Disney Movies are Still Sexist... Right?

Cracked recently put out one of their better sourced articles with a title that makes a pretty damning claim, titled: 5 Ways Disney Movies are Even More Sexist Than the Classics (An alternative title lists it as 5 Ways Disney Has Actually Gotten More Sexist Over Time). Of course it got a lot of clicks and comments with no shortage of people calling bullshit on their claim. Are Disney movies like Frozen and Brave really more sexist than the classics, Cinderella and Snow White? Is that possible?

In a word, and this is just my opinion at this point, no. It's a ridiculous stretch. I have seen these movies, and like most women, I rejoiced when our beloved Disney produced incredible heroic tales with female leads for the first time. If Cracked really has some research to back up such a claim, it had better be peer reviewed and statistically relevant. Then I got to wondering, and thought that wasn't very skeptically minded of me. After all, I am a huge Disney animated classic fan. I experience nostalgia every time I here the music or see the characters. I've written about it, visited the parks, made videos about them. Maybe my view of their progress is a bit rose tainted.

The Alien silhouetted by Beauty and the Beast window at Epcot, WDW, Florida

I talked it over with the Alien from Two Grumpy People, and we decided to tackle the claim head on in three articles, shared between our two pages. The first will be a general review of the article's claims and some very general critiques, concerns, and laying the groundwork for the next two. The second will be our own research results and will appear both here and on the Two Grumpy People blog. The last will be a more in depth analyses of methods, the science behind the claims, and a final wrap up. 

The five claims made by the article are, 

5. Female Characters Have Less Dialogue Than Ever

4. Disney Deliberately Markets Its Films To Look Less "Girly"

3. The Women Still Live To Get Married

2. Every New Female Character Looks Exactly The Same

1. The New Princesses Can't Control Their Powers And Tend To Ruin Everything

Ok, it seems a bit odd to me that the research they are relying on most supports their claim number five, that we would tend to assume is supposed to be their weakest claim. We usually put our killer point at the end, to really bring the runners home. But here they have put their most subjective and silly claim at the end. Some of these claims I have heard before, including the "all the girls look the same" claim. I'll take them in the order Cracked placed them.

Female Characters Have Less Dialogue Than Ever

Here they provide some hard nosed research. Weirdly though, they didn't link directly to the research, but to a Washington Post story on the research, which you can find here. Luckily, the WaPo article goes into greater detail about the original research by Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, though they didn't provide a direct link. 

 

They used it as the Facebook post, so they must be pretty sure of it.

They used it as the Facebook post, so they must be pretty sure of it.

 

Oddly enough, even though they link to the WaPo story, Cracked comes to a very different conclusion that the Post's Jeff Guo. Guo gives the same initial interpretation of the results as provided by the *researchers, and even points out that some other positive aspects.  

Here is where the trend is positive. The classic Disney princess films were focused on looks. More than half of the compliments that women received — 55 percent — had to do with their appearance. Only 11 percent had to do with their skills or accomplishments ... In the latest batch of films ... the pattern is finally reversed. For the first time, women are more likely to be praised for their skills or achievements than for their looks. On average in these films, 40 percent of compliments directed at women involve their abilities or accomplishments, while only 22 percent involve physical appearances. - Wonkblog, Researchers have found a major problem with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and other Disney movies, By Jeff Guo, January 25, 2016, Washington Post

And Guo goes on to relate other ways that one could identify a generally positive trend in female representation in the Disney animated movies, such as the use of female writers and directors, a feminist perspective, and more action oriented scenes for women. Still, he ends on an ominous note, suggesting that once one starts to examine the matter closer, they might not see the new Disney princesses as being particularly good for little girls. 

*The presentation entitled: A quantitative analysis of gendered compliments in Disney Princess films actually has a relatively positive feminist outcome in its summary findings. 

Recent studies find that children use animated films in constructing their gender identities (e.g. DoRozario, 2004; Baker-Sperry, 2007). However, little is known about how gendered language is presented in children’s media. Data on compliments in the Disney Princess films were analyzed for gender of speaker and recipient, and for type of compliment given/received (Holmes, 1986). The proportion of compliments received by female characters declined in the more recent films, although females overall received significantly more compliments on their appearance. These results illuminate how ideologies about language and gender are packaged and presented to children.

