Disney's animated theatrical feature films may be the most important battleground for gender/sexual equal representation in media.
If you spend time on social media like Facebook or Twitter, it's very possible that in the past few weeks or so you've seen a trending topic about the Disney film Frozen. Despite the movie being two and a half years old, kids still watch the mess out of it and Disney is still making bank with it, with the princesses Elsa and Anna appearing in Once Upon a Time almost immediately, the short film Frozen Fever being released, a stage musical being worked on, and a sequel film in the works. With regards to that sequel film, people starting trending the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. The hashtag became prominent enough for Idina Menzel, who voices the icy Elsa in the film, to comment on the trend, and she responded positively to the idea. (This should be unsurprising to anyone that recalls Idina's role as the bisexual performance artist Maureen in both the Broadway and film versions of Rent.) While some see this as liberal political correctness gone mad (because gehys are t3h gross or something), it can't be denied that there have been growing, and more accepted, pushes for popular film franchises to include more women, non-whites, and LGBTQ+ characters in their growing stories (see also: #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend). And when Frozen first hit theaters, you may very well have seen a LOT of people talking about Frozen being the most feminist Disney movie ever.
But why is any of that important, especially to anyone that isn't already on Rush Limbaugh's "Anti-American Traitors" list?
Well, if one wants to understand why popular media giving more expansive, positive, and three-dimensional roles to female, non-white, and LGBTQ+ characters and actors, one has to be capable of admitting that women, non-white people, and LGBTQ+ people exist, consume media, and, most importantly, matter. For white, cisgendered, heterosexual men like myself, media has been exceedingly kind. Name a job or profession, there's a white guy that has been it in movies. Wanna be an archeologist? Indiana Jones. Wanna be a detective? Sam Spade. Wanna be a wizard? A Jedi? A Terminator? No problem. Heck, you can even be someone that isn't white, like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, John Wayne in The Conqueror, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia. Men always have the biggest variety of meaty, diverse roles, heterosexual romance is portrayed as the overwhelming norm to the point of being the only perceived option (and practically a requirement), and white people get to play non-whites at a much higher rate than the other direction even to this day.
Some will try to say it doesn't matter, that the media doesn't affect our perceptions of reality... and those will nearly always be straight white guys that say it. Meanwhile, there are tons of stories from American minorities that have talked about positive roles in media telling them they can do more, be more than the house wife, the gangster, the silly, flamboyant best friend. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, talked to NPR about how Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her to remain with the show because, at the time, she was the most prominent black actress on television, in the middle of the civil rights movement, treated as an equal (for the most part) to white men. In her interview with NPR, she said that Whoopi Goldberg, who has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony, once, at age 9, turned on the television to see Nichols in Star Trek and ran around the house screaming "Come quick, come quick. There's a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid."
It is absolutely undeniable that media, even fictional, can shape our perceptions of reality, of ourselves, and of our futures. And if you think that non-heterosexual, non-white, non-male people and their aspirations and equality in society matter, then feminism is incredibly important for media.
But... what is feminism? The past decade or so has definitely seen the word crop up more and more in the popular vernacular as we increase not only our connection to the world at large through social media, but also increase certain progressive stances on equality. But, frankly, there still are a LOT of people that don't know what it is.
Now, before accusations of mansplaining arise, let me make a disclaimer: I am NOT REMOTELY an expert on feminism. Again, not only am I a heterosexual, cisgendered white male, and therefore lack the personal life experience of people that aren't in my genetic makeup and don't have the privileges I've had in my life, but I've also never studied the subject academically. I'm a bit new to this, as a person who calls himself feminist. I have tried to educate myself on the subject, both by reading and conversing with people (most often women) who have either personal life experience or academic education, and this post will be based on my personal understanding of the various feminist movements over the years. It will potentially be inaccurate, though I'm not certain you can find a universally agreed upon definition... but it is how I will be trying to define things. If you see anything you disagree with, I'm always willing to learn and love to have conversations, especially about things I'm ignorant of.
Feminism in America can be historically broken into 3 waves, as far as I understand. First-wave feminism is the simplest to understand. In the late 1800s to about 1920, white women got together and decided they wanted to vote. (Remember, non-whites were still having... trouble... being seen as equals, much less being allowed to vote, no matter what the Constitution said.) This movement was the suffragist movement. For the best (and as far as I'm aware, only) example in a Disney Classic, just take a view at Mary Poppins, in which Winifred Banks marches for "Votes for Women," and even sings a song titled "Sister Suffragette."
