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Animation is one of the largest forms of media today. It plays a part in virtually everyone’s lives in Western Civilization and has provided millions of people with laughter and tears over the last eighty or so years. The Golden Age of Animation (1920’s-1960’s), saw studios such as Warner Brothers and Disney established, who created well-known characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. The main focus of these two small studios was to create feature films and shorts and they became massive conglomerates, which generate billions of dollars every year.
Disney Studios in particular is currently the biggest media conglomerate in the world which generated over forty billion dollars in 2012 from not only its animated feature films, but also their theme parks, children’s’ books, websites, stores etc. This makes Disney Studios the biggest and most dominant storyteller of our current generation and has hugely influenced the minds of children and adults. This text will discuss the stereotypes and representation of women in a body of animated films that the Walt Disney Studios has created over the last eighty years.
Fairy tales date back over thousands of years and more often than not contain no reference to religion. This is because, originally the aim of the fairy-tale was to orally inform the listeners about natural occurrences, in particular the changes of the season, hunting, marrying, as well as conquest. According to Jack Zipes the main emphasis on these stories was to bring “Communal harmony” (1995: 22) which inspirited tribes together and let the members of the tribes know the direction the tribe was having to take. These stories would be passed on and would be adapted from tellers to tellers as well as changing over the course of time, as the tribes’ cultures and thought process evolved.
The tales at the start of the 15th Century began to undergo major transformations, almost until literacy became common due to the invention of the printing press.
The transformation from these tales from oral to production of fixed text introduced a completely different and new social class of people and with that the tales began to change from tales whose main purpose was to inform tribe members, into tales which were more themes orientated. The original fairy tale would today be interpreted or referred to as a magic tale. By the mid-18th century, literacy had been heavily institutionalized. The Brothers Grimm had created adaptations of many of these old tales in an effort to celebrate German culture and by the end of their lifetime they had created more than one hundred stories including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. However, the once orally spoken tales still presented the issue that so few people could read. In addition, these texts were commonly changed to reflect “wish-fulfillments”(Zipes, 1995: 24).
The 19th Century began a new era of storytelling completely with the invention of the film in the late 1880’s, which opened up entirely new forms and ways of communicating stories and in 1937 we saw the first feature animated film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney again, as had Brothers Grimm and other story writers done before, began to rewrite and change these old fairy tales which once spoke about the changing of the seasons, conquest and marriage.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) was a huge hit and it raised the standard of animation to a completely new level, but at the same time Walt Disney gained “cultural stranglehold on the fairytale” (Zipes, 1995: 21) through the form of “hyperrealism” which Paul Wells talks about in detail in his book Understanding Animation (Wells, 1998). This exaggerated form we see in animation is one of the key principles of good animation. However, this has been a debatable subject because of the way their female protagonists are portrayed and the message that they emancipate. For example, the Evil Queen asks the mirror “Magic Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who is the Fairest one of them all”(1937). The mirror replies “Snow White”. This opening line to the film already shows implications that women are obsessed with their looks and women continually strive to be the prettiest and possess beauty so that they are admired. It is apparent to the reader/viewer that Snow White possesses features of a “teenage heroine at the height of puberty”, whereas the “Femme Fatales” (1995, 115-118) which Elizabeth Bell writes about in Somatexts at the Disney Shop mentions how Disney’s evil women are “sex subjects, not sex objects”. The Evil Queen for example is middle aged and the pinnacle of authority who does not have the elegant, flowing and ballet-like dancer features that Snow White portrays.
However, these clear, physical differences between the Evil Queen and Snow White are not as apparent as some of the aspects that Disney gives to Snow White, with the generalization of women and what they are expected to be like in the eyes of men. This is clearly shown throughout the scene when Snow White discovers the dwarves’ house. Upon entering the house, Snow White elegantly glides through the rooms and is shocked by the standard of cleanliness and tidiness. Snow White then goes on to say “You would think their motherâ€¦.maybe they have no mother?” (1937) I find this scene probably one of the strongest examples of how badly women were portrayed by Disney. Snow White, in this scene, not only shows us that Disney portrays a house which is untidy because it is ‘motherless’, but also implies that besides being beautiful and elegant, a woman’s main purpose in society was to be a home maker.
The film was created in 1937 at a time when women were subjected to being classed as inferior to men, both in the work place as well as in life generally. Paul Wells mentions “it is fair to suggest that men have been predominant in the creation of animated films”(1998, 187). But, although women were involved in aspects of the creation of some of these well-known characters, it is also important to understand that women were subjected to the more repetitive and laborious tasks such as the in-betweens of the hand drawn animation.
The Little Mermaid (1989) was released as Disney’s new big feature film. It was an extremely successful film and in fact was their first successful film since the death of Walt Disney in 1966. It was also over fifty years since their release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and during which time, the equality of men and women had greatly improved as a result of the feminist movement which focused on gender equality as well as how women were perceived in culture. This then raised the question as to how much animation had changed and if there was still a strong sense of poor representation of women portrayed in the heroines created by Disney Studios. The Little Mermaid film is about a sixteen year old adolescent girl called Ariel. She is obsessed with the human world and wants to understand more about it. The film as a whole sends out a poor representation of what young girls should aspire to be like. Ursula’s song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” (1989) has Ariel convinced that her voice will not be needed because her beauty is the only quality that she, or indeed, any woman needs. This can be seen from lines such as “Yes, on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word” as well as “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets her man”(The Little Mermaid, 1989). This shows us that “Ariel wrestles with the double-binding cultural expectation of choosing between either voice or access but never both” (Sells, 1995: 179). The point that Laura Sells raises about Ariel is also evident throughout the whole film.
