Another Feminist Critique of Disney Films Reviewed

Partly to show that the one I examined in my last post was no isolated case, this post is dedicated to another feminist critique of “Disney princess” films. This one is from the James Madison Undergraduate Research Journal — I provide a full reference at the end. While not exhibiting the intellectual dishonesty that the last one did, this one’s arguments still seem ultimately untenable. I proceed with the same quote-response-quote-response format.

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White is portrayed as a naïve princess who depends on her seven male friends and a prince for survival.

I would submit to you that a degree of naïveté can be expected of a fourteen-year old. If the phrase “naïve princess” is meant to imply that Snow White leads a sheltered life, it is misleading. In fact, she is made to dress in rags and work as a scullery maid even before the evil Queen orders her killing (this element was added by Disney).

The dwarves are not initially her friends. On the contrary, they are so frightened of the Queen’s potential wrath that they only allow Snow White to stay with them because she promises to do their housework (this requirement dates back to the Grimm Brothers’ telling of the tale).

As for the prince, Disney’s version adds to the poisoned apple’s modus operandi the clause that its effect can be reversed by true love’s kiss. Since Snow White and the prince share a romantic scene earlier in the film and are already essentially lovers, he is the perfect candidate to deliver this antidote. The key theme here is love. It seems beyond dispute that this plot point is meant to highlight the power of love, but I see very little basis for calling it sexist.

What could have been the story of a young girl’s personal discovery turns into the portrait of women’s domesticity: Snow White cleans the home of seven men, accepts a gift from a stranger without the permission of her male friends, and requires true love’s kiss from her Prince Charming in order to survive.

While symbolism is significant in interpreting stories, I think that a narrative’s internal logic should not be ignored. The stranger’s gift is not just any stranger’s gift, but the evil Queen’s poisoned apple. Besides, if we are intent on construing this part of the story as prejudiced, could it not equally plausibly reflect ageism? Snow White is likely more imprudent and naïve because, again, she is fourteen years old. Similarly, Dopey is both visibly the youngest of the dwarves and the most unintelligent.

Snow White does clean the dwarves’ home, and it can be argued that this is a “portrait of women’s domesticity” — but so what? Would you have her work in the mine with the dwarves instead? To the extent to which women tend to be physically better suited to housework than to gruelling physical labour, portraying “women’s domesticity” seems justified. Moreover, you ignore the story’s internal logic again. A major reason why the dwarves need someone to do housework for them is that they spend all day in their mine.

As for the kiss, I believe I have sufficiently covered this aspect already.

Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have equally disheartening plots—both require the heroism of the male prince other than the potential heroine—and contribute to the gender stereotypes of the time period rather than progressing the women’s movement toward equality.

Not having watched “Cinderella”, I cannot comment on it. As for “Sleeping Beauty”, the prince could not have rescued Aurora without the three good fairies’ assistance, and it is one of the fairies who makes the rescue possible in the first place, by weakening the evil fairy Maleficent’s curse.

The fact that the prince performs a heroic feat at all in this film is already an upgrade from both Charles Perrault’s and the Grimm Brothers’ version, where the wall of thorns simply parts for him to pass. In the latter version, it is even mentioned that other princes have attempted to get through the barrier but died in the process. Therefore, in all major versions of the story, the (female) fairies are the main agents, and we can infer that Disney expanded the prince’s role mainly to raise the stakes by avoiding a plot mostly predetermined by the fairies’ magic.

What is more, Mary Costa, who had voiced Aurora in the film, has called her “a very, very strong character”, “a very layered character”, and “a beautiful personification of femininity” (Joy 2008).

[In “The Little Mermaid”, ]Ariel’s [i.e., the mermaid’s] inquisitive nature, desire for adventure, and bravery represent Disney’s progression of the independent-
woman gender role, but the movie ultimately falls back on to the princess-needs-prince plot so familiar during the first wave of feminism.

As I point out in my previous post, Ariel saves the prince twice, being saved only once by him. Thus, this film’s plot is not so much a “princess-needs-prince” one as a “princess-wants-prince” one. It could still be argued that this represents sexism, since Ariel is so strongly in love with a man. Yet this reasoning appears strained, too, given that the prince also risks his life for Ariel. Moreover, this logic would mean that “Snow White” is a deeply misandristic film, since its prince is only ever shown seeking Snow White out. Finally, Ariel has other strong interests as well (mainly in the human world and its artefacts).

In Aladdin, Jasmine rebels against the traditional role of a woman in Agrabah. She wishes to marry the man she loves and to avoid an arranged marriage, but without the help of Aladdin and Genie, her assertion of opinion would have lasted only until her marriage, when she would have been limited to the whims of her husband.

I have not watched “Aladdin”, but what you describe does not sound egregious to me, not least because it is, after all, Aladdin’s story (he is the titular and main character).

The last movie in the Transition, Tangled, tells the story of Rapunzel, an effervescent teen who doesn’t want to be imprisoned in her tower—arguably a hint at breaking through the gender barrier—and longs to go on an adventure to see the lights of Corona. While her intent is admirable, she relies on Flynn Ryder to lead her in the right direction.

This is certainly true, but she relies on him not because he is stronger, smarter, or braver than her, but simply because he knows the way there. This is unsurprising because he, unlike her, has not spent most of his life never leaving an isolated tower.

