Getting Reel: What about Disney? (Part I)

disney-princess-group_clipart1Welcome to Getting Reel! We decided we were writing enough about movies that they merited their very own, named, on-going series (like Book Review for our posts about books, Game Night for games, or Gift Guide for our answers to your shopping questions!). Today we’re responding to a reader question about Disney movies. We’ve written before about movies – but always alternatives to the classic animated Disney movies. So what about Disney? As it turns out, my own interest in studying gender began in a high school film studies class (in a magical land, far far away, and also a long time ago). My capstone project for that class was a historical overview of gender in Disney’s animated movies. Naturally, I pulled up that paper to inform this post, and I have two observations: 1) Not a bad paper, teenage Emily! and 2) Disney’s history is a sensible place to start. Next week we’ll take on what Disney is doing more recently.

Caveat: we’re going to stick to movies primarily about human characters — if only because they make even more clear the issues to be grappled with in Disney films about race, body image, gender, and so on. So here we go!

Snow White was Disney’s first feature-length film, in 1937.

It’s visually stunning, a reflection of the great amount of work that went in to animating by hand something of that length, a first for the time. Truly, it is a work of art. It is also fairly terrible in the gender department, though it remains a classic Disney film. The two main themes in the movie are the pursuit of beauty (by the ugly, evil queen) and the saving power of monogamous, heterosexual love/matrimony (for Snow White herself). “Someday My Prince Will Come” is its catchiest song. Suffice to say, there was nowhere to go but up, recognizing of course that the film is above all, a product of its time.

Flash forward to 1950, and perhaps the most quintessentially Disney movie, Cinderella.

Cinderella inspires the now-classic princess gown, carriage, and castle that have made Disney a fortune, from its pint-size, child consumers, to adults who can recreate their childhood fantasy in a Cinderella wedding at Disney Land. What is most distressing about gender in this movie is that Cinderella sees possible redemption from her life as the abused step-sister if she can only meet and marry the Prince — at a ball whose purpose is to parade potential suitors. On the other hand, Disney also introduces two important departures from previous films: 1) independence, and 2) the instability of dreams. Cinderella is indeed working to meet her man, but she chooses her own path (sadly, that particular path) and makes it happen. Along the way she has help from a fairly down-to-earth Fairy Godmother. Fairy Godmother reminds Cinderella that even though she is playing at being rich and beautiful, “like all dreams, I’m afraid this one can’t last forever.” Of course she does live happily ever after, but this one line introduces a fracture in the cornerstone of what we think Disney is selling – dreams and make-believe. I think this is an important progression in the Disney history. Still, it’s a product of its time and is important to situate that way for a young child today.

Alice in Wonderland, released in 1951 only a year after Cinderella, forwards those two ideas of independence and the dream-reality tension.

The whole film is actually from Alice’s perspective — about Alice’s dreams. This is a stunning about-face for Disney in terms of giving female characters a voice (and a mind, free will, …). Alice’s independence is in the context of her dreams, but that is a very real reflection of where most children find their greatest freedom as well. Too, at the end of the film, Alice wakes up and is still relieved to find reality as she left it. This tension between the freedom of dreams but the preference for living in reality is not before illustrated so powerfully as in Alice in Wonderland.

We would be remiss to skip over one of Disney’s most controversial films in terms of gender, the 1989 release, The Little Mermaid.

On the one hand, Ariel is a rebellious personality, unhappy being limited to her royal sea life as a mermaid princess. She uses that power and anger even to leave the sea and indulge her curiosity. The object of her curiosity? Sadly, a handsome man. But, if you look at everything Disney was doing to this point, it is indeed a departure. Ariel is strong, and she is mad. Even today we don’t see girls or women get mad very often in film or TV. On the other hand (and what kills it for me), is that in exchange for the power to leave the sea and have legs to walk on land, Ariel must give up her voice. Her voice! It doesn’t get more symbolic than that. Her power on land is a sexual, physical power. Her power in the sea is intellectual and verbal. I think this is a wonderful movie to watch with kids as a teachable example – make sure to talk about where power comes from, and what she loses by losing her voice!

And now, a few highlights from the early 1990s. In 1991 Beauty and the Beast is the first Disney film to indulge the possibility of love not at first sight. The overwhelming themes of abuse, however, and the idea of men as uncontrollable animals, really override that one decent lesson. In 1992, Aladdin introduces us to Jasmin (a princess of color! Sort of…). Jasmin defies male authority to pursue freedom and true love. Sadly she does this as our most naked princess to date and also ends up living happily ever after in royal matrimony.

The next big shake-up in Disney films comes in 1998 with Mulan.

Mulan throws all kinds of gender ideas upside down. Mulan herself is thrown out of the matchmaking ceremony at the start of the film for being too independent and insufficiently feminine. Mushu, her sidekick, is cast away from the rest of the family ancestors for being insufficiently masculine and intimidating. These two set off to save Mulan’s father, by enrolling in the army in his place, and to save China. Of course, Mulan must do this dressed as a man. But, when her true identity is revealed and she is cast out, the bigoted men who leave her because she is a woman again come to need her. The film climaxes with Mulan’s and Mushu’s redemption as their true selves. Mulan is strong, she is smart, and she isn’t a princess! This remains one of my favorites, although it is definitely a little scary for young children.

As I’ve said about most of these movies, they are products of the historical time in which they were produced. Yet somehow, they’ve fallen into this “timeless” status in Disney history. I think it’s fine to watch them with your children, if you’re also helping your child to watch them critically. How do we do that?

  • Ask your child: “what are the girls/women doing in this movie? What about the boys/men?” – Noticing differences and talking about it can help your child to see the roles more critically.
  • Ask your child: “is (that role/that choice/that difference) fair?” – Children have a strong sense of rule-based justice and fairness. Pointing out where inequity exists will help your child to think critically about role differences and inequity.
  • Ask your child: “would (that line/that role) be considered fair today?” – Use examples from your child’s life. For example, what if your friend had to give up her voice to be part of your class or play group? Would that be fair? This gives you the opportunity for a history lesson about traditional gender roles and also some perspective taking for your child.

A wonderful way to wrap up the history of Disney’s animated films is with the 2001 DreamWorks (not Disney) film, Shrek.

Shrek mocks the princess-saved-by-prince-charming genre with specific references to Disney films. Fiona, the princess, is no typical damsel in distress. She’s tough, gets angry, and knows what she wants. Shrek is no prince charming — he’s an uncouth, ugly ogre, and when he springs Fiona from her castle prison (a la Rapunzel), he doesn’t even bother to slay the dragon. Gender roles, be damned. So, it doesn’t kill me when love finds a way and the two of them get together eventually. Plus it turns out, Fiona is an ogre herself. But, what I really love happens in the sequel, Shrek 2. This tells the story we never see in Disney films — what happens after the wedding? Occasional marital discord of course, and visiting the in-laws. I confess I haven’t seen either the third (they have a baby!) or fourth films (mid-life crisis!). These films are great for kids and also sufficiently hilarious for mom and dad to sit and watch as well.

Getting Reel is a new series in which we review movies and television. This week we took on gender in Disney’s classic films, and next week we’ll discuss the newer Disney animated movies. Want something in particular reviewed as part of this series or in general? Request a Review or leave a comment on our Facebook.

3 thoughts on “Getting Reel: What about Disney? (Part I)

  1. Thanks for addressing this topic! Disney movies truly do have beautiful animation and very catchy songs, so it is encouraging to think that these movies can still be enjoyed for their entertainment value while also serving as conversation pieces for stimulating children’s thoughts on gender and equity.

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