Sexism in Children’s Movies

I don’t post on this blog weekly or even on a somewhat regular basis. I do this because I want to wait until something really unique and inspiring comes along. There are hundreds of topics I could write about on this blog, but I like to choose more unique ones and toss in my own opinion for others to see.

With this being said, this post’s topic inspired me yesterday and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. In my Women’s Lit class, we’re watching ‘The Little Mermaid’ and writing a review arguing whether the movie is sexist or not. It’s gotten me thinking a lot about the way females and males are portrayed in Disney movies, whether as heroes or villains.

As a little girl, I was not very girly. I didn’t really like any of the ‘princess movies’ because I didn’t identify with any of the princesses. I like the movies focused around animals more, to be honest. I’ve seen almost every Disney movie at least once, so I’m not ignorant on the topic. My favorite ones are lesser known- ‘Oliver and Company’ and ‘The Great Mouse Detective’. As far as the princess movies go, I don’t think I even watched ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, or ‘Sleeping Beauty’ before the age of 10 or so. I did like ‘Aladdin’, and if I was asked I would say Jasmine was my favorite princess.

This post is not meant to be an attack on Disney movies or anyone’s parenting style (parents get very offended when you say anything they are doing with their children is wrong). I actually find it disheartening that so many people don’t see the sexism, not to mention racism, in Disney movies. Sure they are ‘classics’ and many people adore them, but that does not mean they are wholly perfect and flawless, now does it?

Let’s start out with the fact that the first Disney movie that had a female scriptwriter was ‘Beauty and the Beast’. That movie came out in 1991! And the first Disney movie was released in 1937. That’s a lot of decades in between.

I don’t really even want to start on the racism present in Disney movies, so I’m solely going to focus on sexism. If I included racism, this list would be a whole lot longer. I’m going to talk more about Disney movies that I’ve seen more and remember details of rather than those I’m not as familiar with.

Mulan (1998): ¬†How is this movie sexist? The main character is a strong female who saves China! And she’s not even royal and doesn’t end the movie with her marriage, yet she’s still a princess. #progress. At first thought, ‘Mulan’ may not seem like a sexist movie at all. Mulan accomplishes a lot of things with her courage and determination, and she even gets recognized for them at the end by the emperor. But, let’s backtrack. Everything Mulan did to save China, she did under the identity of a man. When it’s discovered she’s *gasp* a woman, the rest of her soldiers literally leave her behind in the snow alone. I admit I do love the song ‘Reflection’ from this movie as it’s very sad and relatable to me. What about some of the other songs though? The one all the dudes are singing when they’re marching through the mountains and such, talking about what they want their future wives to be like. If I recall correctly, they only talk about a woman’s looks and her ability to cook. Ok Disney, this may be correct for the time period and cultural settings of this movie, but you couldn’t have put in any sort of objection?

Cinderella (1950): This is a classic example. Yeah the movie is a bit dated now overall, but aren’t all Disney movies? After all, the basis of every plot isn’t original. It’s adapted from a fairytale or pre-existing story. We can’t look back on old fairytales and say ‘yeah this is pretty sexist’? Apparently not. Cinderella has it pretty bad with her evil step mother and sisters, then she finds out about this ball the prince is having. And she really wants to go. She sits around hoping for her dreams to come true and then POP a fairygodmother! She gets all dressed up by birds and mice and magic and sneaks off to said ball. There, the prince is dazzled by her beauty. They’re shown dancing, but if I recall I don’t think they actually speak to one another. I mean, the guy didn’t even know her name but he ‘loved’ her enough to recover her shoe and prance around the kingdom trying to find the girl it fit. You don’t even know her name man, why you wanna marry her so bad? Oh right, because she got a makeover to look like somebody she’s not. Makeovers make your wishes come true.

Beauty and the Beast (1991): Belle is the first princess who isn’t just all looks! Wrong. Everything that proves somebody who thinks this wrong is in the title of the movie itself. Beauty and the Beast. Not ‘Belle and the Beast’, or even ‘Brainiac and the Beast’. She’s supposed to be the smart princess and yet she’s referred to in the goddamn title in the movie as Beauty. This movie is glorifying Stockholm Syndrome basically, not to mention the abusive relationship. Belle was literally kidnapped by this Beast guy. And he’s really mean to her and he won’t let her leave his dreary castle. But it’s ok because he loves her. And because he loves her that makes everything ok. True love cures all. After all, girls are taught as children that if a boy is mean to you he must like you. How about if a boy is mean to you it means he’s mean to you?! This movie is supposed to teach a message that looks don’t matter because the Beast is ugly but Belle still loves him. Then why did he turn into a majestic buff human dude at the end? Again with the makeovers. Also, beauty doesn’t matter. Except if you’re the girl.

The Little Mermaid (1989): Since I have to write a paper on this movie, I have a myriad of points on it’s blatant sexism but I’ll make this concise. Ariel did like the human made objects she found on the ocean floor before Eric came around, but she didn’t make a decision to leave everything behind and finally explore the shore until he came into the picture. She sees him on his ship and saves him from drowning. She sings to his semiconscious body and then swims away for fear of being seen. The next day her sisters are pointing out to their father that Ariel is in love. Ok hold up. In love? With a dude she’s never spoken a single word to?? She makes a deal with a witch to give up her voice in order to also give up her tail to get legs instead. Not only is she now physically unable to speak a single word to her lover, she has lost her talent. She had a beautiful singing voice and was regarded for it, and she gives it up for a guy she doesn’t know. But that’s alright because with a few mute smiles and nods, Eric is in love with her! She doesn’t need to speak. Who needs a woman’s opinion anyway? In fact, he’s so in love with Ariel he ditches her for the human version of Ursula who uses Ariel’s lost voice as her own. Talk about commitment! But then everything works out right in the end when Eric’s like “oh, wrong girl! Silly me!”. Ariel was not acting independently or rebelliously when she left her mermaid life and became human. She was going from the control of her father to the control of her so called lover.

