Gender, Race, Ageism and Feminism in Folklore influenced Disney Films


So this is the biggest piece of work I’ve done to date; my Bachelor of Arts dissertation piece. Initially I wanted to look at 14th century folklore and how it has been adapted to new media today, specifically the cultural variations in the different film adaptions. I started to get into it and apparently 10,000 words wasn’t enough! I got a bit overwhelmed by how vast my idea was and decided to bring it down. By this point I needed to do something I knew, so I decided to use my question of cultural variation in Disney films, as they typically were influenced from Folklore, and were mainstream. This is the result I submitted but I hope to one day research and write the paper I wanted to do originally. 


Folkloric inspired films are different from their original tales in that they don’t necessarily reflect the image of society in terms of progression or characteristics within society or society’s behaviour. It could be observed that although folklore was once a viable method of analysing the culture it was created in, it can’t be said for the films we see today. ‘Gender images have not evolved to match the changes that have occurred in society’ (Wiersma, 2001), gender as well as depictions of race and age have remained stereotypical and detrimental in their portrayal in society (Towbin et al, 2004, 24). Most films which have been influenced by folklore fail to hold any of the original sub cultural context that the original tales held (Creangă, 1952) as they aren’t used within society in the same way. Rather than giving an audience ethics to learn from, they create content that audiences will pay for. Some of the controversies which surround Disney films are the apparent whitewashing of casting and character depiction in their animations. Pushing the heteronormative agenda, characters overt compliance to a hegemonic ideal, and lack of realism in both the depictions of men and women. ‘Animation is the most appropriate vehicle for the projection of a child’s imagination into a mode of ‘reality’. The animated form represents a similarity to the ways in which literary narratives have been illustrated in children’s books, and the way in which a child starts to conceive some aspects of the real world before they have been socialised to specific kinds of order’ (Wells, 1998, 234). Children can absorb the information they see in films and television shows and develop it into their psychology, after a while, seeing the same behaviour repeated, possibly over a series of Disney films, a classical conditioning affect can take place and the audience begin to emulate similar behaviour and attitudes. Therefore there needs to be consideration into what audiences are seeing in such iconic and powerful films such as the Disney Princess franchise.

The Princesses and the Statistics

Categories of the Disney eras are in reference to the date of their release and comes from a report which looks at the study conducted by Fought and Eisenhauer on female representation in Disney films. The films within the study are those where a princess is the lead role, in this dissertation, a select few will be studied as they have characters or narrative which come from a folkloric influence. The report in question was conducted by linguists to look at the ratio in regards to various aspects within a Disney film. Because of their polarization of opinions of progressive attitudes throughout the films franchise it is a good example to look at from a cultural theory perspective. ‘Disney movies are one of the few forms of media that can be shared intergenerationally and are quite likely a part of most children’s lives in the U.S.’ (Towbin et al, 2004, 24), and the report asks the question as to whether or not it has a responsibility to reflect the culture at hand.

Within the linguistics study, it found contradictory evidence with regards to the ratio of male to female characters and the ratio of dialogue between the different sexes. Although in the classic era (1937-1959), the films had less characters in speaking roles, there was more gender balance with dialogue. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Cottrell, 1937), there were only 12 speaking roles, and only 2 of them were female. However 50% of the dialogue came from those two female characters. Whereas in the later era of the renaissance (1989-1998), there were larger casts but they tended to lean towards inequality, ‘“The Little Mermaid” pioneered a new style of Disney movie, modelled after Broadway musicals, with their large ensemble casts.’ (Guo, 2016). In The Little Mermaid (Clements, 1989) the speaking cast was made up of 12 males, and just 6 females. The dialogue between the cast showed a similar bias towards the male characters with around 75% of it being spoken by the male characters. In the new age of Disney (2009- ), Frozen (2013) had the biggest ensemble cast than in any other Disney princess film, there were around 49 speaking roles. This was made up from 32 male characters and just 16 female roles with dialogue. In keeping with a similar theme of male bias, the dialogue majority is found from the male characters at over 50%. In the Washington Post, a report on the study observes wider society as the reason for the male character domination in films. Eisenhauer, one of the lead researchers on the study is quoted in the article as saying “My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm…So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture” (Guo, 2016).

The patriarchal dominance in the western culture that the films were created within have bled through to the presentations of gender on screen. Even in films which have a female lead and are created for a female demographic, a female voice is not the dominant voice in the film. This is troublesome, as it’s not to say that a male cast and crew don’t have a right to represent fictional woman, but it could be argued that the representation they create in a finished product is essentially unauthentic. However this opinion is from a classically feminist perspective. From a more modern perspective of feminism, we must also look at the role and representation of the male characters both in their individuality and in their role in regards to the female characters.

In a survey conducted in alliance with this dissertation, the participants were asked ‘Do Disney portray female in a realistic manner?’, as well as ‘Do Disney portray male in a realistic manner?’. 90% of those questioned said that Disney do not portray females with realism, and 83% said that they don’t think they present males in a realistic manner either. This is reflective in the comments given in answers to the questions regarding realism of the character. Interestingly none of the comments mentioned the body image of the male characters. However there were various comments on the body image of the female character. This could be because, even in animation films such as these included in this piece of work, females are still created for the enjoyment of the male gaze. A number of the comments mention body image, ‘I don’t know any female with a size 0 waist and size 6 hips’ and ‘Only thing that is true is hardly any Disney females have thigh gaps” said one anonymous participant. Another said ‘Also their body types are often slim and white, not very representative!’ Disney princesses have always been created with the view of a societal ideal of beauty which reflects a western image of what is attractive. However this needs to be wider and more attainable.

