Disney Feminism: Fact or Fairytale?

Disney Feminism: Fact or Fairytale?
Reading time: 14 min

Belle is suffering with Stockholm Syndrome.

Perhaps this is the true tale as old as time - the theory that has plagued Disney devotees since the franchise’s first adaptation of Beauty and the Beast was released in cartoon form in 1995. And it’s once again become a popular talking point, thanks to the new live-action movie adaptation set to release in March 2017.

Emma’s Opinion

It’s something that the film’s new lead, Emma Watson, has given a lot of thought to - unsurprisingly, given her growing reputation as a feminist activist and her role as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. But after doing further research, she explains in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she doesn’t think it’s true. A person with Stockholm Syndrome typically takes on the characteristics of their captor as well as falling in love with them - a fact at odds with Belle’s constant arguments with the Beast. This “independence of mind”, as Watson describes it, is one of the reasons Belle is considered by many to be a healthy role model for young girls.

Emma Watson - Beauty and the Beast - Disney Feminism

At the film’s opening, the two leads openly dislike each other. Over time, they develop a friendship that then grows into love. Watson says: “I think that’s actually more meaningful than a lot of stories, where it was love at first sight.”

Those stories she references could be any of a number from the Disney archives. The entertainment giant has drawn a lot of criticism in the past for its depictions of picture-perfect princesses being rescued by big, strong men that they’ve never met before. In fact, not so long ago, the phrase “Disney feminism” would be widely considered oxymoronic. Cinderella spends just one night with her prince; Snow White and Sleeping Beauty just one song. Ariel only sees Prince Eric from afar before falling in love. Typically these women have very little say in their own destinies: Cinderella’s only escape from her tyrannical stepmother is to be chosen by the prince, while Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are literally helpless as they slumber through the vast majority of their own stories. And Disney’s brief dealings with direct feminism have in the past been problematic, perhaps representative of the attitudes of the time. For example, Mary Poppins’ work in fixing a struggling family is considered done when Mrs Banks - a caricature of a suffragette - tears up her sash and uses it to fashion her children a kite tail.

Retracing the Tales

Of course, if Disney films are rooted in outdated gender stereotypes, they may have their original inspirations to blame. Many of its fairytales are adaptations of tales published by the Grimm Brothers (which themselves are derived from old Bavarian folktales) or Hans Christian Andersen, whose worldview was influenced by a childhood spent in one of the poorer parts of Odense surrounded by brothels and their drunken patrons.

Once upon a time, these fairytales were used primarily as a way of teaching young children morals. But morals are subjective, and these were the morals of the heavily Christian and patriarchal societies of the time. As such, the young women featured in the stories were rewarded for being pious, undemanding and submissive, and punished for being strong-willed, vain or for disobeying their fathers or husbands.

Beauty and the Beast - Disney feminism

This skewed perspective of good versus evil is evident in many of Disney’s earlier films, but the stories that weren’t picked up for adaptation include even more extreme examples. In the Grimm Brothers’ The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces (also referred to as The Twelve Princesses), a king locks up his daughters at night, but still finds their dancing shoes worn out each morning, and so offers a reward to any man who can uncover their secret. An old soldier succeeds, discovering a secret trap door that they leave through in the night in order to dance with twelve handsome princes in a magical world where the trees are made of gold and diamonds (honestly, it sounds like a great night out). The eldest daughter is given to the knight as his reward, while the others are placed under a curse as punishment for their disobedience. Meanwhile, in The True Bride, the protagonist falls for a king’s son but when he returns to get his father’s permission to marry, he takes a new bride instead. Our lead inexplicably leaves her wealth behind and works as a cow herder until she is able to win back the heart of her beloved, who takes her back to her own castle so they can be wed.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t the odd feminist role model hidden in amongst the damsels in distress. In fact, even the original Beauty and the Beast features a strong female character whose role has faded over the years; not the blushing bookworm but the beast’s mother. Putting to rest Tumblr’s endless questions about what exactly happened to the beast’s parents, the original tale by novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Villeneuve explains that after his father died, his mother was forced to wage war in order to save their kingdom. If that’s not girl power, what is? Unfortunately, that detail was lost in the more popular abridged version published by Jeanne-Marie Beaumont.

