Writer’s Round Table: Disney Princesses – A New Hope or Propagating Stereotypes?
First of all, let me publicly apologize to my two colleagues, for being the roadblock that prevented this post from being published a month ago when the Washington Post article that catalyzed our interest in discussing this was first released. What follows is a discussion between three members of the writing staff of Geeks World Wide, each of us having a different perspective from the other in our regard to this topic. We hope to bring you more collaborative features like this in the future. And I promise they’ll be more timely. Regardless of the publishing lag, I felt that this topic is an important one to air, regardless of its currency. So please read on, and then also join us in the comments for your own personal take on this matter. That is what the GWW is here for after all, having an open and personal discussion with each of you, our readers.
Chris Hill, Entertainment Writer
Recently, the Washington Post published an article discussing the linguistics of Disney’s animated “princess” movies, focusing on the types of verbiage used by and the amount of time given to the female characters in the films. Their findings were, to me, unsurprising, but they do shine a light on a long-running issue that encompasses far more than just linguistics. I’m joined by Sarah Payne-Mills and Agasicles Stamas to discuss.
Before we get started, I’d like to throw it out there that I actually suggested someone who isn’t male give their opinion on this matter, as I arguably don’t have a horse in this race, being single, childless and, you know, a man. Condemning trait aside, I did grow up vastly outnumbered by four sisters and a single mother, with only one older brother to otherwise break up the estrogen train. That’s pretty much set me up for life with a 90% ratio of female friends, and an appreciation for strong-willed women who would sooner defenestrate Prince Charming than beg him to come to their rescue. Let’s just say that my family was never much for “traditional lady-like behavior,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That’s not to say that we didn’t watch the classic or even “renaissance” era Disney princess movies. We did, but those films and their depiction of women didn’t seem to have nearly as much of an effect on my sisters as they seem to have on a great many other young girls, which is the point the article tries to make. These are influential films that are played repeatedly for young girls especially, and it brings up the question of values when girls are programmed to be what our society considers to be “girly.” Are these films alone to blame? Absolutely not, but they can both plant the seeds of what these girls imitate and also reinforce what they’ve otherwise been taught.
Personally, I agree with the statement that Disney has been fairly proactive in understanding this and improving upon their depiction of women as they move forward. For example, my absolute favorite aspect of Star Wars: TFA was Rey (with a nod to Finn for being a great black lead). How many little boys wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker growing up? How many dream about flying the Millennium Falcon, or wielding a light-saber? Not to mention, both of those classic characters showed intelligence in engineering and piloting. Now, what about girls? Princess Leia definitely wasn’t a trapped in a castle waiting for her prince, but she was absolutely second fiddle to the men. I mean, I still want a sweet-ass space cape like Lando, and the fact that Han and Luke were white didn’t really dissuade me from liking them.
Sarah, Agasicles, what’s your take on this?
Sarah Payne-Mills, Copy Editor
In my house, the traditional gender role—of the woman in the kitchen making all the meals—was reversed. My dad, a six-foot-six Marine, did all the cooking—and he was good at it. (My mother never enjoyed cooking, nor is she good at it.) One of my favorite childhood memories is waking up each Sunday to the smell of maple syrup lathering piles and piles of pancakes. My father was also a truck driver, and he took side jobs for the city—such as during the winter, when they needed someone to help with snow plowing. My mother owned a business—a dance studio—and was (and still is) a full-time teacher. She’s also been president of the local school board for many years.
I have an older brother, and as a kid, I always wanted to play with him and his friends. I’d rather play with Teenage Mutant Turtles than Barbie dolls. I’d rather play baseball than play house. My brother and I would play all sorts of video games, read comics, play with action figures, and watch action and horror movies. Sure I owned “girly” things, but I never preferred them. I actually used to hide any dolls at the bottom of the hall closet because they freaked me out.
Even though I experienced reversed gender roles in certain ways, the social norms and stereotypes of U.S. society still affected me—they affect all of us. Both men and women grow up learning the “normal,” traditional behavior for their biological sex—masculine roles for men, and feminine roles for women. Blue is for boys; pink is for girls. We’re socialized to act certain ways that are appropriate for our sex. We learn the social expectations tied to our sex because we see it all around us—through family and friends, in school, on TV shows, in commercials, in movies, in the paper, in advertisements, and so on. When these agents of socialization constantly reinforce antiquated gender roles, and young girls and boys are overly exposed to such expectations, there’s a problem.
Linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer’s data on women in Disney films having less speaking lines than men are interesting. Traditionally, assertiveness tends to be more masculine, while being passive or quiet is more feminine. So it makes sense that in our society women in films have less speaking parts. However, another interesting aspect to analyze is the lines women do have in movies. As Fought notes, “We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way. They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.” She’s speaking to socialization here—nature versus nurture. We’re not born knowing certain gender roles; we learn them.
