The long and storied history of Disney princesses might feel like a topic that has been deeply touched upon. But under the skillful guise of journalist turned author Emily Zemler, it turns out there is still a tremendous amount to explore.
In Zemler’s thoughtful, deeply researched, compelling and beautifully illustrated new coffee table book, Disney Princess: Beyond The Tiara, Zemler examines the long history of iconic Disney characters, from Snow White to Ariel, through a myriad of lens, from marketing and how they fit in their eras to today’s perspective.
I spoke at length with Zemler about what princess she wanted to be as a child, how the princesses have changed over the decades, why everyone wants to be a Disney princess and much more.
Steve Baltin: When did you start work on the book?
Emily Zemler: I was approached about this book in January of 2021, which was a perfect moment for me because I had absolutely nothing happening. So much had paused during the pandemic and so much work was lost. I had worked on a bunch of stuff for Disney Publishing, and [a publisher who is at their Disney licensee Portal] had recommended me for this book. The whole 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. I had a marketing blurb, and then I had to figure out, “What is this book?” That took a little bit of time. And I wrote it mostly last spring, there was a very long revision and editing process last summer, and then there was a long layout and photo selection and caption writing process, and we were honestly tweaking this up until the day it went to the printers earlier this year.
Baltin: What princess did you want to be when you were growing up?
Zemler: I think my answer is really generic, but it was Ariel, I was absolutely desperate to be Ariel. I loved The Little Mermaid so deeply, and she was so feisty and such a little rebel and she was just gonna do whatever she wanted. But not only that, her hair looked really good floating around in the water. And so like everyone I know, every girl I know, maybe boys too, would get in the swimming pool and you would wave your hair around like you were Ariel. Yeah, she was my immediate first. I loved them all, but she was the one I really connected to. So obviously it was so nuts that Jodi Benson wrote the foreword for this because Ariel called my cell phone, and she sounds like Ariel.
Baltin: Do you know why they approached you to do this? Had you done a lot of writing about princesses or Disney?
Zemler: I had a lot of stuff that I had done with Disney. So I wrote the “Art” and “Making Of” Aladdin for the live action Aladdin movie, The Guy Ritchie movie, so I had done one of their “Art” and “Making Of” books. And then Disney had hired me. You would never know that I had written these, but inside Blu-Ray special edition DVDs, I wrote these little mini “Making Of” features. So if you own the Blu-Ray of the live action Mulan, you may come across something I wrote. So they knew that I had a long understanding of Disney properties and how Disney expresses them. I think they just were looking for someone who could give it a fresh eye, ’cause there are a few writers that have written all of the books about Disney princesses. I will not name names, but there are just a few men who have written most of the “Making Of” books for the films and the other Disney princess books, so I think they were ready for a younger and more female perspective on the topic.
Baltin: What were the biggest things that emerged that surprised you in the writing of the book?
Zemler: You start to remember seeing all these movies and then realizing that you know all of the lines and all of the songs, and then that can take you down different trails. But I did re-watch literally everything. I re-watched every animated film, every sequel, every live action re-imagining, every TV series spin-off, every weird interpretation, like Disney Channel Descendants. And so I realized that I knew all of the characters really well, but I didn’t necessarily know the extremes of their influence. So I wasn’t that familiar with how far they had gone out into culture. And I remembered seeing different “Making Of” videos, so you kind of learned about the animation and you learned about who voiced them. But I didn’t have, quite honestly, a clue about how far the Disney princesses have enmeshed themselves into our culture.
Baltin: What is it that makes everybody want to be a Disney princess?
Zemler: It’s not just women that feel that, ’cause I did speak with people who identify as male as well, especially, Ariel’s a gay icon. And why we want to be them is because they are living out dreams, and it’s a way for us to live vicariously through them. So like Ariel is a fantastical, beautiful creature who’s a mermaid, and she has a talking fish friend and a talking seagull friend, and how fun is that? But then also, she dreams of something bigger. And I know The Little Mermaid can get characterized as like, “Oh, she gives up her voice for a man.” But I actually don’t think that’s what’s happening, because she knew about humans and wanted to be a human long before she ever set eyes on Prince Eric. So I think that Disney princesses are ciphers for what we want to be, and they show us that we can dream really big too. Like we too could wear a beautiful ball gown, which many women then go do on their wedding day, trying to evoke a Disney princess. Or celebrities do it on the red carpet, wearing their Cinderella gown. So it’s like this idea of, “Wow, that’s an amazing character with an amazing journey. What if I could have that?”