Disney Feminism

It’s true, too, that Disney’s earlier films featured a few diamond-in-the-rough feminist icons. Or should that be rough-in-the-diamond - since these characters were typically less preened and polished than their stereotypical counterparts. You can’t talk about Disney feminism without mentioning Mulan - the heroine who defied (state sanctioned) gender roles in order to save her country. Neither can you ignore Pocahontas, who is the only princess to be based on a real person, and the strong-willed protagonist who fostered understanding between two male-dominated societies before sacrificing her life to save John Smith - a man she forgoes marrying in order to stay with her tribe. The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Esmeralda is the one who does the rescuing both when she frees Quasimodo from the stocks and when she brings Captain Phoebus to the safety of Notre Dame. Even Aladdin’s Jasmine shows a willingness to stand up for herself and defy expectations when she demands of her father and suitors, “How dare you? All of you, standing around deciding my future? I am not a prize to be won!” It’s worth noting that all of these women came from non-Western cultures, while Western leads such as Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora and Ariel embodied much more traditional qualities.

A focus on intersectional feminism - that is, equal representation and celebration of women of all backgrounds - is one of the defining characteristics of third-wave feminism. As it’s gained greater understanding and support, it’s been reflected in the choices made by media companies such as Disney. In 2009, The Princess and the Frog presented Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess. In 2016, Moana was praised for its titular character’s portrayal of Maui culture.

Tiana - Disney feminism

Intersectionality is also an issue Watson herself has come up against in the past. The launch of her UN HeForShe campaign, which aims to engage men and boys with the feminist movement, gained attention worldwide, but also prompted critics to question whether her perspective on feminism was skewed by her status as a white woman in a western country. In an eloquent Twitter reply, Watson pointed towards the acknowledgements of her own privilege made in her speech, and reiterated her promise to use her platform to provide other women with a voice. She has since launched the Emma Watson Scholarship in partnership with One Young World, for which nine activists from countries including Jordan, Angola and Albania were selected.

While Watson still deals with critics of her work with the UN, her most famous on-screen character, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, is agreed by many to be an icon for all little girls. Outspoken, self-assured and smarter than the boys, Hermione was a breath of fresh air when she entered Hollywood in 2001, and since then a number of other female heroines have followed suit - from The Hunger Games’ daring and defiant Katniss Everdeen to Disney’s own modern-day leads.

Behind the Screens

Another notable connection between Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen is that both their creators were women: authors J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins, respectively. For women to truly be better represented in entertainment, it seems only logical that they must be more involved behind the screens as well as in front of them. This is an area in which the 1991 Beauty and the Beast represented progress in Disney feminism, as it was penned by Linda Woolverton, making it Disney’s first animated feature with a female screenwriter. It was also the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar Best Picture award.

It seems appropriate that there was also a female screenwriter (and co-director) behind Disney’s acclaimed 2013 feature Frozen - a film widely praised for its feminist perspective. Jennifer Lee spearheaded the story of two sisters who save one another, with love relegated to the B story. Both female leads were well received - Elsa because her character arc centered on her learning to harness her powers instead of pursuing a love interest, and Anna because of her adventurous spirit and relatable moments such as her amusingly realistic waking up scene.

Frozen - Disney feminism

Of course, the film was also met with some criticism by those who felt that the film’s feminism fell short. Elsa’s appearance came under fire for setting unattainable beauty standards, while Kristoff’s entire existence came into question. In The Snow Queen - the original Hans Christian Andersen fairytale on which Frozen is based - Anna’s equivalent Gerda undergoes her adventure alone.

Another of Disney’s recent releases (although produced by Pixar) that gained much popularity amongst feminist fans was Brave - which included Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi on its five-strong team of writers, with the former also initially directing. The film’s princess, Merida, is a skilled archer who refuses an arranged marriage, leading to a story about a mother and daughter reconciling their differences (with no handsome princes in sight).