Reese Witherspoon spoke out about this recently at the twenty-fifth annual Women of the Year Awards, noting that “What do we do now?” is her most hated line in scripts, and that women state it to a man—or a version of it—over and over in films. (I even noticed a female pilot stating a version of this line during The Force Awakens when they’re fighting to destroy the Starkiller Base.) What message are we sending to young girls when we’re constantly showing women without any critical-thinking skills?
Amy Schumer, on her show Inside Amy Schumer, brings to light another line women often say—“I’m sorry.” In the skit, Schumer, a scientist, is accompanied by three other impressive women (a Nobel Prize winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a humanitarian), as part of a Females in Innovation conference. During the skit, they apologize for the most trivial things—correcting the moderator for stating the wrong career and mispronouncing a panelist’s name, clearing their throats, being allergic to caffeine, and so on. Although the scene is humorous and gets a bit extreme, it’s clear women are conditioned to apologize for things they shouldn’t even be apologizing for—which goes back to the social expectation for women to be passive and humble. The Pantene campaign Shine Strong also draws attention to this prevalent issue. Apologizing makes the person seem nice or less aggressive or assertive. It’s an impulsive urge to apologize. Clearly, there are valid reasons to apologize, and men apologize as well, but in a culture where women historically have less power, and where we’re still following antiquated gender norms to an extent, apologizing is another way women unconsciously relinquish control. What message are we sending to young girls when they see women apologizing merely for existing?
In many cases, in television shows and movies, if two or more women are talking, they often talk about men. I noticed this in the most recent season of Homeland. Often when Carrie (Claire Danes) and Allison (Miranda Otto) were in a scene together, they discussed Saul (Mandy Patinkin). In films that pass the Bechdel test (about half of the films studied), the movie has to have at least two named women, who talk to each other about something other than men. Take a look at some of your favorite films, it’s likely they fail this test. Of course, there are films that do pass the test, but why can’t all films pass it? Again, what message are we sending to young girls when the most important topic of choice for women in many films is men?
Yes, there are impressive women for young girls to look up to—such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice; Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate; Rosa Parks, civil rights activist; Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and humanitarian; Malala Yousafzai, activist for female education and Novel Prize laureate; and so on. However, the media has a tremendous effect on children, especially when they are overexposed to stereotypical portrayals of gender (and race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation). We’ve taken great strides to address such issues (I love Jessica Jones in Jessica Jones, Rey in The Force Awakens, Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Éowyn in The Return of the King, and Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter, for example). However, we still have a ways to go.
Agasicles Stamas, Managing Editor
First off, let me say Chris and Sarah that I am both impressed and humbled by your articulation of the principal tenets of this discussion. And for making me see more value in the characters of Rey and Finn than I had previously been willing to acknowledge! I come at this particular subject from the vector of being a father of two daughters. On top of that, my daughters are inter-racial, so I expect them to encounter many of the challenges I experienced as a youth, as well as some that I will only be able to guess at. I am concerned about them growing up strong willed, physically capable of defending themselves, and being focused on their own success in life first. Before they become concerned about landing Mr Right and becoming matriarchs. I want to channel to them a message I received as a young man: “Keep your mind off them girls and keep your head in those books” (grammatical incorrectness left in for effect). A mantra which, I will admit, at times, only held partial sway over my behavior. Yet the primary sentiment was there as a running theme throughout most of young adult to adult life.
So, here is where I diverge a bit from the concerns of the authors of the research papers that were the primary focus of the Post’s article. I appreciate their identification of the percentage distribution of dialogue between males and females. I only hope that in their actual research, that they only talk about that as an indicator, and not as the ends of the research itself, because I could probably care less. Maybe the characters are intelligent introverts and only speak up when they have something important to say. Maybe they are the strong silent types that speak with their actions rather than words. Maybe they think society is full of hypocrisy and cannot be bothered to speak with the average non-intellectual. Any of those scenarios could be acceptable. What bothers me is why these scenarios are not any of the truth behind the silence.
For me, what is at the core of where the Disney movies fail is that the women in the films, despite the improvements over time (Brave being the stark exception) are still very much damsels in distress. Their focus is on romance, securing a man, and having their needs met. I’m still waiting to see a Queen who is the THE principal monarch of her people (and emphasizes her strength of will rather than her compassion), a heroine who rescues men, and a heroine who is focused on her own inner self-discipline and achieving some mark of capability. Like driving herself to become the greatest sword-person or archer ever, and not as a trope because she is not a man, but simply because she is the best. And give her a male sidekick or someone she is mentoring or coaching. A junior foil who sees her as an enigma, shrouded in mystery, something to become, which would ratchet up that perspective of respect. I really do not want to feel compelled to point my little girls at male characters to focus their chi, so my hope is that Disney will step it up in the next few years.
Just because a women gains her independence, the summit of that achievement should not solely be the latitude to choose her own partner so that she can give up her own ambitions and drive.
Around this page are several pictures of strong (live action) female character personas mixed in with the Princesses. Just Disney-fy some of these and give them to me in an age-appropriate wrapper and we’re good, Disney.