Disney's Gender Portrayals

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Disney’s animated princess films are perhaps one of the first movies that a young child, born in the millennial generation, would watch. I, myself, remember growing up with classics like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid and Mulan. When I re-watched them as a teen, I found myself completely horrified by the portrayal of young adult women and men. I found myself really thinking about the stories and the ideas they project to the viewers and I was left upset and appalled because the movies had been ruined for me.

Snow White projected to viewers that being fair-skinned makes you the most beautiful. Sleeping Beauty showed a prince falling in love with a woman solely based on her looks (this is evidenced by the fact that he kisses Aurora while she is in a ‘sleep-like-death’). In Cinderella, the prince sets out to marry the woman whose foot fits into a dainty and delicate glass heels because apparently, he can’t remember the personality or even the face of the woman he danced all night with. Jasmine and other women in ‘Aladdin’ perpetuated the stereotype that brown-skinned women are feisty, animalistic and sexual – a vast majority of the women were shown wearing racy clothes and dancing seductively. These cases described send out a dangerous message to young girls and boys watching: the message that a woman’s looks are her most important asset and that physical appearance is the only thing a boy will look for in a girl.

Another common character trope portrayed in many Disney films is that a woman’s personality is binary. The heroine, often young/adolescent, is frail, gentle, kind-hearted, beautiful, loved by all, extremely feminine, domestic and sensitive. On the other end of the spectrum lie the villains: middle-aged woman portrayed to be vile, cunning, wicked, ill-hearted, unpleasant to look at and downright unlikeable. For example, Mother Gothel (Rapunzel), Ursula (The Little Mermaid) and the wicked Queen (Snow White) all fit into the aforementioned category. They have been called Disney's femme fatales (powerful woman defined by their sexuality). The step-mother and step-sisters from Cinderella are also significant examples that exist to act as foils to the protagonist’s character. All of these ‘evil’ women serve the purpose of making the innocent, naïve heroine look like a charming damsel in distress – one who is perfect to be wooed and one who stands out amongst the other gaudy women. They also make it seem like a woman is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that there is no in between.

There are, however, two Disney princess stories, such as Mulan and Pocahontas, that go against the traditional mold and portray the female leads as independent women. Throughout the movie, Mulan is constantly breaking stereotypes either by enlisting herself in her father’s place in the army (albeit disguised as a man) or only considering marriage because it brings honor to her family. The romance between Mulan, and her love interest, Li Shang is placed on the backburner to emphasize her bravery and autonomy. One of Disney’s native American characters, Pocahontas is displayed as a loyal, noble and wise-beyond-her age woman. Loosely inspired by the historical figure, Pocahontas has an integral role in preventing the war between the British and native Americans by using her shamanic powers. Like Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) and Mulan, Pocahontas does not believe that marriage is her eventual fate, although she doesn’t reject it altogether. 

Of course, progress cannot be made overnight. It is made through long periods of evolutionary thinking and Disney has been somewhat changing the cards on its table. Recent films released by Disney and its subsidiary, Pixar, have been more diverse in terms of characters and storylines. The films also see a departure in romantic plot-lines for the heroines – instead giving the arcs of self-discovery and spirited passion. Brave put a new and much needed spin on the classic princess story. Fans and audiences were delighted to see that Disney’s idea of beauty (long, flowing hair, doe-eyes, dazzling smile, hour-glass figure) had been given a make-over and replaced with a more realistic image of a woman. Merida, Brave’s princess, had messy and tangled curly, a freckled face devoid of makeup, a torn dress as a result of days spent practicing archery, riding horses and climbing rocks. Merida’s frame was gangly, awkward and everything a pre-teen and teen girl embodies. 

On screen, she showed discomfort in being stuffed into a slimming corset and curve-accentuating dress. Her gait was not ‘princess-like’ but very comical and free. Furthermore, her goal was not to find a husband but rather to find herself and mend her relationship with her mother. Merida was so widely accepted by audiences (clearly showing that the 21st century viewers demand something different from Disney’s long withstanding character stereotypes) that a vastly popular petition caused the writers to revert back to the version we see on screen, after a short stint in trying to ‘beautify’ Merida by making her adhere to the unrealistic body expectations that Disney is known to promote. Disney’s most recent release Moana, is another proof that when Disney breaks away from the status-quo, it receives acclaim from both critics and viewers.  Sporting a healthy and lean figure (as opposed to hour-glass like curves), Moana disliked being called a princess, never accepts the limits imposed upon her by her family and also takes on Maui’s (the demigod) destiny of restoring the ‘Heart of the Sea’ into her own hands. Marriage or even relationships are never even mentioned in this movie wherein the heroine gains confidence and spearheads battles against her enemies most of all her self-doubt. Moana proved to be a very relevant and necessary movie for Disney wherein a POC (person of colour) is given the leading role and isn’t reduced to a sidekick.

The discussion surrounding Disney’s portrayal of gender stereotypes would be incomplete without exploring the image of the various male characters. Gaston (from Beauty and the Beast) is the typical ‘manly man’: tall, white, burlesque, hairy and muscular, commanding the attention of all the maidens in Belle’s village. Often, the main male characters are given small, sometimes fat and witty comic-relief sidekicks (eg. Le Fou, Timon and Pumba) who serve as foils to the masculinity of the ‘hero’. These sidekicks are given ‘feminine’ qualities like offering advice to the hero, motivating him are often more sensitive and caring.  In fact, most Disney princess films portray the men as the ultimate ‘saviours’ (case in point: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid). This perpetuates the notion that women need to be saved and that men always need to save which is harmful for both male and female characters. It also brings in the idea that men are ‘superior’ to women because they possess a higher skill-set and have qualities that women do not.

Ultimately, Disney’s long enduring legacy of princess films have been showing various stereotypes that have only recently been broken. When Disney can diversify their characters, storylines and themes, they produce films that are not only open minded, but also progressive. The new wave of Disney animated films gives modern-age audiences hope for a more widespread and globalized approach to film making.

References:
1.       Gender & Pop Culture - Adrienne Trier-Bieniek and Patricia Leavy (Eds.)

6.       https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moana_(2016_film)
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