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.

Note: NONE of them are looking at each other. It’s like they are unaware that the others exist. No solidarity for the Disney Princesses…

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

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~ by Randi Saunders on May 6, 2012.

9 Responses to “On the Subject of Disney Movies”

  1. Hey Randi, your good friend Brian Goddard here. Seeing as I made Disney movies my life last semester, and how the princesses are either feminist or not was a major part of my essay, I feel the need to leave a couple of my thoughts here.

    First of all, attacking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is rather pointless. I mean, OF COURSE it’s anti-feminist. The movie was made in 1937, before we even had Rosy the Riveter. The movie isn’t feminist because there was not any kind of strong feminist movement at the time it was made, and there wouldn’t be for several years. On that note, part of the reason Cinderella is so bad is because it was made at a time when there was a backlash against Rosy the Riveter and our society was trying to go back to “the good old times” with housewives taking care of children. Again, of course it’s anti-feminist, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be vilified; it was a product of the time.

    Jumping forward to The Little Mermaid, it’s again easy to attack with the comparison of movies made at later dates, but consider it to its predecessors. While the motivation of “I want to get my man” is a terrible portrayal of what a young girl’s goals in life should be, it is worth noting that Ariel is the first strong princess. She isn’t just waiting around singing “Someday My Prince will Come”, she’s actually going out to get him on her own. She decides her own fate. We can agree that she is making a poor decision, but it’s still her decision to make.

    In terms of Beauty and the Beast, I think that it is absolutely an essential among the greats Disney has made. The fact that her town thinks that there is something wrong with her is clearly pointing to the fact that there is something wrong with her town. As soon as we see Gaston, we know he’s the bad guy (for once representing the villain as someone with a mesomorphic body). He bullies Lafoo, and he is completely vain. Belle is obviously the good guy/gal (the movie starts with her singing and she always seems happy, both traits that point to her being “good”. It is also worth mentioning that making such basic things constitute good is essential so that the intended audience of children are able to easily distinguish the heroes from the villains). The fact that all the girls in town like Gaston and all the men in town think that something is wrong with Belle is showing the audience that there is something wrong with the town (and by extension, society in general).

    I just think that these are all points to consider when thinking about Disney. Finally, this is a question, not a comment: In what ways do Jafar or Scar represent alternative sexualities? I really think that claim needs to be backed up…

    • Hi Brian, long time no speak…

      I fully understand that they are a product of their times, but the problem is that because we continue to celebrate and share them, the gender ideals that they present become the ones that we present to children at a time when their concept of gender is most malleable. The Little Mermaid was made in the late 1980s (I just checked) so you can’t tell me that it was created before we had any feminist movement going on in the United States; and she may be going out and getting her man but giving up the most important aspects of her identity to do so is still hugely problematic.

      There are problems with Beauty and the Beast that I didn’t get into here (ex: the Beast functionally uses Belle and his relationship with her as a means to an end) BUT I think that ultimately, YES, it does manage to point out a lot of problems with her town and its mentality. The question is whether or not a young audience would pick up on that, which is what someone concerned with how movies help socialize children to certain gender norms might choose to focus on.

      • I do agree (I detest Snow White with and Cinderella with a flaming passion and I’m none too fond of Little Mermaid) that these movies may not be the ideal role models (though I’m surprised you didn’t include Tangled as good role model) but I just wanted to make sure that they are fairly judged. Also, I sometimes wonder if having a common “mythology” might outweigh the negative. I’m not saying it does, it’s just something I think about.

      • I didn’t include Tangled, not because it wasn’t a good example, but because I just didn’t want the post to be that long.

  2. Great post! I haven’t seen all the Disney movies, like Mulan, for example, but one thing I always think is strange in the Disney movies I have seen is the complete absence of mothers. There are step-mothers and they are often, if not always, bad, but mothers seem to not be there. I can’t quite wrap my brain around it completely, but it’s odd.
    Thanks for the post. -Liza Wolff-Francis, Matrifocal Point

    • This is a really good point, one I hadn’t thought much about. There is a mother in “Tangled” but she’s not around for most of the movie; the real mother figure is the witch who kidnaps Rapunzel and raises her. Mulan is one of the only movies I can think of with a strong mother character other than possibly “A Bug’s Life” and maybe “Toy Story”…there really aren’t many…

  3. Perhaps even more problematic (simply because they are not discussed) is how men are represented – they have to be handsome, courageous AND heterosexual. Furthermore they lack personality, and few have many lines in the movies.It is as if they are mere ‘pawns’. Gender idealisations are obviously problematic, and it is unfair to claim that they only affect women.

    • This is also VERY true. The prince in “Cinderella” actually says nothing, I am not sure he has any lines. There are of course some Disney males who have leading roles or speak more (ex: the Beast, as well as Belle’s father, in “Beauty and the Beast” do speak) but their portrayals are also problematic, in that they emphasize hypermasculinity.

      H–you want to do a deeper discussion of this or should I?

  4. […] what is bad, from pop culture and the media.  That’s why some people are so concerned about the messages sent by Disney movies: they inform children’s ideas about gender at a time when ideas about gender are most […]

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