The Walt Disney Corporation is one of the largest mass media companies in the world owning TV and radio networks, Internet sites, theatres, theme parks, music studios, magazines etc. They publish children’s books, produce cartoons, computer software, and toys among many other things. For more than 70 years Disney animated films have been a popular form of children’s entertainment and part of many children’s lives worldwide. It is not an exaggeration to say that these films have also contributed to and influenced the shaping of children’s values, beliefs and imagination. Therefore, being one of the most dominant storytellers and having such a huge influence on children’s culture in general, the Disney Company and the array of images and stereotypes they offer to the public should be approached critically and analysed.
In this essay I will be focusing on the female gender stereotypes reinforced in three Disney animated films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast – and on the notions of femininity that these films portray. Furthermore, I will be analyzing what kind of effects these particular stereotypes and representations of femininity may produce on girls and young women. Most predominant female gender stereotypes that these films reinforce are the following:
1. a woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect;
2. a woman’s role in society is to be a housewife;
3. a woman should get married to find true happiness, and
4. a woman’s life is shaped by male influences.
The female characters depicted in these three Disney animated films are very narrowly stereotyped and throughout the entire films constantly hyper sexualized. It can not be said that basically they differ from each other in trying to initiate or actively participate in shaping their destinies, but are merely bystanders, watching as their future unfolds. My stand on this stereotype is that new generations are constantly taught to see women as not trying to present themselves as intellectual individuals but simply as pretty faces trying to accomplish their goals in life by using their beauty as their only tool for success.
The stereotypical portrayal of young women and the Disney Company’s ideology of physical beauty demonstrated in their animated films have not changed since the release of their first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. Snow White was the first Disney Princess to be portrayed in a way that would become characteristic of all Disney Princesses: she had red lips, straight hair, perfect complexion, a skinny body, and a beautiful face. Naturally, she was gifted with a very soft voice enchanting all around her when she sang, whether she was sad or happy. Snow White was so beautiful that her beauty brought her an enemy embodied in her stepmother, who, in disguise, fed her with a poisoned apple which put her into a deep slumber. The fairest one of all had her life spared by the hunter simply because she was too beautiful to be killed (Wachutka, 2007). The female images presented in this film can be harmful to the young women since they put emphasis on the false idea that the greatest quality a woman can possess is beauty.
Similarly to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the animated film The Little Mermaid (1989) accentuates the importance of beauty by advising girls through the film’s messages that they should sacrifice in order to achieve the perfect body since that is, according to the Disney Company, a woman’s most important attribute after all. It is not an overstatement to say that the Disney Company implies a physical transformation to be the best way to win a man’s love. The main protagonist in the film, the mermaid Ariel, is willing to trade her voice, that is, her means of communicating and expressing her intellect and personality for human legs, thus becoming what society wants her to be – a silent and obedient pretty face. Ariel decides to undergo the process of transformation after Ursula, the evil sea witch and the mastermind behind the idea of Ariel’s trade, convinces Ariel that she need not worry about losing her voice because she will “have (her) looks, (her) pretty face”, and should “not underestimate the importance of body language,” because “on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word; it’s the one that holds her tongue that gets her man” (Clements & Musker, 1989).
Therefore, it is clear that the film supports the idea that it is not intellect what is valued in a woman in society, but her pleasing appearance and obedience, the qualities which are bound to ‘get her a man’. Ariel’s body supports the same idea, teaching girls from an early age that they have to have a tiny waist if they want to be pretty. Even Ursula, when transforming to a human in an attempt to steal Prince Eric’s love, does so by becoming a tall and slender girl with red lips, straight hair and perfect complexion, which are the same characteristics that Snow White possesses.
The Disney Company further underestimates the importance of a woman’s intellect in the scene where Arial having sung about her aspirations for the intellectual pursuit of the human knowledge swiftly turns her thoughts towards Prince Eric. Her high aspirations are demonstrated in the lyrics of the song ‘Part of Your World’ which Ariel sings while in her hidden cavern which holds all of her treasures: “I’m ready to know what the people know, ask them my questions and get some answers… What is a fire and why does it burn?” (Clements & Musker, 1989).