The princesses usually have a natural shade of hair that is inexplicably long. They have abnormally large eyes, resulting in a baby face effect, with porcelain white skin, and waists that have been calculated to be in identical proportion to their necks. Furthermore, ‘less than one in 10 [female portrayals in film] are even slightly overweight’ (Fouts & Burggraf, 1999, 473), and women are more likely to be portrayed as younger than are men (Signorielli, 1999, 527). They are by all standards a type of beauty that is unachievable in reality. ‘By teaching children that these princesses represent the social norm, we are setting them up for failure’ (Ewert, 2014). Perhaps not as a justification for the limited variation in appearance of the princesses, but a mitigating factor is that the animated Disney princesses are fictional characters. When asked about the realism of the female characters, one respondent said ‘They don’t [portray females in a realistic manner], we’re not all going to be princesses but that’s the joy of a fairy tale’. In terms of aesthetics, is it not more pleasing to see an image of beauty on the screen than that of imperfection? It could be argued that it does reflect the aesthetics wanted by the society, in that western society, with all of its photoshopping and media fixation, craves the perfection that reality doesn’t allow. However it must be observed that younger audiences learn from these depictions, what is considered beauty in society and will attempt to emulate the appearance. It could be problematic and distressing when they come to terms that it is an impossible dream to look like a Disney princess. The representation and the dichotomy of women as attractive and good in opposition to ugly and bad means once the realistic younger audience can’t be the princess, will they in turn become the ugly villain.



The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

In the films where there is a direct good versus evil binary, there is usually a paralleled young versus old binary as well. Whereas the main protagonist Snow White is pure in goodness, is kind hearted and youthful, the evil queen is pure evil, dark hearted and ageing. The binary of good versus evil is in direct correlation to the ages of the characters and is very obvious, in particular in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves  (1937) and Tangled (Greno, 2010). One film is from the classic era of Disney and the other from the new wave, arguably there should be signs of progression on the subject of ageism in the films however this appears not to be the case. This convention of evil going hand in hand with old age is something that was prominent in the original folktales.

Witches, described as ‘old hags’ in various tales have almost solidified that image of old women having the connotation of jealous, bitter, and untrustworthy. In the more contemporary retellings of the stories, the older women are the antagonists as they are tricking the young princesses into stealing their youth. Within the narratives youth is the prize and treasure. It is portrayed that the character with youth is the one with worth, they have potential for life and love whereas age is the enemy and is portrayed as worthless with no role in society. ‘In such films, there is little or no explanation of the witch’s desire for youth; her desire is simply incorporated into her evil activities, thereby implying that such desire is depraved’ (Whelehan and Gwynne, 2014, 177). Because there is no motivational cue as to what makes the aged witch so evil, it leaves the audience to assume that it comes from age, as it is the most overt difference between the characters. So it therefore requires the audience to question the motivations of the character in regards to the desire for youth, with no other indications from the narrative. ‘The regression to youth could play on the illusion that youth holds more potential and optimism for life’ (Friedan, 2006, 55), although no clarity is ever given for the desire. The film works entirely against the ageing woman, for any attempt at gaining back worth through attainment of youth is punished. The woman is punished by remaining in their old and weathered bodies. The process of aging is detrimental to quality of life and therefore the woman is left to live as an old woman. ‘Old women in film are effectively caught in a double bind not of their own making: youth is celebrated and old age is derided, yet the desire for youth is pathologised’, (Whelehan and Gwynne, 2014, 178), the weak body and social exile is the punishment for desiring something more. It is presented that age is enough to cause jealousy and resentment, and craving youth is enough to make a woman go mad with desperation. This is an overt dynamic within many Disney films. In Tangled (2010) the antagonist Mother Gothel is looking for eternal youth from a magical flower. Older women are ‘frequently penalised for the magical appropriation of youthful, beautiful bodies’ (Whelehan and Gwynne, 2014, 178). In the film the narrative begins because of Mother Gothels outward desire for youth, but when she fails to procure the flower whose magic is transferred to the baby Rapunzel, she kidnaps the child. She grooms the child with systematic abuse to make her have social anxiety in order to keep the magic around her, which has taken the form of Rapunzel’s long hair. As Friedan suggests there is no clarity as to why the witch wants youth, except for youth’s sake. The film, therefore ‘conflates the magic ability to restore youth with restoring life/health, implying that old age itself is a state of death and infirmity’ (179). In the climax of the film the evil witch gets her comeuppance when she is beaten by a newly inspired and braver Rapunzel. In Tangled (2010), Rapunzel cuts off her magical hair, and Mother Gothel rapidly ages in front of the audience, and she looks in a broken mirror at her grey hair and wrinkled, blemished complexion and manically drags her cloak over her eyes. She trips on debris on the floor and falls over the edge of a window and into oblivion as she turns to dust. Her own reflection of old age disgusted her, and it was her repulsion and covering her face which lead to her demise, ‘the ageing female body is not fit to be seen and is, in fact, an instrument of death’ (179).

