Printable version from NI Global Issues for Learners of English:
Women, Race & Culture
in Disney's movies
Kathy Maio, a feminist journalist in Boston USA, looks at the way Disney's animated movies present women, race, and other cultures.
Maio doesn't think Disney's heroines have changed very much since the days of Snow White: they are all happy housewives. She thinks this does not give a good message to young girls today.
Maio is worried about some of the racial and cultural messages in Disney's movies, too.
FEMINIST someone who is active in support of women having equal rights to men
Snow White was the heroine of the first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. Snow White is young, pretty, virginal, sweet-natured and obedient. She doesn't mind housework because she is sure that a rich young man will soon come and take her away.
HEROINE: most important woman character
When Snow White is afraid, she runs away and falls down in tears. When she finds shelter in a dirty little house in the woods, she immediately cleans it from top to bottom. When she lives there, she continues to do the housework: the group of (small) working males who live in the house clearly need a 'mother' to clean for them, so this is Snow White's natural role.
SHELTER is something that protects you and keeps you safe from weather or from dangers
Snow White's only enemy is her wicked and powerful step-mother. (Another typical Disney character is the evil older women, who has a lot of power. She is always destroyed.)
WICKED: bad, evil
A STEP-MOTHER is a woman who marries someone's father after their mother died
Snow White's wicked step-mother tricks Snow White into eating a poisoned apple and she falls into a coma. The dwarfs cannot help her. Snow White must wait until she is rescued by the kiss of a handsome prince, and then she rides off happily with her new love.
TRICK: (v) to fool or deceive
When someone is in a COMA, they are completely unconscious and cannot be awakened
This is typical of Disney's movies. Young women are naturally happy home-makers; they wait (like Snow White in her coma) until a man comes along to give them life.
Something is TYPICAL if it has the usual qualities of a type of thing.
After Snow White, Disney used other fairy tales for his movies, for example Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). The heroines and their stories were very similar to Snow White.
FAIRY TALES: stories that are told to children about magical places and people
Then, in 1966, Walt Disney died and the Disney Company did not produce any good animated films for a long time. Then, in 1989, the company produced a new, and very successful, cartoon feature film, The Little Mermaid.
FEATURE FILM: a full length movie
The Little Mermaid
Ariel, the mermaid, is the heroine of the movie.
It seems that Disney did not pay much attention to the Women's Movement: Ariel is the same as the earlier Disney heroines, except that she is somewhat sexy and wears a bikini made from shells. And the answer to all her dreams is to get her man. Ariel will do anything to make the prince fall in love with her. She even gives up her voice so that she can have legs.
(What message does this movie give to young girls - "Keep quiet and be beautiful"?)
But Disney movies have happy endings, and so Ariel gets her voice back and she keeps her prince. On the other hand, she loses everything else. When she becomes human and marries the prince, she must leave behind her underwater home, her father and her friends. She gives up everything in her life for romance. That's OK for a fairy tale, but it is not a good idea for young girls in real life.
Many women complained to Disney about The Little Mermaid, and Disney promised to think more carefully about women's roles in future. They hired a female screenwriter for their next movie, Beauty and the Beast (1991). Disney's publicity people promised that Belle, the heroine, would be 'modern', 'active', and even 'feminist'.
SCREENWRITER: the person who writes the words of a movie
Beauty and the Beast
The press thought Disney had done a good job, but the only real improvement is that Belle likes reading!
BELLE is the main woman character in Beauty and the Beast
However, the most important problem in this movie is not the Disney company's idea of an independent woman. The problem is how Disney changed the hero, and the message of the story.
In the original story, the Beast looks terrible and frightening, but he is really kind and gentle. The message of the story is that you should not judge someone by what they look like. An ugly outside can hide a loving heart.
Disney changed this. The company decided to create a Beast with a 'very serious problem'. Disney's Beast terrifies his household and frightens Belle, his prisoner. The Beast does not attack Belle, but the threat of physical violence is present.
In the Disney movie, Belle changes the character of the Beast. Her beauty and her sweet nature change him from a beast into a prince, from someone who is cruel, into someone who is kind. So the movie's message is very different from the message of the fairy tale.
SWEET-NATURE: being kind and pleasant
The movie says, if a young woman is pretty and sweet-natured, she can change an abusive man into a kind and gentle man. In other words, it is a woman's fault if her man abuses her.
This is another dangerous message for young girls because it is not true: if Belle lived in the real world, she would almost certainly become a battered wife.
Someone who is ABUSIVE treats people very badly
ABUSE: (v) to treat someone very badly
BATTERED: badly beaten
Princess Jasmine, the only female character in Aladdin (1992), is a lot like Disney's other women.
