Culture War Correspondence: Disney Movies and Gender Roles

KAT: Hello there ladies and gentlemen, princesses and princes, woodland creatures and dwarfs and all those who fall somewhere in between. Today, if you haven’t already guessed, Evan and I will be discussing Disney films and gender roles.

EVAN: I’ve been reading blogger extraordinaire the Unshaved Mouse review each installment in the Disney animated canon beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and believe you me there is a lot for us to go through-

KAT: Speaking of Snow White, I also unexpectedly came across the Disney film in my literary theory class. In their essay “The Madwoman in the Attic” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar use Snow White as an example of the angel/ monster dichotomy imposed on women. Snow White is quite literally the personification of purity, meanwhile the only powerful woman in the film (the Queen) is purely evil.

That being said, I feel like gender roles in Disney films have evolved considerably since then.

What kind of gender issues was the Unshaved Mouse bringing up on his blog post about the character?

EVAN: Well, he mostly harps on her for having THE most obnoxious voice, which I cannot disagree with. He also brings up the fact that she goes into cooking and cleaning mode like it’s what she was put on this planet to do, which is . . . it’s not progressive. Agency’s also pretty much nil.

As for my own personal thoughts on the matter, I think it’s important to remember that this was a fairly straightforward retelling of a classic fairy tale [barring the dwarves trying to kill the Queen and her being vanquished à la deus ex machina].

Thor doesn’t take kindly to witchcraft.

It was basically as good as it was going to get, I think. Though I suppose with that in mind we have to look at other “remakes”, if that’s what we’re going to call them, like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and, of course, Frozen.

KAT: I came across this meme on pinterest that tries to show how the princess-heroine has been evolving through the years:

At the same time, I’ve been reading various accounts by feminist bloggers (like the one I focus on for my post on Frozen) that feel like some of the newer Disney characters are even more flat than the old ones.

EVAN: The image you used kind of sums up what I was getting at pretty well, I think. With Tangled in particular we have a retelling that makes Rapunzel the hero [even if they didn’t want to saddle the film with her name]. And I think that’s sort of a problem.

Not that “girl power” is a problem. It’s just that I want a little more variety in my heroines and I don’t think I’m getting that. Or do you maybe think they’re just making up for lost time?

KAT: Honestly I feel like they are just trying to make “strong” female characters without actually having to change the tropes they are used to using. So they are taking an easy way out. You really see that in Dani Colman’s frustration article on Frozen [it’s the last link I posted]. She really tears apart both the female characters in Frozen, insisting that Anna has absolutely no substance, meanwhile Elsa only gets a little substance because she is in the role of the villain (even though she becomes good in the end). Neither really possess any character trait to make them all that endearing. They’re just a vessel for viewers to feel an association with.

Kinda like how The Oatmeal describes Bella in the Twilight franchise. 

EVAN: As a double-whammy, I dislike both The Oatmean and Frozen.

Okay, the latter is kind of harsh, though the former still stands to the point where I linked to a video of the comic and not the actual comic to itself. That aside, it really is just kinda . . . eh. Great songs, of course, but ultimately not super interesting, which of course has a lot to do with the characters.

Speaking of which, we should talk about when Disney does female characters right.

film animated gif on Giphy

KAT: When has Disney done it right? Well, it depends on the genre. In films outside of the princess line Disney seems able to give more dimension to their characters (regardless of gender). Unfortunately, a lot of princess plots seem to limit their characters in order to keep them from moving beyond the focus of the plot (a love story). One film that seems to move beyond this is Mulan. While Mulan does end up with her love interest, most of the story is focused on her own personal challenges and she develops as a person throughout the story.

Also Nani.

EVAN: I’m upset you used that tumblr post dedicate to Nani because I swear I was just looking for it, and

I also think that Mulan is the “obvious” answer. She’s a straight-up warrior, for one, but she’s also a deeply conflicted person who makes decisions that both buck tradition while keeping her family’s best interests in mind. She’s attracted to Shang, but not just for his rockin’ body; she gets to know who he is as a good and brave person.

For the sake of giving a different answer, I’m actually going to go with a non-Princess. I think Jane Porter is just the greatest.

No, it’s not just because she’s the cutest character the studio has ever animated, it’s that she feels like an actual woman. While she’s no fighter she is an adventurer, and she does have motivations that go beyond Tarzan’s chiseled physique [it’s not my fault both movies feature the male leads shirtless]; she’s just as jazzed about being around gorillas as swinging through the vines with him.

KAT: So what about male Disney characters? I mean, aren’t several of the princes all just called “Prince Charming”?

And quite a few of the male characters fall into typical masculine tropes as well. I mean, just look as Gaston. Funny side story: when John was little he tried to take Gaston’s advice about eating 5 dozen eggs to get strong… it didn’t go well.

