Sexism and Disney: How Uncle Walt failed us all

This post is gonna be a long one and has everything to do with school.

Here’s the question:

In modern day, Disney’s ideology has been criticized for failing to change with the times. Summarize Disney’s ideology. In your opinion, is this a valid criticism? Explain. Disney is in fact a legend, but in your opinion, what were Disney’s failures?

And I just can’t help myself. What should have probably been a short answer, turned into a 2,500 word essay. The sad thing is, I could have kept going. But, in the interest of keeping my own sanity and my instructor’s, I stopped when I did. I made mention of it on Facebook, and due to demand, I’m re-posting the essay here.

If you’re a Disney fan, you might not want to read.



Of all Disney’s successes, there are many failings. And I’m not just talking about the box office flops, or those movies that pulled in a mediocre sum in the box office (John Carter, anyone?), like Hollywood, Disney’s ideology has not matured as quickly as it should. With as big as the company is-and as prone to the edge of bankruptcy-you would think that Disney would be on the cutting edge of practically everything; introducing multi-racial movies much earlier, changing the roles of women, casting an actual Native American as Tanto (sorry Johnny, I’m just not buying it).

Sadly, Disney doesn’t. During his lifetime, Walt Disney kept the idea of ‘small town America’ very close to his heart. In his mind, the picture of perfection was that small town with white picket fences, mum, dad, 2.5 kids, and a town that knew everyone and would help out at a moment’s notice. It’s a beautiful piece of nostalgia that’s reflected in both Disney Land and Disney World in ‘Main Street USA’ right when you enter the parks. What you’re seeing in the bright, charming buildings, is what Walt always wanted. He had his ‘happily ever after’ in his parks and movies. Unfortunately for him, the world doesn’t quite work, or look like that.

Of the failings, sexism is a blight on the face of a company who millions of people look to for an example. If there is any company that could influence the way the rest of Hollywood works, it’s the Walt Disney company.

Sexism isn’t just about women, you know.

Before you pitchfork me, hear me out. I’m a Disney fan, but I’m also extremely disappointed in the company. In spite of BRAVE, Pocahontas, and Alice in Wonderland the company still has a long way to go. I’ll get to those movies here in a minute. First, let’s talk about how Disney failed.

The earlier princess stories we know and love so well are actually sanitised versions of Grimm’s fairy tales and Hans Christian Anderson. And, let me tell you; if you ever read one of those stories, you’ll almost sympathise with Walt and why he took them to the chopping block as much as he did. Cinderella’s sisters chopping off their toes to squeeze their feet into the glass slipper wouldn’t have translated well on screen, I don’t think.

Disney’s sanitation is a double edged sword, however. On the one hand, we don’t have women cutting off their feet, on the other, we don’t have the moral lesson that was so intrinsic to the Grimm Brothers and Anderson. Neither do we have strong female characters who, in the case of their source material, had to use their brains to get themselves out of situations thereby learning the moral at the end of the story. Girls are rewarded in the way that rewards happen, you do something to get something.

Instead, we have traditional gender roles and women who are being rescued after being punished for things they cannot control. We have men sidelined into becoming rewards for absolutely nothing whatsoever and sexualised. We also have women giving something of themselves up -the thing that makes them special- in exchange for love. What was ‘use your brain’ to get what you want became ‘change for your man’ and get a happily ever after.

For example:

Ariel (The Little Mermaid): trades her voice for a pair of legs, has to rely on her good looks and pantomiming to get the man she wants. She is even told about the importance of ‘body language’ to help her get her ‘true love’.

Rapunzel (Tangled): has to cut off her magical hair

Prince Naveen (Princess and the Frog): changes from the jerk who thinks he’s God’s gift to women as soon as he falls in love

Anna (Frozen): while she is not told she can change for her man, she is told by the same rock trolls that wiped her memories of her sister’s powers, that she can change Kristoff as long as she marries him. While the swap is made, the idea that ‘you can change him if you love him enough’  is still reinforced.

Elsa (Frozen): put into isolation to help her try and control her powers, is not allowed contact with her sister, or anyone that might have actually helped her. She is told conceal/ don’t feel/ don’t let them see/ don’t let them know, to keep the thing that makes her special hidden away tight in order to better fit into accepted norms

*Note: I’m not entirely positive how to properly cite songs, but know that the lyrics above are taken from the widely popular power anthem ‘Let It Go’ and I have absolutely no ownership of them

Snow White (Snow White): punished for her burgeoning sexuality by a jealous older woman

We also have women who make terrible decisions, whether it be for personal gain or for their men, and told that making those decisions okay because everything works out in the end without any regard to personal safety:

Belle (Beauty and the Beast): trades her life for her father’s and succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, falling for her abusive captor. She is rewarded for her disorder with a handsome prince and a giant library.

