strange like that

Disney’s Animated Women: Role Model or Not?

Snow White

No! Don't do it!

I was looking back through my old blog the other day, and happened across something I wrote a few years ago. Considering my post from the other day, I thought it might be worth drudging up and having another look at. I made some tweaks to it, but otherwise, the article remains intact. Please note that I am aware there are other women in Disney films. Maybe I’ll write a companion piece, but for now, it’s mainly the most prominent women.

Enjoy…or something…

A while back I read an article is titled ‘INTERMISSION: Other side of fairy tales can be disturbing’*. It’s not alone in it’s view of some Disney movies as I’ve heard the argument many times before, but it is the most current one I’ve seen and the one I’ll make the most reference to.

In any case, to recap, during the course of the editorial the author pointed out how many of the women in Disney movies are poor role models to the modern girl. While that may be in some cases, I don’t think the editorial gave a rounded perspective on the subject.

You have to understand that in some cases the women portrayed in the movies are dated. What is relevant and acceptable for one era of time can become completely unacceptable in the next.

To begin, let’s think back to Snow White. Snow White made her mark on the world back in 1937; a time when women were still largely playing the role of house wife. In the movie, Snow White is living under the rule of a jealous stepmother and has even been demoted in her own kingdom. However, she is content to do as she’s asked without losing faith that some day things will be better, and in her case, the hope that “Someday [her] prince will come”. After all, she is still a princess. Now, while the idea of waiting for a prince to make everything better may not be an ideal way of thinking for young girls today and may not be encouraged, the idea that even though things can get bad you should still hope for the best is a good way of thinking. The author of the other editorial also said Snow White “has the cheek to tell kids to whistle while they work”. Now I don’t truly understand how that is bad. Everyone has to work sometime, and isn’t it better to be cheerful about it?

Moving on.

The next Disney heroine to come along is Cinderella in 1950. In the history of women rights during the early 1950s, there are a few advances, but no really big turning points. While in between Snow White and Cinderella you have World War II which got women involved in the workplace, it was unfortunately a rather short-lived victory after the men came home from war. So the 1950s still generally shared the view that women are more likely to be in the house. Cinderella is very much alike to Snow White, however she does not actually become a princess till the very end of the movie. As with Snow White, she is put into a bad situation by a stepmother and yet the girl continues to dream of a better life while completing all that is asked of her. Relevant for the time, but not quite the appropriate role model for modern girls. Then again, there is still the message of hope and the idea that you make the best of what you have.

After “Cinderella” came “Alice in Wonderland” in 1951. Alice’s journey is a lesson rather than a hope for her prince to come. While Alice may be female, the lesson she learns is universal: while it may be okay to have fun, sometimes you need to reign it in, and when you “give yourself very good advice” you sometimes need to follow it to avoid trouble.

Next on our list is “Sleeping Beauty” in 1959. Again, we return to a princess story. However, I see and don’t see the conflict presented in this one as far as a role model for girls is concerned. While Aurora may not do much and may get her prince in the end, that’s just it: she doesn’t do much. I see Aurora as more of a device to push the story along. She is the least seen princess in any of the movies and the plot largely revolves around the prince, the villain and the three faeries. I don’t know that she has enough screen time to really affect young girls, but as I said before, I could still see this as being the movie with the most conflict in this topic.

The next actual princess to appear in a movie doesn’t show up until 1985 in “The Black Cauldron”. Most people tend to even forget about her and the movie in general; she doesn’t even hold the lead role. However, for what parts she’s in she sets a better and bolder example for young girls.

In 1989, “The Little Mermaid” made its Disney princess splash (pun intended) with Ariel. Again, we have a princess who is a dreamer but in a much more recent Disney movie. I’ve read that she is a bad role model as she exchanges her voice for legs to go after the prince of her dreams. I’ve always viewed this movie a little differently. Unlike the other princesses, she is the one to go after the prince rather than wait for him to come after her. Yes, she goes after a prince and not a high-paying corporate position, but she still has the nerve to do what it takes to get what she wants.

