I am an unabashed admirer of Disney animated films…even now. Disney films are not just for entertainment, they also provide view into how Disney both influences and is influenced by popular culture.
In particular, I am referring to how its films treat women and girls. When I was young, I didn’t care for animated Disney films. Even as a child, I saw Snow White as a frightened, helpless, insipid woman who was successful only by being cheerful, beautiful, good at housework, naïve, maternal, and willing to just wait for her prince. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, ditto. Their best attributes were housework, passivity, and good humor.
Because of this portrayal of women, my generation was not well served. It gave us a warped view of love. Our role was to be beautiful and wait patiently. We waited to be swept off our feet by a handsome young prince who was attracted to our beauty and docility. We were carried away to become beautiful housekeepers, maternal, and dull creatures. So if a handsome man found us attractive and married us because of our appearance, that was the best that we could hope for.
Disney began changing its formula in the 90s. In my opinion, the first big change was Beauty and the Beast. The heroine, Belle, instead of being a passive, housecleaning simpleton, was a smart, bookish (still pretty), woman who didn’t fit into her community. She didn’t want to marry the handsome, popular guy. She recognized that the village “catch” was an egotistical, stupid, narcissistic jerk. While rescuing her father, Belle was imprisoned by a “beast” (a handsome spoiled prince who had been turned into a beast by an enchantress). The “beast” learned to be kind and Belle was able to see the beauty in the ugly man. (Of course, it still was Disney so that beast turned into a handsome prince.)
There were some setbacks on Disney’s march to recognizing women as more than pretty creatures. Pocahontas, while strong and willing to work for her people, was given the body of a Playboy Playmate instead of a Native American.
Disney subsequently produced Mulan, a story of a fictional Chinese folk hero from the 4th century. Mulan was a young girl whose role in life was limited to an arranged marriage by the constraints of society. Instead, she adopted a male persona and became a soldier. Her cleverness, loyalty, strength, and bravery saved the empire of China from the Barbarian invasion.
Disney made a sea change in portraying what women and girls’ valued in Frozen. This is a story of two princess sisters. The oldest sister, Elsa, has magical powers to freeze everything. To protect everyone from her powers, Elsa and her younger sister, Anna, are isolated in their castle until Elsa comes of age to become queen. Anna is desperate to end her loneliness and falls for the first handsome prince she sees. The prince turns out to be evil, and Anna eventually chooses to risk her own life to save her Elsa from her evil prince. Anna’s choice to save her sister over herself demonstrated the deep love between sisters. Its’ ending made the film a tremendous success.
Disney became bolder in Moana. They eliminated the male love interest and told a non-Christian creation story. Their story is set in the Polynesian Islands about 3,000 years ago, where a plucky young girl defies her parents and embarks on a hero’s journey to save the world. In the film, the heart of the Goddess of Creation, Te Fiti, was stolen by the Demigod Maui. Despite being unable to sail, Moana embarks on a voyage to find Maui and travel with him to the end of the ocean to restore Te Fiti’s heart. No handsome love interest need apply.
Disney’s most recent heroine is Mirabel in Encanto. Disney has again eliminated the love interest and instead focused on family. In this film, set in Columbia, brave young parents of infant triplets must flee their village from violence. The husband is killed and the young mother must raise her three children and build a home for them. Their new home becomes magical and each child is given a gift, one the power of prophecy, another the ability to control weather, and a third the power to heal. All of the subsequent six grandchildren, except Mirabel, are also given a magical gift when they come of age. The family uses their gifts to help their community. But the magic is dying and the heroine, Mirabel, must save the family and their magic. What is particularly interesting is that the close family lives in a multi-generational home. Mirabel wears glasses and has two sisters, one a stunning beauty, and another who is large, very strong, with a deep voice. She is a far cry from the beautiful, weak Disney heroines of yore. When things fall apart, the entire community pitches in to help. The story is about family, community, togetherness, and love.
Disney is both a follower and an influencer of culture. In my generation, Disney taught us that we needed to be beautiful, dutiful, dull, and passive while waiting to be swept off our feet by a handsome prince. Hardly a recipe for a successful marriage. Heroines remained positive despite losing family members and being subjected to cruel treatment by stepparents and stepsiblings. These are not good messages.
Today’s girls are given heroines who take charge of their lives, who don’t have to be beautiful to be powerful. These heroines have more important things to do than wait for a prince. With Frozen and Encanto, Disney has taken another step forward, showing the love that women feel for each other and that women and families come in many forms.
Are these messages perfect? Of course not. But they are empowering and inclusive. Not a bad formula at all.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.