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In today’s society, body image, attitude, independence and uniqueness come under scrutiny in nearly every facet of life. In fact, Disney helped set the stage for impossible body images with big thigh gaps, tiny waists, big eyes and little arms starting with their first princess, Snow White to their most recent female portrayal, Elasta-Girl in, The Incredibles 2. Hidden under the falsity of innocence, Disney’s fairytales and the portrayal of women within them hinder the advancements of feminist progression through blatant sexism and a complete disconnect to women of the real world.
Although, it has been stated that Walt Disney himself was not sexist. According to (Appelo, Tim “Was Meryl Streep Correct in Calling Walt Disney a ‘Bigot’?” Hollywood Reporter, 01 Sep 2014. Web.) “In 1959, Disney wrote, “Women are the best judges of anything we turn out. Their taste is very important. They are the theatergoers, they are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men.
” Walt Disney saw women as equally if not more important than men when it came to their taste in movies showing that Disney sought the affirmation of women. It is understandable that Walt Disney may have not been sexist nor personally viewed women as subaltern. Nevertheless, Disney’s portrayal of women in his movies, even after his death, show quite a different standpoint.
Portrayals of women in many film have changed drastically overtime, however, there are still representations based on stereotypes. The inequality of female representation in films begins, for us, with childhood classics.
In these films that we grow up on, we see representations of women based on stereotypes of the time. The purpose of this project is to analyze how popular animated children’s films proliferate ideas of gender roles and inequality. The films analyzed include Anastasia, Brave, Cinderella, Frozen, and Mulan. While many of these classic films contain strong central female roles, there are still themes of inequality within them.
The overall trends are that of absent mothers, daughters who take on the “woman of the household” roles, and above all the requirement of romantic interests. While these aspects of the film may seem insignificant, they instill long held gender roles into the children who watch them. Being exposed to the idea that women do the house chores, or must pretend to be a man in order to achieve equality, does nothing to further the advancement of gender equality within the world today. In these films we see stereotypical roles of women who clean, cook, and hold down the house while their husbands, if present, also fulfill stereotypical roles of men. (Hammill, Faye. Women, celebrity, and literary culture between the wars. S.l.: Univ Of Texas Press, 2010)
When watching children’s movies at a young age, you probably weren’t thinking of the influence it had on you and your ideas. While we often see the name Disney and automatically think they are wholesome family films, many people don’t go further into investigation and see the subtle stereotypical representations of gender provided in these movies.
“Disney’s massive success is based on innocence, magic, and fun; its animated films are praised as wholesome family entertainment. Endorsed by parents and teachers and immensely popular with children.” In Disney movies, especially those following a princess, there are key stereotypical traits that the women have. They are almost always a damsel, fragile, and display impossible body images. These physical characteristics of fragile arms, tiny waist, pronounced breast, and big beautiful eyes are being sold to children across the world which then in turn are perceived as to what the definition of “Beautiful” is supposed to be.
Although the social norm wasn’t solely built by Disney, just reinforced and cannot be completely blamed on one media source. One of the oldest among these media sources is Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine (premiered in December 1953) which opened the doors for many other media sources to portray women openly as sexual objects for the entertainment of men. Unrealistic portrayal of women in the media, as shown in Playboy, contributes to creating ideals for women leading to self-image dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem, and associated mental illnesses.
Many scholars believe that Disney films represent stereotypical gender roles that serve as poor standard for young women to want. The argument is that these films are oppressive in nature and sets unrealistic and unhealthy ideals for young girls by promoting gender inequality and poor self-image. Case in point, Disney’s first princess film was Snow White. A white Caucasian princess and child, who is taught that in order to be a good girl she must obey what she is told to do. There is a very clear line dividing women’s roles and duties, and the roles and duties of men. Snow White cooks and cleans for the dwarves. Before her arrival, their cottage was a mess, indicating that as men, they were simply unable or unwilling to tidy up. The seven men are the providers, and go to work all day with the objective of “getting rich quick”.
As young girls and boys watch these films, previous research has shown they incorporate movies they watch into scripts of play and deem that this is how society is in real life. Males have qualities that are considered traditional to their gender including: wanting to explore, physically strong, assertive, unemotional, independent, athletic, engaging in intellectual activity, inspiring fear, brave, described as physically attractive (masculine), giving advice, and providing leadership. Females’ gender role attributes include: concerned with physical appearance (primping e.g.), physically weak, submissive, showing emotion, affectionate, nurturing, sensitive, tentative, helpful, troublesome, fearful, ashamed, collapsing while crying, described as physically attractive (feminine), asking for or accepting advice or help, and victimized. (Dill & Thill, 2007).
Snow White was not the only film that that showed blatant displays of sexism. Almost all the princesses has ideal looks and behaviors. The princesses always look presentable, ultimately looking better than everyone. Almost all have long hair, wore dresses, jewelry, make-up and either a crown or headband. And most princess were shown doing housework, i.e., Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc..
This kind of message that Disney is feeding the children can ultimately be dangerous physically and mentally because it tells woman that you must find and attract a man no matter what in order to find happiness.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, when the majority of Disney’s earliest movies were released, racism was prevalent in society; discrimination was much more commonplace compared to today. In 1941, the film Dumbo was shown and it seemed to be a sweet, innocent movie based on an elephant who could fly. Though the majority of the cast is animals, Disney makes it clear that this film had racist commentary through the crows who are black in color and talk and act in offensive, stereotypically African-American ways.