The ending, however, is where this movie differs from the previous seven; Rapunzel makes the heroic sacrifice to save Flynn, but the male hero controls the outcome. When Flynn cuts off Rapunzel’s magic-infused hair to save her from a life of slavery to Mother Gothel, he makes the ultimate sacrifice, knowing that without it, he would die.

It is not apparent to me that Rapunzel’s life of slavery to the woman whom she now knows to have abducted her from her real parents would be preferable to a relatively quick death. Another key detail is that Mr. Ryder’s (in actuality, as we learn, Mr. Fitzherbert’s) sacrifice is an act of redemption, after his criminal past and incaution have significantly contributed to the jam in which Rapunzel and he find themselves in that moment. Throughout the film, he has learned a great deal from Rapunzel, and this decision of his seems the culmination of that development.

Merida’s heroism is why Brave signifies a turning point for Disney. No longer is the studio accepting or reinforcing societal norms; instead, by labeling Merida
as a true hero and not a dependent female counterpart, it is endorsing change through the power of suggestion.

On the contrary, as we have seen, there was no shortage of brave and heroic female characters who were decidedly not “dependent female counterparts” in Disney films well before “Brave”’s release. I also notice that, despite including the 1998 film “Mulan” in your three-columned chronological table of Disney films, you do not analyse this film at all. Is that because it would deliver the death blow to your already tenuous chronology, being all about a woman who is not only heroic, but is not proactively aided, and is in fact impeded, by her male love interest?

Still, I suppose your endorsement of the boring mess of a film that was “Brave” is the logical continuation of your crusade against all that is good and entertaining.

Frozen, the most recent Disney Princess movie, shatters all previous of gender role limitations […]. Even though Anna travels with three male companions—Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven—she does not depend on them […].

This quote appears indicative of a fundamental flaw in your reasoning, which is that even if a female is the main heroine in a film, you see any instance when she does something which she could not have done without a male character’s assistance as a misogynistic plot point. Unfortunately, there are bound to be plenty of such moments in most Disney films, since these stories typically underscore the importance of teamwork.

In the end, Anna’s act of true love saves her rather than her love for a male lead, making her the enlightened hero that Disney has been progressing toward for
nearly 80 years.

Let me rephrase that: this plot point represents progress because Anna is saved by her love for her sister, rather than the romantic love between her and a man. This is arguably a refreshing change, though stale by the time Disney copied it in “Maleficent”, but why call it progress? Is this better than what Disney did in previous films because the other party to the main character’s loving relationship is now a woman instead of a man? This insinuation seems almost bigoted.

The modern Disney princess is independent, brave, and heroic, and contemporary audiences need to see strong female leads who can stand alongside their male counterparts.

They have been seeing them in Disney films since at least 1937, when “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” came out.

[I]t is up to the Disney writers to instill positive, progressive concepts to keep
children from reverting back to more traditional gender roles.

And produce sub-par stories like “Brave” in the process? I am not merely being facetious: exaggerated concern over the portrayal of gender roles has made Disney films worse. For example, the love story was drastically altered in the recent remake of “Mulan”, which failed miserably at the box office, because the creators thought that depicting a romance between commander and subordinate would send the wrong message (see Matsumoto-Duyan 2020). In fairness to you, you could not have known of this when you wrote your article in 2014.

In any case, I thought your aim was to have young girls know that they were free to be anything they wanted to be and achieve anything they wanted to achieve. Yet here, you make it clear that you desire to limit them by preventing them “from reverting back to more traditional gender roles” — that is, the ones you have tried to portray as inherently denying women agency through your distorted depiction of “Disney princess” films.

I would caution anyone against a categorical rejection of “traditional gender roles”. After all, to quote Hans J. Morgenthau’s “Six Principles of Political Realism”,

Human nature, in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since the classical philosophies of China, India, and Greece endeavored to discover these laws. Hence, novelty is not necessarily a virtue in political theory, nor is old age a defect. The fact that a theory of politics, if there be such a theory, has never been heard of before tends to create a presumption against, rather than in favor of, its soundness. (Full list: Morgenthau 1978: 4-15).

Disney has created a world-famous series of fantastic films with inspiring heroines. By heaping scorn and condemnation onto them, one does not contribute to women’s advancement, but rather to the entartainment industry’s deterioration, the lessening of people’s appreciation for great art, and bitterness and resentment.

Sources

The article:

Garabedian, Juliana. 2014. “Animating Gender Roles: How Disney is Redefining the Modern Princess.” James

Madison Undergraduate Research Journal
2 (1): 22-25.

Other:

Joy, Renata. 2008. “Mary Costa Interview. The Voice of Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Aurora Discusses Her Beloved Film, The Five Ds, Pink, Blue, and Working with Walt.” UltimateDisney.com. Accessed 06 May 2021. https://www.dvdizzy.com/sleepingbeauty-interview.html.

Matsumoto-Duyan, Madeline. 2020. “Mulan: Why Was Li Shang Dropped From Disney’s Live-Action Remake?” CBR. Accessed 06 May 2021. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.cbr.com/mulan-why-li-shang-dropped-disney-live-action-remake/amp/.

Morgenthau, Hans J.. 1978 (5th edition). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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