Anna (Frozen): goes after her very obviously dangerous older sister, despite Elsa’s fear and insistence on being left alone. She is eventually rewarded with Kristoff and her sister, but has to have her heart frozen first.

Traditional gender roles are rife within the earliest Disney movies. They also reinforce the idea that, as long as you’re pretty and are willing to wait, your prince will come find you and take you away to a glorious castle in the sky. But you have to wait. And be pretty.

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty): betrothed at birth, misappropriated out to the woods, goes to sleep for a while and wakes up with a kiss from a guy

Cinderella (Cinderella): cleaned house, could sew and cook, had her looks going for her.

Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs): cleaned house, could sew and cook, had her looks going for her.

Lottie (Princess and the Frog): although she is never given her prince, she does nothing from the opening scene of the movie to the ending scene but wait for her prince to come, reinforcing the idea that a man is the only thing a woman needs to be happy

Princess movies tell us it’s alright to forgive men anything, as long as it’s ‘true love’ and for the right reasons.

Jasmin (Aladdin): fiercely independent, falls for and ultimately forgives, a man who goes to great lengths to lie to her

Anna (Frozen): has her memories wiped by a male troll and her parents told that ‘it’s for the best’

Tiana (Princess and the Frog): forgives Prince Naveen of his jerk behavior because he’s obviously been coddled his whole life and has no real skill sets

Wendy (Peter Pan): Forgives Peter of his childish behavior and his choosing of Tiger Lily over her

In true Disney fashion, we are also given physical reinforcements to our princesses. Remember that in Snow White, Disney first really played with the idea of characters embodying their names. As movies progressed, we see that right along with the stereotype of Disney princesses (and in the case of Lottie in the Princess and the Frog, the side kick princess) being gorgeous.

By putting gorgeous girls in the role of protagonist (and even antagonist in the Little Mermaid’s case where Ursula turns herself into a beautiful woman to gain Eric’s love) We, as girls, are told we have to be pretty to be valuable. One of the single most dangerous ideas in Western culture today. Conversely, boys are told to go for the prettiest ones because that’s what prince’s do. Whether or not a boy is actually playing a make-believe prince is irrelevant, by showing him that’s what boy’s do in movies, the knight in shining armor idea has taken root in his head, shaping his ideas about women and his interactions with them.

In Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan (Wendy v. Tinker Bell), and Tangled, we also see movies were women are pitted against each other in a ‘who is the prettiest?’ contest. Naturally, our princesses come out on top. Because they are obviously the prettiest and deserving of every good thing they get, while the older women are just jealous, worn out old bats who should have stopped trying years ago. In this, we are told that old age is bad and that youth and beauty are the only things that actually matter. For both men and women. Personality goes right out the window, and should not be sought after for our men. No no. Being pretty, that’s the key to look for in a mate. Our princesses innocent wonder of the world further reinforces the idea.

In Aladdin, sex is used as a weapon. Jasmine distracts Jafar using her body as a tool. Frozen too, though the sexual weapon comes in the form of Hans rather than Anna or Elsa. Even Mulan plays with sexuality in its weaponized form by Mulan and her army buddies dressing up like pretty women to get inside the emperor’s palace. Of course it works, they’re pretty women.  In the Princess and the Frog we’re told that what you want isn’t as important as what you need. In Tiana’s case, she needs love and is rewarded with what she wants (a career) and a prince in the end.

Contrariwise! Contrariwise, hear me out again, Disney does NOT just stop with women, though they are the easiest. Disney also has strict rules for their men.

In no particular order:

Be charming

Good looking

Rich and famous (or give the appearance of such)

A bit ridiculous, isn’t it? No mention of personality at all. In Disney’s eyes, ‘the prince’ is set up as a princesses reward for changing herself as a person (Little Mermaid), the victim of another woman’s spite for her own burgeoning sexuality (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tangled), suffering through terrible living conditions (Cinderella), or as a consolation prize for a girl who marries a man to satisfy law (Aladdin). Even poor Mulan is given the princess treatment. Throughout the movie; the idea of a woman’s place is by a man’s side is reinforced through her army friends and the implied marriage to a dominating male protagonist. The men in her life shape her entire existence and reinforce the idea of marriage through song. When Mulan asks the men’s opinion on having a woman with a brain, she is thoroughly refuted and women with more traditional roles are pointed out as the most desirable. This is vastly different than historical Mulan, who never married and entered the army not to satisfy her family’s broken honor as in Disney’s history lesson (in the movie Mulan disgraces herself and her family by not impressing the matchmaker) but because it will give her life meaning. Saving China was just a bonus.
Disney is really good about hiding sexism in the form of a catchy tune.