I will analyze the study itself in my article with Two Grumpy People, so I'll leave it at that, here. Suffice to say, Cracked is leaning heavily on research whose author's came to a different conclusion than they did.

In my own observations, this seems a shallow marker. I just have to ask, is the mere number of words spoken really a good way to measure whether a character is a good role model for girls? It's commonly pointed out that social convention tells girls that they should be quiet, listen more, and speak less. Girls with quieter voices are generally liked more. Some researchers have even said that girls who talk too much to other girls, may suffer for it. So that's a sexist notion, right? If you want to break that trope, you do what? Have women talk more! But that's a kind of simplistic way to look at the issue. Having an empty headed motormouth for a heroine isn't going to convince many people that she is smart, competent, or strong. To do that you also have to write strong, competent, and complex characters with dialogue to match.

Aliens, 20th Century Fox, 1986

Aliens, 20th Century Fox, 1986

Think of the strongest female characters you can. Number one on many lists is Ripley, the protagonist from Aliens. She operated a lifting robot. She fought acid spitting aliens. She saved the little girl. She was a truly strong heroine, inside and out. She believed in herself without being arrogant. And she was smart enough to put the clues together and to survive in a constantly changing scenario. How many words did she speak? More than her male cast members? No. The character with perhaps most words for time on screen had to be the one played by Bill Paxton. I didn't count, but he ran his mouth in every scene he was in. What he said was mostly stupid jokes and cringeworthy one liners. "We're on an elevator to hell." "We're all going to die, man." "Well, put her in charge!" This was not really heroic stuff, guys. Who were the heroes? A small feral child with a minimum of dialogue that scares the crap out of us, Ripley, of course, and the hot guy from Terminator, a man of few words in both movies. Sometimes, guys, the hero is a person of quiet introspection and deep thoughts. Just packing their mouths with exclamations won't make our female characters role models for feminist daughters.

Tiana isn't sure about Naveen's kiss idea, Walt Disney Movie, 2009

Tiana isn't sure about Naveen's kiss idea, Walt Disney Movie, 2009

Charlotte dreams of a prince to sweep her off her feet, Walt Disney Movies, 2009

Charlotte dreams of a prince to sweep her off her feet, Walt Disney Movies, 2009

Let's apply that briefly to one of the princess movies to show how it could work. Princess and the Frog actually features two young ladies, friends from different worlds, either of whom could be assumed to be the heroine from her own perspective. Neither is bad, or even particularly stupid. The wealthier white girl talks a lot about her dreams for finding a rich husband. That's her goal in life. She doesn't want to solve world peace, do science, or fight for justice. She just wants a good man and a happy house full of fat cheeked babies. It's a fine goal, if that's what makes you happy. Tiana, the hard working black protagonist, has different dreams. She wants to own her own restaurant, and she's not afraid to work hard to get it. She has talent and skill and just needs to get over a few hurdles to get there. As the Cracked story relates, Tiana just doesn't talk that much. It isn't because she is the typical mousy girl, afraid to open her beak. Nope she's sassy as she wants to be when the situation calls for it. It's just that we get the impression that she understands her social situation quite well, and she doesn't need to talk just to hear herself speak.

Terminator statue at Universal Studios, Florida

Terminator statue at Universal Studios, Florida

When a reticent character does speak, their words often carry a greater weight just because we've not heard from them much. The most memorable line in Terminator is "I'll be back." It's spoken by an inhuman machine who hardly speaks at all in the movie. Sure, it's added weight by Arnold freaking Schwarzenegger in a leather vest and carrying a shotgun, but it's still only one line. Kyle gets many more than that, and I don't really remember anything he actually says, certainly not well enough to quote it. What does Sarah say in that first movie? Some stuffy-stuff, yack yack and then she kisses Kyle and screams a lot. Sarah becomes a hero in her own right in the next movie, and suddenly, she's the reticent, dark, moody one. See how that works? Ok, so for me, the number of words spoken alone means very little, and may actually be an argument in favor of less dialogue, not more. 