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is another cause for concern with a problematic theme of age in its depiction. In the original narrative, transcribed by the Brothers Grimm around the 1800’s, there is no mention of either age as a factor, nor sexual attraction in the tale. Yet both of these conventions are solidified in the contemporary retellings of the story. It indicates that ageism was included in the stories from contemporary retellings as they ‘exploit this culturally situated fear’ (179). Snow White from the Grimm’s version, which is arguably the first documented, never characterised the Queen as being fearful of ageing. The ageism in the narrative seems to have been concluded retrospectively. The Disney story has been hypersexualised in creating a romance triangle and jealously between the Queen, Snow White and the Prince. And it participates in ageism as a symptom of being created under a Hollywood studio, Merry G. Perry reads that the Queens ‘inability to accept her own ageing and loss of beauty reflects an insecurity that the audience might subconsciously understand’ (180). It is a dangerous reflection of a larger society to show to audiences as it reinforces the attitudes which are seen in the media that a woman has an expiry date in terms of her worth and potential in life. The audience align themselves with the youthful princess and are in turn unsettled by the ageing affect, ‘When the aged female body is thus pathologised, young and old are potentially alienated, and anxieties are promoted in those facing old age’ (180). The presentation of people comes into question with children’s films. When a child in an audience watches these films what kind of message are they receiving when it comes to different members of society who do not conform to standard beauty image and the role for those who do? In the article by the Washington Post, Fought says “We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way… they’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls”. Within these depictions of women, they are teaching audiences about the image, behaviour and roles of women in society as they learn from the social cues in the film. In society as a whole the medium of media inundates audiences with the ideal image of beauty, advertisements correspond with the images of perfect celebrities with tips and tricks of how to become like them; essentially how to conform to the ideal standard, and to feel belittled if one doesn’t.

All about the Look

The imagery of positive characters are to be beautiful as a woman and handsome as a man. The image of a villain in the Disney stories are old, which from Disney’s perspective usually means bitter, resentful and therefore evil, as seen in the antagonists in Cinderella (Geronimi, 1950), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves  (1937) and Tangled (Greno, 2010). Or with some kind of appearance which is socially unattractive, and obese, as seen from Ursula in The Little Mermaid (1989) and Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas (Gabriel, 1995). And villains also took on the image of being presented as different from society with a disability or a wrong-ness about them. For example Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (Geronimi, 1959) was shown with a green hue to her skin like an illness or Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog (Clements, 2009), who is a voodoo magician and has purple eyes and a skeletal figure. These physical appearances are designed to create an image in opposition to the youthful and beautiful protagonists. It makes it clearer on a superficial and symbolistic level that these characters are not the ones to form an alliance with. But instead are the ones shunned from society.

Semiotics of colour and geography only serves to emphasize these observations. The princess and her supporters are shown in the light, in the natural forests with colourful flowers, or in grand castles with rich coloured tapestries and décor. Their clothing is colourful, if not at the beginning of the film, definetly by the end of the film. The light and colourful themes represent the goodness and the happiness in the characters. They are also the complete opposite of the dark and dreary colours of the evil characters. They on the other hand are presented in dark grand clothing, with dark rich purples and blues to accompany the black. The colour palette for the villains, as seen in Ursula, Ratcliffe and Dr. Facilier, work to shadow them in comparison to the good characters on the screen. The black reflects the darkness of their character in a pretty obvious format. However the colours of rich purples and blue could be a representation of an oppressive upper class, and elitism as these colours hold the connotation of extravagance. The royalty is shown in reds and golds and the princesses in complimentary colours of pastel. Pastel colours are not as dominant in the frame and could reflect lack of dominance as a character. This idea of colour symbolism works for a vast majority of the films however it should be noted that films like Pocahontas (1995) and Frozen (2013) work from their own colour palettes which reflect the environment of where they are set, like beige, deep reds and oranges, or blues, silvers and icy grey and white tones respectively.

A Marxist Approach

However rich warm colours (such as reds and golds) of the new royalty versus the classically cold colours (blues and purples) of the old royalty can be observed in a Marxist reading of overthrowing the cold upper class with more youthful and kind leaders with an affinity to the common people, because the princess in many cases came from peasantry or was enslaved into it. It is social revolt in many of the films as either the prince enters and marries a common woman, or the already established princess fights for her right to marry a common man. A further example which could be observed from a Marxist perspective is the geography and landscaping of the characters. The evil villain in films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Tangled (2013) and The Little Mermaid (1989) live in the highest castle points, or in Ursula’s case, the lowest point. Their surroundings are a reflection of themselves, sharp edged rocks surround them, and they are closed off from society and alienated from the community. In the original tales this could have been a social commentary of the detrimental effects of someone removing themselves from society. However within a Marxist theory, the height of the castle or the depths of Ursula’s sea castle, symbolise the difference in the class systems that the minority of rich and powerful don’t bother themselves with the majority of the common people. The magic that these villains possess to keep them in power could represent the money which keeps the upper classes in power. However, as the younger more liberal couple take the power and remove the magic, thus removing the curse over the kingdom, they could also be removing the oppressive class system led by the wealthy from society. In the films mentioned above, height also plays a role in the demise of the villains, and emphasises the Marxist approach. All of the villains are shown falling from a great height to their death, possibly showing the crumbling of the symbolised height of the upper class to the bottom of the pile and into the abyss.



