Deconstructing gender roles – has Disney finally debunked gender stereotypes?


It is universally accepted that parents have an overwhelming impact on their children, but how often do we explore the impact of other factors on a children’s upbringing? Disney films are a key feature in most households.

With the introduction of the streaming site Disney Plus and a handful of lockdowns, there is more time than ever to divulge in a world of princesses and fantastical creatures. However, are these films really a good thing for children to grow up with?

When the three most well-known Disney films came out, Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), the world was a different place. Women were still seen as homemakers and men as breadwinners, and this was presented on screen.

It was accepted that the pretty, innocent women would be saved by the handsome Prince Charming in Snow White (1937) and Cinderella (1950), and that a woman would do nothing but get drugged and wait to be saved in Sleeping Beauty (1959).

These princesses were shown as helpless women in need of rescue by a man. For young girls watching, dreams involved castles and handsome men, while young boys could dream of saving others and having power. These stereotypes presented in the early Disney films set a damaging precedent that shapes young people’s understanding of gender roles in society.

Even in recent films, men have an overwhelming number of lines

To salvage this, Disney introduced a new age of female heroines. In The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998), women were finally given leadership roles and were shown as rebels to the previous domestic, relatively useless presentation of women in Disney films.

While the commentary on these films was dissimilar from their male counterparts, with the New York Times calling Ariel “a spunky daredevil,” these films showed a real change in Disney. Similarly, the most recent decade of Disney films indeed shows a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of deconstructing gender roles. Films such as Tangled, Frozen, Moana and Brave offer young girls much more than castles and handsome men. Their female protagonists are inspiringly strong, independent and capable.

Unfortunately, there are still gender inequalities presented in this new age of Disney movies, despite efforts. Women have less of a voice than men in these films, with women only speaking 32% of the time in The Little Mermaid, 24% in Pocahontas, 23% in Mulan and 10% in Aladdin. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel literally sacrifices her voice, symbolising her intelligence and thoughts for a man.

Even in the more recent films, men have an overwhelming number of lines, claiming 48% of Tangled and 59% of Frozen. Women had more of a voice in the earlier Disney movies than in these, maintaining 60% of the Cinderella lines and 71% of Sleeping Beauty lines. 

Children are not born thinking that girls like pink and boys like blue or that women need to be saved by strong men

This overwhelming male domination in supposedly feminist movies is due to two reasons. Firstly, each minor character is a man. Think of every guard, doctor and shopkeeper; all men. Secondly, these movies are filled with men complimenting women, taking up a lot of lines. Unfortunately, these compliments are mainly looks-based rather than focused on skills or personality—factors such as these deeply shape audiences’ view on gender roles. 

In films for older people, the debunking of gender stereotypes is clear. Gender limitations in sport are being challenged; Bend it Like Beckham (2002) shows women skilfully playing the traditionally male sport of football, while Billy Elliot (2000) shows a young boy demonstrating a talent for the historically female dance form ballet.

Additionally, strength limitations in terms of gender are being challenged by the film industry; the presentation of a man as vulnerable in The King’s Speech (2010) is encouraging, and women in science are finally presented on screen in Hidden Figures (2016). Yet, by the time these films are suitable for children to watch, gender stereotypes will already be embedded. 

Children are not born thinking that girls like pink and boys like blue or that women need to be saved by strong men. Instead, we adopt these ways of thinking during our upbringing, and Disney films have a part to play in that. While Disney seems to be on the right track in deconstructing gender roles, there is still a long way to go. For now, we as a society need to question whether Disney has the best films for the next generation to grow up watching.  

Image: freewiki via Wikimedia Commons

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