In Beauty and the Beast (1991) it is Belle’s beauty and loveliness that tame the Beast’s savagery. The confirmation for this statement is the fact that the kindness and understanding of his household staff were not enough to stop his terrorizing and violent behaviour. The only person who could put things right was Belle. The Disney Company once again emphasizes that if a woman is pretty enough and sweet enough, she could transform an abusive man into her prince forever. According to Maio (1998), this stereotypically implies that in real life “women are responsible for controlling male anger and violence.”
It is important to call attention to another symbolism in this film. Unlike any other Disney Princess, Belle is gifted with a passion for reading. Her hopes and aspirations for constant advancement are accentuated at the beginning of the film where she can be heard repeating the sentence: “There must be more than this provincial life.” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991) Yet, the Disney Company could not allow Belle to be “too intelligent”. They needed to clarify to the viewers that the books she was reading were just an easy read, pointing out that her favourite book is about “far-off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, and a prince in disguise” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991). A prince in disguise is, of course, the most important link in the chain here, as the story itself will prove. Belle suggests this by stating that her favourite part of that book is “where she (the character of the book she’s reading) meets Prince Charming.” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991)
As seen in these examples, the flat portrayal of young women, not reflecting what females really are and what their true goals in life should be, creates the false representation of the notion of femininity which can have a strong impact on young girls. Bearing in mind the fact that girls at the very young age try to understand what being a woman really means and how they should behave when they grow up, I find that the effects these films can have on them can be quite negative, instilling a false system of believes about the values a woman should possess.
It is clear that, on the example of both Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), there is a shortage of diverse jobs that can be ascribed to women. Actually, the female characters are not even given the choice of the kind of careers they could pursue and strive to accomplish during the films. Apparently, it seemed perfectly ‘natural’ for the Disney Company to decide upon ‘the career’ of a housewife for their ‘Princesses’ to follow. Here, it is quite evident that the only reason for this decision was the promotion of a stereotype that a woman’s natural abilities are those of a ‘house servant’ and nothing else.
The film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) clearly promotes the stereotype that women are “natural-born happy homemakers who live in a state of suspended liveliness until a man gives them a life” (Maio, 1998). The moment Snow White enters the dwarfs’ house she feels a natural urge to clean it from top to bottom, in spite of the fact that she does not know who lives in it. This way, she highlights that her true talents and worth lie in her abilities to clean and cook. She uses these abilities hoping that the tenants will provide her with accommodation, and, thus, give her more opportunities to cook and clean – “If you let me stay, I’ll keep house for you. I’ll wash and sew and sweep and cook.” (Hand, Cottrell, Jackson, Morey, Pearce, & Sharpsteen, 1937)
It is also worth mentioning that Snow White instantly associates the filth and disorder of the house with the idea that whoever lives in the house does not have a mother. In her mind it is as clear as a bell that if they did, it would be their mother’s role to keep the house in order, since that is a woman’s true calling in life. In spite of the fact that she enters the house in tiny high heeled shoes, she immediately sets to work to clean it, singing all along as though she has merely continued her stroll through the woods.
In Beauty and the Beast (1991), the Disney Company use the narrow-minded townspeople to typify Belle’s intelligence and strength as eccentric and to demonstrate the general view of society of the position of women. In the lyrics of the song ‘Belle’ we are able to witness their gossiping “The girl is strange, no question, dazed and distracted… Never part of any crowd, ’cause her head’s up on some cloud. No denying she’s a funny girl, that Belle. With a dreamy, far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book, what a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle.” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991) Her interest in books won her the title of “a funny girl who has her head in the clouds”. The message which Disney is trying to convey here is that women are not supposed to seek knowledge, because it is not the part they are supposed to play in the society. In the film, the most admired man in the village, Gaston, confronts Belle about her interest in books and clearly illustrates that it is not a woman’s role to be interested in reading and intellectual pursuit when he tells Belle, “It’s not right for a woman to read, soon she starts getting ideas, thinking.” In the following dialogue between Belle and Gaston, he explains the role a woman should have in society:
Belle: “What do you know about my dreams, Gaston?”
Gaston: ”Plenty! Picture this – a rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire and my little wife massaging my feet, while the little ones play on the floor with the dogs. We’ll have six or seven strapping boys like me.” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991)
A woman is therefore portrayed as a housewife with her sole occupation being working in the house and taking care of her husband and their children.
