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Disney’s Feminist Failings

05 Feb 2016

At a time when the discussion of feminist issues preoccupies the mainstream media, Hollywood films and Disney in particular, are failing to reflect this.

Many critics argue that there was a shift in the presentation of women in Disney animated films in the 1980s, pointing to The Little Mermaid as the turning point at which Disney heroines became fiesty and empowered.  However, sadly even post-1980 films have failed to entirely shake off the misogyny that pervades the earlier films.  In her 1998 essay Disney Dolls, Kathi Maio completely destabilises the suggestion that feminist progress was made at this point.  She asserts that watching The Little Mermaid, ‘you’d never know that the woman’s movement ever happened’ since ‘we are given a female protagonist who is literally silenced by her desperate need for male approval.’  Although many argue for Mulan as a strong representation of female power, Maio also refutes this as she asserts that ‘although Mulan is a brave, strong hero, her motivation for entering the army has nothing to do with her own ambitions and everything to do with serving patriarchy.’  Both of these assertions are irrefutably true and highlight the inherent misogyny of these films.

More recent films such as Frozen and Brave appear to offer more positive representations of females.  However, sadly this is not quite the case.  This is made apparent in the comments of Lino DiSalvo, Frozen’s Head of Animation.  He remarked that ‘historically speaking, animating female characters is really, really difficult, because they have to go through this range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty.’  And so any claims to feminsim asserted by Frozen – a film with two strong, independent female characters and co-directed by a woman – were completely undermined as it became apparent that the attractiveness of the two main characters was perceived as being of the utmost importance.  This reinforced once more that in the eyes of Disney, the most important thing a woman can be is pretty.  A similar reluctance to let go of the idealized and overtly sexualized female aesthetic is evident in the transformation of Brave’s Merida.  Merida ‘was created to be a different kind of princess — a princess with a strong will, a stubborn streak and a lot to learn’ according to the Writer and Director of Brave, Brenda Chapman.  Indeed, in the film Merida did live up to this.  However, Disney could not be satisfied with producing an (almost) Feminist icon and they had to ‘sex up’ Merida and make her into a princess for merchandising purposes.

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The transformed Merida is thinner, sparklier and sexier.  This transformation undermines any progress made by Disney.  As Chapman asserts ‘the message Disney sends to the public in changing Merida is that she is not good enough the way she is.’  This message is as irrefutable as it is harmful.

But closer examination proves that the female characters of Disney don’t just have to be pretty: they have to look the same.   Male characters of Disney animated films possess a wide variety of face shapes; some attractive, some less so.  However, pretty much every female character has exactly the same face.  This lack of uniqueness again sends out some pretty harmful messages regarding the female identity.

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But it’s not just in their appearance that the females of Disney are denied a distinct identity.  As well as all looking the same, the female characters of Disney animated movies tend to have very similar personalities.  For instance, they are almost always a Princess, Queen or homemaker.  In their 2003 study Tobin, Haddock and Zimmerman studied 26 Disney animated films and discovered that there are four themes which define womanhood in Disney films: a woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect; woman are helpless and in need of protection; women are domestic; overweight women are ugly, unpleasant and unmarried.  Admittedly things have improved slightly in more recent films but sadly those tropes are still present to a worryingly great extent. By depicting women so negatively and in such limited roles, Disney fails to provide positive and realistic role models for their younger viewers.  In contrast to this, the male characters occupy a much wider range of roles and characteristics.

In contrast to the pitiful depictions of women offered by Hollywood, Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is a shining beacon of feminist animation.  Described by Shanna F. Jones as ‘one of the great feminist filmmakers of our time’, 9 out of Miyazaki’s 14 films feature a female protagonist.  Most significantly, these female protagonists are ‘brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart’ as Miyazaki himself notes, a description that certainly could not be applied to any female Disney character.  Another notable difference is that Miyazaki’s women fulfil a wide range of roles which include princesses and mothers but also mechanics and warriors.  The commercial viability of this approach to women is evident as four of Miyazaki’s films are among the top ten highest grossing films in Japanese history.

So why does Disney refuse to show women as anything other than sexy servants of the patriarchy? Clearly there’s a commercial appetite for animated films about powerful, independent women yet Disney refuses to satisfy it.  Instead, it continues to perpetuate harmful misogynistic stereotypes.  Hopefully Disney will eventually abandon outdated attitude to women and use its influence as a force for good.