Princesses through the Era’s

Many of the Disney films present young princesses who have suffered a loss from one or both parents, possibly so that narratively it makes sense for the princess to be searching for love to fill a metaphorical hole in their lives, and perhaps also because it accounts for their sometimes questionable and rebellious behaviour.  Or even as to why they’re more susceptible to villainous characters who take advantage. If one of the parents have died, it is always the mother. Perhaps the reasoning for killing off the female is because the films would have implied a more intensely dark abuse if the step parent had been a father because of societies connotations of abusive men. However, from excluding males as a character as a step parent, it leaves the female step parent to be the evil villain. This is a convention seen throughout all of the eras and it is a stereotype even today in society, that a step parent is a negative thing. The dynamic of being left with an overbearing father became most common in the renaissance era, it allows a justification for the youthful princess to rebel, and also reaffirms the masculine control from a parental perspective. Additionally, it sets up a collective of oppositions; a structured, oppressive family unit, versus an adventurous, and exciting individual. Within the renaissance era princesses have more fight and are feistier, and are portrayed as more rebellious. Rather than waiting for a man, they go and look for one and fight to stay with them. However, this is all done in such a way that the man still has the dominant voice in the films, and the princess still makes massive changes and has to adapt in order to fit into the man’s life. In The Little Mermaid (1989) the princess Ariel, the mermaid, gives up her most prized talent of singing in exchange of becoming a mute human to meet a man she has fallen in love with, whereas in Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale, 1991) there is a strong case to consider it as ‘heterosexual-based eroticism,’ wherein the female is seduced by overt masculine (borderline abusive) behaviour (Hooks, 1994). The daughter of a poor inventor is captured by a beast and she begins to fall in love not knowing that he is a prince under a curse. She tames his aggression, and eventually there is a massive display of hyper masculinity as a fight between Gaston and the beast ensues over Belles attraction. Both of these titles, as well as others in the renaissance era come under criticism for their choice of narrative ending. Although the princesses (or eventual princesses) are far more rebellious and have talents of their own, Ariel’s being singing and Belle’s reading and an aptitude for knowledge. It could be argued that their rebellious edge is to make them appear less mature, and more teenage like. However, in the majority of the films in this era the princesses are fighting for the choice of who they love, so in effect they have been made to appear younger, but they are giving up a youthful life and family for a man and marriage. In Ariel’s case she literally changes her form, and only once the prince saves her does her father allow her to go with him. She is being passed like a possession to different men, only when they have proved that they can protect and control her.

Too Many Men

In the classic and renaissance eras, there is one princess surrounded by men and an evil women who is bitter and jealous against her, “There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things… Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male,” Fought says (Guo, 2016). In the renaissance and new wave of Disney films, although there is a larger cast, the extra characters are mainly male, “My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm… when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture” (Guo, 2016), within culture we see more men in higher professional roles and within films and television. So it wouldn’t be as uncommon to be reflected in roles within a fictional scenario. Another possibility as to why there are so many men within the films, is the idea of jealously and competition amongst women within the realms. The more women there are within the scene, the less the princess stands out as the one and only beauty of the film. It can give the impression to the audience that women must be untrusting and distant from one another in order to be special or worth noticing. Within contemporary western cultures where there is patriarchy, women over social media and within some films and television are encouraged to stand united against oppression and misogyny. However there is a massive problem within intra-feminism disputes over issues of class and race inequalities within womanhood, as well as moral disputes which lead to ‘slut-shaming’. By Disney films portraying the females as loners, whose only companions can be non-sexual beta men until a potential partner comes along, it can develop an image of society as a manipulative ‘socio-scape’ where company amongst other women is a hindrance and a threat and male company is the safest.

This could be why sidekicks to the female lead are usually men, again adding to this idea of a dominant male voice. Ariel’s only friends are the male sea creatures of Flounder the fish, and Sebastian the crab. Out of the Disney films which have a female lead, 62% of the princesses have a sidekick to support them on their journey, however 100% of these sidekicks are male. In traditional folklore, there were stories where within the narrative there were animals who would accompany the characters throughout their journey. They either watched over them as in the original ‘Red Riding Hood’ (1812) which had an owl that pointed her in the direction of the correct path, so that she didn’t walk into the wolf’s first trap, and in the original ‘Cendrillon’, originating from Italy, and first documented by Charles Perrault and better known as ‘Cinderella’, when farm animals and rodents were her only friends as she lived in solitude. From a cultural identity perspective, the animals were used to represent and show the location the tale had found itself in. The animals could vary from owls, to crows and even swans depending on the story teller. The animals worked to move along the narrative and in some cases to guide and protect the protagonist of the tale. Within the Disney films the sidekick works as a supportive protector or as comedic relief. Both roles which are typically reserved exclusively for a male cast member, given the ability to be protective is considered a masculine trait and a distinctly unfeminine one. This is similar to comedy as the sidekick is usually the character with the stand out funny lines. It could be argued that within the renaissance era, the princess is evoking ‘pseudo independence’ in that she believes, and the audience believe she is choosing her life at her own free will with her own motivations. But the oppressive controlling voice from a father figure, the intriguing temptation from a male stranger to save them from their current situation, and emotional support from male sidekicks all worked to control and contort her motivations to follow the male ruling.

 Negativity of Woman

There is a negative portrayal of the other woman in The Little Mermaid (1989), as with other Disney films, as the only other female lead is the obesely grotesque octopus or the other mermaids who are bitter and jealous of Ariel’s singing voice and attention from men. Her only other supporters comes from her socially anxious asexual fish friend Flounder, her father’s helper and spy, a crab Sebastian, and an eccentric ageing seagull, Scuttle. Her only friends are male and they are in no way a possible mate for Ariel for they are not only different species but they are not alpha or dominating men. This allows space for Ariel to be the lead member of the group, when all of the males she can be compared to have very little masculine traits, this in itself is arguably the most pro feminist convention in the film. The other women, who are few and far between, are Ariel’s sisters, Carlotta and Ursula, portrayed in octopus form and human form. Ariel’s sisters are only portrayed in the film when they are with their father King Triton, as a unit they represent Ariel’s family and what she is leaving behind. Even Ariel’s sisters are shown to be jealous of her voice and make remarks about her being competition which is why they leave her out. Their only use in the narrative is for female intuition in recognising that Ariel is in love and telling on her to their father to get her punished. Carlotta is the housekeeper and confidant of Prince Eric, she encourages Ariel’s endeavours for a relationship and becomes a motherly figure for her. Her maternal nature and her larger size means she is no way a threat to the princess and is arguably the reason a friendship can blossom, as there is no competition. Ursula transforms herself into a beautiful women and it is only then that she becomes a worthy adversary and comes close to destroying Ariel’s chances. It promotes an image of calculating and manipulating women, fighting each other for the attention for men.