Aladdin (1992):¬†There’s a lot of cultural stereotypes and racism in this movie. But let’s also not forget Jasmine. As a child, I liked her the most. It wasn’t like a “I’m obsessed with Jasmine and I wear my Jasmine costume to bed every night” it was more like a “uh, favorite princess? Uh… Jasmine?”. At first thought, this movie doesn’t seem sexist either. Jasmine does defend herself by refusing to get married to somebody simply for the legalities, but she wants love. Jasmine escapes the palace walls because she’s tired of being told what to do by men like her father and Jafar and the first man she ever meets outside the palace is, you guessed it, Aladdin! They take to each other and not really for looks or status, considering they both just look like ‘street rats’ at the moment of their introduction. When Aladdin lies to Jasmine about his entire identity to get her to marry him is when things go awry. First of all, I never understood why he couldn’t have played prince and then behind closed doors reveal his true self to Jasmine as the boy from the marketplace so she’d play along too. Then again, boys in love don’t always make smart decisions. This movie does enforce the gender role that women, even with a royal status, are of no more value than the man they marry. Jasmine could not take the throne alone because women cannot hold political power. Why? Because they’re… well they’re women! They’d get all moody on their periods and cause trouble. Yes, because when Hitler rose to power he did so at his time of the month and was simply moody?

Sleeping Beauty (1959): I’ll admit I don’t remember this movie all too well. May I point out, however, the title of the movie again? Again with the word ‘beauty’? I mean, Aurora is the OG beauty and Belle is just the knock off, but still. The movie’s title doesn’t even have her name in it. She’s just regarded for her beauty and her beauty only, once again. Way to branch out, Disney. Of course there’s a huge problem with Mr. Handsome Prince creepin’ his way into her bedroom and kissing her while she is literally unconscious. Then she wakes up and is like ‘goody, my true love’s kiss has lifted the spell!” and it’s a happily ever after or something. How many more things can be wrong with that? Here’s a message for young boys- if you ever try sneaking into a girl’s bedroom and kissing her while she’s asleep, don’t be surprised when you get your ass kicked. Why is Aurora fine with this? Oh right, because only someone else can save her from the curse.

Messages for young girls and boys that come from Disney movies are very skewed. As time went on, I feel like Disney did try to at least have more positive role models in movies. But they crashed and burned a lot. I haven’t seen ‘The Princess and the Frog’ or ‘Brave’ or ‘Tangled’ and I wish I’d never seen ‘Frozen’, but I’ve heard they’ve all got their issues as well.

The main reason I didn’t identify with a princess ever was because it was all about their beauty. They’re all beautiful, usually after a makeover, and then their problems are solved. I didn’t feel like a princess when I was a little girl. Disney princesses were small and slight, with gentle feminine features and elegance. Only one, Ariel, had red hair like me and even then hers was like bright firetruck red. Not even a realistic natural redhead color. Princes loved them because they were beautiful. Does any princess marry a guy she’s known for a long time? No. Does any princess marry a guy she’s spent more than 6 months dating? No. But like I said, true love cures all. Let’s teach children that it doesn’t matter if your partner is abusive or lies to you or only values your looks. The only thing that matters is if they say they love you.

These are just cartoon, fictitious relationships. Kids don’t take them seriously and apply them to real life. I feel like only older people come out with this line. They were young a long time ago and don’t remember what it was like to watch a movie as a toddler. Of course children think they are real! And if not real, realistic. If kids believe in Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, I’m sure they’re picking up something from the movies they watch over and over again. Sure as children get older they don’t cite Disney childhood obsessions as the source of their problems. The messages in Disney are subliminal to children. Society is filled with these subliminal messages and movies contribute to this. Your child is always listening, even if you think they aren’t.

I think I’ve said enough about the princesses. Now I wanna talk about the Disney villains. Equally as famous, arguably, and still full of stereotypes. From every Disney movie I’ve seen, if the villain is female she is single. She is also old, is made to have ugly features, and probably fat. When women age, it’s gross. When men age, we fawn over their sexy gray hair. Ursula? Fat, single, not too easy on the eyes. Wicked step mother? Not fat, but old and single.

Compare this to the male villains. Yeah they’re all made to have ugly features too, for the most part. What about Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’? He was the bad guy and he had a terrible personality, but he was the town hottie. Any female villain ever been the town hottie? Hardly.

Minor female characters in Disney movies barely exist. When was the last time the main characters side kick was a female? All those funny and memorable comic relief side kicks are all male. Flounder and Abu and Iago and Mushu? Male. I guess there was Grandmother Willow from ‘Pocahontas’, but she wasn’t even a side kick and she had like 3 lines.

A female in a Disney movie is never revered for anything but her beauty. There’s no princess who’s remembered as super smart or super athletic or super funny. As a woman if you want to be worthwhile, you’ll only be regarded as such if you’re beautiful. You can’t be well-liked for being smart or funny. Just pretty. Go get yourself a makeover and the man of your dreams will sweep you off your feet in an instant.



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