While scrolling through Tumblr (dangerous, I know), I came across a reblogging of the post by Washington Post writer Jeff Guo discussing the work of linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer. They’ve been taking a look at ALL the Disney Princess movies, and studying the dialogue in them- how many times each character speaks, what they say, etc. The article that Guo wrote can be found here.
What sparked the big interest is that Fought and Eisenhower presented their preliminary findings at a huge conference, and found that the “classic” Disney movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) had a higher percentage of women speaking that the “Renaissance” or “Modern” area (“Renaissance” being those released between 1989-1999 and “Modern” being those released 2009-present).
Now I acknowledge that I am a Disney fan- I like their movies and I really like their theme parks. However, I also will call them out on things I don’t think are right. Pocahontas was ridiculous, and the fact that Tiana spent more time as a frog than as herself is a huge issue. When I was over on another blog, I talked about the sexification of the princesses themselves in characters and in the parks:
The article states that (quotes taken out of context):
Fought and Eisenhauer’s research reminds us that it’s not just how the princesses are portrayed. It’s also important to consider the kinds of worlds these princesses inhabit, who rules these worlds, who has the power — and even who gets to open their mouths. In a large number of cases, the princesses are outspoken by men in their own movies.
“The Renaissance-era movies starting with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ were talked about as being not your average frilly princess films,” Fought says. “They have ‘active women who get things done.'”
“That’s fine, but are these movies really so great for little girls to watch? When you start to look at this stuff, you have to question that a little bit.”
Part of the problem is that these newer films are mostly populated by men. Aside from the heroine, the films offer few examples of women being powerful, respected, useful or comedic.
“There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought says. “There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”
The older princess films had fewer speaking roles in total, and more gender balance. But “The Little Mermaid” pioneered a new style of Disney movie, modeled after Broadway musicals, with their large ensemble casts. As the number of characters grew, so did the gender inequality.
The chatty sidekick is another good example of a role that goes to men by default. This is a staple character in more recent Disney films, and he — yes, he — often gets some of the best lines. There’s Flounder, Sebastian, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Iago, Genie and Mushu. Why can’t any of them be women? Mrs. Potts, the teakettle from “Beauty and the Beast,” is the only example of a female sidekick, and she’s overshadowed by the other castle staff.
All of these are excellent points. Watching anything all the time alone is not good for any child. A diet of movies or tv or veggies or sugar or fruit or meat alone isn’t good for kids or adults. It’s called moderation, something that I think is getting lost along the way sometimes in a world where cars have wifi so kids can watch TV instead of entertaining themselves or listening to music, and there are actually diagnoses for having twitches when you don’t have your cell phone and for texting too much.
And in a vacuum, no, Disney movies alone are not good sources for any child to pick up their gender cues. That’s why they have parents. If not, you’d have the Cabin indoctrination scene from Addams Family Values:
Now, I understand that Fought and Eisenhauer’s research is preliminary and ongoing, but I think that they need to take outside factors into account in their research.
First, look at the stories.
First, think about the classic Disney films. Those stories HAD mostly female characters. Snow White was balanced because Snow White and the Evil Queen were balanced out by 6 yakking dwarves. Cinderella had four females in a house and a fairy godmother; the prince, king and footman don’t make a large appearance until the second half. Sleeping Beauty had Maleficent, Aurora, the three good fairies for the majority of the film. Those ARE the stories as Disney reinterpreted them- don’t get me started on the originals, that’s a whole different post.
If you look at the “Renaissance” films, they are The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Be design, these stories are going to have fewer women in them, even if they weren’t in musical style. Ariel gives up her voice willingly to try to win over her prince, Belle is prisoner in the castle, Jasmin is actually the secondary character in the story, and Mulan takes her father’s place in the all male army. These women were bucking everything and everyone in order to get what they want, and if there were others breaking ground, it wouldn’t make sense. It breaks the storyline.
Ursula the sea Witch was female- and an awesome villain. She gets far less credit that the researchers give her credit for: I mean really, here she is, plotting to take over the sea and actually DOES, and she’s not even mentioned. You can’t have a female Beast and a female Belle in 1991. You can’t have a female Aladdin and a female Jasmin, nor would a female Aladdin and a male Jasmin make any sense, nor could you have a female Jafar- it doesn’t fit in the time period and setting. You can’t rewrite Pocahontas or Mulan.