This is a similar circumstance for the character dynamics in Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale, 1991), the other females in the village are presented as beautiful, curvaceous and blonde whose only interest is to please the ego of the town brute, named Gaston. They make fun of Belle for reading books, and scold her for not appreciating Gaston’s aggressive advances. The dynamic within this particular film is interesting with regards to these characters as they are an ironic and satirical comment on the previous character tropes of the waiting and ever appreciative female seen in the classical period. In both of the character dynamics however it presents women as competition amongst themselves and is detrimental to the reflection of society, and to any younger audience members who absorb this information as a social norm.


Progressive Portrayals of the Males

The male characters aren’t presented in the new wave of Disney as badly as they once were and therefore it works to portray the females better by association. In the classic era, the prince was nameless and any man who came along was good enough for the damsel in distress in the final act of the film, as seen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950). In the renaissance era the men were typically portrayed as strong, confident and in control. But they were also portrayed as being more reserved, and less romantic which meant that the women would have to chase the male and change for the man in order to prove themselves worthy of their attention and affection, this is seen in arguably a Stockholm syndrome-esque narrative of Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale, 1991). In the new wave we see being released today, men are more realistic and dynamic as characters than ever before. In the more contemporary films both the female and male characters are flawed. In The Princess and the Frog (Clements, 2009) Prince Naveen does hold a royal title but he doesn’t have any money. This means that within the power balance within the couple it is Tiana that holds more social worth than Naveen. It also means that Tiana ends up dating Naveen not because of his social status or what he can do for her but because of genuine feelings. In Tangled (2010), Flynn Rider is introduced to the story as a wanted thief for stealing the crown jewels. He hides in an isolated tower and is knocked unconscious by Rapunzel with a frying pan, already indicating a level of incompetence and a shared comedic tone like a double act rather than one sided one liners. Throughout the film Flynn Rider acts as a self-reflective comedic voice on Disney films, he questions why everyone is singing and dancing in perfect harmony, questions why his ‘smoulder’ face doesn’t make Rapunzel fall in love right away, and why Rapunzel is insistent on keeping an animal by her side at all times. He also confesses that his real name is Eugene Fitzherbert and that he was once an orphan and that is why he steals. He looked up to stories which influenced his name change in order to be cool. This character development shows the vulnerability of the character, but it doesn’t detract from the masculinity of him as Rapunzel is more attracted to him once he is his true self. It deconstructs the masculine ideal that the man in a relationship can’t be vulnerable or defenceless. Or that the women can’t be the emotionally strong one, which works against many of Disney’s other films, where these were commonly seen character tropes. Older Disney suggested that ‘some gendered characteristics are not permissible for the prince or princess to display’ (England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek, 2011, 563) whereas the newer Disney films allow for more gender orientated stereotypes to cross over into new territories. By Flynn Rider being known for the rest of the film as Eugene, it shows him more as a real man with a history, than as a stereotypical hero to save the day. By sharing with Rapunzel, it also means the audience can see a connection between the two characters to lead into a relationship instead of an unrealistic ‘love at first sight’ scenario. The newer films also ‘often makes a point of punishing hypermasculine men’ (Leek, 2013) such as The Stabbington Brothers, whose name even points to violence, if not suggestions of psychoanalytical connotations of phallic aggression. The progression in the later films is less detrimental on the influence to audiences than in the original films. An audience constantly having confirmation that the men should forever be riding into the spotlight to save the day with masculinity, can give the wrong message, and it also can make some feel inadequate if it is not in their nature (2013).

Princesses and their Special Skills

There have been shifts in the depictions of gender in the films and it is shifting into more progressive and positive lights. Towbin et al conducted research into Disney’s film franchise and published “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films”. The author concluded that there could be four characteristics which were commonplace in films which had a female as the main character; these were “(a) A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect, (b) Women are helpless and in need of protection, (c) Women are domestic and are likely to marry, and (d) Overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried (14).” These are definitely categories which can be applied to the females in Disney films, particularly in the classic era. These ideas are supported by the research conducted by Fought and Eisenhauer. They also looked at the content of the dialogue, and noted all of the dialogue exchanged between characters and the princess, and found the percentage of compliments. From these compliments they were able to see what was more praised and valued in the realms of Disney princesses. In the classic era, 66% of words spoken was praise for the princess however 55% of that was praising the princess for her physical appearance, with a tiny 11% of the entire films dialogue praising her skills or abilities.

In the categories in Towbin et al research, they all particularly apply to the female characters in the first era of Disney. The women were waiting for heroes to save them, and in their waiting they did domestic chores in servitude. The percentages from Fought and Eisenhauer backup this idea, the fact that there are few compliments for the princesses other than their looks indicates that there was nothing else noteworthy about the character apart from her appearance. However as the times modernised the statistics indicate that the princesses slowly evolved with the times as well. Towbins work was conducted in 2004, before the new wave of Disney films so I think it is fair to say that although it was applicable for the first and perhaps the second era of the franchise, it isn’t the same case for the new releases of films which came after the study. In the renaissance era the princesses are described as more rebellious and feisty (Guo, 2016), as Disney definitely made changes to modernise the princesses.

There was a similar amount of praise in the film, with 61% of the dialogue, however only 38% of it was directed at the princesses’ appearance, with a more acceptable 23% about her abilities and skills. The new age Disney films are finally the films which don’t hold praise for the appearance as the biggest priority for the dialogue. A similar amount of praise is given as seen in the previous eras at 62%, which isn’t unexpected from a formulaic series such as the princess series. However only 22% of that is praise for the appearance whereas the bulk of comment, at 40% are compliments for abilities and skills of the female characters. These statistics finally show a true level of progression for Disney. Not only are female characters value of worth changing from more than just her looks, but the female princess is finally given characteristics that can be considered a skill or ability.

