If eyes are the “mirror of the soul”, Disney’s princess Sofia the First might be the incarnation of film histories stereotypical “woman without secrets”. This predominantly female protagonist, often found in romantic comedies, portrays a lovable, clumsy character displaying an openhearted directness that allegedly wins over the hearts of both male and female recipients in an instant. Accordingly, little Sofia, pardon – Sofia the First – wears her heart on her sleeve, stumbling from one faux pas to the next, acting supposedly like- and adorable. And this concept seems to pay off: The royal Disney character currently reigns nothing but merchandise shelves in toy stores all around the globe.
Also the princess’ physiognomic features add on to her predominant joyful characteristic: Her eyes make up approximately one third of her face. They apparently lack eyelids and thus constantly appear wide open. The lower part of the face again seems comparatively far less prominent and rather insignificant. This design has sincere implications for the display of the range of her facial expressions: The baseline of her highness’ neutral appearance is already so extreme that even Paul Ekman himself would have trouble coding it for its intensity. This extent of her look makes it impossible for her to widen her eyes even further. The only movement observable is thus a casual blink. Sometimes she also closes her eyes a little, yet without causing the usual impression of a character being grim or sad. Closing her eyes a tad rather functions as anticipation, announcing yet another wave of joy when the princess prepares to widen her eyes again to her usual expression of astonishment and delight. Her lower face comes into play only for a casual smile or a mouth opened in wonder. Thus, the emotions expressed by Sofia the First are predominantly surprise and happiness. These perfectly match her cheery overall appearance and allow for feeling untroubled compassion on part of the viewers.
The little princess is certainly not alone in this; there are multiple predecessors and peers with a comparable facial design: Other computer animated, ‘manga-eyed’, and widely loved characters such as Disney’s WALL-E, Dream Works Puss in Boots or even Gollum use the same childlike-characteristics and thus have the potential to trigger compassionate or even sympathetic reactions in their viewers. WALL-E, for example, even completely lacks a lower face; his display of feelings is accordingly restricted, yet effective: Emotions displayed in his upper face include sadness or fear and have the potential of causing sympathy in viewers of all ages. Furthermore, these characters show a wider range of emotions apart from eliciting sympathy and portray an emotional complexity that surpasses possible flaws in their ‘physique’.
Little Sofia the First, however, doesn’t really live up to the standard of her peers. Considering the potential her physiognomy offers, the prominence of her eyes even seems to be a waste from the standpoint of emotional depths. Sure, her characteristics are mirrored in her face. Sure, we get the basic message about her emotional status and inner life. Sure, everything that is not being displayed sufficiently in her face is being seconded by her body language (like clapping hands or jumping up and down when seeing something enlightening). And, sure, we are talking about a Disney (!) princess (!) aiming for a young (!) audience.
However, studies show that even babies are capable of recognizing finest hints of emotions in people’s faces. Furthermore, faces even – and perhaps even more so – of animated characters are a playground for the numerous facets of the emotional spectrum. And last but not least: Even princesses, I insist, should be allowed to feel more than joy and surprise and to elicit more than just reactions of sympathy and delight. As Pixar’s latest work “Inside Out” shows: Without sadness there would be no joy, without anger there would be no happiness, without fear, there would be no pride.
So, here’s to a wider range of emotions in girly cartoon characters. Princesses: Display your anger at your wicked stepmother, show your disgust at the behavior of your mean step sister and your contempt regarding your slightly boring companion, the prince. I bet this will not result in you appearing any less appealing – on the contrary. This might even stop critics in online chat rooms describing you as “dull”, “cheap” and “constrained”. And, even as being admired shall not be a girl’s main goal: I bet your tributes will love you for what you are – after all still a stereotypical female protagonist portraying the wide range of feelings and emotional complexity that women are known for.
Meike Uhrig is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Media Studies at Tuebingen University, Germany and coordinator at the Tuebingen Centre for Animation Studies. She spent a research year as Visiting Researcher at the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, USA. In her dissertation she studied the “Representation, reception and effects of emotions in film” (Springer VS, 2014) using the example of popular fantasy films. Her research interests include popular film, animation and fantasy film as well as film effects, media and emotion research, film psychology, and cognitive film theory.