On the Subject of Disney Movies
In the beginning, most women’s studies students have this awkward vendetta against Disney movies. It was, in fact, my FIRST introduction to WGSS-~-my freshman year, my RA held a thought talk about gender, sexuality, and Disney that helped get me into this field. Disney is easy to pick on because a) so few of their movies pass the Bechdel test, b) so many of their movies perpetuate the princess fantasy which, as previously discussed on this blog, has some real problems, and c) so many people are familiar with them that they make for a common ground for discussion.
As an introduction to this topic, I’m going to briefly discuss 2 Disney movies that deserve an angry, frowny face for their portrayal of gender, sexuality and or/family, 2 that deserve a thumbs up, and 1 that we’re on the fence about. If you have other movies you want to discuss, feel free to post about them in the comments section.
HARMFUL MOVIE #1: Snow White
I chose to start with Snow White because it is one of the oldest, one of the best classics. While I adore what ABC has been doing to the story of Snow White with their show Once Upon A Time, the actual original story and the version shown by Disney in their movie is far less empowering. Snow White is essentially a story of a girl whose stepmother decides to kill her because Snow is more beautiful than she is; Snow White has no skills aside from the ability to cook, clean and whistle while she works, and in the end she is only able to be saved by a prince who then whisks her away to a happily ever after that he ultimately controls. Which means that a) the story emphasizes that the only thing about a woman that matters is her beauty and b) that happiness can only be attained through a man. In addition, like Cinderella, this story vilifies stepmothers/alternative families.
POSITIVE MOVIE #1: Hercules
I know what you’re thinking. Hercules? It’s one of the few that actually focuses on a man! And this is true. But the main female character, Meg, actually has a lot going for her that most Disney “princesses” don’t: in particular, Meg is the only Disney princess who embraces her sexuality. Meg is the ONLY one who has clearly been with other men; she talks casually about her encounters with men (“You know how men can be: they think ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours’”). On top of that, she doesn’t WANT Hercules’s help (“I’m a damsel. I’m in distress. I can handle it. Have a nice day!”).
Unfortunately, the writers ALSO decided to blame her for Hercules’ loss of his strength and the near destruction of the world, BUT I’m going to ignore that since they make up for it by having Meg save Hercules’ life and, since she injured herself along the way, she also gets him his strength back.
HARMFUL MOVIE #2: The Little Mermaid
I don’t care if you think this movie is cute or sweet or you like the songs, just focus on the portrayal of gender and sexuality for a minute. Ariel literally gives up her life as a princess, with a family that loves her and all the comforts the sea can offer, and specifically trades in her most valuable asset (her voice) for a CHANCE with a man she has never spoken to. And what does she need to do in order to do in order to not lose her soul? Oh, right, he needs to kiss her. Obviously physical romantic interaction is the ONLY thing that matters here. On top of that, Ursula is just one of several Disney villains who represents an alternative sexuality (the others are Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from The Lion King). Ursula’s character is based on a drag queen, and she is just one of several examples of Disney vilifying alternative expressions of sexuality-~-or, if we’re honest, the embrace of sexuality in the first place.
POSITIVE MOVIE #2: Mulan
On the total and complete OPPOSITE end of the spectrum from The Little Mermaid is Mulan. If Meg is the only Disney female who embraces her sexuality, Mulan is the only one who really demonstrates agency. She is who she is and when she doesn’t feel that she can fit her society’s sexist, rigid gender roles, she cross-dresses and does what she feels she has to do to stay true to who she is and what she believes in (ie, protecting her father). She’s rebellious and hard-headed and maybe doesn’t always think things through, but at least she thinks for herself. (Also, this movie passes the Bechdel test).
MOVIE I’M STILL NOT SURE ABOUT: Beauty and the Beast
This one doesn’t fall too solidly on either end of the spectrum. On the one hand, Gaston represents hypermasculinity very clearly…but he’s vilified for it. But all the girls want him because of it. Except Belle. And Belle is very intelligent and loves to read…but all the men in the movie seem to care about is how beautiful she is. Gaston literally cannot have a conversation with her, but wants to marry her. And the other girls think she is strange and stupid for not wanting to marry him.
Mrs. Potts, the other main female character, has no personality other than a general sense of being motherly-~-she’s not particularly smart or creative or insightful. And on top of that, some feminists wonder if the movie doesn’t send the message that a girl can change the man she is with through her love. This is a pretty questionable message to send, and is one of the criticisms of the movie.
Got more feminist Disney questions? Write them in the comments or email me at RadicalButLogical@gmail.com