Side note: Granted, they are considered princess movies but that’s because Disney created them that way later- the whole “Princess” schill is Disney’s way of making money by selling a bazillion dolls and dresses and crowns. I went to the theaters to watch these Renaissance films, and they were not “Princesses” then. The Princess line didn’t come about until the early 2000’s.
Second, look at popular culture.
When the “classic” Disney films were made, going to the movies was an event, and the Disney studios were making fantasy stories. They were bringing art to life, and everyone wanted to see it. They were bringing fantasy and fairy tale, and it didn’t matter who did what- it just needed a villain and a handsome princess and a heroine to rescue.
When the “Renaissance” Disney films were being made, Disney invested big- this was their big chance to try and bring back their animation studio after decades, and if this failed there wouldn’t be any more chances. So they went back to classic fairy tales with Broadway composers, instead of more modern day tales like Oliver and Company which didn’t bring in the huge money. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin brought Disney animation back to the forefront at the time when everyone else was moving to computer animation, and broke box office records.
They also had to take a whole new approach versus the “classic” movies- this was after stores decided that there were boys’ and girls’ sections, after teens and tweens started having a viable impact on the marketplace, and family movies needed to appeal to everyone because families started giving choice to their kids. Rebel and family stories fit the bill, along with some famous names that would draw adults it. Would teens know who Robbie Benson is? No. Would they care who James Earl Jones or Jeremy Irons are? Probably not. But their parents would- and would come to hear them voice a character and would get the adult-aimed jokes within the movie.
When the “modern” stories came about, the culture shifted again, especially after 9/11, and what worked for the “Renaissance” wouldn’t work for the “moderns”- audiences had been dazzled by computer animation and 3D, and needed to be wowed. Stores are more segmented because parents are insisting that there are more specific “boy” and “girl” toys. Tangled was actually reworked and renamed because after The Princess and the Frog producers were worried that Rapunzel didn’t appeal to boys. And like most movies, girls will go to “guy” movies but guys won’t go to “chick flicks.” Boys need more action, more adventure, and it needs to be a boy world in the “modern” era of Disney Princess films, so you’re going to get more and more male figures. So even though Brave was a mother-daughter story, you have fart jokes and a passel of inelegant suitors with the mother, daughter, witch, and nanny as the only females in sight. In Tangled, Rapunzel, her mother, and Mother Gothel are the main female characters, while Flynn steals a stallion and charms a cadre of outcast thieves to help them out. In Frozen, they decided midstory that the Snow Queen wouldn’t be the villain (similar to The Beast), so they had to invent another villain- enter Hans, the evil suitor, which actually mocks the “classic” Disney movies.
Third, look at the villains.
There’s also no secret that I adore villains. Give me a good villain any day, as that makes the story come to life. However, in focusing on the Princesses in the study, I think that the researchers are ignoring a major component within these movies- the impact that the villains have on youth. Always, in Disney the heroine and the celebrated are the “princess” and the “prince”. It’s throughout the movies, and it’s throughout the park as well- even if you’re an adult you can be addressed as “princess” at times out of the blue. In the “classic” Disney movies, the villains were all women, all adult, and all dark haired: the Evil Queen, Lady Tremane, and Maleficent. All powerful women, all determined, and all adult. The heroines: young, innocent, and powerless.
In the “Renaissance” movies, the villains moved to having one female villain: Ursula. Ursula has curves, she has hips, she has spiky hair, and accepts who she is. And her plan succeeds…if only for a bit. She’s the exact opposite of Ariel: empowered, voluptuous, and confident. From Ursula we move to Gaston (idiot and a substitute as the Beast was supposed to be the villain, there’s actually a recalled Disney villain encyclopedia with his picture in it), and then Jafar, Guy, and Ming. All male, all a little unbalanced.
In the “Modern” movies, you have Mother Gothel and if you look at the first half of the movie, Elsa. Mother Gothel is again brunette, with curves, and afraid of aging. Because aging is evil. Elsa is evil because of her powers, and her parents make her repress them instead of learning how to control them, and ends up hurting her sister- after she’s crowned queen.
See the pattern here with female villains? Queen=evil, princess=good. The Queen mothers are relegated to the backgrounds rather quickly in every single movie, or dead rather quickly. And they never, ever mention that the princesses are anything other than princesses, even when they could possibly be queens- they’re princesses for life.
So yes, please look at the language, and who speaks, when they speak, who speaks to whom, and the number of characters within the movie. But you really need to take an all over view of the movies.