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May 10, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Counting Down Disney’s Dames

For decades, Disney’s canonical animated films have delighted millions. As children, and then again as adults, we experience these films several times over, often in one home-video sitting. But children, as you know, are impressionable wee things. If they see a kid smacking another kid on the face before grabbing their lollipop with their greedy sticky hands, they learn that smacking a kid on the face means sucking on candy for the rest of their lives. If they see a lion cub run away from home because they think they’re responsible for their father’s death, they learn that they, too, should run away from home should they ever kill their father in a freak wildebeest stampede.

So, for the wellbeing of your children, and your children’s children, we examine and rank Disney’s most famous female protagonists based on their ability to promote gender equality and feminist ideals.* Hold on to your nostalgia folks, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

8. Wendy Darling—Peter Pan (1953)

Coming in dead last we have Wendy. I hated Wendy when I was little. I thought it might have been because she had cooties, but now I know the truth. Wendy is so docile and submissive to Peter’s white male privilege it’s sickening. Peter’s only recognition of her worth is domestic, after she sews his shadow back onto him when he crash-lands into the loft of the Darlings’ bourgeois London townhouse. His view of her changes little as the story progresses.

Constantly the damsel-in-distress, Wendy’s only purpose appears to be as the surrogate mother to Peter’s Lost Boys, a rag-tag group of children forced to wear animal skins for clothes, clearly suffering the consequences of a neglectful single dad. Wendy, you fail at life—and at feminism. The second-wave revolution was just around the corner, and by God I hope you were the first against the wall.

7. Jessica Rabbit—Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Yes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a Disney movie. Look it up. Jessica Rabbit is characterised as a huge-chested, tiny-waisted femme fatale. Only she’s married… to Roger Rabbit. This is weird for several reasons. First, I don’t consider femmes fatales the epitome of empowerment. The modern femme fatale is a character model popularised by Raymond Chandler novels and films noirs adapted from Raymond Chandler novels. Unlike the femmes fatales of times passed (Lilith from Jewish folklore, for example), these incarnations suggest that women who have full control of externally enhanced sexuality aren’t to be trusted. It doesn’t matter how transgressive these troubled broads appear, they’re still objects of desire and are still defined entirely by the whims of the male protagonist. Case in point: Jessica Rabbit.

Now that I think about it, she’s not even a true femme fatale. She’s happily married; the protagonist’s desire for her does not lead him into mortal peril; and her unattainable desirability drives no one insane, nor does it lead to her own tragic death. She just talks huskily and is ogled by all male characters (and audience members). Her most famous line is fitting: “She’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way”.

6. Megara—Hercules (1997)

Any female lead destined to hook up with a demigod is bound to be relegated to stereotypes and clichés. This is a shame, because they almost scored a home run. Hercules characterises Megara as a witty, curiously detached femme fatale-wannabe with romantic musings and strangely Yiddish mannerisms. That’s cool, but no amount of witty banter will distract from her damsel-in-distress-ness. She does make a deal with Hades to save Hercules though—like how she made a deal with Hades to save her ex-boyfriend before the film began—except she dies and has to have her soul rescued from the underworld. If I’d made Hercules I would’ve had Megara be the demigod with super strength and had her spend the whole 93 minutes engaging in verbal ructions with James Woods’ Hades. Then I could call it HERcules. Genius. Ancient mythology be damned.

5. Princess Jasmine—Aladdin (1992)

Jazz rocks. Despite being royalty, she is grounded, level-headed, and falls in love with Aladdin for who he is, not what he is (which is, technically, Scott Weigner, who played DJ Tanner’s boyfriend in Full House). While a damsel-in-distress for a teensy part of the movie, the extenuating circumstances are both elaborate and awesome. I will excuse mildly stereotypical gender role situations if giant fucking hourglasses are involved.

The failing of Aladdin (and others) is what I like to call Idiot Single Dad Syndrome. That is, any narrative where the main conflict arises solely due to the patriarch’s stubbornness or pride, a situation that can only logically precipitate because there is no mother figure around to tell said patriarch to shut the fuck up and stop being such a proud self-righteous douchebag. This is the case in Aladdin where the Sultan adheres stringently to the law that Jasmine must marry a prince, only to have a change of heart and abolish this law at the film’s dénouement. Well la-dee-fucking-da, why didn’t you decide that earlier on? Oh that’s right, then there wouldn’t be a movie. Fail.

4. Pocahontas—Pocahontas (1994)

Pocahontas is a bastion of independence and Native American spirituality and values in the pale face of white European colonialism. Idiot Single Dad Syndrome plays a subtle role, but on the whole things are grand, if a tad historically inaccurate. Pocahontas is the noblest of savages, following both tangible objects (her heart) and the intangible (the wind), while talking to old willow trees and perching on high places as feathers and dandruff swirl around her, an effect that James Cameron would eventually steal (along with the basic story) for Avatar.

I should write more about her but I feel uncompelled to do so. Maybe it’s because Mel Gibson was the voice of John Smith, or because the only comic relief came from a raccoon and a hummingbird, but the movie as a whole just isn’t very memorable. Still, Pocahontas is a well-rendered character, and the story ticks all the right boxes required to attempt to retroactively assuage white male guilt. Thus, I place it commendably, a feat that retroactively assuages my own white male guilt.  

