Disney has, inarguably, done much to uphold the white skinned, doe-eyed, tiny waisted ideal of physical femininity (consider Ursula the Sea Witch and the Queen of Hearts as a counterpoint). The women of the canon are, broadly, split into three traditional archetypes: the maiden, the mother and the crone. The virginal teenage heroine who must overcome a real or imagined obstacle and bag her man (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle); the nurturing, white-haired older woman as advisor or wish granter (Sleeping Beauty‘s three fairies, Cinderella‘s fairy godmother); the striking, red-lipped antagonist, sexually available, clever and evil (Malificent, Cruella De Ville). Up until The Little Mermaid, these women are entirely controlled beings with no real sense of selfhood, directed to their destinies by forces beyond their control. Whether or not these destinies correspond with each character dream (something that she must have) is a matter of chance and accident. Luckily for these girls what they all seem to dream of is love, or, more accurately Disneylove, which is instantanious and all encompassing, blind to flaws and everlasting.
But Disney’s fairy tales – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and the like – are based on the stories collected by Perrault, Grimm and Andersen, so if they don’t show us a range of images of womanhood, whose fault is it?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Has Disney chosen to retell the most famous of the fairy tales, or are they the most famous fairy tales because Disney has chosen to retell them? Whatever the answer, the motivation of Walt Disney, of most entrepreneurial business minds, is not social progress. It is cash, cold and hard. This is not an admirable stance but it is a valid one. Disney will give the public what it thinks it wants and the public will drink it up, because it’s Disney.
There’s a lot to find fault with in all of these animations; they support a misogynistic patriarchy in both plotting and presentation. The female protagonists, whom we call ‘heroines’, have rarely done anything heroic (and on occasion are downright stupid); they are passive, puppets in their own stories. Take, as an example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (sic) (1937), the first princess movie Disney produced. Snow White is forced to work as a maid for the Evil Queen; her escape into the forest is at the behest of the huntsman; it is woodland animals that lead Snow White to the dwarves cottage, where she acts in servitude to them. Show White’s aggressor is killed not by the girl herself but by the Dwarves and she is woken from her slumber by ‘true love’s first kiss’, administered by the Handsome Prince who controls her destiny after the credits roll. Autonomy is not high on the list of attributes required of a Disney heroine.
Disney did deviate from the traditional versions of most of the fairy tales he told. Sleeping Beauty, for example, extends in Perrault’s The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood (French: La Belle au Bois Dormant) well beyond the waking of the Princess with a kiss and culminates with the death of the half-ogre mother of the Prince. Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (Danish: Den lille havfrue) concludes with the suicide of the mermaid. But few of the adaptations are quite so wanton with the plot. They frequently amend or delete details – so the twelve good fairies in The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood become three in Sleeping Beauty and Belle, of Beauty and the Beast, loses her siblings – but the stories retain the same thrust and the same moral as their predecessors. By this argument Disney’s only fault is its lack of social awareness. It is under no obligation to even out the gender stereotyping or tone down the message of submission it sends to the young females of its audience and anyway that sounds like it might be sort of hard work so let’s not bother.
We could argue that if Disney is going to make changes to (arguably) insignificant details in the transfer of medium, why not make larger ones? If they reduce Cinderella‘s two consecutive balls (in Perrault, which the Disney version most closely resembles) in to one and kill off Cinderella’s father, then why can they not give her a little more… chutzpah?
There are a multitude of fairy tales that challenge gender norms: why does Disney not choose to animate one of these? Some feminists argue that stories like Cinderella are foregrounded precisely because they uphold gender norms; they are a tool of the patriarchy, chosen precisely because they reinforce the message of submission.
But it’s important to remember that they are re-tellings of earlier stories. With these films Disney is not actively challenging the status quo, but nor are they going out of their way to preserve it. The result of this is preservation by default. These films were made by a conservative business, in a conservative era, in a conservative country.
But I don’t want to ramble on about Disney’s versions of the great fairy stories. Enough has been said about them already, and by far more eloquent and insightful people than me, so let’s put them on the back burner and have a look at the legends, Mulan and Pocahontas and in a little more detail.
Pocahontas, made up Real Life Person.
The Legend of Pocahontas is a little more promising. Within seconds of us meeting her she’s jumping of a cliff, which is y’know, pretty tupping hardcore. This bodes well.
Aside from the fact that if Pocahontas did rescue John Smith (a widely debated point) she would have been around eleven years old, making a love story between the two, y’know, *shudder*, the animation does fail on a number of points. It’s historically inaccurate and racially insensitive, but at least Pocahontas has significantly more autonomy than some of her predecessors. Unlike the pre-199os Princesses, she’s allowed to make and act on her own decisions, but like them her decisions are guided by hyperfeminine concerns: family duty, discerning a ‘good’ man from a ‘bad’ one, and selflessness.
Another positive for Pocahontas is the number of women that the protagonist counts as mentors and friends: there’s a maiden, there’s a mother, but there’s no crone; the female characters (specifically Grandmother Willow and Nakoma) are caring advice-givers. Pocahontas might not agree with them all the time, but that’s okay – she doesn’t have to.
So Pocahontas stops a war and teaches people about living in harmony with nature and with one another and she never gets a hair out of place while she’s doing it. Pretty cool. Pretty feminine.
When Pocahontas meets her love interest John Smith (and learns English by, er, looking into her heart), she is worried that she might be expected to marry the stoic warrior Kocoum. She doesn’t, which is all for the better, but nor does she run away with the feller she’s suddeny in Disneylove with. Regardless of her own desires, Pocahontas knows her duty is to her village, she must put their desires above her own. And this, along side the rewriting of history and covert racism that I am underqualified to discuss, is what lets Pocahontas down.
