Author Emily Zemler delves into the rich history of Disney princesses in a delightful new book

The long and storied history of Disney princesses may seem like a deeply touched topic. But beneath journalist-turned-author Emily Zemler’s artful guise, it turns out there’s a lot more to explore.

In Zemler’s thoughtful, deeply researched, compelling, and beautifully illustrated new coffee table book, Disney Princess: Beyond The TiaraZemmler examines the long history of iconic Disney characters, from Snow White to Ariel, through countless lenses, from marketing and how they fit into their eras to today’s perspective.

I spoke with Zemmler at length about what kind of princess she wanted to be as a child, how princesses have changed over the decades, why everyone wants to be a Disney princess, and more.

Steve Baltin: When did you start working on the book?

Emily Zemler: I was approached about this book in January 2021, and it was perfect timing for me because I had absolutely nothing going on. So much has been put on hold and so much work has been lost during the pandemic. I’ve been working on a bunch of stuff for Disney Publishing, and [a publisher who is at their Disney licensee Portal] recommended this book to me. The whole idea was, “Can we write a book about the history of Disney princess culture? And if so, what will it look like?” And that was all. I had a marketing pitch, and then I had to figure out, “What is this book?” It took a little 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 fine-tuning it before the day it went to the printer before this year.

Baltin: What princess did you want to be when you grew up?

Zemmler: I think my answer is very general, but it was Ariel, I was absolutely desperate to be Ariel. i loved The little mermaid so deep and she was so feisty and such a little rebel and she was just going to do whatever she wanted. But not only that, her hair looked really good floating in the water. And so like everyone I know, every girl I know, and maybe even boys, would go to the pool and you’d be waving your hair like Ariel. Yes, she was my first. I loved them all, but she was the one I really connected with. Apparently Jodi Benson wrote the foreword for this because Ariel called my cell phone and she sounds like Ariel.

Baltin: Do you know why you were approached? Have you written a lot about princesses or Disney?

Zemler: I’ve had a lot of things that I’ve done with Disney. So I wrote “Art” and “Creation” Aladdin for live action Aladdin movie, Guy Ritchie’s movie, so I wrote one of their books, Art and Creation. And then Disney hired me. You’d never know it was me who wrote it, but on the Blu-Ray DVD special edition, I wrote these little “Making Of” mini-featurettes. So if you have a live action Blu-ray Mulan, you can meet what I wrote. So they knew I had a long understanding of Disney properties and how Disney expressed them. I think they were just looking for someone who could give it a new look because there are several writers who have written all the Disney princess books. I won’t name names, but there are only a few men who wrote most of the “Making Of” books for the movies and other books about Disney princesses, so I think they were ready for a younger and more feminine take on the subject.

Baltin: What things surprised you the most while writing the book?

Zemmler: You start to remember watching 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 revised literally everything. I’ve rewatched every cartoon, every sequel, every live-action reimagining, every spin-off series, every weird interpretation like the Disney Channel Descendants. And so I realized that I know all the characters very well, but I don’t necessarily know the extremes of their influence. So I wasn’t familiar with how far they went in the culture. And I remembered seeing the various “Making Of” videos, so you learn about the animation and who did the voices. But I honestly had no idea how much Disney princesses have become embedded in our culture.

Baltin: What makes everyone want to be a Disney princess?

Zemler: It’s not just women who feel that way, because I’ve talked to people who identify as men as well, especially Ariel, who’s gay. And why we want to be them is because they are making their dreams come true and this is a way for us to live through them. So how is Ariel a fantastical, beautiful creature who is a mermaid and she has a talking fish and a talking seagull and how fun is that? But she also dreams of something bigger. And I know The little mermaid can be described as, “Oh, she’s giving her vote for a man.” But I don’t really think that happens because she knew about humans and wanted to be human long before she saw Prince Eric. So I believe that Disney princesses are symbols of what we want to be, and they show us that we too can dream big. Like we could wear a beautiful ball gown, which many women do on their wedding day, trying to look like a Disney princess. Or celebrities do it on the red carpet wearing a Cinderella dress. So it’s this idea of, “Wow, this is an amazing character with an amazing journey. What if I had it?”

