Disney, Gender and the Gaze
Societies construct gender and have an abundance of media outlets they can use to portray those ideas of gender to the public. Gender and the gaze is one topic that was discussed this year in Dr. Stahl’s class at the University of Georgia. Through the use of different scholar’s arguments students explored how the gaze is focused on women and how that gaze can objectifies women. This is a common practice in print media and, surprisingly, in Disney films.
This paper is going to focus on how Disney films have made an increasing progression in the physical, and sexual, maturity of each heroine in the films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. By looking at the evolution of the Disney heroine you can see how they have gone from young and innocent girls to sexy women, specifically in the non-white heroines. Disney films have represented the white heroines (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, and Belle) as innocent, submissive, passive young girls who need protecting; while depicting the non-white heroines (Jasmine, Pocahontas and Esmeralda) as these exotic, active, sexy and maybe even devious women.
In the early Disney films animators created what is now referred to as the “classic” Disney heroine. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are shown with porcelain skin tone and delicate frame. Dressed in conservative attire they are content to sit around and wait for their prince. They are shown doing household chores surrounded by friendly woodland creatures. This sends out the idea to young girls that a woman’s place in the home. Both movies also show that if you are not a beautiful, submissive young girl than you are some kind of evil queen. It is a common theme in early Disney films to have a villainous woman, a trend that is broken in Beauty and the Beast.
While Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were content on just waiting for their prince Ariel and Belle seem to be discontent with the lives they live. Ariel has a whole song about being “a part of your world” even though she uses the word “your” she could have easily substituted the word “his.” Ariel follows her dreams of a life with Prince Eric even though her dreams go against the wishes of her father. In the end it is ultimately Ariel’s father who has the power to let her live on land with her prince.
Belle sings about “wanting so much more than they have planned.” Belle knows that she is different from everyone and wants something different than everyone else but she is not quite sure what that is. Belle likes herself but is still marginalized for her sense of self, her uniqueness (Henke, Umble, & Smith, 1996). Beauty and the Beast introduces the idea of a powerful male who is willing to use force to get what he wants, whether it is a woman or the antlers of a beast. It is also Belle’s actions, not her beauty, that drive tension in the film.
Both Belle and Ariel have the freedom to make their own choices, but ultimately they “choose” to do what is expected of them—marry the prince and live happily ever after. Disney films also reinforce the idea that women are seen as a commodity in a patriarchal society. They go from being controlled by their father right into the hands of their husbands. All of the white heroines seem content with this idea while the only ones who fight it are Jasmine and Pocahontas. Pocahontas is the only one who is successful in this endeavor.
The non-white heroines are drawn in such a way to emphasize their exotic and sexy nature. Jasmine is shown with appropriate darker skin tone for the Middle Eastern story setting, however many predominately white feature remain, like a delicate nose and small mouth (Lacroix, 2004). Jasmine’s other main difference from Ariel and Belle is the size of her eyes. Her overly large almond shaped eyes and skin tone are the only aspects of this character that signify racial difference. She still has a small wasted body frame, but is filmed in more active scenes and appears to be more athletic compared to her predecessors. Jasmine is also the only heroine that the stereotype of the deceitful sexual woman is seen. This stereotype seems unlikely in any of the earlier heroines due to the way in which the Disney animators had constructed Jasmines character (Lacroix, 2004).
Pocahontas is the character which ends the delicate frame trend of past Disney heroines. She is portrayed with a body of a Barbie Doll, or supermodel, rather than the 12 year-old girl of historical fact. She is tall, has long strong legs, and a developed bust. She is seen running, moving nimbly through the forest and swan diving into the river below. The slit in Pocahontas skirt shows much of the thigh, particularly in the active scenes of the film.
The emphasis on physical maturity and sexuality is most notable in Esmeralda, in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. She has the darkest skin tone of all the characters and retains the athleticism and strength of Pocahontas. She appears to be a woman, as opposed to the young girls in the previous Disney films. Costuming is another factor that shows the increasing emphasis on maturity and sexuality. Esmeralda’s costumes bare her shoulders, like Jasmine and Pocahontas, and also have a plunging neckline that emphasizes her cleavage. Her dance costume is drawn with a skin tight look that reveals the cut of her abdomen and her tiny waste.
The costuming of each of these heroines plays into the stereotypical image of each woman’s ethnicity, emphasizing certain parts of their body. The camera is shown panning over the body which objectifies and commodifies the heroines. This overall effect and the increasing voluptuousness of each character present the white heroines as more demure and conservative; while associating the later non-white heroines with the exotic and sexual (Lacroix, 2004).
To explore this idea further please check out our video montage found on the website.
Henke, J., Umble, D., & Smith, N. (1996). Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine. Women's Studies in Communication, 19(2), 229-247.
Hoerrner, K. (1996). Gender Roles in Disney Films: Analyzing Behavior from Snow White to Simba. Women's Studies in Communication, 19(2), 213- 227.
Lacroix, C. (2004). Images of Animated Others : The Orientalization of Disney's Cartoon Heroines from The Little Mermaid to the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Popular Communication, 2(4), 213-229.