Disney is a large part of most people’s childhood. When you ask young people about their childhood memories, Disney will often be a part. It is something that everyone can relate to, no matter what class, area or background you are from – it is a universal subject. But what is the perception of Disney, and Disney females in particular, to the children watching their films? Are Disney changing with the times, and creating more feminist characters, especially among their females, or do Disney portray their female characters in a bad way?
If all of the Disney female characters were lined up together, it could be very hard to distinguish between them in terms of beauty. The tiny waists, the long flowing hair and the ‘come hither’ look are a trademark of the Disney Princess. Putting beauty aside, a main factor amongst these characters is that they mostly seem to be waiting for their Prince to turn up to save them from the problems in their lives, whether it be evil parents (or step-parents), loneliness or a boredom of being themselves.
Disney is slowly but surely advancing with the times, and their female characters are becoming more up-to-date. But, when looking at the female characters in Disney films through the years, was Disney representing their female characters in a negative way, or was Disney simply representing females as they were seen at the time?
Warning: Spoilers are contained below!
In the early Disney films, the female characters such as Snow White and Cinderella never appeared to make their own choices, and very often, the beauty of these characters led to their downfall through the jealousy of others. Cinderella is constantly relying on outside help in her situation, whether it is from the Fairy Godmother or the Grand Duke, as she seemingly cannot rescue herself. In some cases, these characters aspire to be the wife of a Prince who turns up on his horse to rescue them as they are staring out of the window, waiting for the sound of approaching hooves. What type of message is this sending out to the children watching these films?
However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Belle from Beauty and the Beast is a character who ends up leaving her home, not because she wants to find true love, but instead to save her father’s life. Belle is ridiculed in the village she lives in for being more interested in books than the local men, and she falls in love with a Beast (who happens to be a Prince, bonus!) not because of his looks, but because of who he is. It is a shame that who he is includes verbally abusing Belle and holding her prisoner. Is it fair to say that Gaston, the villain of the film who tries to bully Belle into marrying him and the Beast are the same person? The only difference being that one is a Prince and the other is not, but both use violence and anger to get what they want from the lead female character. It cannot be denied that Belle is a strong female character, who does represent independence and who is sceptic to the idea of married life, but she stays with an abusive partner to try and change him; true love or Stockholm syndrome?
Mulan and Pocahontas can also be seen as strong female characters; Mulan joins the Army to protect her father, and Pocahontas tries to prevent a conflict from beginning. But ultimately, by the end of the film, both are defined by their relationship with a man. Unusually for Disney, Pocahontas does not end up with her man (not a Prince, but a Captain this time) and instead of following the path set out for her by her father and her community, she follows her own path which leaves her destiny up to her; she is not reliant on a male character. A definite step forward for feminism in Disney films.
The argument regarding The Little Mermaid and feminism is debatable, but the issue of a female giving up her voice, and therefore her identity, to get a man cannot surely be seen as fair? She then has to rely mostly on her looks alone to get her man. Many would argue that Ariel is in fact an independent character, and her song ‘Part of your World’ is her way of wanting to explore the world for herself. However, her sudden interest in Prince Eric cannot be ignored as perhaps the main reason that Ariel now wishes to become human.
Even in Mary Poppins, a live action Disney film, the suffragette mother has to find a woman to leave her children with whilst she is campaigning. Even the suffragettes have to find other women to look after their children whilst they’re campaigning for female equality and votes for women.
Merida from Brave is an excellent example of a new Disney character who defies the idea of finding a suitable marriage match, which her parents are pursuing, and is instead courageous and more interested in practising her archery skills than waiting for her true love to find her. Her character is a Princess, but she defies the typical Disney Princess ideal, and the fact that Disney has based a film on the relationship between a mother and daughter instead of a romantic relationship, can be seem as a different, but very modern and positive direction for Disney altogether.
The Director of Brave, Brenda Chapman, recently said how disappointed she was that Merida was re-designed before becoming the 11th official Princess at Walt Disney World, to make her waist smaller, her dress more sparkly and the removal of her trademark bow and arrow. Even after the film had been released, there was seen a need for the character to become more ‘sexy’, completely defying her character in the film. A step back for feminism and Disney females.
Disney have recently made a great leap forward with the amazingly successful Frozen, telling the story of two princess sisters and their relationship. Ultimately, it is their love for each other which saves the sisters from isolation and even death, and the idea of getting married to someone you have just met is ridiculed. In terms of representing female characters, Disney has made a huge leap forward with their female characters in Frozen.
It is not just the female Disney characters who face this gender characterisation. Indeed, many of the male Disney characters are described as ‘dashing’ (a word often used) and are either a Prince or in a position of power, such as a Captain. The male Disney characters are showing that love and a position of power are seemingly parallel.
There will be some people reading this and thinking that Disney can be interpreted completely differently, that they do their upmost to make female and male characters independent, and that I have simply taken this too seriously. I understand that Disney films are designed to be feel-good and teach children good morals, and I enjoy watching a Disney film as much as anybody. The fact that Disney are now representing more feminist characters in their films by not having the females rely on the male characters as much, or be waiting for marriage or to be rescued, can only be a good thing, and I hope Disney keep up this trend.