disney princess, and much more.
Steve Baltin: When did you start working on the book?
Emily Zemler: I was contacted about this book in January 2021, which was a perfect time for me because I had absolutely nothing going on. So much stopped during the pandemic and a lot of work was lost. He had worked on a lot of material for Disney Publishing and [a publisher who is at their Disney licensee Portal] He had recommended me for this book. The general idea was, “Can we write a book about the cultural history of the Disney princess? And if so, what does that look like?” And that was it. She had a marketing blurb and then she had to find out, “What is this book?” That took a bit of time. And I wrote it mostly last spring, there was a very long review and editing process last summer, and then there was a long process of designing, selecting photos and writing captions, and honestly we were tweaking this until the day it went to print. at the beginning of this year.
Baltin: Which princess did you want to be when you grew up?
Zemler: I think my answer is very generic, but it was Ariel, I was absolutely desperate to be Ariel. I liked The little Mermaid so deeply, and she was so feisty and so kind of rebellious and she was just going to do what she wanted. But not only that, her hair looked great floating in the water. And so, like everyone I know, every girl I know, maybe the guys too, you would get in the pool and wave your hair like you were Ariel. Yes, she was my immediate first. She loved them all, but she was the one she really connected with. So obviously it was crazy that Jodi Benson wrote the foreword to this because Ariel called my cell phone and it sounds like Ariel.
Baltin: Do you know why they contacted you to do this? Had you written a lot about princesses or Disney?
Zemler: I had a lot of things that I had done with Disney. so i wrote The art and making of Aladdin for live action Aladdin movie, The Guy Ritchie Movie, so he had done one of his “Art” and “Making Of” books. And then Disney had hired me. You’d never know I’d written these, but inside the special edition Blu-Ray DVDs, I wrote these little “Making Of” features. So if you have the Blu-Ray of the live action mulan, you may come across something I wrote. So they knew that he had a great understanding of Disney properties and how Disney expresses them. I think they were just looking for someone who could give them a new perspective, because there are some writers who have written all the Disney princess books. I won’t name names, but there are some men who have written most of the “Making Of” books for the movies and the other Disney princess books, so I think they were ready for a younger, more feminine perspective on the subject. .
Baltin: What were the biggest things that came up that surprised you when writing the book?
Zemler: You start to remember seeing all these movies and then you realize you know all the lines and all the songs, and that can lead you down different paths. But I saw literally everything again. I rewatched all the animated movies, all the sequels, all the live-action reimaginings, all the spin-offs of the TV series, all the weird interpretations, like Disney Channel. Decendents. And then I realized that he knew all the characters very well, but he didn’t necessarily know the extremes of his influence. So he wasn’t that familiar with how far they had come in the culture. And I remembered watching different “Making Of” videos, so you learned about the animation and you learned about who voiced them. But honestly, I had no idea how enmeshed Disney princesses have become in our culture.
Baltin: What is it that makes everyone want to be a Disney princess?
Zemler: It’s not just women who feel that, because I’ve also talked to people who identify as men, especially, Ariel is a gay icon. And why we want to be them is because they are living dreams, and it is a way of living vicariously through them. So, Ariel is a fantastically beautiful creature who is a mermaid, and she has a talking fish friend and a talking seagull, and what fun is that? But also, she dreams of something bigger. And I know The little Mermaid can be characterized as, “Oh, she gives up her voice for a man.” But I don’t really think that’s what’s happening, because she knew about humans and she wanted to be a human long before she saw Prince Eric. So I think that the Disney princesses are figures of what we want to be, and they show us that we can also dream big. As if we could also wear a beautiful party dress, which many women wear on their wedding day, trying to evoke a Disney princess. Or the celebrities do it on the red carpet, wearing their Cinderella dress. So it’s like this idea of, “Wow, that’s an amazing character with an amazing journey. What if she could have that?”
Baltin: Which princess do you want to be now?
Zemler: I have to say that I really admire Tiana. I really like Tiana. The princess and the frog It came out after I wasn’t a kid anymore, so I had a different experience with that movie. But if you go back and watch that, it’s really funny. The songs are very funny, the characters are very funny, she puts on a great dress. And I really like that they present it like this: “If you work very hard, you will achieve your dreams.” I think you and I can relate to that. Work really hard, you’ll probably make it. You have to work. So I really like her. I really like Rapunzel in Tangled up. I think she just has this fun, free-spirited vibe. Some of the Disney princesses have these really dark stories and you’re kind of worried about them. And Rapunzel’s backstory is a bit dark, but she’s so optimistic and carefree.