Ariel also presents the same key features that Snow White showed in not having any ambition in life, only to fall In love. I would argue that this point would be even stronger in The Little Mermaid because of the implications that Ariel shows a girl who is passing into the adult world and is being told she needs to know that she should be expected to give up not only her voice, but also her aspirations if she wants to fit into a male dominated world. The film itself, much like Snow White, was significantly changed from the fairy-tale book that the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote in 1837. The original was considered, as was most of Andersen’s work, to be “a personal narrative of the pleasures and dangers of passing”(Sells, 1995:177). This is reflected in the film with the water world being a very fictional space where the world on land is real and is demonstrated by how the land animals cannot speak and how the character Sebastian (a lobster) is transformed from a character into food.
Ursula’s transformation from an ugly, curved antagonist into a slender, young woman symbolizes that for a woman to be able to succeed in finding love; their beauty is all that is needed. The death of Ursula as well demonstrates that “gender is performance”. Ursula’s portrayal as a woman, “doesn’t simply symbolise woman, she performs woman” (Sells, 1995:183). This gives the impression that women need to aspire to what men want them to be rather than them being able to be themselves. Again, although The Little Mermaid was a success as a film a lot of critical text and questions have been raised about how Disney, the world’s most dominant storyteller can send such an underlying message to its viewers.
However in 1998, Disney released their new blockbuster of Mulan, which is definitely a possible exception to the general past portrayal of Disney’s heroines. Mulan is a poem based on a woman who disguises herself as a man and takes her sick father’s place in the army. Mulan in this film is represented as a more independent woman who relies less on a prince to come and save her. As a character you can see a definite stronger sense that Mulan is someone who makes her own decisions rather than having her path guided by men. The Disney feature shows us the traditional style and feel we know of, but totally shows a change in how the main female protagonist is represented. While Mulan shows us that she is beautiful and attractive it also shows the elegance that we have grown to know from the Disney films. However this is where Mulan can be set apart from the usual “damsel in distress” role, as she takes a much more active role in deciding her own fate, rather than having male figures deciding her future and being her saviour.
The overall consensus of the film shows us that women can be equals to men and this is shown throughout, both physically and mentally, as she is questioned by men as to how she should perform. Throughout the film this is illustrated by the questions asked such as “You said you trust Ping; why is Mulan different” (Ping being the male name she gave herself) (Mulan, 1998). Whilst the finale shows us the classic ending of a female winning her man, the path she takes is a very different style to what we have come to know and expect. Disney’s attempt to create a female heroine worked, as Mulan showed us her independence as a woman. However I felt her need to have acceptance from the men in her life is similar to the acceptance that Disney would like people to believe that they can create good role models for children. Mulan is not a secluded where female empowerment is shown.
Brave (2012) was Pixar’s first feature film with a female heroine. The film itself is about a princess called Merida who is actually trying to break away from marriage and she seems not romantically ready to be with men. Brave is a very interesting example because throughout the film she is fighting not to become this Princess that is expected of her. I found this film to show women as the stronger more dominate type than the men and a gender equality seemed to be closer than many other examples I have spoken about.
Paul Wells mentions here how animation has been subjected to questioning, but it is not unique:
“Like many art forms in the twentieth century, animation has been subject to the revisionist readings of the lobby for political correctness, and has inevitably been found wanting, particularly in its use of racist caricature” (1998: 187)
Stereotyping and gender representation will never have the Disney ending that its creators want it to have. It will always be subject to debate whether in animated films or in the workplace. We need to continue to question it as well, because Disney, as well as other animation studios, will not only continue to influence and change society, but will also need to react to the changing world. The last seventy five years of animation has shown us the extremes of stereotypes in Snow White in the late 1930’s to the more questionable representation of women in The Little Mermaid. In the last fifteen years we have started to see Disney create heroines who shape their own destiny (Mulan) rather than allowing their female heroines to be shaped by the male creators for men.
Disney in their more recent works, has shown a change in ethos in that they have produced films where the heroine is no longer a stereotypical person who is shaped by men. However, it still reaches the same conclusion that for a woman to find true happiness they will need a male figure in their lives. Whereas this text seems to centre around the works of Disney specifically, it is important to realise that they are not unique in their portrayal of female stereotypes and to show poor representation. I have come to the conclusion, that this is more specific to Disney because they are the most dominant storyteller in the history of film and are influential to society. This is why animation will always continue to be questioned not only because of its effect it has on society and culture, but because as an art from it relies so much on motion, giving life to characters and exaggeration.
Bell, Elizabeth. (1995). Somatexts at the Disney Shop. In: Bell, E. Lynda, Hass. and Sells. L From Mouse to Mermaid. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pp.107-125.
Sells, Laura. (1995). Where Do the Mermaids Stand?. In: Bell, E. Lynda, Hass. and Sells. L From Mouse to Mermaid. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pp.175-192.
Wells, Paul. (1998). Chapter 5: ‘Issues in Representation’ in Understanding Animation. pp. 187-221. New York: Routledge.
Zipes, Jack. (1995). Breaking the Disney Spell. In: Bell, E. Lynda, Hass. and Sells. L From Mouse to Mermaid. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 21-42.
Brave (2012). Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman. [Blu-ray] Walt Disney Pictures
Mulan (2004). Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook.[DVD] Walt Disney Pictures
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (2009).Directed by William Cottrell, William Cottrell, Larry Morey, Perce Perce, Ben Sharpsteen. [Blu-Ray] Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures.
The Little Mermaid (2006). Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. [DVD] Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures.
Kemmer, S (2009)
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