EVAN: That is sixty eggs.

KAT: I doubt it was the full five dozen. His dad just gave him enough for him to get sick and decide to give up on his Disney-inspired workout plan.

But if we are looking at gender roles in Disney films, who do you think is a good example of a well rounded male character?

EVAN: I was going to mention this earlier, but before Disney became deathly afraid of alienating their young male audience a lot of their early stuff was named after female leads [Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Mulan, etc.]. And yeah, they really were the leads, such as they were.

And no, most of the princes didn’t even have names. In a lot of ways they fared worse than their female counterparts.

To answer your question, though, I really like . . . uh . . . wow, this is bad. Goofy. From A Goofy Movie.

Yeah, this guy.

KAT: Haha!

That’s not so bad. Goofy is pretty hilarious.

EVAN: It’s more than just that, though- Goofy’s the most realistic father they’ve ever depicted, I think. Yes, Triton and The Sultan have children who rebel and hate their guts [for a time], but their relationship is never as thoroughly explored as Goofy’s and Max’s.

He struggles with disappointing/being disappointed by his kid, and he makes it work. So I’m happy with my answer.

KAT: Nice. I might have to go with Emperor Kuzco, from The Emperor’s New Groove. He is such an incredible brat throughout the film and learns his lesson by the end. It’s not that he’s really that lovable (that’s what Kronk is for) but he is really forced to come to some harsh realizations about himself.

For example: this is not an acceptable form of showing affection to infants.

It’s interesting that both the films we brought up feature a male protagonist whose story arc is about their relationship with another man (son, friend). I’m trying to think if there is even a Disney film with a female protagonist that doesn’t have some sort of love interest waiting for her at the end (or along her journey). Can you think of any?

EVAN: Well, Frozen got as close to that as you can get, I suppose. The emotional climax doesn’t hinge on a romantic relationship, anyway.

I think you actually hit on something really interesting, which is that apparently stories about “brotherhood” or male friendship are apparently worth telling but tales about the “finer sex” are not.

KAT: So it would seem that Disney tends to feature male protagonists in a variety of roles while the female characters are generally relegated to the love story plot. That being said, we seem to agree that Disney does have some pretty strong female characters out there, as well as well-rounded male ones. Maybe now would be a good time to see what our readers think. Especially since it’s getting pretty late on your side of the country.

EVAN: No, Kat, you’ve ruined the illusion of us putting these posts together at a responsible hour! Which, uh, we totally do. It’s not 2 AM over here, no sir.

It was just one of those days… 

I’m not tired, really.

What we should concentrate on is the fact that we’ve laid a little groudwork here, and that our readers now have the opportunity to chime in when it comes to which Disney characters they’re attracted to are strong characters of both genders, and why [I had to look through a lot of Jane Porter images].

KAT: Thanks for joining us for tonights correspondence and don’t forget to let us know what you think. Do men and women get to adventure through Disney films equally? Or are female protagonists relegated to the love story plot only? And perhaps most importantly, are any of you in love with a Disney character as much as Evan seems to love Jane?

EVAN: We all know the answer to that last question.

3 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Disney Movies and Gender Roles

  1. I think it is extremely easy to look at Disney movies and read so far into them.
    Snow white, While yes she is a naïve character.. She is a strong character because she grew up in the shadow of someone who hated her because of how she looked. And yet, she never chose anger or bitterness.
    That is strength. And I think finding Joy in any situation (whether that be house cleaning or running through a meadow of flowers) is an important thing to teach kids. For both Boys and Girls.

    Frozen: Elsa is not a villain, She is hurt and afraid.. But she never does anything with malice intent. So I don’t think she can be dumped in with the other villians.

    Tangled: Rapunzel has been mostly alone (other than her verbally abusive mother, and that little lizard…) So seeing as she is seeing the outside world for the first time, I think she wouldn’t have a whole lot of extra depth… She hasn’t developed it until this trip.

    I’m not saying that Disney always gets it right, But looking on the bright side of things is important too.

    • When I say Elsa is a villain I’m referring to the original fairy tale where the snow queen was indeed the bad one. Some feminists have argued that even though she “reforms” at the end, the main reason she doesn’t wind up with a love interest is because for most of the film she is in the role of the villain, and villains don’t get love interests. I agree with you though, in the end she really isn’t the bad one. Also, you are definitely right that it’s possible to read too far into anything. Personally, I think Disney films are just a fun thing to analyze because they seem to resonate so well with my generation (I grew up on Disney), so it’s worth considering what kind of ideas I may have picked up from the films.

  2. What about Brave? Merida has tons of real personality and character and the entire story is about her relationship with her mother. There’s no love interest at the end.

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