Through their films the Disney Company provides the young girls with the knowledge that they live in a male-dominated world and tries to instil a belief that most a woman can hope for is to fall in love and get married, and even then she would have to rely on her man for assistance in life. In each of these films the only way possible for the female character to be freed from her undesirable future, whether it is being a servant/housewife, living in a poor village or under the sea, was through assistance from her Prince Charming or her father. The Disney Company did not make it possible for its heroines to take a personal action and create a better future for themselves.
Instead of emphasizing the process of Snow White’s survival in the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney accentuates the role of the Prince and his contribution to the solution of the question of life and death. This way Snow White’s importance as a character is diminished in comparison with Prince’s. Snow White helplessly awaits the Prince’s kiss since no one but him has the power to wake her up. Throughout the film she constantly longs for her man to find her and sings about her waiting for him to come so that she can spend an idyllic life in a castle – “Someday my prince will come; someday we’ll meet again… I’m wishing for the one I love to find me.” (Hand et al., 1937) In the end, her hero indeed comes and bestows her with a life “happily ever after”.
The Disney Princess Ariel, the main character of The Little Mermaid (1989), is ready to do anything to have handsome Prince Eric fall in love with her. She disobeys her stern but loving father, King Triton, and even makes a bargain with the sea witch to exchange her lovely voice for human legs. What is more, she abandons her perfect life under the sea, her family and friends for a man she hardly even knows. She puts all the effort she can to be part of her prince’s world, however, the only result which this effort brings is that she merely shifts from being under the control of her father directly to being Prince Eric’s wife. She is never independent.
Not having been kissed by Eric before sunset on the third day (after she had gotten her human legs), as was specified in her deal with Ursula, Ariel, for the time being, did not accomplish her dream of staying human and being with Eric. However, at the end of the film, with the help of her father, King Triton, Ariel does achieve her dream. It is only with her father’s approval and his magic powers that she obtains human legs again and marries Prince Eric. Therefore, fifty two years after their first animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Disney Company did not bother to change the stereotypical ending to their romantic films. For a woman to achieve true happiness and lead a secure life, she has to have a man by her side, whether it is her father or her beloved.
In Beauty and the Beast (1991) Gaston is presented as the ‘specimen’ of manliness and depicted as “tall, dark, strong and handsome brute” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991). Through him the Disney Company reinforce their idea of a conventional kind of masculine identity. When it comes to women he is predominantly vain and rude believing that women are only good for being housewives and mothers. This is observable in his first conversation with Belle:
“Belle, it’s about time you got your head out of those books and paid attention to more important things – me. The whole town’s talking about it. It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking.” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991)
He wants to marry Belle so that he would be able to boast about it and so that she could give him sons whom he could mould at will. In his attempt to dominate and control Belle’s world he organizes a ‘surprise’ wedding for him and Belle without having previously proposed to her. He is even ready to go as far as to put her father into an asylum so that he could blackmail her into marrying him.
However, unlike both Ariel and Snow White, Belle does not jump in the arms of the ‘first opportunity’ that presents itself. Her refusal to marry Gaston when he tells her that he is yearning to make her his “little wife” challenges the standard stereotype, though only temporarily and for the purposes of the happy ending. Belle cunningly ‘serves’ her refusal to Gaston by telling him what every conceited man wants to hear:”I just do not deserve you.” (Trousdale & Wise, 1991) The temporary false illusion which the Disney Company create here, gives us the impression that they truly think how “women are ultimately in charge of their fate” (Wynn, 2010). Nevertheless, this animated film, just like the other two, ends in the same, Disney fashion, with “… and they lived happily ever after!” which once again implies that in order to achieve true happiness a woman has to find and marry her perfect man.
The stereotypical messages which these films promote about women being incapable of living without having a man in their lives could have a negative influence on young girls denoting that women are weak and that they can only live a satisfactory life with a man by their side.
In spite of the fact that many social changes have occurred over the past century improving the position of women within society, it strikes me that there is still a great deal of sexual discrimination against women widely reinforced through gender stereotypes seen in the media. It is my concern that the gender images in Disney animated films, which take a massive part in children’s culture, have not evolved to match the changes that have occurred in society. Instead, they remain stereotypical and quite similar over the years recurring in the portrayal of each and every of Disney Princesses. Bearing in mind that Disney films have a significant influence on the development of children’s understanding of the world, and that the Disney Company actually profits from children’s false illusions, it is every adult’s responsibility to take a stand against the moral corruption by spreading a critical attitude towards stereotypes and discrimination present in these films.