Disney Femininity and its Many Contradictions

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.

Pocahontas and Meeko canoe ride

Wooo yeah! The freedom that I 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.

Village Blondes - "Beauty and the Beast"

The three blondes. See what I mean?

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.

Thoughts?

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17 thoughts on “Disney Femininity and its Many Contradictions

  1. There are problems with Disney films, but you missed half of them. Women all having that perfect hourglass figure and the trope of “woman sacrifices herself for the man she loves” are very real issues with Disney films. But it’s not just women. The males in the films don’t fair any better than the females. The “real” men are 9 feet tall and 4 feet wide. They have arms bigger around than the women’s waists. The men also follow the trope of “sacrifice yourself for the one you love”. Disney is tropes and stereotypes. Not just female stereotypes and tropes, but everyone male and female are stereotypes and tropes. To actually address gender equality we need to talk about the harmful tropes of both males and females, not just the ones that negatively affect women.

    • That’s great, and true, but I knew about all that already, hence why I said I didn’t even start on the hourglass figures. There’s enough material to produce a whole book critiquing gender stereotypes in Disney and I don’t have the time or energy to do that, so I wrote about just a couple of things that stood out to me in the moment.

      I also wanted to write about the stuff that doesn’t get talked about so much whereas the hypersexualisation of women in Disney, the ridiculously proportioned figures, and the exaggeration of male and female stereotypes has already been done to death elsewhere. The whole hoohaa surrounding Merida last summer is but one example.

      As for talking about how things affect men as well, I started writing about it and doubled the post length. However, no one wants to read a 3000 word essay on WordPress! If I get time over the coming weeks, I may turn the second half of that essay into an actual post to rescue it from my drafts folder.

      On the other hand, if you want to go and write something sensible on the portrayal of men in Disney, feel free. Looking at your own blog, I feel that’s a fair request.

    • I’m glad to see that you intend to write an article yourself, because dude – it’s not like Ness (or anyone) has time to talk about every single problem in Disney. Like Ness found, and like I personally find, and as I’m sure you will find while researching/writing your own article, it’s really best to start with a very small piece that grabs your immediate interest and try to write about that and see what comes from it.

      Ness being interested in the portrayal of femininity in “Beauty & The Beast” = a complete blog post. You being interested in the portrayal of masculinity in “Brave” = a complete blog post. Me being interested in one of Tolkien’s letters where it turns out that multiple scenes in “The Hobbit” are inspired by his hiking trip with a scientist aunt = a complete blog post. Coming onto other people’s blogs and complaining that their complete blog posts do not include your interest = unhelpful. Writing a response to their blog post that includes your interest = helpful!

      • The point I was trying to make got lost in agreement. Most people that write about “women’s issues” fail to see they are not “women’s issues” but gender issues that affect both genders. Ness just didn’t have the time or space to go into how the stereotypes affect men and that is perfectly reasonable.

        • Fair enough! It’s definitely true that when a blogger writes about something that interests them, others feel the need to say “why not write about what I’M interested in” and that can be quite difficult to hear. Of course, as most creative folks find it really hard to see past negativity (myself included) one can feel a bit hurt that their work wasn’t “good enough” and didn’t cover enough.

          I also find that my writing works best when it unpacks from a small kernel. Trying to tackle ALL THE ISSUES in one post leads to you ending up writing nothing.

          On a weird side note, my family must possibly disclaim some of the negative male-based stereotypes in B&tB. According to family legend, while my parents were honeymooning, my father made my mother laugh by putting on an exaggerated french accent and pretending to be her ignorant French lover talking about art history (…?) and saying “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.” The joke being that my mother studied art history and was pretending that my father was being a boor who didn’t know art… it’s a bit complicated and not that funny. This made a nearby man laugh. He began to talk to my father about French. My dad stayed in the character of “Gaston” and they all seemed very amused. The man stated that he liked the name “Gaston” and that if it was genuinely French, Dad “might see it in a movie one day.”

          They kind-of think that it might have been B&tB because, well, Gaston, and the joke about Baroque. If so, I apologize deeply, for the infinitesimal part we might have played in all this mess.

          • Also, Elodie, if that story about your parents is true (I sincerely hope it is!), that’s hilarious and fantastic and your parents sound like people I wouldn’t mind knowing. Poncing about in art galleries is so much fun!

        • Thing is, I’m not most people. I’ve not been writing long enough to put all my views on gender out into the aether but the link in this post on how the patriarchy hurts men covers a lot of what I feel about the subject. And for more articulated views on the matter, go and read Robbing the Hearts of Men over at Teh Portly Dyke’s old blog (inactive now sadly, but kept around for posterity) and you’ll see more of where I’m coming from.

          Finally for future reference, jumping in on your very first comment with straight up criticism is unhelpful, unpleasant and impolite. Your first comment was very close in tone to getting deleted. As my mother say’s, if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I spent hours writing this post, and then more hours editing it down to a suitable length, so bear that in mind next time you show up at someone else’s blog. You’re welcome to stay but seriously, be polite. Be funny, be kind, be helpful and supporting and we may get on.