Brave seemed to fare better amongst feminist critics than Frozen. After all, there’s no love story, no men swooping in to save Merida’s quest and, while the lead is still undeniably pretty, she’s also more concerned with learning archery than trying to tame her unruly red hair. The one complaint that it does consistently run into is one that Disney might find hard to rectify: Merida is still a princess, and as such her biggest challenges in life are still surrounding marriage and suitors. When compared with, for example, hard-working Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, some felt that her story fell short.

But perhaps the more pressing Disney feminism controversy surrounding Brave is the one behind the scenes - the decision to replace the film’s original director, Brenda Chapman, with Mark Andrews. Chapman has since spoken out about her experiences with Pixar, saying that animation is “run by a boys’ club” and that she struggled to convince her team to give Merida and her mother realistic expressions and body proportions. After the film’s release, when Chapman had been removed from the project, Pixar released a series of toys that featured a drastically altered, more feminine-looking Merida. The collection met with much backlash from fans who had loved the film precisely for its unconventional heroine.

Twisting Fates

Frozen and Brave are just two of Disney’s recent films that have shifted away from traditional love stories. The live action films, in particular, have shown a trend of twisting familiar stories to make their characters more complex. In Maleficent, for example, the eponymous villain turns out not to be so villainous after all, and she’s also the one to break the princess’ curse with a kiss of true love, cementing the film’s celebration of familial over romantic love. In Snow White and the Huntsman, the princess is the one to defeat her wicked stepmother, having been trained in combat.

Although the new Beauty and the Beast is still centered around a boy-girl love story, it does show women taking over some of the roles previously filled by male saviors. In this adaptation, Emma Watson’s Belle is the inventor rather than her father, and she uses her skills to create a washing machine powered by donkeys to help free girls in her village of the unfair task of staying home to do laundry while boys go off to school (one of the film’s more obvious criticisms of gender roles).

Emma Watson - Beauty and the Beast - Disney feminism

Other fairytale features have also picked up on the growing demand for empowered female leads. The hit TV show Once Upon a Time, which borrows many of its characters from the Disney franchise, features a sword-wielding Snow White and her crime-stopping daughter. The film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods notably adapted Prince Charming’s decree that he would marry the owner of the mysterious glass slipper to include “if she accepts” - a small but important shift that recognizes the princess’ autonomy and the importance of consent.

When these more modern productions are put to the Bechdel test, it’s becoming more common for them to pass with flying colors. For those unfamiliar, the Bechdel test, named for the cartoonist who first came up with it, asks whether a piece of work includes a conversation between two women that’s not about a man. Once Upon a Time’s female-heavy ensemble may have a lot of heart-to-hearts, but as many of them are about saving the world as finding true love.

Good Versus Evil

Where these productions stumble on the feminist front, and perhaps Disney does the same, is with its depiction of villains. While heroines such as Watson’s Belle or Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella remain doe-eyed and modest, plunging necklines and promiscuity are reserved for the likes of Once Upon a Time’s Evil Queen or Snow White and the Huntsman’s Queen Ravenna. Still, it seems, a link is drawn between brazen sexuality (in women) and immorality.

Emma Watson - Beauty and the Beast - Disney Feminism

And when these hyper-sexualized villains are defeated, it is almost without fail accompanied by the reveal of their older, less attractive selves - the stereotypical “old hag”. Into the Wood’s witch, played by Meryl Streep, ages into oblivion as she casts away the magic beans that allow her to stay young. Likewise, Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna ages rapidly following her fatal stab wound. With Hollywood’s stars recently speaking up against ageism in the industry, it will be interesting to see whether older women are given the opportunity to play the heroines in future productions, rather than being reduced to wicked stepmothers, evil hags and the occasional wizened fairy.

It remains to be seen how the new Beauty and the Beast will portray its questionable villain, the Enchantress, who will be played by Hattie Morahan. It’s also another film written and directed by an all-male team, which features a typically beautiful female lead and which focuses on a royal romance. But as far as its heroine goes, it seems to have taken a step in the right direction - both in terms of casting and character. An outspoken feminist playing a well-read, intelligent woman sets a promising precedent for future children’s films, even if there is still room for improvement. And the good news is that, with the live action adaptations of The Little Mermaid and Mulan both on the horizon, there’s plenty of scope for Disney to do just that.