Cinderella and Ariel.JPG

What we're looking for then is better words. Let's compare some random dialogue from Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast. What the heck does Cinderella actually say, now that I think about it? She talks to Gus and the other mice. She asks to go to the ball. Some random exclamations... yeah. I can't recall a single full quotation. Not one. No memorable lines at all. The only quote I remember from that movie is "Why you little...!" And that's spoken by an evil step-sister, and it beats me which one. But I remember several from Beast. "Gaston, you're positively primieval." Oh snap! You want some ointment for that burn? "I don't deserve you, Gaston." Think he's picking up what she's putting down? Note in these exchanges, Gaston is blathering on. Belle is delivering stacatto one liners like a verbal sniper. Zing! Right to the heart. Gaston is too dumb to even get when he's being insulted. Still, she is a woman about to be locked in a castle to fall in love with the man-beast holding her hostage, so we can't proclaim her the high hero of feminism just yet. But her dialogue elevates her from engenue to true heroine. 

Celebrate Today Beauty and the Beast float.JPG

Based on just a quick mental review, my personal assessment is, the later movies really are more feminist than the older ones, often because the heroine talks less, and acts more. But we'll have a closer look in my next article.
 

Disney Deliberately Markets Its Films To Look Less "Girly"

I think the Cracked article actually does a good job of defending this claim. Older movies like Cinderella certainly looks to be targeted at girly girls. These days, though, the princess movies are as apt to be sold as solid action films with some comedic relief, as they are to be as epically romantic tales. Does that mean they are targeted more to boys, than to girls? I don't know if this is really a problem at all, especially not in the sense of being less feminist. The presumption seems to be that making something less girly,  you are making it less appealing to girls. But isn't that missing the whole point? Girls may be as interested in films full of action and funny characters as are boys. Much is made of the fact the Frozen marketed to boys by highlighting the male characters. That assumes two things, and they aren't small assumptions. The first is that boys appeal to boys, and girls appeal to girls. Thus, GI Joe appeals to boys, and Barbie to girls, right? There are a series of videos based on Tinker Bell, the "sidekick" character in Disney's Peter Pan. The videos are clearly targeted to girls. The boxes and advertising is often in pink, soft blue, pastel yellow, and purple. "Girl" colors in the toy world. It seems most marketers at least think that's what girls want. I am less convinced. I think that's what some girls want. The same girls who collect Barbies and squeal over boy bands probably also buy videos targeting them this way. But what about the girls that a movie like Merida, Mulan, or even Frozen is specifically targeted at? Do these action oriented girls want pink boxes and frilly dresses on the cover? Are these girls drawn to pictures of princesses more than to singing snowmen? I wonder. I'm not questioning that a lot of crass business decisions are made for sometimes bad reasons, or that boys and men don't still control marketing in a big way. I just wonder if maybe everyone is too worried about the issue in this case.

How would you even depict these stories on the box or poster, to let people know exactly what the story is going to be, when any picture of a princess is going to make them instantly think in terms of Cinderella? These stories were meant to break the mold, and that means people don't have a script in their head to instantly match with a still image on a box cover. And in the case of Frozen, a trick ending has to be saved for the reveal in the movie. (If you've still not seen... spoilers.) When Anna is rushing to save her sister, I felt a tightening in my chest. Oh no, you didn't. Disney, you promised. You built my hopes up, made me believe. This one was supposed to be different. This one was going to be all about strong women role models, not gushy love stories. Kristoff will save the day. He and Anna will live happily ever after. You lied to me! And then, and then... She chooses... sisterhood. Oops, bros may come before hos, but sisters come before misters for these gals. How do you depict that in a trailer? If you're a squeamish ad exec. you don't. You chicken out and let a reindeer get a few chuckles. That doesn't mean the movie is sexist, only the advertising is. It's sort of a cheap shot to say the princesses aren't good role models because they got some bad press. I'd say, that while this is their best supported argument, it's also their weakest and least convincing.