  2. Had to comment on this post since we had such a great discussion regarding my Disney post way back when! 🙂 This is a great post. I still love a lot of Disney movies too, but the older I get, the more problematic I find the messages. I don’t have much to say about Pocahontas simply because I only ever saw that movie in theaters and never owned it as a kid, so I don’t remember much. My mom has the soundtrack, and the song lyrics are clever and wonderful, but I don’t remember the racist representations of the film. Disney does have a history of HORRENDOUSLY misrepresenting Native Americans though (see Peter Pan for that–UGH).

    I adored Belle as a kid. She was brown-eyed and brunette, so she looked a little more like I did. I definitely related to her love of books. But of course, the older I get, the more I notice the Stockholm-esque implications in her relationship with the Beast and find them disturbing. I don’t actually mind Gaston’s character though–I think he’s meant to be a farcical, larger-than-life manly man so I doubt anyone really takes his example of masculinity that seriously. Plus, falling to your death is a pretty gruesome way to go.

    The blonde swooners have always bugged me, so I’m glad you pointed them out. The funny thing is, I think part of the reason they get my hackles up is plain jealousy. As a kid, I was TINY and underdeveloped and had no fashion sense. I didn’t grow into my body or my confidence OR my personal style until halfway through college. And in high school I really did envy those seemingly effortlessly pretty and curvaceous girls. And a few, who I knew were actually smart, I resented for presenting themselves as ditzy dumbos because that was somehow more desirable than being a “smart kid.” I think the blonde girls are in there to be foils to Belle’s intelligent ways, and to show that Gaston prefers the challenge of “the hunt” in regards to Belle, than getting an easy catch with one of the blondes. But the way they’re treated in the film seems to be a bit of revenge on dumb blondes exacted by the smart chicks of the world. It’s the ultimate “haha fuck you! The guy you want wants the weird, bookish girl instead” type of thing.

    I think some of the more recent Disney films have done a MUCH better job of creating princesses with more agency and personality than the ones I grew up with. I particularly like Tangled’s Rapunzel and Brave’s Merida. Even though Tangled is a traditional love story, Rapunzel is pretty freaking awesome. She saves herself and her dude pretty frequently, and she has a lot of personality. She does try to sacrifice herself for her man at the end, but Flynn prevents her from actually doing that. It’s not a perfect representation of genders, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    And then there’s Brave. WHICH IS AWESOME. Because it’s a mother-daughter relationship story with no romance arc for the lead character. She doesn’t miraculously fall for any of her suitors. She just gets to be free, after completely messing things up for awhile, of course.The story itself has some issues, but the fact that there’s finally a Disney princess who looks like a real girl and who doesn’t need a dude to be happy with her life makes up for that, I think.

    *Big breath*. Sorry for this GINORMOUS reply. I just really enjoy debating about Disney! 🙂

    • Thanks!
      Yeah, like I said, I don’t know enough to point to all the flaws in their representation of Pocahontas and her tribe or anything that’s obviously racist, I’m kinda assuming it is just because it’s Disney. I know practically nothing about the Native Americans except that the settlers fucked them over, destroyed their societies then kicked them off their lands, causing massive loss of life in the process. I know they’re still disadvantaged in countless ways and that mainstream American culture appropriates their history and traditions in all sorts of ways. But as to details? Nothing.

      Also, hers was their first ‘historical’ film and they basically didn’t stick to the truth, such of it as is known anyhow, at all, except that she saved John Smith. Wikipedia and the website I linked to “reliably” inform me that all the other events are out of sequence or made up. Pocahontas and John never fell in love, Kocoum wasn’t murdered, and Pocahontas was somewhere between 10 and 13 when she first met John. Apparently she moved to London, married another Englishman from the colonies and converted to Christianity, dying in England before a voyage back to North America. Which is a much more interesting story to begin with!

      Agree with you about the Stockholm-esque thing going on. The plot line hangs on Belle slowly coming to see her captor as human and also how her growing understanding leads to him becoming a better person. The latter of those things is probably trope in it’s own right, where the female (side-kick/love-interest) presences leads to the bloke becoming a decent person.

      Not so sure I agree with you about Gaston, however. He’s the kind of bloke who would totally piss me off in real life. The thing about competing to be the manliest-man, is that it either usually comes with a side of severe insecurity or a dollop of entitlement. Gaston would be the latter, as he is utterly sure he deserves Belle’s time, attention and admiration. She’s a trophy wife to him, or would be if she said yes. On the other hand, he does get his come-uppance for being a hate-filled douchecanoe. And I think you’re right about the plot purpose of the blondes. Also, I can see how you would be jealous of them too! Complicated, it is.