Equality was continuously pushed for in American society, Disney recognized the importance of diversity in its characters. Disney released The Princess and the Frog, and its first African-American princess, Tiana. The fact that she exists is telling of Disney’s effort to expand the company’s racial barriers. Though Tiana is an official princess, along with the classic Snow White or Cinderella, her life is nothing similar to theirs. She was not born into a high societal status, and neither do her dreams come true with little to no effort.
Though the African-American presence is nowhere near equal to the Caucasian presence in Disney movies, it has progressed greatly from early Disney movies which even contained intentional racial disrespect to obvious incorporation of an African-American princess. Disney’s rhetoric on the minority race has improved greatly, but still needs to work on getting better.
While Disney may receive a lot of criticism for scandalous race portrayals and imagery, there is no doubt that there are many positive effects these films have on children even today. The issues of expression, equality, safety, hope and self-acceptance are all issues covered by Disney films that will benefit your children.
Within the last five years the Disney Corporation has produced their most progressive and strong female characters. I argue that this is a reflection of the current status of women as society has reached a point in which independent, confident women are not only tolerated but celebrated. These women are profound developments in the Disney collection.
As stated earlier, Disney has spent years distancing itself from stereotypical roles of gender and one may argue that women in the Disney movies promote healthy, functional relationships. Along with “The Little Mermaid”, “Moana” and “Brave” to name a few. Society has changed a lot in the last 80 years. And while there is still a ways to go, society will not tolerate racism nor sexism any longer.
In the film, the Little Mermaid, Ariel does not end up with her prince charming, but through an act of self-reflection and sacrifice she earns a chance at receiving an eternal soul after 300 years of good works. Moana is another great example of how far the animated film industry has come. This was a film that represented women without stereotypical roles or a need for a romantic interest. She set forth by herself to save her people. She was a strong and independent woman. In the film Brave, there is the strength of the queen and Merida, both of which holds the family together and even has a significant influence on the decisions in the kingdom. Children, whom are literal thinkers at a young age, absorb every little bit of information that they then use to perceive the world and its social norms.
Disney is now one of the biggest media conglomerates today and has the ability to reach nearly every corner of the modernized world. According to (PBS, ‘Media Giants’ 2001. Web.) “The Walt Disney Company is the third largest global media conglomerate. Its FY 2000 revenues topped $25 billion, with 27% derived from parks and resorts, 24% from studio entertainment, and 17% from media networks.” With this capability, they have the potential to shift from the social norm and depict women as equal to men by making them independent, strong, cunning, and have reasonable body imagery
Their target is that of children to young adults whom are the most easily influenced in society. A study was done to assess 198 pre-school aged students in order to gauge princess engagement and gender-stereotypical behavior and they found, “only 4 percent of those boys played with princess toys at least once a week, and 61 percent of those girls reached for princess toys during the same time period.” And that “One year later, the researchers found a clear link between increased princess-facetime and more female gender-stereotypical behaviors. In fact, researchers discovered that the sexism present in Disney films, toys and other products could potentially cause long term damage on girls’ body self-esteem, ability to problem-solve, interest in math and science and #lifegoals.” (Towers, Paige ‘Is Princess Culture Hurting Little Girls?’ 22 Jun 2016. Web.)
This divulgence into the Disney princess culture can make younger girls adhere to the stereotypical gender types. This can cause girls to stray away from career opportunities, extracurricular activities, and college majors that are perceived as masculine or male dominate and is extremely damaging. Disney movie ‘Wreck it Ralf 2’ seemingly makes a joke about themselves by always having the women be saved by a strong heroic man and that the princesses were annoyed by it. We also see all the Disney princesses have been reanimated and it will be interesting to see how they portray the different ethnicities and if they continue on the path on gender stereotypes or pave a new road toward equality and diversity.
Disney has made a concerted effort to address the way it portrays its characters and to stop the negative stereotypes in their films due to societal pressures. With Facebook and Twitter, it gives everyone a voice so Disney is trying to ensure that they acknowledge these social shifts. Disney is trying to fix their past errors and create more empowered female characters. One can closely examines the films and compare the characteristics of the princesses to the female character of their time. One may also see a positive messages in these films. Moreover, interactions between the female heroes show the princesses’ abilities, and highlight the ways in which these individuals may be seen as strong reliable women who set a positive example for young girls. In fact, one may argue that these women are model citizens of their respective time periods who advocate for gender equality, while promoting healthy, functional relationships and pursuing happiness.
Some also argue that the newer Disney films show a weaker man, which in turn provides acceptance for children to show vulnerability and that you do not always have to be perfect. This also encourages a more understanding and supportive environment for boys to grow up in as they are not expected to only be strong, knights in shining armor who come to save the day but are allowed personal expression, struggles, and roadblocks on their way to ultimate success.
The Disney princess film when one considers the gender stereotypes, mainly roles of women, over the course of the last 80 years, I argue that the princesses in each of these films are positive role models of women who have slowly yet effectively challenged the gender restrictions of the past while encouraging equality and ultimate success for women. From Snow White, who resembles the flapper and hardworking attitude necessary in the 1930s, to Anna and Elsa in Frozen, who are strong confident women who are not afraid of success. Society has evolved to the point that I predict that strong character figures will continue to appear in Disney productions.
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