Baltin: Which 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 kid, so I had a different experience with that movie. But when you go back and watch it, it’s really fun. The songs are really fun, the characters are really fun, she gets a great dress. And I really like that it’s presented like this: “If you work really hard, you will achieve your dreams.” I think you both can relate to this. Work very hard, you will probably succeed. You have to make an effort. So I really like her. I really like Rapunzel Confused. I think she just has such a fun, free-spirited vibe. Some of the Disney princesses have really dark stories and you care a little bit about them. And Rapunzel’s backstory is a bit dark, but she’s so upbeat and carefree.

Baltin: What was your first Disney movie as a child?

Zemler: I think it was in the theater Sleeping beauty. Which was re-released because they re-released movies in theaters every couple of years. If I remember, I was taken to see it Sleeping beauty in the theater and I got so scared of the dragon that I had to be taken out.

Baltin: Do you remember what first got you hooked?

Zemler: In terms of being in the theater, probably The little mermaid. Because 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 because I was stuck in the front row. And then obviously I’ve seen some of the others on VHS at home, but I think it’s different than being in a theater.

Baltin: Did you ever think that all these years later you would have a book about Disney princesses?

Zemler: No, absolutely not. I would never, ever imagine that. And I’d do these interviews and people would say, “How did this book enable you to live out your dream of being a Disney princess?” 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 director. And so obviously I’ve always been connected to film, and I’ve always resonated with the screen story. But yeah, I don’t think I could have ever thought that this is where my career would take me. I think my writing career has taken many strange turns. I wrote an obituary for the Queen of England. Like, you know, a little unexpected.

Baltin: Tell us about the photos in the book.

Zemler: It’s a coffee table that’s very visual. I was very involved in choosing all the photos, and there were some photos that I fought to include in the book because I felt that you don’t understand the scale of the achievement if you don’t see a photo of Snow White’s brand of ammonia. If I just tell you, “Yes, there used to be Snow White detergent.” You say, “Okay, that’s amazing.” But if I show you a picture of Snow White ammonia and Snow White bleach, it’s crazy. That’s the extent to which this movie was marketable, and it was marketable to that extent long before Star Wars was marketable.

Baltin: Are there any princesses that surprise you with how they’ve aged?

Zemler: One of the key things for me in writing this article is that I really grew to appreciate each of the princesses more. As you grow up, they become such fun characters that you love and want to wear their clothes and be friends with their animal friends. But if you look at them a little more critically, you can understand that they were a reflection of the times. So when Snow White was created, it wasn’t necessarily that society expected women to be housewives, it was just that it was seen as a certain ideal that being a really good housekeeper and kind companion would be the ideal for women of that era. So that doesn’t make it problematic, it just means it was created at a certain time. She was created around the same time as Shirley Temple, who doesn’t necessarily hold the same values ​​as we do today. So I actually found an appreciation for each of the princesses that maybe I didn’t have, like I said about Ariel and the Prince, she doesn’t give up her voice just for a guy. She casts her vote because it represents the world she wants to be a part of. And that, I think, is the best way to look at this story. And it’s not that you can’t criticize the characters or say, “We don’t want to have those characters on screen anymore,” but I think it’s helpful to look at them as a product of their time, and Disney looks at them that way, too. . You can tell by the fact that they have adapted them to the current era. So when they created the Disney princess franchise, which is sort of an official grouping of characters for marketing purposes, they were able to adapt the characters and emphasize some of their most important traits. So the characters get a little more adventurous in their marketing, or they get toys that reflect character attributes that maybe weren’t highlighted at the time. They are really starting to do collections that are more inspired by the characters in the movie. A collection of Frozen shoes for Cold heart 2. It was Ruthie Davis. It was really cool. They also did a Mulan in the collection with Ruthie Davis, that they’re like these giant platform shoes, they’re really funky. Really cool. In the toy section, I’m trying to think. I really liked the Lego sets. I really liked the bow and arrows for Rapunzel. As a child I did not find weapons, they were for boys. How boys had to have light sabers or bows and arrows and girls didn’t. And I love the idea that a young girl can go to a store and buy Rapunzel’s bow and arrows.

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