Problematic Gender Representation and Overall Ideals in Disney Films

Watching Mickey Mouse Monopoly in class last Wednesday was such an eye-opening experience for me. I have no allusions about Disney’s checkered past with racism (i.e. Songs of the South) but I never really paid much attention to the overt and subliminal sexism laced throughout even my favorite Disney movies. I have never closely examined the types of stories and gender representations present in Disney princess films and even films that contain only animal or object characters, but now that it has been brought to my attention I’m appalled.

Disney provides a very rigid and unrealistic beauty standard that prescribe what conventional attractiveness and femininity looks like to impressionable young girls.

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“Disney has made a spectacle of innocence.”

I was most concerned by the interviews that the documentary included  from younger girls and the messages that they took from Disney’s media. One of the young girls, Melina, who talked about what she would do if one of her friends or herself was in a similar situation as Belle from  Beauty and the Beast remarked that she would “just keep being nice” in the hopes that like Belle, her kindness who transform the beast back into a man. This is a highly toxic and problematic message to indoctrinate girls into. You cannot kiss away beastly, verbally and emotionally abusive behavior. Beauty and the Beast basically tells the tale of a woman trapped into taking care of a and falling in love with a volatile man who later turned out to be “tender-hearted.’ Feeding girls this narrative with explanation, context and dialogue is incredibly dangerous, especially in conjunction with the popular and misguided notion that young boys express affection by being mean and picking on girls.

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Here are some parody videos that highlight some of the problematic ideals from the Disney princess films:

Are Disney stories really the stories we want our children exposed to?

 

This rhetorical question posed within the documentary stuck with me for quite awhile after viewing it. The assertions from all of these experts was that Disney has made a spectacle of innocence for profit. While I definitely think there’s a lot of truth to that statement I also think that Disney, whether purposefully or not, also does damage to children by priming and framing them as to whose stories are important and therefore worthy of being told. For example, Disney has several princesses, and only a small handful of those princesses are women of color. In fact, the only African-American princess, thus far, was 2009’s Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. However, she spent the majority of the film as a literal frog, and married a prince who although portrayed to be a mixed-race prince of color, was decidedly drawn without characteristic black features.

So what are we saying to young black girls when the one princess they can physically identify with his literally dehumanized for nearly the entire film?

Because Disney has such widespread influence over and access to children, the selection and executed of content is incredibly important.

I think that Disney has a responsibility to provide diverse content capable of navigating complex stories and perspectives without relying on or defaulting to problematic hegemonic ideals and expectations. Disney is a huge monopoly  that controls a healthy chunk of the media we consume and therefore can and should be expected to make sure their content does not reinforce harmful characterizations in their attempts to provide age-appropriate entertainment. Children are not nearly as unaware and ignorant to overt and sublime messages as we often believe them to be.

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