In each and every one of these movies, marriage is the ‘happy ending’ here. Every event, every decision, every action leads up to a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ ending. This is just as damaging. We’re told, time and time again, that the only way to be happy is to be (heterosexually) married. Whether the marriage is on screen or not, the idea is heavily implied and anticipated.

For the other movies I mentioned, and maybe just a teeny tiny bit of redemption for Disney:

Alice in Wonderland (in a strange turn of events she is not actually counted as a princess) is a pure growing up story where there is a little girl and only a little girl as the protagonist. Never once does she form a romantic interest in anyone of the Wonderland persuasion (though later incarnations across the Hollywood board insist that there is a love story between Alice and the Mad Hatter). Alice in Wonderland is a growing up story, nothing more, nothing less. And, though she is pitted against a Queen, it’s not for any other reason than that the Queen (and the rest of Wonderland) is really quite mad, you see.

In BRAVE we see, for the first time in Walt Disney history, a mother/daughter story that examines the troubled relationship each of them experiences when the daughter becomes a teenager and starts trying to assert her place as an individual, rather than a mother’s companion. And then Disney marketing had to go and ruin it by dolling up a perfectly cute, spunky, ridiculously awesome Scottish Princess for her coronation ceremony, enraging mothers, daughters, and every girl who loved Merida just as she was everywhere.

For their flaws, Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen were a step in the right direction as well. Both movies examine women and men both as independent persons. Where men had no personality previously in their prince forms we see Naveen, Kristoff, Hans, and Flynn as thinking beings who are not just playing the part of reward for the patient princess. Tiana, Lottie, Rapunzel, Elsa, and Anna are also given more prominent personalities and roles that crack the princess ceiling.

Despite Frozen’s novelty, it still holds securely to Disney’s princess tropes. It just dresses them differently so we don’t really know what we’re seeing until we get past the hundredth rendition of ‘Let It Go’ and take a serious look at the movie.

Sexism is not new. Not for Hollywood, and not for the Disney company as a story telling entity. With their princess line, Walt Disney has made a stupid amount of money with their Bibbidi-Bobbidi Boutique where for $80 (starting) mothers can make their little girls into princesses. Lessons are even given to the girls in ways to behave like a princess.

Walt himself was working from stories that pre-dated him by a hundred years or so. Did he add his own beliefs, personal and cultural stereotypes and ideas into those stories? Yes. Every writer does no matter how liberal a thinker. The ultimate problem with Disney lies in their sanitation of beloved fairy tales and their Princess Machine. By sanitizing the fairy tales, Disney took out the vitally important messages, and even the allegorical society climb (as in the case of Hans Christian Anderson’s Mermaid) contained within the story.  Anderson’s Snow Queen was a story not of a love between sisters, but of a love between best co-ed friends. The problem with Disney is its unwillingness to pick up their heels from dragging in the outdated, Hollywood backed, ideas of men and women and how both are portrayed in movies. Instead, it plays it safe with tried and true tropes. Though they have gotten sneakier about sexism in their movies, it’s still there.

I have a love/hate relationship with Disney. I’ve loved the movies since I was six years old, and have wanted to work for the company since I was eight. I hate them because I grew up and re-watched the movies and realized the ideas I have about love and myself as a woman are wrong and were shaped by these movies. As an adult, I understand the subtext that passed right over little me’s head. I hate them for their ideas about women and how they should look and act, and even for their portrayal of men.
For a company that is at the forefront of technology in movies, they are behind the times when it comes to their stories.

It’s time for a shake-up, I think. Time for Disney to go back to the days when Walt was willing to strong arm a company much bigger than him into a contract because he knew it would propel him all the way to the top.

Also? Disney needs to stop with the direct to DVD sequel thing. And I mean STOP. We didn’t need three more Aladdins. Mulan, Peter Pan, Bambi, Fox and the Hound, Cinderella, Jungle Book, and Little Mermaid II just never needed to happen at all.


Merida’s (ill advised) Makeover

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Am I right? Am I wrong? What do YOU think?