It indicates that Disney has finally began to produce more characters with respect for woman, which in turn can create a more positive image for them in society. If younger audiences can see a skilled princess, praised for her talents more than her looks then the behaviour and attitude can be learnt and beneficial to the audience. In the first era, the princesses were submissive to the oppressive forces, and passive in their domestic lives. They didn’t do anything that could be massively considered skilled or abled. In the renaissance era the princesses were more skilled as each in turn had their own talent as an iconic trait. Ariel could sing, even though she lost her voice for Eric but danced for him instead, Belle could read and used it to educate the beast, and Pocahontas was athletic and impressed John Smith with her physical abilities. In the new wave the talents were more personal to the princess’ character. Rapunzel had many talents; art, singing, cooking and reading, Tiana had a skill for cooking and business, Merida was an expert archer and Elsa of course had her magical powers which she eventually trained herself to use perfectly.


Changes in the Air

Considering ‘Disney’s men often claim the spotlight even when the story being told is not theirs’ (Leek, 2013), the entire narrative would rely on the prince coming to scene and the audience waited for the arrival just as much as the princess. It was a film about the prince saving the day, we just weren’t with the prince on his travels. The audience were passive with the princess and shared in her patience as they awaited the climax of the film; the woman being saved by her man. However with increased technology and advancements in on demand television and online platforms for films and television, as well as progression within female roles in culture, audience are far less passive and willing to watch passivity on screen.

There was only ever princes in the classic era, whereas this started to change in the next. The royalty and position of power was in favour of the princess, who could choose a common person should they wish to. In the renaissance of Disney, they tried to make the women choose their own partners, but they still had a dominant male voice, as the women had to change in order to fit into the world of the man. It portrayed them as more desperate and calculating, making dark deals to change themselves without the prince knowing. This wasn’t the best portrayal of women that could have been created by Disney but it could be argued that it was a stepping stone to the new wave which, from a feminist perspective is making good strides in portraying females with more respect and dynamism.

Things are getting better with new wave of Disney as traditional and old fashioned stereotypes are slowly, but possibly surely, being cast aside in exchange for more gender balance and stronger portrayals of men and women, as well as portrayals of men and woman, not nessacerily from within a heterosexual perspective. In Frozen (2013) there is a key scene where Anna walks into a cabin in the freezing weather to buy supplies to search for Elsa. She asks the shopkeeper who is a particularly chirpy blonde man if he is there alone, and he replies that his family is in the sauna. As the shot cuts to the sauna it clearly depicts another blonde gentleman, with three smiling, waving brunette children. It’s been argued that this is a clear portrayal of a homosexual couple, with three adoptive children. It has been observed that the two older men, both have blonde hair and paler skin, which is a native complexion of the Scandinavian people, whereas the children have been given darker skin and darker hair to show the genetic differences between the men and the children. This is a massive progressive step on behalf of Disney and although received some criticism, the vast majority of the responses were indifference or praise. Within Frozen (2013) there are also LGBTQ readings into the iconic ‘Let It Go’, sung by Elsa when she decides she can no longer hold in the powers she was born with, so she decides to live her life away from the hate, but proud of her abilities. This has also been read as the magic being a symbolism for homosexuality or gender fluidity. The idea is that it reflects the journey that some people have to take when they ‘come out’, in that they can sometimes be pressured but there is a freedom in owning who they really are. This has been accepted by LGBTQ communities as a subtle inclusion of the demographic in the mainstream film, and ‘Let It Go’ has been adopted as a sort of anthem. There are also theories on the sexuality of Elsa should there be any sequels.

Trends are being broken in the new wave Disney films. They are actively presenting princesses who refuse the idea of a marriage, in Brave (Andrews, 2012) it’s because the princess doesn’t allow her father to arrange a marriage for her. Princess Merida takes part in a series of challenges to win the right to choose her husband, or no husband for herself. This film also plays on the mother daughter relationship which is very rare for a Disney film. In Frozen (2013) newly appointed Queen Elsa, outright refuses to bless the engagement of her little sister Anna with stranger Hans, when she says Anna cannot marry a man she has just met. The film is referencing all of the previous films where the marriage of two strangers is celebrated. In opposition to Anna wanting to marry the stranger Hans, she then meets Kristoff, who is less smooth, goofier and they fall in love after a turbulent friendship and getting to know each other throughout the film. There is a strong case that could argue that Disney might portray characters falling in love very quickly but they have been trying to portray with more personalisation within the characters since the renaissance era. The characters are given similar opinions, comedic moments and shared jokes and even arguments which show how they learn from each other and grow. In The Princess and the Frog (Clements, 2009) Tiana refuses to consider marriage until her business has started, whilst her friend Charlotte La Bouff is portrayed as the male-centric woman who wants to marry the visiting prince Naveen before he has even arrived. Tiana finds a frog in the room of her friends’ palace and finds out that he is the true prince and there is an imposter under the magic smell of the voodoo magician Dr. Facilier walking around. She kisses the frog in an attempt to transform him into a human but finds herself a frog. Their journey turns them from resentful cohorts to friends. At the end of the film when Charlotte La Bouff’s kiss doesn’t change the real Naveen into a human but Tiana’s does, they realise they have fallen in love. Although for films which begin outside of the traditional realms of Disney by presenting very independent women who are neither chasing nor waiting for men, they have been critised for ending the narratives with a traditional hegemonic scenario of a heterosexual relationship. However Disney as a franchise creates happy endings for their audiences. In the spirit of third wave feminism we find ourselves in, the priority of the movement can be argued to lay with the concept of equality for all genders on the spectrum, as well as individual choice for all. Therefore it has to be considered that Disney presenting a happy ending of two people falling in love, especially under more explained and progressive terms isn’t nessacerily a detrimental thing to the representation of female or male.


