Scorpio Risen

A spoonful of Disney makes the patriarchy go down…

Posted on: 26 July, 2007

Richie has written a post about the Miss Potter movie, which I think is really witty, and, well, it speaks volumes to me, particularly about films for children.


There are many feminists – including yours truly – who believe and argue that the media helps to enforce, represent and perpetuate patriarchy. They also believe and argue that children are socialised into patriarchal gender roles as soon as they are born.

When I did my AS Sociology Media unit, we studied Audience Affects Models, including the concept of drip-feeding – something Marxists sometimes talk about. I personally believe that people are always drip-fed patriarchal norms and values.

Recently, I have been pondering about patriarchy and Disney.

As a kid, I loved Disney movies. I do still have a certain – somewhat nostalgic – fondness for them. I think they do have some positive messages behind them.

But, let’s look at the so-called “Disney Princesses”.

  • Snow White
  • Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
  • Cinderella (O my goddess, that film actually makes me cry…strangely enough, it’s when she’s really happy that she can go to the ball.)
  • Ariel
  • Belle
  • Jasmine
  • Pocahuntas
  • Mulan (I think they include her, even though she wasn’t technically a Princess – damn good fighter though!)

Now, all of these women end up falling in love, getting married, living happily ever after, blah blah blah… Nice piece of bullshit for ya there kiddies. I think, to be honest, this sends several messages to young girls:

  1. You have to be beautiful and (except, I guess in Mulan’s case…she’s more like the exception that proves the rule) feminine, and then you will meet your handsome prince and live happily ever after.
  2. To be successful as a woman, to be happy and fulfilled, you have to be beautiful (as above), and get married.
  3. The norm is heterosexuality, and (monogamous) marriage is the desired and proper route to go.

However, there are some interesting differences. The first main female Disney characters – Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella – are very docile, very beautiful and feminine, and especially in Cinderella’s case, subservient. And also – somewhat flippant remark coming up – they all fall in love after, like, one dance. What is up with that?! Why is it that, in films, characters fall in love after knowing each other for a day? …Anyway…

Later on, though, we see our Disney women actually forming distinct personalities. Ariel – headstrong, doesn’t respond well to her father’s authority, curious and wants to learn more about the world outside her own. Jasmine is also feisty and doesn’t respond well to her father’s authority. She also is resistant to the idea of marriage (until, of course Aladdin – why couldn’t they have just co-habitated nicely?!). Belle – Intelligent and enjoys reading, wants to learn and live more outside of her “provincial” village, and is disgusted by Gaston’s blatant chauvinism. Pocahuntas – damn, I really wish I could remember more than I do about it, but she did teach John Smith a thing or two about the colours of the wind. Mulan – wow, well! She dressed in male drag and fought in the Chinese Army. 🙂

But there is always, always a big song and dance made out of their beauty; I mean, for crying out loud, intelligent Belle is – in English – called Beauty! At the end of the day – they all fall in love and get married. I’m not sure, however, if Mulan gets offered a place in the Army, but apart from (possibly) that, none of them have careers. (After having recently watched Mulan again, the Emperor does offer her a job as a member of his council (or something), but she turns it down because she doesn’t want to be away from her family. Hmmm – interesting: she turns down a job to be with her family; stereotypical gender role as a carer, or what?!) All this romanticises marriage, (many of the films also romanticise) femininity, and place a large amount of value on the female’s beauty.

I think there are some positive aspects, as I have already outlined, but all these characters – even the later ones with their more diverse personalities – all have an identical conclusion: marriage.

I was thinking to myself whether or not there were any Disney movies in which the main female protagonist didn’t wind up married, and I came to two: Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (one of my most favourite movies as a child), but then I remembered that, actually, in Bedknobs and Broomsticks there was a romantic subplot between the two adult male and female protagonists – Professor Emelius Brown(e?) and Eglantine Price (?).

I’m not saying that it is terrible that any Disney characters should get married at all in any of their films, but there really isn’t any alternative shown really. An alternative lifechoice would be nice. I think it’s most certainly better than constantly shoving this heteropatriarchally sugary sweet bullshit down every kid’s gob.

I think it’s great that in the more modern films, the female protagonists have been allowed some form of personality, other than just vacuously feminine. But I also think that a lot of emphasis is put on their beauty, teaching girls from an early age that to be successful as a woman you must be beautiful, and that when you’re beautiful you get men – therefore, you are a successful woman – and I do not believe this to be great for girls’ self-esteem in the long-run, especially given that as girls grow older, they encounter more and more societal and cultural messages about beauty. Especially, if you notice, their waists seems to be miniscule, especially Jasmine’s. It’s not that the early princesses weren’t slim, but the teeny-tiny waists of the late 80ies and 90ies seem particularly pronounced (possibly because with Ariel and Jasmine, you get to see a bit of their stomachs).