But there is another very worrying thing about this movie, its racism.
Listen to some of the songs, for example:
"I come from a land.... where they cut off your ears if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."
RACISM: the belief that people of your race are better than people of other races
BARBARIC: violent and cruel
And look at the characters.
The evil characters, like Jafar, look very Arabic. On the other hand, Aladdin, the hero, looks and sounds like a fresh-faced American boy: his skin is much paler, and he asks people to call him 'Al', an American name, not an Arabic name.
FRESH-FACED: clean and innocent.
Something is PALER than something else if it is lighter-colored or whiter.
Of course, Disney does not intend to offend people - that would be bad business. Most people who watch the movies are probably caught up in the Disney magic and don't notice these things. But that's the problem. One way in which Disney creates the magic is by using stereotypes that people respond to without thinking. Aladdin looks 'right' for a hero; Jafar looks 'right' for a villain. We don't think about it.
If you are CAUGHT UP IN something, you are very involved and interested in it.
STEREOTYPE: a fixed image or idea of what a type of person is like.
By using quotation marks ['RIGHT' for a hero], the writer makes clear that she means this ironically.
The Lion King
The Lion King does the same thing. The characters are animals, but their voices show racist stereotypes. Even though The Lion King takes place in Africa, two white American actors are used for the voice of Simba, the hero. However, the hyenas who are bad characters in the film, speak non-standard English and are played by actors like Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin. The villain, Scar, suggests homosexuality.
And, of course women (the lionesses) are weak and need a male hero: when Simba runs away, the lionesses cannot protect themselves from the evil Scar and must wait for years until Simba returns to save them.
RACIST STEREOTYPES: a fixed idea of what people of different races are like.
HYENAS: an African animal that feeds on dead animals; its cry sounds like a laugh.
SUGGESTS HOMOSEXUALITY: gives the idea that he might be homosexual.
After The Lion King, Disney became interested in the idea of 'multiculturalism' and made Pocahontas in 1995. This movie mixes Disney's favourite story of the princess- in-love with a real story from Native American history.
That is a problem because Pocahontas was a real woman, and she was very different from the Pocahontas that Disney invented. To give only one example: in real life, Pocahontas was a child when she first met the 'hero' John Smith and there was no romance between them. When Pocahontas met Smith again years later, she called him 'father'.
MULTICULTURALISM: the idea that it is a good thing to include people from many different cultures.
But there are even more serious problems with the Disney version of Pocahontas and the video follow-up, Pocahontas II. The movies ignore the real fate of both Pocahontas and her people. The first movie ends cheerfully with peace between the colonists and natives; in fact, many, many of the Powhatan Nation (Pocahontas' people) were later killed.
COLONISTS: the first groups of people who came from Europe to America, to settle and make a home for themselves
IGNORE: do not show
As for the real Pocahontas, she was kidnapped and held hostage. She was forced to become a Christian and behave like a 'civilised' white woman. She was married to a colonist who believed that the civilisation she grew up in was evil.
Later, Pocahontas was taken to England, to help advertise the colony of Virginia. In England, she was homesick. She became ill and died before she could return to her homeland.
'CIVILISED': from a 'more advanced' society. The quotation marks around the word show that the writer is being ironic.
HOMESICK: feeling sad because you are away from home
None of this is in Disney's movie. And that is very worrying, because many people believed that they were learning about history when they watched Pocahontas.
Disney has done a similar thing with Mulan (1998), the story of a Chinese hero. The real Hua Mu-Lan lived so long ago that her story has become a Chinese legend - a legend that Disney has reinvented so that it fits the pattern of a young woman in love.
LEGEND: a famous story about a great hero
Disney created Shang, a male hero for Mulan. He is her commanding officer. In the movie, Mulan is wounded in battle and everyone finds out that she is a woman. Her punishment is death but Shang cannot kill her, so he sends her away. After the war he comes to find her and marry her.
In the military, your COMMANDING OFFICER is the person who gives you orders.
Disney has done it again. Brave, kick-boxing Mulan does not look like Snow White but, in fact, the life of a Disney heroine has not changed very much. Men still have power over them (Shang quite literally decides whether Mulan will live or die); and the best thing that can happen to them is to marry the hero and live "happily ever after."
KICK-BOXING: a kind of fighting that uses both punching and kicking.
Adapted from the article "Disney's Dolls" by Kathi Maio, which appeared in the December 1998 issue of the New Internationalist.
© 1998, 1999: the New Internationalist
Last Modified: 19 June 1999