Racial and Ethnic Portrayals

Although there has been progress in the representation of gender and LGBTQ image, there are still concerns over the issues of racial diversity and characterisation. In the survey conducted 73% of people said that the representation of race and different ethnicities are not respectful and not representational of actual ethnic minorities or their culture. ‘As Disney films continue to find new audiences in each up-coming generation, it seems reasonable to assume that these films have more than simply a nostalgic appeal: they must in some way still hold relevance in modern audiences’ (Davis, 19).

The films in the early 40’s mirrored the hegemonic cultural beliefs of white patriarchy, however at this point in contemporary culture traditional tropes in the films should be sacrificed for more modern reflections of society. Disney has a history of racial stereotypes in their films, from the crow characters in Dumbo (Armstrong, 1941) to ‘the original lyrics from the introduction of Aladdin. The characters are singing about a fictional Middle Eastern country and belt out “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric but hey, it’s home.” (Ewert, 2014). There is a similar troubled lyric in The Little Mermaid (1989), “Up on the shore they work all day, out in the sun they slave away, while we devotin’ full time to floatin’ under the sea!” While this in itself references slaves who were forced to work in the beating sun, it is sung by Sebastian the crab, played by Samuel E. Wright, who was born and lived in Camden, and sings with a contrived Jamaican accent as he sings nonchalantly about slaves who may share similar roots of Jamaican heritage.

The films narratives are based predominantly on European folklore, therefore it is of no surprise that the narrative takes place in a culturally white country. However this changed in the renaissance era when the princesses of Jasmin and Pocahontas were introduced, followed by Mulan, and then Tiana. ‘In the eyes of Disney, there’s a Princess for Black little girls to look up to, a Princess for Native little girls to look up to, a Princess for Arab little girls to look up to, a Princess for Asian little girls to look up to, and nine princesses for all little girls to look up to.’ (Fletcher, 2014). However, in all of the promotional images of the princesses the original white princesses are at the front and obscure the others. This could be because the white princesses happen to be the originals, however it could also be sinister in that it is an active attempt to keep Disney more conservative in its appearance. Whatever the truth, the accusation of whitewashing is a hard reputation for Disney to shake.

In the majority of the Disney princess films, there isn’t nessacerily white washing in that a character which should obviously not be white is portrayed in a white, westernised depiction. But it also that Disney focuses on a disproportionally large amount of white people. Little girls with an ethnic background have to be content with one representation of an ethnicity which may share some similar traits. But they can’t have their very own culturally correct and stand out princess. Even the extras of the films which depict a white princess have an almost entire white cast. The argument is that the location that these princesses are found in, and the timeframe wouldn’t have had a multi-ethnic society. However the counter argument, and possibly the more modern and tolerant argument, is that the stories these narratives tell are fiction, the real society wouldn’t have had magical witches either. It could easily add in multi-ethnic characters, even as extras to make the scenes more reflective of international landscapes. This Eurocentrism of considering all other races outside of white as ‘raced’, whereas white is ‘raceless’ under the assumption that white is a standard neutral race for a character unless otherwise stated is detrimental to society. And it can be seen in the Disney films, just as there is carelessness as to adding a character and the norm being for the character to be a man, it is also the norm to be a white character. This needs to actively change in order for Disney to evolve as society has.

The cast such as the one seen in The Princess and the Frog (2009), proves that there can be an integration of ethnicities within the Disney universes, it just needs to be actively created and worked on. The show shows a white upper class girl and a working class black girl as best friends despite their differences. Although it presents the black girl as lower in a class system, it also presents her as a cool, independent business mogul with an impressive work ethic. The white girl although a stereotypical rich girl is used for endearment and comedic relief. These are successful and well-crafted characters which show racial integration, otherwise unseen in a Disney film before. The characters are successful because not only are they both attractive young woman who are friends not rivals, but they are both able to exist and prosper in the film without have to belittle one another. One doesn’t need to fail in order for the other to succeed and they are both independent entities within the same narrative. This is a good representation in society when different ethnicities are increasingly coming under fire from each other. Racial inclusion in the Disney films consider that the representation, if not on the sole princess, or prince, should show a society that is representational of the audience watching the film, rather than aiming for historical accuracy in a child’s fantasy film.

Another observed practise of whitewashing is actively retelling a story which has been altered from the truth in order to depict the white people within it as having done something better than they did. This is a classic and almost inarguable case in Pocahontas (1995) where is depicts the arrival of British white men on the shores of territory owned by the Native Americans. Rather than showing the plight and violence which was thrown down on the Native American people, it focuses its attention on the relationship been the chiefs daughter and a mercenary who came to the land with the British. Towbin et al concluded that the non-dominant cultures in Disney films typically fair worse than of the leading white, Christianity based culture. However in Pocahontas (1995) it appears that there are both positive and negative portrayals of the Native Americans that the narrative sets them in. Within the film the Native American unit are portrayed with respect, they live in a well-built area, similar to that of a smaller village seen in other Disney films, and the introducing scene shows the community working on the crops, the river, joking and getting along. This is then juxtaposed to Pocahontas herself running through the forest, the contrast of a slow but community oriented day compared to a fast shot of a sole character running around the wild. The characters are varied in male and female, and comes across well-spoken and intelligent. This is an area where Disney have had previous issues, in the likes of Aladdin (Clements, 1992) where the Arab community is small, cramped and described in terms of filthy and dirty. The people are also presented as more antagonistic and quick to jump to aggression. The characters of the guards are presented to be particularly stupid, seeing as they are constantly outsmarted.