Only two years later in 1991 you get “Beauty and the Beast”. Belle, as most people forget, is not a princess in any part of the movie (unless she married the Beast when we all weren’t looking). She is a free thinker and a free spirit and, like most of the heroines before her, dreams for something more. She is not, however, dreaming for a prince but rather for adventure. She finds it when she goes to rescue her father and takes his place as the Beast’s prisoner. Never does she submit to him and is in most ways his equal. Yes, she finds love in the course of the film, but she does it while he is still a Beast and not a “prince charming”. Belle would win my pick for one of the best Disney female role models.

Directly after Belle we get Jasmine in 1992 with “Aladdin”. This is another in a line of increasingly bold Disney heroines. While she is a princess, she’s not about to become a prize. She wants to find love, and again that’s never a bad thing for anyone. Aladdin may win her over in the end and rescue her, but she does all she can and without the aid of a monkey, a carpet or a genie (and against a wizard I think she holds out just fine). There is no shame in being rescued if you have already done all you can to free yourself. Everyone needs a little help sometimes.

Again, after a short break, we get another princess in 1995 with “Pocahontas”. While not a well received movie, Pocahontas does something a bit different: she saves the man she falls in love with and in the end she actually doesn’t marry him. Again, this is another Disney female that doesn’t present a poor role model as far as I can see (I don’t know what happens in the sequel, and I don’t really want to find out).

Skipping along, I’m going to combine two lesser movies with bold Disney females: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1996 and “Hercules” in 1997. Both Esmerelda and Megara are a far cry from being princesses. They both have a past and are lacking any real taste for finding a man. Both do find one, and yes, both get rescued; but again they fight off what they can. Let’s face it, Megara was human and up against the gods and other supernatural forces. Esmerelda was up against an angry mob that was more than happy to kill her for being a gypsy. Those odds look even to you? Yeah, me either.

So, not the best of role models and not the worst.

However, the next in the line up is another of my top choices for best Disney female role model. Mulan showed her face in 1998 in a movie of the same name. What doesn’t this girl do? She goes off to war to save her father, she dresses as a man to get into the army, she learns to excel in the army, she beats the Huns once, is discovered but still goes on, beats the Huns again and has a man coming to find her! Mulan presents a very determined and very real female character. She faces the odds and wins, and in the end is well received for doing so.

The next two women of note are Jane in “Tarzan” (1999) and Kida in “Atlantis” (2001). Honestly, I cannot go nearly as far in depth with these two as the movies are ones that I don’t remember well, even though I’ve watched them both at least a couple of times. I do recall though that neither female was searching for her prince, nor did either of them just wait around for rescuing. They remain a very far cry from the first Disney females.

By modern standards, the women of Disney are not always great role models. Then again, there are a lot of things out there now that aren’t great either and that don’t have the legitimate argument of being from another era to back them up. Companies still make fashion dolls and baby dolls and kitchen role play sets for little girls. Are these positive for a girl’s development into a modern, independent woman? Why is it always that Disney princesses are thrown under the bus for negatively influencing girls? You have to realize that watching “Snow White” should be no different from watching something like “Wizard of Oz”. They are from a different moment in time and won’t always be reflective of our “modern” sensibilities. Take the films for what they are and work towards making the influences of tomorrow what you think they should be. As Andy Warhol once said: “They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

*Since this blog was from so many years back, I no longer have a link to the referenced article.


3 Responses to “Disney’s Animated Women: Role Model or Not?”

  1. Paige says:

    Characters are just characters, they shouldn’t have to be a role model for anyone, not every character is made for their life and example to be followed.

  2. Macabri says:

    I agree. Just because a character is out there doesn’t mean they are automatically a role model. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way and some get all up in arms if the character isn’t effectively raising their kid for them I guess.

  3. Beckie says:

    The referenced article:

    Arafin, Zainul. “Other Side of Fairy Tales Can Be Disturbing”. 04-May-2005. WEB. . 18-Sep-2011.

    Google Search is a awesome thing. ;)

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