Disney has played a huge part in all of our lives. Whether we were born in the sixties, eighties or noughties, we were brought up on the classics that have been around for over half a century. The stories have the potential to impact children’s lives as they teach them the supposed ideals and expectations of growing up. Family loyalty is important, making good friends is a must, as is being true to your beliefs, and bagging a hansom prince is always a bonus. Disney’s stories have reflected the interests and illustrated the dreams of the people that watch them since the 1930s.
Its prominence in children’s popular culture means that Disney has a certain responsibility to reflect contemporary realities and ideals to some degree. Its portrayal of women, however, is questionable. Despite the the successes and achievements of women’s rights in the last century, true equality is yet to be gained. Disney has barely changed its message on gender roles since the 1930s and it is arguable that the slow pace of gender equality can be blamed upon this.
There are six classic Disney Princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle and Jasmine. Then there are the more recent heroines such as Nala, Pocahontas, Mulan and Tangled. They are all wonderful films and great stories but they all have a common theme relating to their lead female roles – a dependence upon men. Typically women are shown in a position of princess, queen, or homemaker. In the past one hundred years women have got the vote, won divorce and abortion rights and even run the country. Yet we have never been able to shake off the overriding stereotype that a woman’s ultimate goal is to get a man that she can become dependent upon.
Disney’s first animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), initially sends a strong message about the female role in society. Upon stumbling across a dirty cottage filled with seven men after being cast out of her own kingdom, Snow White immediately assumes a motherly, domesticated role. Without being asked, she cleans the house, cooks for the dwarfs and tidies up after them. Given that in the 1930s domesticated women were commonplace, Disney can be forgiven for this submissive stereotype. Nevertheless, seventy-five years later, the story has now been remade into a Hollywood blockbuster and the message remains much the same.
That Disney’s first story is still loved after so long is a phenomenal achievement yet the story’s message has not been altered strongly enough to suit today’s understanding of gender roles. Kristen Stewart’s character does send a positive, strong and independent message and thankfully, we don’t see her cooking and cleaning for the dwarfs. Nevertheless, the main sub-plot is about her romance with the Huntsman. Even the evil queen, Ravenna, only gained her power through her beauty and its effect upon men. It’s concerning that, a century later, girls are still being brought up to believe that the only way to achieve anything is to bag a man. By all means re-capture a kingdom and defeat evil, but make sure there’s a bloke waiting for you at the end of it all.
Of course, we can’t blame Snow White’s longevity for the remaining gender inequality of today. We can, however, place some blame upon the way in which Disney continues to pedal this gender role.
The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were released towards the end of the 20th century, in 1989 and 1991. Consequently, they do have more modern princesses; Ariel and Belle. They are stronger willed with minds of their own thus reflecting the reality of modern society. Nevertheless, they still emphasise compliance and obedience to men: both Ariel and Belle give up their former lives to be with a man who sacrifices nothing for her.
In Disney’s 1992 film, Aladdin, Jasmine is the only female character in the film. The message of independence and defiance against her father’s wishes for her to marry a man she does not love is a positive one. Yet still, Jasmine is shown to be a lonely girl, with no female friends and her only hope of escaping loneliness is to marry a man.
More recently still is Mulan (1998). Fa Mulan displays bravery, agility, skill and determination – all great qualities – but she can only become so accomplished by assuming the role of a man. What’s more, Mulan falls into the arms of Li Shang at the end of the film, completing the story and, apparently, her life.
It cannot be overlooked that many of these films are set in eras when women were subordinate (Mulan is set in China during the Han Dynasty 206BC-220AD). Nevertheless, the issue is that not one of these films has a true female role model encouraging an independence from men. The landscapes change, the eras span over millennia and the characters range from mermaids to warriors, but the consistent, subliminal message is that no matter what they do or achieve, a woman will never be complete until she has a man by her side. The importance placed upon looks and the urgency to get a man is only ingrained further when Disney presents all older, single women as ugly and evil.
Disney is a wonderful enterprise and for a while its films reflected the reality of the society that watched it, just with a little extra sparkle. But it has not evolved as quickly as society has. Many of you will argue that they are just stories and the greatness about them is that they aren’t realistic; they’re an escape. But the fact is, they have influence. Legislation can only do so much, genuine equality has to come from the engrained attitudes of society and the longer Disney – and the film industry in general – continues to promote an antiquated gender system, the harder it will be for real women to realise there’s more to life than getting a husband, preferably a rich one.