The Women Still Live To Get Married

Here's a list of the Disney Princess movies and their treatment of romance. 

First, the classical period - It's easy to see how all of these ladies could be seen as "living to get married." 

Sleeping Beauty topiary, Epcot

Sleeping Beauty topiary, Epcot

  • Snow White (1937) - Snow White plays house with the dwarves where she shares a dream of her prince in song. People dream of romance without living for that sole purpose. But she also sings the classic I'm Wishing (For the One I Love)
  • Cinderella (1950) - Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Mostly, she lives to get out from under her step-mother's thumb. Her step-family do dream and scheme for marriage in the manner of scheming gold diggers everywhere. I think Cinderella pretty clearly does live to get married, largely because she would realistically see this as her best chance of escaping her awful life. Her signature song though, only mentions having a dream, not that it has any romantic aspect. It would seem what she lives for is not so much romantic love, as rescue. And that puts her squarely in the anti-feminist position.
  • Sleeping Beauty (Aurora) (1959) - Aurora is the quintessential "living for a man" princess. She sings about finding her beloved in Once Upon a Dream while dancing barefoot with animals. Then she lies helpless, waiting for the prince to fight his way past rose thorns and a fire breathing dragon to rescue her. 
 

Then the period referred to as the Disney Renaissance - By the time these films came out, the old Disney princess movies had been raked over the coals for their corny, hackneyed plots and simpering heroines. So out with the old and in with the new more interesting characters. It was a bit hit or miss for feminism.

Ariel float, Magic Kingdom

Ariel float, Magic Kingdom

  • The Little Mermaid (Ariel) (1989) - Ok, it's Hans Christian Anderson. You can't change the most basic plot point, which is that she foolishly gazes up through the water and falls in love with a man she sees looking back at her. Disney rips out the sad heart of the film and gives us an upbeat flick seemingly better suited to Tiger Beat Magazine than a book of old fashioned fairy tales. In any case, she's still a hopeless romantic with no real other interests or talents but collecting bibs and bobs from the far away place she's fallen for. In Disney's version, she falls for the place, and thus the prince, while in Anderson's tale, it was a straight love at first site tale. I don't think you can credit Disney much for that lame attempt at an update.
  • Beauty and the Beast (Belle) (1991) - Belle is definitely not living for a man to marry her. She outright refuses Gaston's advances. Though to be fair, it might well have been more because of his manners, than her liberation. The closest we get to any hint of a romantic angle to her dreams is the book she is reading. She sings, "It's my favorite part because, you see, here's where she meets Prince Charming... but she won't discover that it's him, til chapter three." Belle falls for the Beast in keeping with the original fairy tale, but only after he does a few things to reveal his better side and appeal to her interests, giving her a library, dancing, feeding birds, and of course learning to control his temper. 
  • Aladdin (Jasmine) (1992) - Disney took some serious liberties with the original tale here. A rule says she must marry by her next birthday. (She's been said to be only 15.) She's having none of it and decides to go seeking beyond the palace walls to find a solution to their problem with Jafar. She's obviously not living to get married, even if she is supposed to according to her culture and law. That puts this movie at the balancing point between feminists and anti-feminist. Given it's actually Aladdin's movie, that seems pretty good.
  • Pocahontas (1995) - This movie took a pounding for its mishandling of the historical elements. She's also older than Pocahontas was in real life at certain key points. She doesn't marry in the film and hardly seems to haved lived to get married, in real life or in the movie. (In real life she later married John Rolfe, a wealthy farmer.) 
  • Mulan (1998) - Once again the setup that says she must get married. In this case, she's not resistant to the idea of marriage, she's just not as ladylike as her culture expects her to be. She's less defiant, and more disinterested and a bit clumsy. She's driven by love of her family and a desire to protect their honor. Saving her father turns into saving her country. In the end she earns a proposal from her commander, which she turns down. (Later films ruin this perfect ending. Ah well, Disney!)
 
Meridasexyoriginal.jpg

And finally, the current crop - No getting away with minor tweaks to characters, and no playing fast and loose with real historical characters. The pressure was on to produce a more varied sort of Disney princess, representing a variety of cultures, with faces and personalities to match. And the old fairy tales proved a reliable vehicle for updated feminist themes. No damsels in distress in these tales, even if that's exactly what their characters originally were.