Baltin: What princess do you want to be now?
Zemler: I have to say I really admire Tiana. Really like Tiana. The Princess and the Frog came out after I was no longer a child, so I had a different experience with that movie. But if you go back and watch that, it’s really fun. The songs are really fun, the characters are really fun, she gets a great dress. And I really like that she gets presented as this, like, “If you work really hard, you’ll achieve your dreams.” I think you and I can both relate to that. Work really hard, you’ll probably make it. You got to put in the effort. So I really like her. I really like Rapunzel in Tangled. I think she’s just got this fun, free-spirited kind of vibe to her. Some of the Disney princesses have these really dark stories, and you’re a little worried about them. And Rapunzel’s backstory is a little bit dark, but she’s just 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 re-issued, ’cause they used to re-release the films in theaters every couple of years. If I’m remembering right, I was taken to see Sleeping Beauty in the theater, and I got so afraid of the dragon that I had to be taken out.
Baltin: Do you remember what the first one was you got swept away in?
Zemler: In terms of being in the theater, it was probably The Little Mermaid. ‘Cause I remember going with my uncle, and we had to sit in the front row because it was so full. So I was literally probably immersed in it, ’cause I was stuck in the front row.And then obviously, I had seen some of the other ones on VHS at home, but I think that’s a different experience to being in the theater.
Baltin: Could you have imagined that all these years later, you would have a book out about Disney princesses?
Zemler: No, absolutely not. I would never, never 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 don’t really 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 so obviously, I was always connecting with film, and I was always feeling like a resonance from an on-screen story. But yeah, I don’t think I ever would have imagined that this is where my career path would have taken me. I think my writing career has taken a lot of weird twists and turns. I wrote the Queen of England’s obituary. Like that’s, you know, just a little bit 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 picking out all the photos, and there were some photos that I fought to have in the book, because I just felt that you don’t understand the scope of the reach unless you see a photo of Snow White branded ammonia. If I just say to you, “Yeah, there used to be Snow White cleaning products.” You’re gonna be like, “Okay, that’s weird.” But if I show you a photo of Snow White ammonia and Snow White bleach, that’s crazy. That’s the extent to which that movie was merchandised, and that was merchandised to that extent way before Star Wars was merchandised.
Baltin: Are there princesses for you that you’re surprised at the way they’ve aged?
Zemler: One of the key things for me of writing this is I think I really came to appreciate each of the princesses more. When you’re growing up, they’re kind of these fun characters that you like and you want to wear their outfits, and be friends with their animal friends. But when you look back on them with a little bit of a more critical lens, you can understand that idea that they were a reflection of the time. So when Snow White was created, it’s not necessarily that society expected women to be housewives, it’s just that was held as a certain type of ideal, that being a really good cleaner and a kind companion would have been ideals of women in that era. So that doesn’t make her problematic, it just means that she was created in a certain time. She was created in a similar time to Shirley Temple, who doesn’t necessarily resonate with the same values that we hold today. So I actually really found an appreciation for each of the princesses that maybe I didn’t have, like I was saying about with Ariel and the Prince, she does not give up her voice simply for a guy. She gives up her voice, because he represents a world that she wants to be part of. And that is, I think, a better way to look at that story. And it’s not that you can’t criticize the characters, or say like, “We don’t want to have those types of characters on screen anymore,” but I think it’s useful to look at them as the product of their time, and Disney looks at them that way as well. You can tell that with the way that they have adapted them for the current era. So when they created the Disney princess franchise, which is the kind of the official grouping of the characters for a marketing purpose, they have been able to adapt the characters and highlight some of their more important traits. So the characters get to be a little bit more adventurous in the marketing, or they get to have toys that reflect attributes of the characters that maybe weren’t highlighted at the time. They’re really starting to do collections that are more inspired by the character of the film. 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 they’re just like these giant platform heels, they’re really funky. Really cool. In the toys chapter, I’m trying to think. I really liked the Lego sets. One that I really liked, and you can still find it in Target or Walmart, is a bow and arrow for Rapunzel. I couldn’t find weapons when I was a kid, those were for boys. Like boys got to have light sabers or bows and arrows, but girls didn’t. And I love the idea that a young girl could go into the store and get a Rapunzel bow and arrow.