Gender Roles in Disney Films
Almost everyone grew up watching Disney films; we remember the characters and the story lines well. Many little girls wanted to grow up to be Belle or Cinderella and many little boys wanted to be Aladdin or Hercules I can remember going to the hairdresser when I was little and asking her to make my hair long and blonde like Sleepy Beauty‘s. These characters were our idols; they embodied everything that we wanted to be when we were young.
Why though, when we look back at the films now, they seem a bit different; we are a bit uncomfortable with what we see? Is it because we see some of the innuendos that we inevitably missed as children? Is it that Princess Jasmine’s clothes are just a little too tight for our liking? Or is it that we realize that the Beauty and the Beast are in an abusive relationship?
By looking a little bit further into Disney films, we realize that they were setting up gender roles for us as kids, that we aren’t completely comfortable with today. Using these beloved films as well-known examples, we can teach our students about gender roles and societal “norms.”
Why is it important to study gender stereotypes?
In our society today, there is a huge pressure from all sides to conform to a certain ideal of beauty; we are inundated with all types of images and media forms telling us who to be and what to look like. These pressures can become so overwhelming, that we will go to drastic lengths to change something about ourselves.
From an early age, mainstream media puts images into our brains, telling us what is appropriate for our gender type. Young girls are hounded with images of princesses, who tell them that the key to happiness is being fashionable, beautiful, and finding a prince to save you. Young men are taught that to be successful, you must be good looking and muscular. Young men are sometimes even taught that to be successful means to be manipulative.
In the article, “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?,” written by Peggy Orenstein, a mother, Orenstein has a problem with the amount of princess imagery all around us. She writes that you can’t go anywhere today without someone bringing up the idea of a princess, especially if you have a young daughter with you. The author opens her article by recalling a time that her daughter was called “princess” by a waitress, who brought her “princess pancakes” and tried to guess “the princesses’ favorite color.” The author goes on to ask the question of, “does every little girl have to be a princess?,” which is a valid point. Why is it important for little girls to be feminine, wearing pink, and playing with dolls? Why must young girls stick to such domestic stereotypes? What would be wrong with a young girl having the favorite color blue and playing in a mud pit with Tonka trucks? Does our society still hold in place these feminine stereotypes and roles that were more common when our grandparents were growing up?
Young males who watch Disney films see male characters who are above average in physical ability, like in “Mulan,” “Pocahontas,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” To me, at the beginnings of the films, it seems that the males often think of themselves as more intelligent and more worthwhile than the women in the movies, even though the women are usually the main character or star. In an article discussing the images and portrayal of different genders and races in Disney films, the authors, Mia Adessa Towbin, et al, write that, “(a) Men primarily use physical means to express their emotions or show no emotions, (b) Men are not in control of their sexuality, (c) Men are naturally strong and heroic, (d) Men have non-domestic jobs, and (e) overweight men have negative characteristics (12).” We see examples of these traits all throughout Disney films, which will be given later, under the “Male Stereotypes” section of this Wiki.
It is important to study gender stereotypes and roles in class so that our students recognize these roles and are hopefully able to detach themselves from some of the negative ones. Healthy body image is so important to have in life, but our students are being told that who they are and what they look like isn’t good enough. By exposing the evils of gender stereotyping, we are empowering our students to break free of society’s plans for them and forge their own path in life.
Female Stereotype Examples in Disney
The princesses are possibly the most popular Disney characters besides Mickey and Minnie. They are instantly recognizable to us in terms of their name, dress, story, relationships, etc. When we begin to look closer though, we notice certain similarities between the princesses in terms of physiques and attitudes. In the article by Towbin et al, “Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films,” the authors grant these four common characteristics to female Disney characters: “(a) A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect, (b) Women are helpless and in need of protection, (c) Women are domestic and are likely to marry, and (d) Overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried (14).”
We also see many commonalities in terms of body type: the princesses all have long legs and small waists. Their facial features are dainty and feminine. They have long hair, flawless skin, and have nice clothes (with the exception of “pre-princess” Cinderella). The princesses are good singers, wealthy, and many of them seem to thoroughly enjoy household chores, such as cleaning. They have seemingly perfect lives and their beauty only helps them advance in life. We often see the princesses posing suggestively or “turning on the charm” to get what they want from men:
Because these images of Princesses are seen as “ideal” and “beautiful” in our society, we begin to see images like this on the internet:
which is obviously distorting reality and the definition of beauty. It is sending a message that small waists, shapely hips, large breasts, and perfect features are beautiful and desired. The above image, then gets distorted further, and we see images like this:
This representation of the Princesses pushed the envelope. In this image, their physiques are exaggerated further, to the point of inappropriateness.
