Disney vs Feminism II: the rematch!

I got some great responses to my Disney vs Feminism post yesterday, thank you all! But one, from Fia at The Laundry Narrative, really inspired me. I ended up writing a long reply to her comment… and eventually decided to address the issues in a follow-up post instead!

(This is why I love social media – so much opportunity for debate and interaction!)

Fia commented:

“I don’t always like the messages of femininity and masculinity that Disney teaches: http://www.feministing.com/archives/010140.html. There seems to be only one type of feminine character and one type of masculine character that is appropriate in these movies and anything else is villianized or ridiculed. I don’t see choice being presented in these movies.”

I agree that Disney promotes very specific ideals about beauty and gender. But I must point out that the shots in this reel were cut in such a way to prove the maker’s point rather than taken in context. Take the clip of Belle leaning seductively against the door as an example. Having tried every other strategy, this shows her finally giving in and using the only remaining weapon at her disposal – her “feminine wiles” – to get Gaston to the exit – which she then opens and unceremoniously pushes him out through. The clip being cut the way it is manages to depict her as a flirtatious cutie seducing her man, rather than a the unwilling object of an arrogant’s affections.

A lot of this study focusses heavily on Beauty and the Beast, on Gaston being the attractive, strong, muscled role model, despite him actually being the bad guy. By contrast the good guy – the Beast – is monstrous of appearance, kind and gentle, a deliberate subversion of the tradition that is the whole point of this classic fairytale.

What’s more, Gaston’s arrogance and overt masculinity are actually the subject of as much ridicule as (and a lot more hatred than) Lefou’s bumbling (and sometimes distinctly vindictive) chubbiness.

The point that masculinity is about standing up for the girl, acting as protector and ultimately fighting for what’s yours, while I don’t agree with the violent elements, I actually agree with in principle. We should stand up for ourselves and for the ones we love, whatever our gender. This isn’t to say that the princess couldn’t put herself between danger and her prince – and in more recent Disney offerings she often tries at least – but that in-keeping with their afore-mentioned ideals the heroine is often too waif-like to have any real effect and the hero, even if a scrawny street rat, has more chance of victory.

(This is often true across the idealised Hollywood scale – take the Branjen triangle. Lara Croft may be a mean shot, but I’m pretty sure Angelina would literally snap if a dragon got hold of her miniscule frame. Jen, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t even last long enough for grasping – she’d break the moment Maleficent turned her icy glare in her direction. Nope, even putting Ange and Jen in together, tag-team stylee, my money would be on Brad to dispatch the beast…)

The use of the fight scene in The Lion King as an example of violence between men is, to my mind, ridiculous. The story is about animals. In the animal kingdom, that is how lions demonstrate their superiority and hold onto their pride. We don’t pull the same film up for it’s degredation of women because Nala is one of Mufassa’s many “wives” – because that’s how a pride of lions works – that is their social structure. There’s nothing more to it than reality.

As for the rest, I’m afraid I don’t know Mulan well enough to comment, although the fact that masculinity in any armed force is measured by strength, speed and physical prowess is hardly shocking – it’s what keeps them alive in battle. But Hercules is directly rooted in myth. He fought and killed monsters, with his sword and his bow and arrow, and was lauded for it. The Greeks had a chiseled idea of perfection too – how about that? Maybe it’s not all Disney’s fault afterall…

But to place Disney in its wider Hollywood context, I challenge anyone to find me one film, one TV show that doesn’t conform to the same ideal of beauty WITHOUT ovetrly utilising it in the storyline. Ugly Betty may be about inner beauty, but that focus of the show is clear before a single viewing, is right there in the title. The same goes for films like Shallow Hal.

Or look at Friends, one of the most successful and most oft-repeated TV shows of the last decade. Fat Monica is centre of ridicule and humour in every single flash back, and often even laughed about in non-flashback episodes. Meanwhile, the cast get skinnier with every rise in ratings…

“Beauty” as we have come to expect it does not exist – it is created through lighting and airbrushing, digital liposuction, and yes, an army of Hollywood make-up artists, dieticians and personal trainers. When someone comes along to challenge the beauty status quo they are heralded before being beaten into submission. Their shape, size, colour or face becomes more important than anything else – Kate Winslet’s weight outweighed her acting in Titanic, Halle Berry was the first BLACK woman to win an Oscar, etc etc.

Disney has always favoured an unobtainable ideal, but at least we all knew – even as children – that it was a cartoon, not real life. I’m far more concerned about our children being exposed to digitally enhanced images than Belle’s miniscule waist, to Zac Efron’s painted-on abs than Hercules’ barrell chest. In a world where I can watch a programme featuring a group of anorexics and think “but they don’t look that skinny to me” (Supersize vs Superskinny, BBC3, I actually sat mesmerised, thinking that exact thought) I am more concerned about the modelling agencies and catwalk designers that promote a pre-pubescent ideal of beauty, the digital artists that shave inches of a size zero waistline, and the casting directors that would rather cast a waif than a woman in the heroine’s role than I’ll ever be about little girls who want to marry a prince.

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3 thoughts on “Disney vs Feminism II: the rematch!

  1. Hi Cie. As usual reading your blog with interest! Just to add to the Disney debate…. A friend of mine has a little girl of 4 years. She owns every Disney DVD. She also loves everything pink, glittery and any anything to do with princess’. My friends little girl is also mixed race. It was heartbreaking to hear of her saying “I wish I was white because then I could be a princess.” It only then occurred to me that all the Disney leading ladies are white. This had clearly had an impact on someone as young as 4 and demonstrates the effect of these apparently benign cartoons.

  2. Hey Noami – how are you lovely?

    Wow – that’s heart-breaking! The Disney vs race one is a very scary subject, much more so for me than the feminism issue as the choice element is removed. Jasmine, the closest they have come to a non-white heroine was decidedly latter-day MJ coloured. I understand Disney’s latest offering is to have a black lead princess – but is it too little too late?

  3. Pingback: Role models: who is yours? « Second Hand Shopper

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