Mulan, kicker of Hun be-hind.
Wikipedia calls the story of Hua Mulan one of the first poems in Chinese history to support the notion of gender equality. It’s said to be an inspiration to the women of China, so I’d say Mulan is a pretty awesome woman to make a film about. Indeed, Mulan is heralded as… well, if not one of the more feminist heroines in the Disney stable, then at least one of the least anti-feminist. Is she? Is she though?
Weeell, yes and no. Yes, Mulan breaks out of the gender binary by posing as a male warrior and going of to fight the Huns, but why does she do it? She’s had her only role as a woman – wifedom – stripped from her by the matchmaker (typically, a fat, shrill antagonist) and she’s told she will dishonour her family. When the war begins, Mulan’s father, an limping old man, is called up. Clearly this will not go well for him. Mulan’s decision to go to war rests on these two factors – first, Mulan is considered by society to be worthless, and second, she wishes to protect her father: her decision is ultimately selfless. And what’s feminist about that?
But lets brush past that, shall we? This young woman is about to go to war and kick some Huns into touch. Which she does, naturally, and in the face of some adversity. Understandably the Emperor wishes to take her into his employ – she’s certainly proven she’s worth it. But no, Mulan wants to go home, ‘cos, y’know, girls like it there. So the Emperor gives her a sword and some bling and off she trots back to her father, to whom she immediately turns the booty over. Apparently they’re gifts to recognise the honour of the family. Which is funny, ‘cos I did see them single-handedly defeating an army.
Disney has pretty much sucked any pro-woman sentiment from Mulan. And they’ve gone out of their way to do it.
So far, so entirely unsurprising.
For Disney’s real attitude towards women, we must look to their original stories.
Take a look at Princess Jasmine, love interest of the title character of 1992 offering Aladdin (ostensibly based on a story from the 1001 Nights, but in reality only vaguely related). Jasmine is a trophy. That’s about all there is to say about her. The evil Jafar and the Not Exactly Blameless Aladdin both get in a tizzy over her – especially the ‘money’ part of her – and attempt, through various nefarious methods to win her. The worst of it? She actually proclaims at one point that she isn’t ‘a prize to be won’, all while wondering round with FIRST PRIZE practically stamped across her startlingly out of proportion chest.
To top it off, the movie, released shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, is chock to the brim with desperately unpleasant Arab stereotypes and Americanises the hero (‘Call me Al!’) to the extent that one would be forgiven for believing that the Gulf War was fought over the marriage rights of the Sultan’s daughter**.
So, not a good start. How about the animal films?
Disney does Creature Features.
The Rescuers, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp.
The state of womanhood in The Lion King, a disneyfication of Hamlet, is best described by Kathi Maio:
There are men (and I do mean men) who are born to rule and control others, The Lion King tells us. Such men cannot be effeminate (as is Scar, the crypto-gay villain voiced by Jeremy Irons). And as for the females, they may be strong and smart and brave but they are still incapable of leadership. All they can do is obey bad male rulers, and pray for a better fellow to come along and take over. And power must never be given to lazy scavenger types like the film’s hyena characters who-no surprise are portrayed as jive-talking urban minorities (as voiced by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin).
Maio echoes my own thoughts, from what I remember, and frankly I’ve spent too much of this week watching Disney, so I’ll happily trust her on this one.
Lady and the Tramp and The Rescuers basically fit the maiden (Lady/Penny), mother (Tramp/Miss Bianca), crone (Aunt Sarah/Madame Medusa) archetype, with the noteworthy exception that the Mother role is expanded upon.
Tramp undoubtedly fulfils the role of Mother in Lady and the Tramp. He feels it is his responisbility to show Lady a life apart from her own, a life that he feels she should have. He offers guidance and support. Likewise, Miss Bianca is integral in the rescue of the orphaned Penny in The Rescuers. Both are active heroes rather than a passive givers of advice. This, clearly, cannot be, and Disney deals with the paradox in extreme ways. Tramp becomes the only male Mother in the Disney cannon; Miss Bianca has her appearance and mannerisms are massively feminised in order to balance her supposedly masculine characteristics of bravery, cool-headedness and active heroism. This is not necessarily a bad thing:
Miss Bianca is a bit materialistic, a bit heteronormative, and yes, she is a mouse that wears fur (which is badass as well as creepy, if you ask me, but nobody did), but she is pretty much the awesomest person/mouse ever. Calling her to task for caring for enjoying luxury seems inappropriate given her life of sacrifice and the huge risks she so casually makes on behalf of the people who need her. She seems virtually fearless in the face of near-certain death (until actual certain death comes around, then she gets a little scared), and inspires courage and hope in all around her.
In seven decades of Disney animated features, there is only one film that embodies some feminist ideals but as the tide of progress advances it isn’t the latest. I’d guess it’s no coincidence that The Rescuers was released in the very middle of the second-wave feminist movement*** in the US. So, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Disney isn’t so keen on the lay-dees. And then, Lilo & Stitch happened.
And that is where we will pick up again on Thursday. Stay tuned! EDIT (Part two can be found here)
*For those of you that protest Disney films do not fall under the banner of ‘literature’, I ask you to show me just one that has been produced without a script. Indeed, most haven’t been produced without someone else’s narrative.
**This may be somewhat hyperbolic, but still the point remains: Aladdin is incredibly racist.
***Roughly mid-fifties to early eighties.