I re-watched my two all-time favourite Disney films, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas, recently as light entertainment whilst moving house. The songs are still as good as they were when I was six but this time I paid attention to what the pictures were saying alongside the words, and I realised just where certain of my understandings of femininity and masculinity had come from. Things made a lot more sense and other things were troubling and I wanted to share my review with you to see what you think.
I’ll start by saying that I’ve always looked up to Belle and Pocahontas. I loved their stories enough that I’ve read various takes on the originals. I had Barbie dolls of both of them and I remember thinking that I would name my first daughter Pocahontas, I wanted to be her so badly. They’re good people, strong, independent women, who know how to use their brains and their voices, who will fight to protect the people they love. They bring out the best in people and they’re not afraid to sacrifice themselves to save those they love.
Others say that Disney is all about the pretty dresses and having a man rescue the heroine at the end, but I think they’ve missed something else. I’m not saying that Disney didn’t tone down the original La Belle and le Bête fairytale nor completely mess up Pocahontas‘s story (you can find other stuff on Wikipedia – usual caveats apply), and made the lead women less than they were, but enough of their original character got through to make the point that you didn’t just have to be a pretty face.
Belle was special to me because she loved books and helping her father invent things. She always had her head stuck in a book even though everyone in the village thought she was strange for it, and she didn’t let them get to her. As a very intelligent kid who was bullied for being too smart and too interested in books, it was great to see that you could love reading and still have everything work out in the end. Belle saved her father, fell in love, had that love returned and lifted the curse, returning the castle to humanity. Bell gave me hope that even though things were rough they would get better, and I would have the chance to be both intelligent and beautiful. More importantly, to be beautiful for who I am and the things I love, not just for what people think I should be.
Pocahontas was inspirational for different reasons – she spent all her time outside exploring and being in touch with the wilderness. She’s playful, adventurous, a bit of a trouble-maker, and knows to listen to her feelings and her gut. She falls in love, averts a war and rescues her family and her village. She stands up for herself in the face of pressure from her father to marry Kocoum, knowing that he is not the one for her, and her father ultimately comes to respect her decision. Later, when Kocoum is murdered, and Pocahontas has to send the man she loves away in order to save his life, her father doesn’t force her to choose anyone else, knowing that his daughter will find her own way in life, making wise decisions even if they are not one ones he himself would make.
So, if that’s the uplifting image of femininity and womanhood, what about the problematic stuff I saw in the films?
The first thing that stood out in Beauty and the Beast was the three village sexpots, blonde, curvaceous and giggly, who were all over Gaston for being big and manly. He ignored their presence but they were there in a lot of scenes swooning away in the background, and they were portrayed as being the worst kind of women, vapid, shallow, interested in making themselves as pretty as possible to catch the ‘man of their dreams’. Put them in contrast to Belle, who knows her own mind, doesn’t openly care about her appearance, who would rather be learning stuff than trying to catch a man, and you see the value judgement that says that the femininity that cares about looks and romance isn’t worth bothering with.
Sad to say, that’s a judgement I held without question for a long while and I still find it hard not to judge those who are into make-up and fashion. I still get a stream of judgemental rubbish running through my head about how pointless fashion is, mocking the girls that are wearing the most current clothing at vast expense. To quote my brain, “how shallow do you have to be to want to dress like that, really?” It’s not pretty, it’s not kind and hypocritically, I like dressing up on special occasions. I do care about my appearance even if I don’t agree with the mainstream’s dictates. Writing this paragraph without spilling bile all over the internet has been difficult and yet my feminist streak says that it’s every woman’s choice as to how she will dress. There are valid reasons for going along with the status quo, and not every woman how follows fashion is doing it because she feels she ought. Many actually like it and love it, and it fulfils something within them, just as wearing band T-shirts and New Rocks fulfils something in me.
The other point on the fashion issue is that, as Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out in the Vindication of the Rights of Women (in 1792!), if society spends enough time telling women they should only care about fashion with the implied threat that if they don’t they’re not “proper” women, that’s what they’ll end up doing. How is it fair then to turn around and mock them for their femininity when you’ve done your best to ensure that’s all that’s available to them?
The second troubling event in the film was from where the castle inhabitants were defending it against the village mob. The Wardrobe captures a man inside herself, and spits him out in a wig and tutu. The man looks down at himself, dressed as a woman, screams and runs away. If that isn’t an illustration of society’s fear of men taking on a woman’s role and a mockery of transvestites and trans women, I don’t know what is. It’s maybe twenty seconds of video but it reinforces the idea that for a man to be seen as female is a joke and a travesty. Needless to say, I do not approve.
Another interesting thing about the film is Gaston and what he has to say about masculinity. He’s so tough, and big, and strong – the best at hunting, drinking and fighting. He’s the manliest man in the village so of course he deserves the most beautiful woman around, even if she is odd for liking books. Never mind that Belle can’t stand him, tries to avoid him at every opportunity, and even turns down his public marriage proposal!
That clip also shows how women try to avoid men they don’t like who are hitting on them. It shows Gaston backing Belle into a corner, towering over her, and how she twists aside to escape his attentions. Look at Belle’s body language and listen to her words. She’s doing her best to turn down Gaston politely and get him out of her house and he just won’t take the bloody hint. *headdeak*
The two films portray an idealised version of womanhood, of being intelligent, independent and adventurous yet also being willing to sacrifice yourself for those you love, and also illustrates the kind of woman not to be – vapid, shallow and swooning, which fair enough, it’s a moralising fairy tale, BUT it also mocks femininity by showing a man shocked and humiliated at being forced to wear women’s things. Conflicted much?
So, while there’s more to these Disney films than the pretty dresses and ridiculously hourglassy figures, they definitely have their problems. Even their positive version of femininity causes issues – the trope of “woman sacrifices herself for man she loves” caused me serious problems in my teenage relationships, because clearly, if my relationship is twue luv, I must sacrifice my happiness for his. </sarcasm>. I haven’t talked about the misrepresentation and racism present in Pocahontas, because I still do not know enough about the issues to talk about it other than to say ‘that shit’s fucked up’. I haven’t talked about what the films have to say about masculinity either, despite the wealth of opportunity, so suffice it to say it’s almost as conflicted about masculinity as it is about femininity. But, do I like the films despite seeing their downsides in a way I didn’t as a kid? Yes, yes I do.