Baltin: What was your first Disney movie growing up?
Zemler: I think in the theater, it was Sleeping Beauty. Which was reissued, because they used to re-release movies in theaters every two years. If I remember correctly, they took me to see Sleeping Beauty in the theater, and I was so afraid of the dragon that they had to take me out.
Baltin: Do you remember which was the first one where you got dragged?
Zemler: In terms of being in the theater, it was probably The little Mermaid. Because I remember going with my uncle and we had to sit in the front row because it was so crowded. So he was probably literally immersed in it, because he was stuck in the front row. And then obviously I had seen some of the others on VHS at home, but I think it’s a different experience than being in the theater.
Baltin: Could you have imagined that all these years later, you would have a book about Disney princesses?
Zemler: No, absolutely not. I never, ever would have imagined that. And I’ve been doing these interviews, and people are like, “How has this book allowed you to live out your Disney princess dream?” And I really don’t know the answer to that. Because when I was a kid, I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to be a filmmaker. And obviously it always connected me with the cinema and it always felt like an resonance of a story on the screen. But yeah, I don’t think I would have ever imagined that this is where my professional career would have taken me. I think my writing career has taken a lot of weird twists and turns. I wrote the obituary for the Queen of England. That’s, you know, a little unexpected.
Baltin: Tell me about the photos in the book.
Zemler: It’s a coffee table book that’s very visual. I was pretty involved in selecting all the photos, and there were some photos that I struggled to get into the book, because I felt like you don’t understand the scope of the scope unless you see a Snow White brand ammonia photo. . If I told you, “Yeah, there used to be Snow White cleaning products.” You’re going to be like, “Okay, that’s weird.” But if I show you a picture of Snow White’s ammonia and Snow White’s bleach, it’s crazy. That’s the extent to which that movie was marketed, and that was marketed to that extent long before Star Wars was marketed.
Baltin: Are there princesses for you that surprise you with the way they have aged?
Zemler: One of the key things for me writing this is that I think I really came to appreciate each of the princesses more. When you’re growing up, they’re just like these funny characters that you like and want to wear their outfits and be friends with their animal friends. But when you look back through a slightly more critical lens, you can understand the idea that they were a reflection of the times. So when Snow White was created, it’s not necessarily that society expected women to be housewives, it’s just that it was held as a certain kind of ideal, that being a very good cleaner and a kind companion would have been the ideal of women. women at that time. So that doesn’t make her problematic, it just means that she was created at a certain time. She was created in a similar time to Shirley Temple, who doesn’t necessarily resonate with the same values that we have today. So I really found an appreciation for each of the princesses that she maybe didn’t have, like she was saying about Ariel and the Prince, she doesn’t give up her voice just for a guy. She gives up her voice, because he represents a world that she wants to be a part of. And that’s, I think, a better way to look at that story. And it’s not that you can’t criticize the characters, or say, “We don’t want to have those kinds of characters on screen anymore,” but I think it’s helpful to see them as the product of their time, and Disney looks at them that way, too. You can tell that with the way they have been adapted for the current era. So when they created the Disney princess franchise, which is the official kind of grouping of the characters for marketing purposes, they were able to adapt the characters and highlight some of their most important traits. So the characters become a bit more adventurous in marketing, or have toys that reflect character attributes that maybe weren’t highlighted at the time. They’re really starting to make collections that are more inspired by the character in the movie. Recently, there was a Frozen shoe collection for frozen 2. That was Ruthie Davis. Those were really cool. They also did a mulan collection with Ruthie Davis that are like these giant platform heels, they’re really fun. Really cool. In the toys chapter, I’m trying to think. I really liked Lego games. One that I really liked, and you can still find it at Target or Walmart, is a bow and arrow for Rapunzel. I couldn’t find guns as a kid, those were for kids. As if the boys had lightsabers or bows and arrows, but the girls didn’t. And I love the idea that a girl can go to the store and buy a Rapunzel bow and arrow.