The Walt Disney Company has always been notorious in this regard, specifically when it comes to women. They’ve been perpetuating cultural stereotypes and manipulating societal framework for generations. The disproportionate role of dialogue by gender in their animated films, even when it’s the Princess’ own movie, is a perfect example. Unfortunately it’s just a symptom, reflective of the inherent values held by the company itself. And that is not news.
What do we notice is the same about every Disney Princess? What’s the same about them all, regardless of the story or how many lines they’ve been given? They’re all beautiful. They’re thin, lithe, in some cases even a little slinky. Most are Caucasian. Often they are blonde and/or blue-eyed. Most importantly, the true commonality is they’re not complete until they have found their Prince, their True Love. Like the above article outlines, in The Little Mermaid, Ariel went so far as to give up her voice and undergo extreme body transformation (her literal identity) just to be near Prince Eric, a man she’s never spoken to and knows nothing about. Further, it was Prince Eric who actually saved the day. All Ariel did, the main (female) character whom the movie is named after, was get herself and others into trouble. She literally became a non-speaking entity, who then required a man to bail her out. In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana aspires to be a chef and own her own business, but that then becomes secondary to the feelings that develop between her and Prince Naveen. The focus is on the drama of romance, instead of getting back to being a chef. Even as frogs, trying to undo a Voodoo curse way out in the middle of the bayou, this same subliminal conditioning of gender roles persists. Additionally, Tiana has to be elevated to the status of Princess before she can even be of use in breaking the spell. She couldn’t have loved him and still been herself. She had to become equal to the man. In fact, in Disney’s very first animated feature Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, Snow White is wishing for her love to find her right from the jump. This beneath-the-surface concept of what a women should be has always been there.
For Disney, Female as Hero = Female Incomplete Without Male = Romance as Central Plot, always, which leads to the subliminal sexualization and subordination of women as cultural norm. This sort of narrative is pervasive throughout all of Disney’s history, in their films as well as television programming, even up to current. This includes Frozen, whose protagonist Elsa exercises her freedom by wearing fabulous dresses and decorating her ice-house. She wears sultry eye-shadow, has ruby red lips… Likewise, when we meet the other female protagonist Anna, all she wants to do is dance at a ball. She’s dreaming of romance. She requires a man to complete her.
This is why I’m not surprised to learn about the skewed ratio of male/female dialogue in Disney films.
There are tons of examples of this sort of mentality, so that what we’re consistently seeing from Disney Princesses is that it’s about what the she looks like, her beauty, not about her skills or accomplishments or what she could otherwise contribute to the story in a non-romantic, non-sexualized context. It’s about what she will do when she feels she isn’t meeting societal bars of expectation, rather than seeking to understand that she’s fine the way she is. It’s about striving to meet those bars at all, instead of deciding for herself what is worth her time and energy. Ultimately, it’s about how to get the man (or be good enough to get the man), because that’s what she’s supposed to do. It’s about not feeling any validity of self-hood until those things are achieved. Even if romance isn’t the central plot, like with Frozen (which is itself rare), romance always plays a large role. This is the message, the societal binary conditioning that Disney sends out about women in their animated films. This is what they are encouraging generation after generation of young girls to aspire to grow into.
Be pretty and don’t out-talk the man.
The other side of this conditioning is the cultural mentality that Ugly Is Evil, which can be evidenced by characters such as Ursula the overweight sea witch, or the old and wretched apple-peddling Evil Queen in disguise, or the literally-named “Ugly Stepsisters” who are gangly and have Adam’s apples, that the naturally-lovely Cinderella is forced to contend with. The notion that unattractiveness is evil, or that it equals unhappiness, is no less heinous. It’s also extremely dangerous, in the idea that ugliness, that which is physically unappealing, is somehow less-than or immoral in nature, and should be sought out and vanquished. Also, probably more subliminally, this is true of the Disney theme that Gay Is Evil. We can look at Jafar from Aladdin or Scar from The Lion King as examples of this. Amusing, swishy, effeminate, sometimes even vampy unmanly men with theatrical voices cast in the role of the Villain has been around just as long, and is just as culturally damaging.
But not even straight men are exempt from Disney’s forced lens. In Disney Princess films specifically, Man as Hero has to be attractive as well, strapping, certainly strong but also wealthy (or in Aladdin’s case, putting on a pretense of wealth). They have to conquer beasts, save the day and get the girl. No, the Princess. They have to be Princes and Kings themselves. Nothing less will do… Unless the character is non-white, non-majority, as Disney has a very long history of racially stereotyping people of color, specifically African-Americans, as comedic (as well as dim-witted) relief.
What really underscores all of this though, is the sheer reach and influence of the Walt Disney Company. Is isn’t just Princess movies. Disney is the largest media conglomerate on Earth, currently owning over $80billion worth of the world’s media and entertainment.
So, just saying… These are the ideals they seek to instill with that gargantuan scope. To which I say again, bringing it back to the original article and the disproportionate ratio of dialogue between men and women in The Walt Disney Company’s animated Princess features:
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