      I’m going to have to watch Tangled – I keep hearing good things about it! And I lOVED Brave so much, for all the reasons you mentioned and more. It made me cry in the cinema, and it was so refreshing to see a Mother-Daughter story in the cinema that didn’t end up with them hating each other. Also, it’s a rarity for Disney to have a film where the mother isn’t dead or there’s an evil-step-mother/witch: Snow White – dead mother, evil step-mother. Sleeping Beauty – mother present but overshadowed by Evil Witch. Beauty and the Beast – dead mother. The Little Mermaid – mother dead, evil witch. Hunchback of Notre Dame – mother murdered. Bambi – mother murdered. Pocahontas – mother dead. Cinderella – dead mother. Lilo & Stitch – dead mother. Etc.
      It’s been written about before, according to Google.

      And heh, me too! It’s fun talking to people who get it. 🙂

  3. Aw, I thought this was really nice! I recently rewatched B&tB, as some of the Italians at my previous work adored Disney movies in English (they’re a great way to pick up the bits & pieces of English language use that you don’t learn in school) and were joking about how I reminded them of Belle because I would often read from the Kindle app on my iPhone when waiting for centrifuge spins. This reminded them of the song where Belle reads a book while the village explodes into chaos around her. They loved the phrase “nose stuck in a book” (or “nose stuck TO a book,” which I admit also works better) just as much as I love the Italian good-luck phrase about putting your hand in a wolf’s mouth and choking the wolf.

    One asked,
    “What does it mean in the song – she is a beauty *but* a funny girl? Beauty and fun are both good though, yes?”

    I didn’t remember the movie well, although I’d loved it as a child. “Well, yes, ‘funny’ means fun and humorous, but here they mean that she’s odd – it means that while she’s quite pretty and they like that, she also has weird behavior.”

    “So, like you.”

    “Aw,” I responded starry-eyed to the compliment.

    “You also have a weird behavior.”

    “Oh.”

    Rewatching the scene, it is a bit sad that Belle is explicitly called a “funny” girl, and not funny in the humorous clever or fun way, but set apart and called weird. The Italians picked up on the song routine and gathered that the villagers are puzzled by Belle, because she is reading while walking, but they did not pick up on the lyrics that state that Belle is an outsider because of the reading. The Italians see Belle as having a place in the village that is a compliment. The English realize that Belle is weird and set apart because she reads to sheep. Myself, I had the outsiderness fed to me in my mother’s milk, so I identified with Belle strongly as a child and was a bit embarrassed to be identified with her as an adult.

    Funny, all that.

    • Thanks Elodie!

      Yeah, I can see how the films are good for picking up new ways to use the English language. It’s interesting what different audiences pick up on or not. And yes, it is sad she’s not seen as funny-haha, because she does have a playful side and sense of humour which we see in her blossoming relationship with the Beast. :-/

      I only realised it recently just how clever and informative the lyrics to many of the Disney songs are. Scar’s solo plotting the overthrow of Mufasa is so well done, and had a lot of complex words for a film primarily aimed at young kids. Also did you know Scar was voiced by Jeremy Irons of Brideshead Revisited fame?

      As for identifying with belle as a kid and then not wanting to be seen like that as an adult is familiar. One of my less pleasant nicknames in secondary school was Hermione, and I hated it! I was so certain I wasn’t like her, when looking back at teenage Ness, I really, really was. Right down to the being terrified of academic failure – the scene with the boggart in the exam where Boggart-McGonagle tells her she’s failed all her exams and she comes out sobbing – that would definitely have been me. Probably would still be me. Ummm. Funny that in being called after her, I only ever associated with the ‘bad’ parts of her character and not her resourcefulness, intelligence and loyalty.

      And have you stumbled across In Praise of the Hermione Granger Series by Sady Doyle? Hilarious and brilliant and what a sad indictment of our culture.

  4. I can’t believe it!!! Finally!! Someone brought up the blonde girls in this movie.The FIRST thing I noticed in “Beauty and the Beast” is that the blondes in this movie were “dumb” blondes. Thank You Disney for taking us back 20 years!!! I was ANGRY!! Then…….the movie is credited as being a GREAT Disney movie! Nobody seemed to care. I am a blonde woman. I was offended as I sat with my daughter and Disney poisoned her mind. I have endured “this” stereotype most of life and still do. Blondes endure stereotyping where no one else would. We are an unsung victim. I actually have men try to tell me “Dumb Blonde” jokes to this day!! Thank You Disney for being irresponsible for representing the blonde female in modern society. Welcome to the 21st century!

    • Those three blonde girls are a lesson in stereotyping and the negativity it creates. There is so much wrong with the things the film teaches implicitly, you almost don’t know where to begin. I was only talking about portrayals of femininity here let alone what it teaches about relationships (Stockholm Syndrome anyone?). So, I think that for myself, I would be wary about watching most of the classic Disney films with my some-day kids. I mean, I love them to bits but re-watching them as an adult I’ve seen for the first time just how much crap I picked up from them. I hope there are better films out there by then. I would recommend Lilo and Stitch though, that film actually is great.

      And I am sorry men still tell you shitty blonde jokes. That’s not pleasant. :-/

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