NOT SO MUCH A HAPPILY EVER AFTER, AFTER ALL: The Reality Portrayed in Animated Films / Azumi Kondo

Despite the fact that the women’s population in 2017 was 49.6% (Hannah, 2019), the gender gap for women is 68% according to the World Economic forum (2018). We can tell that although the population of men and women are almost the same, women still lack power and seem to be behind men. It might not be easy to notice about this reality being tenser than we imagined. Media, advertisements, movies, portray these issues in a way where we don’t realize unless we take a closer look. Disney is one of those industries where we are able to view the gender inequality they portray in their animation films. This paper will compare the gender equality in Disney movies and explore the changing effects Disney movies provide to our present society.


Section 1: Are men and women treated equally in Disney’s movie industry?

Disney movies have a long history dating back to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 (Hand, D., et al, 1937), up to “Ralph Breaks the Internet” in 2018 (Lasseter, et al, 2018). Disney movies have portrayed gender differences according to the changes occurring in society. If we were to compare “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” with “Moana”; the oldest and the latest Disney princess movies, we would be able to observe clear differences in gender portrayal. According to an article by Dawn Elizabeth England, Lara Descartes and Melissa A. Collier-Meek; “Gender role portrayal and the Disney princesses”, they conducted a study in order to identify and analyze the characteristics of both male and female roles which appear in the movie (England, et al, 2011). The research was conducted with Disney princess films dating back to “Snow White” (1937), till “The Princess and the Frog” (2009). The researchers listed the characteristics they could find in retrospective characters and categorized them into male or female characteristics. These are the following characteristics; “curious about the princess, physically strong, assertive, unemotional, independent, athletic, inspires fear, brave, gives advice, leader”; which are masculine characteristics, “tends to physical appearance, physically weak, submissive, shows emotion, affectionate, nurturing, sensitive, tentative, helpful, troublesome, fearful, ashamed, collapses crying, described as physically attractive, asks for or accepts advice or help, victim”; which are feminine characteristics (England, et al, 2011). It is difficult to say whether these characteristics are categorized without any stereotype since “brave” is more of a human category than a masculine characteristic. Or how “sensitive” is a feminine characteristic when men can be as sensitive as women. But aside from how these characteristics are categorized, the results of the study are as follows. Male characters displayed 51.63% masculine characteristics and 48.48% of feminine characteristics. On the other hand, female characters displayed 33.01% masculine characteristics and 66.99% scored as feminine characteristics (England, et al, 2011). Thus, we can see that men represent masculine characteristics and women represent feminine characteristics. Through the results, the researchers have noticed that the top five features of princes were: “shows emotion, affectionate, physically strong, assertive, and athletic” (England, et al, 2011). The top five features princesses have were: “affectionate, assertive, fearful, troublesome and athletic” (England, et al, 2011). These results show the stereotype portrayed in both genders, since no one can say that one action is more feminine or masculine than the other. Emotions and actions cannot be categorized by gender.

Not only through characters does Disney portray its gender inequality, but even in the role women play, there are some points where women are portrayed unfairly. Take “Sleeping Beauty” (Disney, et al, 1959) as an example. Many of us know the princess in “Sleeping Beauty” is not featured as much as she should be in the film despite being the main character of the film. To prove this fact, I decided to watch the film and count how many lines the princess in “Sleeping Beauty” also known as; Princess Aurora had, as well as measure her screening time throughout the entire film. In order to do so, I marked down one line for every time Princess Aurora spoke (excluding songs, but including short words like oh!), and used a stop watch to add up her screening time. To my surprise, Princess Aurora only had approximately about 15 minutes and 30 seconds of screening time and only approximately 48 lines and two short songs (one a duet) in total throughout the film. I did the same thing for Prince Phillip and he had approximately 15 minutes of screening time and only approximately 39 lines and a short song (a duet with Princess Aurora). Through this we can view that even though Princess Aurora is the main character of this film, she and the prince do not have much difference in the amount of screen time and the lines they speak. This can also be said to the movie “Mulan”, which Disney created in 1998. Mulan is originally a story written as a poem called “Mulan shi” or “Mulan poem” (Lan, 2003). The lead heroine Mulan; transforms herself to look like a man to go to war and fight for her country in place of her father. In this movie, Mulan shows her feminine side where she cares for her father, and also shows her masculine sides where she is strong, brave, and smart. Disney rewrote this story and made the film popular. But even though Disney attempted to show the change in the typical gender stereotype, it was not completely achieved. The character Mushu, who is Mulan’s guardian male dragon, has 50% more lines than the main character Mulan. In fact, in 73% of Disney movies, men have more dialogues than women do (Robehmed, 2016). Even when we think Disney movies have improved in achieving gender equality, in some ways it is still unequally portrayed.

