Essay on Gender Roles Portrayed in Disney Movies

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Disney took a massive risk in 1937 when they promoted and produced the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The industry thought this movie was going to flop as it had a massive budget of 1.49 million U.S. dollars and was the first animated movie of its kind. However, the movie ended up grossing well over sixty-six million dollars in 1937 alone. As of 2018, Snow White’s total box office value is over 885 million dollars, which puts the film at number ten on the highest-grossing domestic movie of all time (Symington). It is a well-known fact that Disney princess films draw a huge multitude of not only revenue but viewers as well, a lot of which are of the younger audience. Disney has a ton of influence on children and they must conform to society's standards to set a ‘good’ example for their young viewers. Simply taking a look at three Disney princess films; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Brave (2012), from three different eras in society, indicates a clear relationship with how Disney conforms to the current women’s standard of its time.

Snow White was produced during the 1930s, back then gender roles were very obvious. Back then girls were not viewed as holding a position of power let alone independence. The opposite of male roles, being powerful, determined, brave, strong, independent, and the list goes on. A study was done on gender stereotyping in children’s books where, “...which makes the 1930s the decade in which we found the greatest amount of gender stereotyping... (Clark)” This proves that it was very evident how normalized these specific gender roles were in the 1930s, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out. In the film, Snow White comments on the messy house of the dwarfs saying, “I suppose they have no mothers” (Snow White). This implies that if they had a woman in the house (motherly housewife-type role), their house would be clean and organized.

Other than this quote, Snow White’s personality throughout the film was; nurturing, dependent, gullible, and housewife-like. A couple of examples from the movie include her cleaning, washing, and cooking for the dwarfs during the film. She was dependent because she has to rely on the dwarfs to protect her, and she is gullible as she gets tricked into being poisoned at the end of the movie by a poisoned apple. Then dies, after this, the only way she gets revived is by a prince (alpha male character). This scene shows that she must be dependent on an alpha male character. The film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, perfectly show the gender stereotypes of the 1930s. By being very dependent on others, pretty, a housewife, and gullible. In the future, the Disney princess will get to be more independent. Snow White builds a platform for the evolution of the Disney Princess.

The Little Mermaid evolves the Disney princess into becoming more rebellious with a modern twist (modern for the 1980s). A study was done to show the increase in more masculine characteristics in Disney princesses over the different eras throughout Disney’s history. Saying, “The ratio of feminine characteristics exhibited by the princesses decreased over time, with 86% of the princesses’ behavior in the early films coded as feminine, reducing to 58% in the middle movies...” (England). Here, there is a very clear indication of the change in the ratio of feminine characteristics in Disney princesses over time. However, in the film The Little Mermaid there are still some stereotypical gender role scenes even in the 1980s. During the film, Ursula, the villain of the movie sings “Poor Unfortunate Soul” (The Little Mermaid). This song hints at some of the still-current gender roles of the 1980s.

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Some of the verses of the song include,” The men up there don’t like a lot of bladders” and “It's she who holds her tongue gets a man” (Snow White). These quotes indicate that men only go for women if they have a nice physique or are relatively skinny. Also, the next quote tells that men do not want to hear a women’s opinion, or women aren’t attractive if they talk too much. This proves that Disney is still holding onto some of the same principles of the stereotypes being used in Snow White. Overall, The Little Mermaid offers a little more masculine quality than previous Disney princess movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although there are still some social standards within the movie, this is why The Little Mermaid is considered more of a median film in terms of the ratio of gender stereotypes used in the film. This film still gives a perspective on the progression from the 1930s to the 1980s in terms of social standards for women.

In the film Brave, Disney conforms to society's most recent social norms being used today. Brave takes a very modernized outlook on gender stereotypes in relation to the past era of Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Little Mermaid. A study was done to view women in Disney movies from a feminist perspective. Saying, “Viewing Brave from a feminist critical perspective reveals that it is not filled with instances of patriarchy, as past movies have been” (Morrison). This study reveals that Merida offers a fresh look at the Disney ‘princess’. Taking away the more standard women's personality traits. Merida is a competitive, determined, and independent character. She displays this as not wanting to marry a prince to rule the land. She is rebellious by going against her dad's wishes on wanting her to marry a prince. This also proves her independence by not wanting to rely on a prince of a husband (alpha character).

Furthermore, Merida breaks the gender formalities of women in the previous Disney films. An article done by James Madison College states, “No longer is the studio accepting or reinforcing societal norm; instead by labeling Merida as a true hero and not a dependent female counterpart” (Garabedian). Brave’s character Merida shows that Disney has truly shifted to empowering female roles instead of a clumsy-dependent character like Snow White or other princesses of that era. In relation to the eras of Snow White and Ariel, today’s societal norms on women have completely shifted with characters like Merida. More so, empowering female roles are largely more popular in today’s society than having an empowering female rule back in the 1930s or 1980s. Merida does a great job of displaying this, telling younger girls that you don’t have to marry someone to be successful or just because it’s what’s ‘normal’. In addition, it's ok to be different and it's okay to be a girl and do something that usually guys do. For instance, Merida loves to be adventurous and practice using her bow, even while riding a horse at fast speeds. Something that you would see an alpha male-like character do in films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, or other films within the same time frames.

An argument could be made that there are princesses that are not influenced by society. An example could be Tiana from the movie The Princess and the Frog. For example, she proves to be gullible when she is tricked into kissing a frog. One could say that Tiana is an example of a princess that is not affected by society, or even a princess that goes backward in time. However, the movie was in fact very progressive. Maybe not in the princess’s personality but this is Disney’s first African American princess. Tiana also dreamed of owning her own restaurant, she worked two jobs during the movie to help her towards that goal. Tiana is not only African American woman, but she also demonstrates a hard-working woman at that, working two jobs to try and reach her dream goal. This film takes a different view on today's culture showing an independent woman working to achieve a big goal.

Disney’s princess films from the past and the present cast a light on what societal standards were for women during those time periods. Disney’s; Brave, Snow White, and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Little Mermaid all show various time periods with different progressions on gender roles and stereotypes. The films do this by presenting the character's personalities and demeanor throughout the film as well as surrounding characters that have an impact on the princesses (alpha male-type characters). Moving into the future it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Disney implement same-sex relationships into some of their characters or even princesses. Disney has always ‘modernized’ their movies, it will be interesting to see what the future has to offer for Disney and their take on the current culture’s standards.

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Essay on Gender Roles Portrayed in Disney Movies. (2023, October 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from
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