However, to leave on a more positive note…
A clip from Mary Poppins (unfortunately, it has lyrics – WITH A SPELLING MISTAKE!!! – it was either lyrics, or have it in Russian…), featuring one of my favourite characters as a child, Mrs Banks. I think they should’ve had her in it more, and less of the children. Those kids were quite annoying, actually. As was Dick Van Dyke’s “cockney” accent.


13 Responses to "A spoonful of Disney makes the patriarchy go down…"

Yes, yes yes! I actually have a draft on the whole Disney thing — it’s been the subject of much debate in our household.

The whole princess thing makes me sick, and not just for what it teaches girls, but what it teaches the boys as well.

Even Mulan, who kicked ass, ultimately the movie’s conflict resolution did not come from her success, but through finding Her Dream Man. Ah, true happiness!

Blech. little kids don’t even realize they’re soaking this bullshit in.

I have a big problem with the whole racism thing with Disney as well. They’re trying to address it, apparently — there will even be a Black princess next — but if you really look at the movies, some of the underlying messages still suck.

good post.

I find the associated merchandise pretty depressing, too. I remember a Mulan doll that addressed the “impersonating a man” issue by (as far as I recall) including a makeup kit and dress so you can make her pretty again.

“Pocahuntas – damn, I really wish I could remember more than I do about it, but she did teach John Smith a thing or two about the colours of the wind.”
*collapses laughing*

I guess you could argue it’s a bit like the “empowerful” feminism. The retro princesses, like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella (oh and my mom hates the prince in Cinderella!) are pre-feminist, quietly acknowledged as sexist portrayals. The modern princesses accessorize their retro, sexist selves with some sops to feminism (like being smart, or spunky or whatnot) but don’t really shatter the sexist paradigm or offer us anything new.

I’m not sure what the feminist consensus has been on “Shrek”, but that’s one reason why I thought it was progress. *SPOILERS FOR SHREK 1* Even though Princess Fiona ended up getting married in the end, she got to be very unladylike (bad singer, belching, likes bugs, likes fighting) and it was ok that she wasn’t pretty, she still was happy and loved in spite of her looks.

Great post. I recommend reading Andrea Dworkin’s chapter on fairy-tales in her ‘Woman Hating’ book- an eye-opening and witty exposition of the likes of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc.

Great post. Thank you for the trip down memory lane with the video clip. I must say I had to read the lyrics to find the spelling mistake so I could share in your pain. 😉

Glad to have found you via Witchy.

Of course I knew instantly that you were marvelous since you’re a Scorpio. haha

Yes – the Disney movies are one big eye rolling fest for me. I never thought much of it when I was younger. Why would I – with a mother who constantly said, “If Christi could just find a man…” gag

“there will even be a Black princess next ”
I think it’s interesting that Disney had Native American and Asian princesses first.

I haven’t seen Mulan in years, but I thought that at the end it’s ambiguous about whether she gets the guy or not? (No big kissing scene or anything.)

Ohohoh, not having speakers I really enjoyed the lyrics haha!

About the spelling mistake: The lyrics are captions for the deaf right? I dunno if they did it on purpose, but it made me think of signing “Well done sister suffragette” in sign language, instead of singing, which seems pretty appropriate for sub captions for the deaf I think…

Cellycel: Ooo, perhaps you’re right, although I thought the point of the lyrics was ‘cos it’s meant to be a sing-along? Especially since the normal talking isn’t subtitled.
Heh, I don’t have speakers either, so I have to plug earphones in, which can be a bit of a pain.

you are full of win

I just thought it, ’cause they made the spelling mistake _twice_ so I thought it might have been simpler then I typo. (Maybe the person subtitling it just misheard and thoght that was the lyric. I’unno.

But yeah if it’s for a singalong s’prolly not done on purpose.

(Still – I kinda think it’s cool.)

Heh. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Also, I can’t remember if I noticed it first time round or not, but they talk about “woman’s” as opposed to “women’s”, so maybe another mistake – which is odd, because I notice they seem to generally be pretty good at getting correct apostrophes and pronouns, which can often be common mistakes.

Ah, I’m such an English Language geek.

I think that you put over some excellent points in your views of the disney princesses. I am currently researching this topic for my media exam in January and your post has been very helpful…I completely agree that women are seen as the submissive sex in all disney films and don’t agree with the disney opinion that all of the characters should get married at the end…. i say good for pocahontas who refuses to return to england with john smith because her family needs her more where she lives…. she is the only real one who says no to her man….
Even other films such as the lion king show male dominance. for instance, the way that the lionesses in the first film cannot overthrow scar without simba returning to be their leader…. in real life, the lionesses that hunt for food, not the lions… so why would simba be more powerful than the whole female section of the pride??!! its patriarchy gone mad!!!!

Ooo, thank you Abigal for your points, especially as I’d forgotten most of what happened in Pocahuntas, especially how it ends. 🙂

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