  • Princess and the Frog (Tiana) (2009) - Two ladies in this one, and one of them really is dreaming and living to get married... but she isn't the heroine. Tiana is career gal, saving her pennies to buy her own restaurant. Her mother was a career gal and her father taught her a love of cooking. I don't know how you get much more liberated than that, especially when you are a woman of color in 1920s New Orleans. Yes, she falls in love with Naveen, because well, this is The Princess and the Frog, right? That's the whole story. But falling in love doesn't mean you've lived your life for marriage, and it doesn't make you a less liberated lady.
  • Tangled (Rapunzel) (2010) - Classic lady in a keep, or in this case, a tower. Rapunzel has mommy issues. She isn't living to get married. All her life she's been told leaving would be catastrophic, so no chance of marriage for her. And she dreams of adventure and finding out what's beyond her window. She reads, paints, does puzzles, keeps a pet lizard, and dreams of weird stars. When a thief happens by, she falls in love, probably because she has absolutely no idea about the rest of the world and he represents all of that. We actually see her struggle with these issues. "Mommy" tells her point blank that she's a fool. Ok, this is a more complicated relationship and plot than most people give it credit for being. I'd rather consider Mother Gothel the heroine, but she's not, she's the antihero. Rapunzel isn't particularly liberated, but she isn't supposed to be. And despite all that, she does show some real spirit, drive, determination, and gains some wisdom by the time her adventure comes to a close. Nope. She's not living for marriage. It just sort of finds her.
  • Brave (Merida) (2012) - You're kidding, right? Merida outright rejects marriage. That's the freaking plot, people! She screws up with magic, shoots a bow, goes to war, explores ancient dangers, defeats the curse, and also in the end accepts her femininity without giving up her independence. She is the embodiment of liberation. The fact that the law remains that she must marry eventually is just in keeping with something approaching believability, given she was royalty in a place and time that would have thought it scandalous enough that she was allowed to speak around men. Moving on.
  • Frozen (Elsa and Anna) (2013) - For some reason, Anna is not included in the official Disney princess line up. Elsa is excluded because she is actually a queen now. (Don't all princesses eventually become either queens or consorts? If Pocahantas is a princess, Elsa should be, surely?) Anyway, Anna falls for the first guy she meets because, like poor Rapunzel, she's locked away for years. She's naive, not stupid. But she does seem to have those old fashioned "gotta get a man" notions in her noggin. But Elsa acts as a responsible counterpoint, telling her she can't marry a man she's only just met. In the end, neither marries Hans. Thankfully, that surprise ending means Anna doesn't get fooled twice. She's learned and grown! Ta-da! She is liberated after all, at least a little. She doesn't get rescued by the prince, nor does Elsa. They save each other. And poor Kristoff is almost the victim of their sisterly affections. Luckily sister love conquers all, yada-yada. It is Disney after all. (And yes, later movies indicate at some point Anna did marry Kristoff. But not this one. So it doesn't count against this movie.)
  • Moana (2016) - Not included in the study and I haven't seen it. Maybe I'll check it out before part two of this article. Check back next week!

Part 2...

Every New Female Character Looks Exactly the Same

Are you kidding? Now this is one that various articles have claimed, and they even purport to have some science behind it. So what is that science? It's a Tumblr entry. Seriously. One user just sort of sketched, very roughly, the general shape of the faces of some of the characters. And based on this highly scientific analyses, she determined all the females look the same, and the males look different from each other. Yes, seriously. 

Take a peek at her "methodology" below and count the objections that she (and Cracked) received on their comment page. 
 

Like this. Not my image but I think I'm safe under fair use. Sue me.

Like this. Not my image but I think I'm safe under fair use. Sue me.

First, it's incredibly subjective. There is no grading or point system here, no effort to turn those lines into a formula. 

 

 

Every New Female Character Looks Exactly The Same

1. The New Princesses Can't Control Their Powers And Tend To Ruin Everything