Second-wave feminism arrived around the 1960s and 1970s, a time when a lot of movements popped up. Alongside the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism was a direct attack on gender roles and stereotypes. The writings of Mary Wollstonecraft surged in popularity, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published, and the movement hit in earnest. In this wave, women (still largely white, since non-whites were having to literally fight for basic human decency in many places) were pitching the idea that anything men could do, so could women. No longer did women have to be secretaries or house wives or simple sexual objects... they could be rock stars, businesswomen, and many other things. Not only that, but specific issues such as abortion and equal pay came to the forefront. The fruits of this labor really started to become more visible in the 1980s and '90s. And second-wave feminism still exists in the minds of many, particularly among the older women, many of whom were part of the wave, if not leaders, when it first began, like Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan.
The third wave, the most recent wave, has butt against the second wave a bit. It started around the time the previous wave was ending and has grown in fervor to this day. This wave is the one that has attempted to more directly include women of color and LGBTQ+ issues into the platform of equality... and has somewhat rejected the idea, to an extent, of breaking stereotypes. While stereotypes are still bad and inaccurate, the complete rejection of the idea that a woman should be a stay-at-home mom or should marry young or should be more domestic has been, itself, rejected. Instead of saying "Do what men do, but better," it's now more "Do what you want to do, whatever it is." The idea is now that social stigma needs to be destroyed when it comes to any personal life decision that doesn't harm others. Sex, relationships, jobs, motherhood, clothing... all the stigma should be trashed. This wave, as it were, is also very beneficial for men that want to, say, be stay-at-home dads, or enjoy fruity alcoholic beverages, or wear makeup. Instead of destroying gender roles by appropriating them, it's the desire to destroy gender and sexual roles by invalidating and obliterating them entirely, attacking the support system for those beliefs. Make all people and expectations of people equal.
...so, what does Disney have to do with this?
Well, as many of you likely grew up watching Disney animated films, it is undeniable that Disney has a HUGE sway on young girls (and kids in general). Many of their animated films are called "princess movies," and they target that young female audience in particular. And Disney is such a cultural powerhouse that it has itself created and proliferated many gender-associated tropes... some of which are incredibly unfortunate and find girls growing up to think unfortunate things. In fact, when the aforementioned Frozen came out, people started lauding the movie with incredible praise as "the most feminist Disney movie ever." I mean, not only did it have TWO princesses as main characters, a first, but it also specifically subverted a trope for women that Disney itself has been one of the strongest users of: True Love's Kiss. In a very knowing nod to their own legacy of heterosexual romance breaking spells (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty), Frozen showed Anna specifically turn away from the true love's kiss with Kristoff to show her true love to her sister. And the fact that this one specific trope was subverted was such huge news for a Disney film, many people all across the internet went crazy for Frozen. Others... not so much. Myself included.
So, long overdue, but better late than never, I've decided to attempt to quantify and qualify Disney films through their feminist and non-feminist tropes and stances. Yes, this is not a new subject, and many people have tackled this issue from many several different angles. In fact, I will be referencing some previous looks during this series. But where I'm trying to be different is by laying out specific criteria on which to judge all of these films, princess movie or not (because movies like Zootopia can potentially be just as, if not more, feminist than movies like Frozen). Through this series, I will try to judge, by the standards I've created based on certain feminist tropes and representations, what the "most feminist" Disney film is, but also lay out my process for everyone to see and judge for themselves. And, as always, discussion is encouraged because, as I said before... I'm a bit new to this. So, below, I lay out the criteria I will quote and utilize for every theatrically released feature-length Disney animated film. (Unless people start liking the series and specifically demanding Pixar movies, I'm only doing Disney Animated Studios films. Sorry, Brave fans.) After each analysis, I will summarize my thoughts on the movie and explain how I think things fit together and what specific problems or successes I feel there are, particularly those that don't fit my criteria. I hope to do this once a week (Possibly with other posts during the series? We'll see.), and, at the end, I hope that this will cause people, myself included, to think about film as a whole and how representations of women and minorities in cinema can affect things. And if you think of any criteria that may belong on the list of consideration, please, comment and let me know.
(Also, I would like to define one term in my criteria. The Bechdel Test was popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her cartoon Dykes to Watch Out For. It's a simple criterion to see if a movie follows an unfortunate trend in films regarding female representation. Specifically, if a movie has two women that talk to each other about something or someone other than a man, the film passes. This does not inherently mean the film is feminist, but without passing, the film is not likely to succeed on that equal representation front.)
Number of named characters with speaking lines:
Number of named female characters with speaking lines:
Does the film pass the Bechdel Test?
Number of named non-white characters:
Number of named non-white female characters:
Number of openly non-heterosexual characters:
Number of openly transsexual characters:
Is there a heterosexual romance?
True Love's Kiss?
Number of female mentors or rulers?
Number of named female characters wearing "men's clothes" (pants instead of dresses):
Main character male or female?
Number of named female characters saved from peril by male characters:
Number of times named female characters saved from peril by male characters:
Number of named female characters breaking gender stereotypes with their actions (performing "masculine" feats):
This post is the first in a series on feminism and Disney. You can follow along here or where the post originally appeared, on CineNation Podcast on Medium.
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