How are these images affecting young girls in our society? Young girls want to be princesses because they are constantly surrounded by what it means to be a princess, as seen in the Overstein New York Times article (linked above). As they grow older, they may grow out of Disney Princesses, but they are looking towards other forms of media, which, in my opinion, are distorting the female image even more so than Disney is. (See impacts section below for more detail)
When we see evil characters in Disney films, the females are usually unattractive. Many times, they are overweight, or have sharp, angular features. When we hear their voices, they are jarring or raspy. They never have any redeeming qualities, and we are immediately pitted against them.
It is important to discuss gender roles and stereotypes with students, so that when they read a certain text, they are able to pick out those stereotypes and analyze them and their impact on the story. An easy way to begin the discussion is looking at Disney films, because they are so universal and recognizable.
To start the discussion, have students write (or make a glog, prezi, tumblr, etc.) about their favorite Disney character (preferably Princess) for 3 minutes. This beginning activity can be about anything about the character. Most students will probably describe the character, but will not connect what they write to gender roles or stereotypes. Whens students are done with their character project, talk about the character that they chose, but stay away from gender roles and stereotypes. Simply discuss the characters to get students excited and nostalgic about Disney.
Here, you can also discuss Disney as a whole; the fantasy, the world that they have created, its impact on society and the world, etc.
Next, show a video from Youtube that highlights how stereotyped the Disney characters are. I like this one, because it clearly and simply shows us why the images are stereotyped:
After showing a clip, ask students their reaction. Have they ever noticed these roles and stereotypes before? What do they think of them now? Does it change the way they feel about their childhood? About Disney? Have a discussion. You might find that students are a little bit shocked. After all, they grew up idolizing these characters, and now, their views of the characters and Disney company may be turned completely upside down.
After students have looked at gender roles in Disney, have them think about the effect this may have had on their lives, especially the girls. I found this 10 minute video on Youtube that may help to facilitate the discussion:
After discussing the gender stereotypes portrayed in Disney, have students brainstorm some characters from other well-known movies, TV shows, etc., that would be good role models for young kids. What characteristics do these characters have that make them good role models? How do they behave? What do they physically look like?
Have students create a Glog, collage, Prezi, or some kind of visual representation of their favorite Disney character and how changes in that character could make them a positive role model for children. What types of characteristics would they keep? What kind would they throw away? Have students talk in small groups about what they created and what it means.
We don’t often think about the males in Disney films. In the Princess movies, they play a role, but not a very large one. If you look into what they are saying and the way they are acting though, you see that the males are just as stereotyped as the females.
Males often sing about what it means to be a man:
The urge that men have to be tough, skilled, suave, and covered with hair.
Frighteningly, in “Beauty and the Beast,” we see Beast abusing Belle when she refuses to eat dinner with him:
Evil male characters are often overweight or ugly. We never see them with a female companion or being overly independent.
What is this telling our boys? If we are telling our young boys that in order to be successful, you must be muscular, cunning, and you must get the right girl in the end, we are setting them up for failure. In our class blog, under my blog post entitled, “What is Disney telling our young girls?,” Lochran posted a comment about how he has always felt about the message Disney is trying to send males. He has always felt that Disney attempts to send the message to boys that if you don’t get the girl, as long as you are persistent, eventually, you will succeed. Disney plays at this attitude in a light and humorous way, but never touches on the negative sides of pursuing someone to whom you are attracted.
Now that you have discussed the representation of gender in Disney films, watch a Disney film or clip. You can vote on this as a class, or have one pre-prepared. You can find almost any type of stereotype in all of the movies, but some of the most obvious are “Hercules,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Little Mermaid,” or “Beauty and the Beast.”
In their notebooks, have students keep a list of the characters and the things they noticed about them that may or may not be connected to their gender. Afterwards have a discussion about what they noted and the impacts that these images may have had on them as young children, or how it is impacting young children today who are watching the films.
What are the impacts?
Today, unhealthy body images are common among young teens, who are brought up in a society that puts importance on beauty. From the very beginning, we see images of beauty that change and shape who we become. Disney is one of the first experiences we have with these ideas of beauty. We learn from these films that we should aspire to look a certain way, or that we should act a certain way. Boys are “shown” how men should act and what they should look like if they want to be real men. Girls are told that they should aspire to be a princess with long hair, a small waist, a large bust, and that a man will always rescue them.
These images have transferred to adult media as well. We see ads with wafer-thin models and macho men, who resemble the characters of Disney films. These people are real, living people. We tend to forget the important fact though, that their photographs are enhanced and air-brushed. These images also have a large impact on us, even though we may not realize it.
If you wanted to move from Disney films to real life impacts of stereotypes and beauty, you could look at the film “Killing Us Softly” by Jean Kilbourne. Here is a trailer for the film:
It also might be helpful to enhance the conversation even further by looking at Mattel’s Barbie doll. Interestingly enough, if Barbie were a real person, she wouldn’t be able to stand up; her body proportions aren’t physically possible. Here is an article published in the Huffington Post about Barbie: