Gender Stereotypes, á la Disney

Children are impressionable, and their minds are largely shaped by the entertainment that they consume — and if this entertainment is filled with harmful stereotypes, these ideas will be programmed in the minds of future generations.

Ask any seven-year-old what their favorite movies are, and they’ll likely begin to rattle off Disney titles. Dating back to the 1930s, feature-length Disney films have certainly made their mark on our world, shaping the minds of children and parents alike through smiles, laughter, and even tears. Many of these movies portray strong, bold characters, sweet, sappy love stories, and lessons that last many of us a lifetime. Nevertheless, the influence of these films is not necessarily positive, especially when it comes to the harmful stereotypes that often contribute to shaping young minds.

Disney movies are often criticized for their broad generalizations and stereotypical portrayals of women, and not without reason. For instance, the 1937 Disney film Snow White illustrates a frail, dimwitted female protagonist with “skin as white as snow.” In other Disney classics, such as Cinderella (1950) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), the female characters are overall portrayed as either weak, sensitive, and victimized by their situations, or as downright evil, which is not exactly the message young girls — or anyone else, for that matter — need to hear.

In recent years, however, Disney has taken great strides in the direction of more realistic depictions of women. Take, for example, Disney’s 2010 film Tangled, which features a spunky, independent leading lady with an agenda other than “finding a Prince Charming”. Or, even better, the 2012 production Brave, the protagonist of which is explicitly against any form of romantic relationship whatsoever, choosing to focus on her own identity instead. In these more recent films, women appear as courageous, intelligent, and opinionated heroines, with more complex and realistic motives than those of earlier characters. 

Where Disney is still lacking, though, is in the depiction of male characters. The film enterprise’s gender binary unfortunately tends to only include cisgender characters, and while more recent productions have at least attempted to combat the stereotypes of female characters, many of Disney’s male protagonists are gross images of male stereotypes.

In Snow White, the most prominent male figures are the Seven Dwarves. Though endearing and charmingly cute at first glance, these seven men are nearly hopeless without Snow White to take care of them — one of them is quite literally and aptly named “Dopey.” As Michelle Juergen writes for Mic, “Snow White saves these slovenly adults from their pigsty by dusting, sweeping, washing dishes, tidying and sprucing — tasks that the dwarfs apparently never learned from their mother (since women must teach men how to do all the things).” Though these characters are meant to be comical, they instead introduce the idea that men are incapable of household chores and menial tasks, and must have women to do these things for them, which also perpetuates Disney’s common implication that women are only fit for such tasks. The fact that these characters happen to be dwarves also enforces the idea that men who are short or small are less capable than others.

On the other hand, Beauty and the Beast  portrays the Beast as large, cruel, and controlling. Juergen argues that this maintains the age-old Disney character stereotype “...that being small and waif-ish makes you gentle and kind, and that being large makes you beastly, coarse and/or prone to angry outbursts.” In contrast with the image of the incapable, hopeless men portrayed by the Seven Dwarves, the Beast’s characteristics imply that males of large size are often frightening or even abusive. 

Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and other Disney films establish the concept of what an “inadequate” man looks like, but what do Disney films tell us about “ideal” masculinity? These “manly” characters are perhaps the most stereotyped of all: muscular, nice hair, often shirtless, and decidedly white. Take Hercules, for example, from the 1997 film of the same name. He fits this stereotype to a T, and he is accompanied by a foil character — Phil, who fits Bustle’s description of those characters “who are built like roly polies [and] designed to make us laugh (usually at them).” Phil effectively makes Hercules seem… well, more “manly.” While Disney does not explicitly characterize these stereotypes as necessarily desirable, Juergen writes that “...the corporation is making a statement on what masculinity looks like, and in doing so presenting an unattainable standard and alienating a large demographic of men.” See also King Triton (The Little Mermaid, 1989), Tarzan (Tarzan, 1999), and Gaston (Beauty and the Beast, 1991) — all portraying the same “manly” stereotype.

Perpetuating these stereotypes often leads to insecurity among men who do not feel that they fit the part of a “perfect” man, especially among younger men and teens who are in transitional periods in their lives and may already be struggling with their identity and sense of self. However, the harmful effects of these stereotypes do not apply solely to men. As young girls grow up watching these movies, they develop an understanding of men as Disney portrays them, which can lead to unrealistic expectations of relationships with men, whether romantic or otherwise. Going back to Beauty and the Beast, Belle not only endures the cruel and abusive behavior of the Beast, but changes the Beast into a “better” man, who is loving and kind. As a Gettysburg College research paper by Jessica L. Laemle points out, “unfortunately, this plot sends young girls the message that they can ‘fix’ men who exhibit frightening and even abusive behavior towards them, and that it's up to them to fix those men in the first place.” Or, take the male leads of Aladdin (1992) and Tangled (2010), Aladdin and Flynn Ryder, both of which are thieves. However, the films portray their characters as charming, noble, and even attractive, specifically because of their thievery. This may instill a desire in young girls to one day have a relationship with a “bad boy,” a stereotype that has recently taken the young adult entertainment industry by storm. This image of “good thievery” may also imply that there is such a thing as crime that is righteous or attractive. 

As long as the Disney enterprise remains as successful as it has been since the 1930s, these films will certainly not go away or become obsolete any time soon. Children for generations to come will continue to be influenced by the themes, messages, and stereotypes of Disney movies. If the popularity of these films doesn’t change, perhaps the change that needs to occur is in the themes, messages, and stereotypes within the films themselves. Children are impressionable, and their minds are largely shaped by the entertainment that they consume — and if this entertainment is filled with harmful stereotypes, these ideas will be programmed in the minds of future generations.

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