Tammy Schmit, pictured, has a degree in anthropology and political science from the University of Birmingham
Will it be ever possible for Disney to create a film that will illustrate an ideal reality and society in which gender equality is achieved? Luxembourger Tammy Schmit examines the Disney princesses through a feminist lens.
Studies found that Disney and its representation of characters in their films exert a powerful influence on children’s ideas about gender, social behaviours and norms. Particularly the iconic Disney princesses, designed to inspire young girls, have developed into having a large impact upon society and consequentially were included in many recent discussions and research about feminism and gender representation in film.
I first became interested in the representation of women in film and the impact of film on society through the Bechdel test, an online test created by Allison Bechdel in 1985 to define the active presence of female characters in film. Today, the Bechdel test is often used to identify whether a film can be considered feminist.
A film is able to pass the Bechdel test by answering the following three questions positively: Are there two or more women in it that have names? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? Many Disney princess films pass this test, including the three films I assessed in my work – Cinderella (1950, 2015), Beauty and the Beast (1991, 2017) and Frozen (2013). Nevertheless, I came to realise that people’s opinions about the feminist nature of these films vary enormously and that there exist several different ideas about gender and female representation in Disney films.
So, what does the term gender actually mean?
One of the most influential scholars of feminist theory, Judith Butler (1990), emphasises that one must make a distinction between sex and gender, as the one is a biologically fixed characteristic while the other is a culturally constructed concept. As such, sex is fixed through its biological features, but gender depends on its cultural and historical context, which means that the term ‘woman’ does not encounter a common identity.
Nevertheless, due to the construction of gender through inflexible cultural rules and laws within a specific period of time, gender can become as fixed as it was under the “biology-is-destiny formulation” to some extent. This stands in line with Simone De Beauvoir’s (1953) understanding of gender and femininity of becoming a woman instead of being born a woman.
This understanding of gender being socially and culturally constructed is necessary to understand Disney’s role in reflecting and shaping society’s understanding of womanhood. Looking at the last 70 years of Disney princess films, one can see that they developed both in style of animation, and presentation of character and behaviour. Therefore, one can say that the different Disney films reflect their originated time, and, as such, change over time as public perception of the meaning of gender evolves.
Nevertheless, the portrayal of gender and the representation of femininity in Disney’s princess films is often a stereotypical one and not an accurate image of what it means to be a woman. While Disney now tries to create a more feminist version of their traditional princesses with their live action films, they only succeed partially. Hence, the new films have one foot in the past and one foot in the future in terms of the representation of female characters. There always were and still are limitations to how much they actually adapt traditional princess characters to fit into a modern and changing society.
Compromising Belle into reading books
This can be seen through many different examples, for instance, Linda Woolverton fought to shape Belle into a complex and action-driven princess, a feat that was still difficult in the 1990s when Disney heroines needed to act a certain way. Being the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney, she was influenced by the Women’s Movement in the US and therefore wanted Belle to be a character that women could relate to, instead of being another throwback Disney ‘victim heroine’. She wanted Belle to “operate within the framework of classic tales without betraying modern consciousness that women have just as rich an experience of the world as men do”.
As a result of Disney not being ready yet for such a modern princess, Woolverton had to make concessions, such as forgoing her plan to feature Belle as a character who loves travelling and has a map with pins sticking in it. The storyboard was then rewritten to Belle being in the kitchen, decorating a cake, and only with Woolverton’ strong urging was Belle’s love for reading added. These limitations on female characters in forms of popular culture, such as Disney, reflects women’s subordination within the political, legal and economic structures in society. Moreover, women often have passive roles in art by being sexualised objects created by male artists instead of being the active producer of art (Harrington 2004), as seen with Cinderella.
Disney could also play a significant role in reconstructing stereotypical gender roles, especially through Disney’s high popularity in the US and its strong international presence. It will be interesting to see if Disney could play a pioneering role in the future by being an example in terms of female representation in films.
Time will show if Disney can fully adapt itself to a modern and ever-changing society by creating a non-stereotypical Disney princess that will live in a society in which she is treated equally to their male counterparts. Will it be ever possible for Disney to create a film that will illustrate an ideal reality and society in which gender equality is achieved?
Tammy Schmit has a degree in anthropology and political science from the University of Birmingham. She will speak about her dissertation “Exploring the role of women in popular culture: A feminist anthropological approach to Disney princesses”, at the Lunch Knowledge Shot hosted by CID Fraen an Gender at 12:30 on 13 June.
The event consists of a 30-minute talk followed by Q&A and an open discussion. CID will provide water and coffee. Attendees may bring their own food.