Three years later in Pocahontas, released in 1995, it appears that Disney have learnt to portray the culture with some care and respect. The film falls into some trouble when it attempts to bring in another culture with the Native American one. As the company releasing the film, Disney Studios is an American company and colonialism is part of the national makeup, it can be considered that they have attempted to portray the details with a more complimentary tone. The introduction of the men, John Smith and Ratcliffe, show the opposing sides of the invasion. Smith is there for money, until he finds a rich culture and tries to defend it, and Ratcliffe is attempting to appeal to the King of England by destroying the natural landscape in an attempt to mine gold, and bring it back for him. Ratcliffe is a character who could reflect members of society within a white culture in his attitudes towards the Native Americans. He is a vile character who is scared of the Native Americans and suspicious of them, in his fear he calls them savages, purely because they are different. He also participates in scaremongering with the rest of his men and he attempts to lead them to slaughter the village. Smith on the other hand is taken by the exoticism of Pocahontas and spends time with her to get to know the Native American way. He falls in love and the two start a secret relationship. When the climax of the films takes place, John Smith is taken by the chief and ordered to be executed for fraternising with his daughter. This is the spark which makes the white men charge on the village. Pocahontas throws herself over Smiths body before her father can club him to death. The act of sacrifice is enough to make the village people and the white men think about their actions and what they are fighting for. John Smith and his men revolt against Ratcliffe’s racist nature and go home.

However Pocahontas doesn’t join them for John Smith. This is a trope Towbin et al found in racial depictions in Disney films, ‘characters who share similar values should stay/be together’ (33). The characters stay within their ‘units’ predesignated by class or race. This is troublesome as it doesn’t encourage integration and inclusion of different values in different cultures. Interestingly, although Ratcliffe was a racist aggressor in the film, he works as a historical figure as when white men came to the land in America, there were racially motivated attacks, and he is not the more troubling character depiction in the film. John Smith, the kinder hero is the dangerous character to historically associate with the issues which surround the Native Americans. He represents a kinder type of person who went over, however it is not unreasonable to consider that this type of person didn’t exist. Those who went over in mercenary ships were there for the resources and not for an education, and would take them by any means necessary. John Smith dangerously romanticises the ordeal that the Native Americans had to go through, and in turn depicts colonialism, not as a series of brutal and outnumbered attacks but as an optimistic opportunity to meet new people and potential partners, which could not be further from the truth.

This white washing can be considered disrespectful of the people who suffered. It could have been a positive portrayal of an interracial couple but they did not stay together. It implies that the relationship was built on the gimmick of the other ones culture being unknown and exciting, and that in itself encourages seeing other cultures as a gimmick in comparison to one’s own that can be tested. In modern culture this is related a lot to cultural appropriation, finding trends within and trivialising another’s culture for its exoticism without understanding or caring for the culture as an accumulation of racial struggle, identity and history.

In Frozen (2013) the introduction of the scene introduces the geography as typically Scandinavian, wide expanses of ice, with frozen lakes up in the mountains, but beautifully lush forests on the lower lying lands. The film has been accused of cultural appropriation for taking the landscape of Scandinavia and using traditional music from the indigenous Sámi in the opening scene. Yoik chanting was used in both the opening and closing scenes of the film, by bookending the film with the music it emphasises that the film took place in the traditional Sámi environment. It was also composed and performed by traditional Sámi tribesman for authenticity. But it takes the music, and location without ever representing the people of the culture in visual imagery within the film. The Sámi tribe is ethnically a black tribe. And in the entire film there is not one black character, this calls into question why is it okay to choose the parts of a culture to portray but not the rest. The typical argument of a race not being present in a society cannot work here, as the ethnicity of the native tribe is black and would be very prominent here. It could imply than any race other than white doesn’t need to be represented unless for tokenism in giving them a racially and culturally specific narrative, still outside and unintegrated into a western depiction.



Frozen (2013) is the latest film to be released from the Disney franchise and it should in effect be an accumulation of progressive attitudes and representations. Yes it is unconventional in the act of true love destined to save Anna coming from the sister bond as opposed to a man, and yes it arguably has more LGBTQ undertones than any other films. It still has significant issues which perhaps shouldn’t be such in a 21st century society. It takes timid steps into better representation, but then still conforms to narrowly defined beauty standards, and still ends the film with at least one heteronormative relationship. In the film, there has been analytical theories which find Anna to be a Christ like figure, a few layers from the surface and religious undertones are rife in the film, for example Anna as a self-sacrificing figure intent on redeeming her bewitched older sister no matter the rejection and cost. ‘It has been suggested that audiences are reclaiming and revising the meanings of animated films with regard to their own gendered ethicised or sexual gaze, and that other kinds of critical interpretation are achieved by addressing how post-modern reflexivity necessitates the viewer to engage with the text in a different way’ (Wells, 1998, 223). In the survey conducted with regards to this text, 79% of the participants said that children’s film and television shows should be regulated as children absorb information they see on screen and so negatively portrayed in terms of race and gender, they are dangerous for a child’s mental outlook on the world. 63% of those asked also said that films had the power to change people’s attitudes on social issues through positive representations. In the comments section participants were generally more confident in children’s attitudes being more easily swayed than adults. However in Disney films which are targeted predominantly at children it indicates that, yes, audiences do learn and adapt opinions based on the portrayals they see on screen, and that’s what makes it so crucial that Disney, one of the most popular producers in child content, is held accountable for the portrayals they show to audiences. They are an influential and powerful source and could benefit society if they were to evolve and progress with their depictions of characters on screen. So that audiences today could learn from the tales, just as audience of Folklore originally did.



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