Disney & Gender Roles: Examples & Cultural Relevance

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

This lesson will discuss some important issues surrounding Disney's cartoon films, and how they affect gender roles, and expectations of boys and girls in society. This discussion is important for anyone who watches these films.

Disney Films

Generations of people have been delighted by Disney cartoon movies. Who can forget that moment when Cinderella walks into the Royal Ball for the first time? How about the cleverness of Aladdin when he tricks Jafar into defeating himself with his own wish? Adults, children, and even cynical teenagers can enjoy the films as new versions of time-honored classics. Newer Disney productions, such as Brave and Frozen seem to be following the same trend. As a form of entertainment primarily aimed at young people, how do these stories represent gender roles and behavioral expectations?

Disney and Boys

Boys can obtain much distorted information on manhood from Disney films. Let's look at one aspect of how males are portrayed in these films: appearance. Aladdin and The Lion King introduce a fairly common trope. A trope is a commonly used metaphor; typically, tropes follow similar patterns to one another. Look at the heroes of 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King'. We could say that Mufasa, Simba, and Aladdin are generally healthy-looking, even muscular, according to certain mainstream standards of beauty; neither too fat nor too skinny. Both of these films feature heroic characters with very idealized standards of attractiveness. It's not that these traits are uncommon; they simply don't represent the true variety of body shapes in the world.

Now, let's look at the non-heroic characters in these films. Among them, one finds Scar and Jafar, the villains of their films; but one also finds the Sultan, Timon, and Pumbaa. All of these people are of different body types than the heroes. Pumbaa (literally a pig) and the Sultan are of a large body type, even though both are smaller in size relative to the heroes they befriend. Timon, Jafar, and Scar fall on the other side of the spectrum; all have slender builds. For the good characters of this group, their lot in life seems to be to support the hero, rather than take initiative to be heroes themselves. As villains, Scar and Jafar tend to scheme, lie, and sometimes outright murder for power over their fellows.

When taken with other factors, like the presence of similarly distorted body types in other forms of entertainment, there can be issues where boys and young men simply don't feel comfortable in their own skins. Other issues that arise from the portrayal of side characters such as the Sultan and Timon are that they aren't masters of their own fates. The Sultan is manipulated by Jafar through hypnosis, little more than a tool for the villain's ends. Once Timon and Pumbaa are no longer useful as teachers to Simba, they fall into step behind him. What these side characters lack is agency. This is a term that refers to a person's ability to make their own decisions and choose their own destiny.

Disney and Girls

We can have the same discussion about the appearances of women in Disney cartoons, but it might be better to look at a different aspect of the characters, the concept of agency we've just introduced. Cinderella is probably the most straightforward. She wants to escape her abusive step-family by marrying into money. When she does achieve her heart's desire, it's not through any real effort on her part. Rather, a magical Fairy Godmother gives her new clothes and she walks into the ball. After that, the Prince falls for her and spends many hours scouring the city for the mysterious woman.

How much agency do characters have in the film? At first, Cinderella has some agency. She puts together her own ball gown in secret, planning on going to the ball despite the derision of her step family. However, the gown is destroyed by her stepmother in a tantrum. Her agency is actually punished. She's forced to rely on her Fairy Godmother. If we're looking at tropes, Disney (and other) princesses often depend on being rescued by other characters in these stories. Much like male side-characters, princesses are expected to rely on others to take action on their behalf.

Again, there's nothing particularly wrong with Cinderella and similar tales if we remember that it is based upon earlier fairy tales that reflect sensibilities different from those in a modern world. It's completely okay for a young woman to choose a life dependent on a romantic partner. The problem occurs when young women feel that is the only choice they can make, while still being considered normal women.

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