We get to see a big difference in how Disney creates princesses in the recent film “Moana” (2016). According to a line from the film; “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess” (Clements, R., et al, 2016). Moana is considered a princess, yet she does not search for love, nor does she end up with a prince in the end. In fact, there is no sign of a prince throughout the movie. Disney has changed the image of princesses having to fall in love with a prince. On the other hand, towards the end of the movie, Moana is saved by a male character; Maui. This represents the fact that women still need to be saved by men. It seems that even in present films, Disney portrays the gender inequality in the movies they create.


Section 2: How do Disney movies affect today’s society?

We can see a definite change in the way Disney films portray gender difference in the older films and the latest films. From the Article; “Gender role portrayal and the Disney princesses” (2011), we can see how Disney films have evolved. Snow White from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” showed 150 characteristics in total. Her prince showed only 22. Snow White showed 137 feminine characteristics out of 150, and her prince showed 10 feminine characteristics out of 22 characteristics (England, et al, 2011). Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” showed 174 characteristics in total. Prince Naveen, the prince from the same movie showed 189 characteristics. Out of 174 characteristics Tiana showed, the feminine characteristics she showed was 93. On the other hand, prince Naveen showed 129 feminine characteristics out of 189 characteristics. (England, et al, 2011). Prince Naveen shows more feminine characteristics than masculine characteristics even though he is a man. Berman Eliza, a writer for TIME magazine, interviewed the directors of “The Little Mermaid”, and “Aladdin”. They commented on the film “Moana” (2016). “We saw this as a hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story, in a different tradition than the princess stories.” (Berman, 2016). We can tell that even the directors from older films have noted the differences in how they portray female characters in their films. Disney is trying to adjust to the changes made in society. Disney is also trying to say that women do not need to depend on men in order to live. The old images of princesses needing princes and getting married are old and have changed. In “Frozen” (2013), Queen Elsa does not end up with a prince nor is she interested in marriage (Vecho, D. P., et al, 2013). In recent films love interests are not being advertised to kids. This is a new perspective telling us that women don’t necessarily have to have a goal set to win a man’s heart, but to do what they want and find happiness in what they find is interesting.

Gender roles have changed in several perspectives as well. For example, villains have also changed wit time. Older films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (Hand, D., et al, 1937), “Cinderella” (Bailey, A., el at, 1950), “Sleeping Beauty” (Disney, 1959), and “The Little Mermaid” (Ashman, H, el at, 1989), all have female villains. This idea comes from the fifteenth century when witchcraft was prosperous. Witchcraft was somehow connected to women and not men. Since women were spiritually weaker and for religious reasons, women were more fit to become witches and handle magic (Bailey 2002). From these perspectives, the villains in these films were all female, and some villains even handled magic spells which give us an idea of witchcraft. Now in recent films like; “Beauty and the Beast” (Ashman, el at, 1991), “Aladdin” (Clements, et al, 1992), “Pocahontas” (Bloodworth, et al, 1995), “Mulan” (Coats, et al, 1998), and “The Princess and the Frog” (Vecho, et al, 2009), all have male villains. Interestingly, “Jafar” from “Aladdin”, and “Doctor Facilier” from “The Princess and the Frog” can use sorcery and magic which used to be associated, in the past, with women. This means that the image of witchcraft and villains needing to be female have changed.

Disney also puts effort in their live action movies as well. Recently they have made remakes of “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), and “Aladdin” (2019). The live action film of “Beauty and the Beast” added a new perspective to the original animated film. In the live action version, Lefou; is Gaston’s sidekick. Bill Condon; the director of “Beauty and the Beast” answered in an interview, “the character Lefou (played by Josh Gad) would be portrayed as gay.” (Lawler, 2017). Because of this, some drive-ins have cancelled screenings, and the Russian government decided to ban the film because of the character being gay. (Alexander, 2017). This widened the awareness of LGBTQ to its audience and many other viewers as well. It changed perspectives of LGBTQ for many people. In the live action film “Aladdin”, there is a new song Jasmine sings in the movie. “Written in stone every rule, every word. Centuries old and unbending. Stay in your place better seen and not heard, well now that story is ending” (Menken, A. 2019). From this line, we can tell how women and their voices are treated. Women’s voices and opinions are usually ignored, not heard, or not taken seriously by men. These lyrics imply that this issue must change. Disney is making people aware of this situation that women’s voices need to be heard to the public and be taken more seriously. Women must have a place to express themselves and treated as fairly as men in work places. A big company like Disney can make such an issue noticeable to many people because of its wide audience.

Despite the fact that Disney films have many stereotypes, we can see a clear difference and progression that Disney has made over the years in the films they have created. Disney has gone from women staying at home, doing the chores, being sweet and silent for men, to being active, strong, bold, brave, speaking their thoughts, and showing their intelligence. Disney shows the change society has made for women and is also implying that we can change the future as well. Through the messages communicated in the films, we are able to know the issues of gender and how inequal it is at the present time. Disney being so famous, the message it brings to its audience can have a big influence on how people see the world. I think Disney should continue making movies that confront these issues and gives new perspectives to its audiences.





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