Researchers have discovered a major problem with classic Disney movies


Jeff Guo

For example, why are characters so obsessed with Snow White's looks?

For example, why are characters so obsessed with Snow White's looks? Photo: Disney

To modern eyes, the classic trio of Disney princess films – released in 1937, 1950, and 1959 – can seem painfully retrograde. Why are characters so obsessed with Snow White's looks? Why doesn't Cinderella have any talents or hobbies? And why doesn't Sleeping Beauty do anything besides get drugged and await rescue?

A generational gap divides Disney's princess franchise. After 1959's Sleeping Beauty, it took 30 years for the studio to produce another animated princess feature. The intervening decades saw dramatic change. Walt Disney died. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.

In 1989, when Disney finally released The Little Mermaid, critics praised this modern new heroine. Unlike her predecessors, "Ariel is fully realised female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously," famous film critic Roger Ebert wrote. The New York Times called her "a spunky daredevil".

Revered brands such as Apple or Disney understand that enchantment leads to attachment.

Revered brands such as Apple or Disney understand that enchantment leads to attachment. Photo: Disney

And yet, in one respect, The Little Mermaid represented a backward step in the princess genre. For a film centred on a young woman, there's an awful lot of talking by men. In fact, this was the first Disney princess movie in which the men significantly outspoke the women.


And it started a trend. The plot of The Little Mermaid, of course, involves Ariel literally losing her voice – but in the five Disney princess movies that followed, the women speak even less. On average in those films, men have three times as many lines as women.

These data come from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyse all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise. Since so many young girls watch these movies – often on constant repeat – it's worth examining what the films are teaching about gender roles.

"We don't believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way," says Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. "They're not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls."

The Disney princess research is still in its preliminary stages, but a few weeks ago, Fought and Eisenhauer gave a preview during the nation's largest conference of linguists. Their goal is to use data to shed light on how the male and female characters in these films talk differently. They started by counting how often the characters spoke. That's when they hit upon a surprising irony.

In the classic three Disney princess films, women speak as much as, or more than the men. Snow White is about 50-50. Cinderella is 60-40. And in Sleeping Beauty, women deliver a whopping 71 per cent of the dialogue. Though these were films created more than 50 years ago, they give ample opportunity for women to have their voices heard.

By contrast, all of the princess movies from 1989-1999  – Disney's "renaissance" era – are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 68 per cent of the time in The Little Mermaid; 71 per cent of the time in Beauty and the Beast; 90 per cent of the time in Aladdin; 76 per cent of the time in Pocahontas; and 77 per cent of the time in Mulan (Mulan herself was counted as a woman, even when she was impersonating a man).

Part of the problem is that these newer films are mostly populated by men. Aside from the heroine, the films offer few examples of women being powerful, respected, useful or comedic.

"There's one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things," Fought says. "There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who's doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male."

The older princess films had fewer speaking roles in total, and more gender balance. But The Little Mermaid pioneered a new style of Disney movie, modelled after Broadway musicals, with their large ensemble casts. As the number of characters grew, so did the gender inequality.

"My best guess is that it's carelessness, because we're so trained to think that male is the norm," says Eisenhauer, a PhD student at North Carolina State. "So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that's just really ingrained in our culture."

The chatty sidekick is another good example of a role that goes to men by default. This is a staple character in more recent Disney films, and he – yes, he – often gets some of the best lines. There's Flounder, Sebastian, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Iago, Genie and Mushu. Why can't any of them be women? Mrs Potts, the teakettle from Beauty and the Beast, is the only example of a female sidekick, and she's overshadowed by the other castle staff.

After Mulan (1998), Disney took a 10-year break before releasing its next series of princess films. These newer films are better at giving lines to men and women equally. In Tangled, women have 52 per cent of the lines, and in Brave, a film about a mother-daughter relationship, they had 74 per cent.

Frozen breaks with that trend, though. Despite being a story about two sister princesses, men claim 59 per cent of the lines in that film.

It's of course incomplete to judge a film just by the number of words that women say. What the characters say is equally important. So far, Fought and Eisenhauer's analysis has focused on compliments. They have categorised every bit of praise in every Disney princess film to see how the way that women are talked about has changed over time.

Here is where the trend is positive. The classic Disney princess films were focused on looks. More than half of the compliments that women received – 55 per cent – had to do with their appearance. Only 11 per cent had to do with their skills or accomplishments. 

The "Renaissance"-era princess films, from the '90s, have a better record in this regard. About 38 per cent of the compliments given to women had to do with their looks, while nearly a quarter of the compliments had to do with their abilities or deeds. In the latest batch of films, starting with The Princess and the Frog, the pattern is finally reversed. For the first time, women are praised for their skills or achievements more often than they are praised for their looks.

Fought and Eisenhauer's research reminds us that it's not just how the princesses are portrayed. It's also important to consider the kinds of worlds these princesses inhabit, who rules these worlds, who has the power - and even, who gets to open their mouths. In a large number of cases, the princesses are outspoken by men in their own movies.

"The Renaissance-era movies starting with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were talked about as being not your average frilly princess films," Fought says. "They have 'active women who get things done'. "

"That's fine, but are these movies really so great for little girls to watch? When you start to look at this stuff, you have to question that a little bit."

The Washington Post