Disney, Feminism, and the Pursuit of Strong Female Characters

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After not one, but two whole female celebrities came out and said that certain Disney heroines and story lines aren’t “feminist” enough and struggle with issues like consent, I decided to descend from my tower (more like ascend from my cave) to have a friendly discussion about Disney, feminism, and female characters.

Disney movies might as well be their own genre and many literary critics would agree with me. The way Disney repackages old fairy tales and attempts to tell new stories is its own distinct brand of nostalgia, whimsy. and mostly self-insert cookie cutter female characters. And one thing people tend to forget about Disney is that Disney has been making movies for a long hecking time. Snow White was released in 1938. 1938! I’m someone who usually doesn’t care for the “it was a different time” trope but it was literally a different time. World War II was still a thing! You cannot, cannot hold up the standards of modern feminism to Snow White. She is a scared, vaguely sexy lamp and that was the goal. The movie’s aim was to make children afraid of the woods and strangers and it did just that.

Cinderella also tends to stir up a lot of ire from Internet Feminists. They accuse poor Cinder of not being “feminist” enough and not doing more to leave her abusive and toxic relationship. As someone who has survived toxic and abusive family relationships, let me say this: no amount of “feminism” can save you from toxic families. Cinderella did the one thing I couldn’t imagine doing in her situation: she was kind in the face of cruel relatives. Cinderella was kind, optimistic and sweet and did her best and that, that is the moral of the story. Would the movie have been made any better with her going on a Kill Bill-style killing spree after she snaps at one of her stepsisters?

The 90’s Disney movies had its very own brand of feminism that seemed to only be written by mostly cis hetero white men and thus it created female characters that were with the exception of two sexy lamps. Mulan is one of the most self-actualized Disney heroines ever created and Esmerelda is fantastically written even though she is, in places, a tan sexy lamp; Jasmine, Ariel and Pocahontas attract more ire. I’ll say this, if the takeaway from The Little Mermaid for you is “fish woman sells voice for beefcake” then we have watched two different movies. The Little Mermaid, while far from my favorite movie, is a wonderful tale of attraction and growing up and listening to your dad when it’s convenient. Jasmine is not well written, but I blame a script and Robin Williams wonderfully damaging the script for the hot mess that was Aladdin. Pocahontas was another tan sexy lamp, but if the takeaway you get from that film is “Native American Beyonce falls in love with first white man she meets,” again, we have two different ideas on the film. It’s easy to break these movies down if you try hard enough but many of them were doing their best with what they had available.

Currently Disney is determined to be metatextual, and while it does make me groan so loudly that it make register as small earthquakes, it is a step in the right direction.  Frozen did its best to rewrite some of the wrongs of past Disney and the comments on Anna trying to marry a man she just met to the point that it is beaten into the viewer’s face. Moana is a fantastic movie with a very independent female lead with almost no romantic tension (praise be to Lilith) and it seems to have only gotten better from there and that’s even briefly glossing over greats like Tiana and Merida.

That’s sort of the problem with claiming a character is feminist or not. Like with many things, feminism has schools of thought and mine has always come down to the same quote “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” My brand of feminism has always been one more of equality and complexity rather than just having more women and that comes down to many personal choices. A woman can be a housewife and be a feminist. A woman can decide not to have children and be feminist. A woman can be a suit-wearing business woman and be feminist. Short of shaming other women, there is no wrong way to be a feminist. Besides, we’ve seen feminism fail when it comes to movies. Remember the hot hot mess that was the live-action Beauty and the Beast? None of the changes made to make Belle (an already wonderfully feminist character) more “feminist” added anything to that slog of a movie. She’s an inventor now. Cool. Did that add anything? No? Didn’t think so. Oh and she tries to escape twice! How wildly progressive of her. In the animated classic she only tried to escape…once. Throwing on feminism is not shorthand for suddenly better writing.

These stories are here to help children (and sometimes adults trying to relive the magic of their childhood) find themselves. Many of the princesses are lacking in personality and logic because you are meant to insert yourself into them: it’s why representation is so important. It was vitally important to see a character like Tiana even though I was in my 20s when she became a princess. It’s important to teach children (again, regardless of gender) lessons: that’s what myths do and we can absolutely call Disney movies a form of modern American mythology.

Here’s the thing: “strong” when it comes to characters of any gender is remarkably subjective. If your idea of a strong character means she kicks down a door, says a pun, and punches a dude in the face, then yeah, Disney movies may not be flush with strong female characters to you. If you see strong as being complex, empathetic, kind, understanding, independent and loving then you have found friends in Disney princesses.

About the Prince of Unpopular Opinions:

Greetings, hello and salutations. Things look just a little different around here, don’t they? When I was offered the chance to have my very own column for FanGirl Nation, I naturally couldn’t pass up the chance. I love writing with and for these very talented ladies and thus I present to you all, my new column: The Prince of Unpopular Opinions.

Now, some clarification: I don’t really do the gender binary and I use male nouns a great deal in writing and in my human life; hence why I am a “prince” rather than a “princess”. If this is of issue to you, I can invite you down to discuss this matter or I can simply show you one of my kingdom’s many fine doors.
This name sort of came to me. If you follow me anywhere on social media, it’s a tagline you’ve seen me use before. It’s very on brand and not simply because I am a contrarian. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I am, in fact, a lover of many things: and the chief among them is strong storytelling, adherence to canon (unless otherwise specified) and admitting that nothing is perfect. And it is due to those tenants that I am often one of the more cynical voices out of the group: I don’t take that negatively. I rip apart the things I love the most. I am most critical of the things that mean the most to me because you have to be. And it is with those things in mind that I build my little kingdom within the greater community of FanGirl Nation.

Look forward to thoughtful discussions on framing, gender roles, deviations from canon and tactful conversations about criticism, fan culture, cosplay culture and more.

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