If you’re one of those awesome kids born in the 90’s, then you have practically thrived on Disney’s animated movies from Snow White and Alice in Wonderland to The Little Mermaid and Mulan. Disney movies have constituted an undeniably significant part of the childhood experiences of millions of children around the world. Especially girls, we admired Disney princesses and how magical their lives were. We were fascinated by their dazzling beauty and kind hearted characters. Even as adults, the characters in these movies never lose their charm. That is all very cute but our role as budding social psychologists is to look beyond what is obvious and critically analyze what we have always taken for granted. Now let’s take the time to delve deeper into the ideas and stereotypes that Disney have bestowed on us over the years.
Disney has been shaping children’s expectations and perceptions about gender for years. Even though the influence of Disney movies is not exclusive to one specific place or people, it still can be classified under cultural forces that affect our attitudes and behaviors. Hence, we use the cultural approach to explain the gender roles that Disney portrays in its movies, which in turn leads to the development of children’s gender schemas, or cultural ideas that guide people’s perceptions of self and others and helps them assess and analyze the world around them. The cultural approach basically says that people acquire and enact their gender roles through observing how others of the same sex behave, which is based on culture.
When we relate this concept to Disney movies, we find that they have entailed certain images of how men and women ought to be. For instance, most of the female heroines are depicted as beautiful, rich, and often passive. They rely on male figures such as a lover, a husband, or a father for saving the day and getting the princesses out of trouble. Such examples, include Snow White and how she depends on the Seven Dwarfs for surviving in the forest and a kiss from the prince at the end of the movie to wake her up, and Aurora and her reliance on the prince to “kiss her back to life” after she has been cursed. Some slightly different examples include Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. Even though the first was extremely polite, cordial, and endured the rough treatment of her stepmother and stepsisters, in the end what helped her was her fairy godmother and the prince’s search for her after she left behind her glass shoe. Similarly, the second was extremely ambitious and smart, her curiosity for exploring the human world led her to give up her voice and mermaid body to meet her prince. In the end, the prince was the one who saved the day and Ariel gave everything up for him. Through these examples, we see how the male heroine is the one who solves the problem and the female heroine is making him her ultimate goal. The latter featured an intelligent girl who loves to read and longs to break free from her society’s limitations. She then falls victim to the violent beast and is forced to endure and tame his rather abusive behavior. In a sense, Belle portrays the image that women should handle male anger, even if it puts her wellbeing and safety at stake (Pickett, 2013).
Not all Disney movies of course have romance and love as their main themes, only the one directed primarily to girls. Other movies such as Hercules, Atlantis, The Lion King, which are what we can call gender neutral, directed to mostly both boys and girls, include other themes such as self-actualization, exploring the unknown, and appreciating family ties. We can’t deny that they also include elements of romance, but only as a secondary theme.
Considering that Disney movies are so popular, they are one of the things that are part of what constitutes children’s (you guessed it) social influence. Children are greatly affected by the characters they see in their favorite movies. The gender roles presented in the movies influence what boys and girls think is expected of them. A Girl will tend to think that being a “princess” paves the path for a “happily ever after” (Sabnis, Nuth, Echuryan & Lim, 2007). She rejects the possibility that her role does not have to be confined with finding a man, what we call a fixed mindset, which refers to the idea that we have a set amount of ability that we cannot change. She awaits prince charming to fix everything for her. She cannot stand against what she doesn’t accept or want without his help. She equates being beautiful and rich with being happy. Having these thoughts in her head, she will think that she is not competent enough if these standards in expectations are not met, causing her self-esteem to falter. On the other hand, boys are convinced that they should be muscular, tough, and that he has to work as hard as he can to get the beautiful girl in the end. He has to have a certain body image and attitude, any other male figure is usually rejected or even laughed at in movies.
Later on, we have such movies as Mulan. We witness how the movie has moved slightly past the very basic stereotypical view of men and women. It featured a courageous young woman who joins the army and proves to everyone that women can do outstanding feats. She goes against the stereotypical view of women that they have to be delicate and girly. She is brave and persistent.
Moreover, we have the movie Tangled, which includes Rapunzel who fights for her freedom and independence, needs of which are placed second to love and finding the right man (“Disney’s Tangled and,” ).
We also have the movie Brave, which features Merida, the curly haired ginger who also defies the stereotypical notion of women. She loves archery, which is very different from what other Disney movie heroines prefer. One of the movie’s focuses is the daughter-mother relationship rather than the romantic one. Merida is an independent character who shows that women aren’t helpless and don’t always need to be rescued by men. Merida insistently holds on to her own image of herself as independent and unique and resists the idea of marriage that her parents have been trying to convince her with. She has an independent view of herself, which means that she defines herself in terms of her own internal thoughts, feelings, and actions and not by those of other people.
Last but definitely not the least, we have seen the lovely Elsa in the movie Frozen. The movie has elements of a love but not as its main theme. In this movie, we see how the two sisters Else and Anna resolve their relationship. The women not men are the ones who direct the plot. Interestingly, Frozen mocks at ideas previously endorsed in earlier Disney movies. For instance, Else repeatedly makes fun of how Anna quickly falls in love with a guy she meets at the ball by saying ” You fell in love with him in one day? Who does that?”. Do you hear that, Ariel? Cinderella? (“Frozen: A Feminist,” 2014)
These types of movies mark a shift in how men and women, in particular, are portrayed in Disney movies. In my opinion, I think that this is due to how the society itself has somewhat changed its perception about the previously standard gender roles. Nowadays, women are becoming much more prominent powerful in their societies. Since art imitates reality, Disney had to keep up with society’s changing attitude in order for it to maintain their audiences, whether they be children or even adults.
To sum up, we as viewers need to use our controlled thinking when watching these movies in order to avoid falling prey to the relatively subtle stereotypes and somehow imposed gender roles. We have to exert the time and effort to think about what is presented to us. However, we must be aware not be essentialistic when considering the depiction of men and women and Disney movies because, after all, these are animated characters so we mustn’t generalize or assume that all men or all women share inherently similar characteristics. In addition, we have to expose ourselves to several portrayals of gender roles in various media; thus, we can avoid accessibility when making judgments, which is how schemas and ideas are in the front of our mind so they’re more likely to be used when forming opinions. We don’t want to be wired to think in a specific way; we have to have the ability to think diversely on a topic, especially if it’s as vital as gender roles. So enjoy your Disney classics all you want, but stay aware of the underlying messages!
Hey, don’t go just yet, watch this awesome video about Elsa showing the other Disney princesses what they have given up for love. It’s worth it!
Sabnis, P., Nuth, S., Echuryan, S., & Lim, Y. (2007, July 07). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://disneygender.blogspot.com/
[Web log message]. Retrieved from http://huskiesinwonderland.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/disneys-tangled-and-challenging-the-princess-stereotype-ryan-king/
[Web log message]. (2014, January 23). Retrieved from http://pointofcontention.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/frozen-a-feminist-tilt-in-the-disney-tale/
Pickett, L. (2013, June 07). How growing up disney shapes gender roles. Retrieved from http://www.wbez.org/blogs/leah-pickett/2013-06/how-growing-disney-shapes-gender-roles-107575