3. Mulan—Mulan (1998)

Mulan is the most overtly feminist tale Disney put to celluloid in the 90s. So why doesn’t it place higher? Sure, she rejects the rites of domesticity reserved for females in her society, and poses as a male in order to have her skills and attributes appreciated on an equal level. However, by fable’s end, the status quo doesn’t appear to have significantly changed. After running rings around 90 per cent of the idiot males in the story, she returns home as a hero, yet the society that forced her to change her appearance in the first place shows little signs of reform. The audience doesn’t notice this—they’re too busy wondering if she’ll get together with the hunky Li Shang. Mulan becomes the exception, not the rule, and this rousing tale leaves a bitter aftertaste.

2. Jane—Tarzan (1999)

I love Jane. She’s one of Disney’s most fleshed-out and realised heroines, helped in no small part by Minnie Driver’s wonderful voice acting. Jane earns the silver for several reasons, chief among them being her relationship with her dad, who is totally gay. Don’t believe me? The signs are there: Jane’s father is voiced by the late great Nigel Hawthorne, most famous for his role as Sir Humphrey Appleby in the sitcom Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In 1995, Hawthorne was outed in the lead-up to the Academy Awards. Though sexuality of an actor does not dictate sexuality of the role, Jane’s mother is absent, yet there is no Idiot Single Dad Syndrome here. Jane’s father is loving, sensitive, and easy-going. Traits which lead me to believe he isn’t heterosexual. Unless of course the story is just, you know, well-written.

Jane is independent and inquisitive, constantly seeking the natural beauty in her surroundings. She also becomes Tarzan’s teacher, educating him about all aspects of his origins. Tarzan becomes enamoured with her, fully appreciating her qualities without a hint of the sexual inequality present in his gorilla family. Finally rejecting the patriarchy of Victorian England, Jane gives in to her love for Tarzan, becoming the new member of the Gorillaz. Her father comes too, yet is not subject to the Hollywood Law of Cliché Coupling (where all sympathetic characters pair up and find love or companionship before the end of the story), furthering the gay rumours. Unless he shacks up with Tarzan’s gorilla mother, which, let’s face it, would be totally hot.

1. Belle—Beauty and the Beast (1990)

Belle wins. To date, Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s greatest achievement, and one they will never better. I’m not going to explain the plot, or how Belle is beautiful both inside and out—you all know it. Any movie with dialogue like “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking…” is a winner.

What I do want to talk about is the feminist debates surrounding the film. Critics point out that Beast abuses Belle by roaring at her when she enters the West Wing, as well as throwing objects around in her presence, equating to an abusive relationship that serves to marginalise Belle when she decides to conveniently ignore these incorrigible actions and fall in love with Beast anyway. (Beast saving her life is not an adequate reason for forgiving these actions, apparently.) This is a fair point to make, but I must point out a curious nature of the Beast that sometimes goes unnoticed: he’s a beast.

As Belle begins to fall for Beast, he becomes more human, standing upright and wearing progressively more and more clothing and no longer losing his temper. While I am hesitant to justify anthropomorphised creatures when they act in an animalistic manner, how else was the Beast supposed to appear beastly? Be voiced by Colin Firth and say “I say, I do object to you being here, you must leave with utmost expediency, please”? Nonsense. It must also be pointed out that after breaking the spell, they don’t get married. Suck it, institution.

Disqualified: Princess Ariel—The Little Mermaid (1989)

Princess Ariel fails to achieve a ranking on account of her being both feminist and anti-feminist in equal measure. Permit me to explain: Ariel sacrifices her voice so she can walk like a human and seduce Prince Eric, betraying two integral aspects of her identity for a man. She later leaves her Merpeople completely by permanently transforming into a human and marrying Eric. Not very feminist.

Ariel is also the only female Disney character (as far as I’m aware) to be portrayed naked, her nudity alluded to by shadows and well-placed long red hair. The villain, Ursula, is portrayed as an old woman with a provocative, sexual nature (assisted by the fact that she’s a cecaelia—half-human half-octopus), hinting that if you’re old and ugly but sexually aware, you are a disgusting witch. Not very feminist.

It’s worth nothing that The Little Mermaid kick-started the Disney ‘renaissance’ of the 90s, and was, to a new generation of children, a film where the titular character was female—showing young girls that yes, they could be the star of their own story, unlike Aladdin, Hercules, The Lion King and Tarzan. They would only repeat this with Mulan nine years later. For these reasons, I feel like I cannot rank The Little Mermaid, and must leave it as a separate entity unto itself. (Also note the heavy Idiot Single Dad Syndrome in this movie, and don’t get me started on the Haitian characterisation of Sebastian the lobster.)

This rank is not necessarily to say what you should or shouldn’t watch. Rather, it’s for the sake of awareness, role-models, posterity and a better tomorrow. It’s my hope that, in time, a deep understanding of Disney will bring humanity into a whole new world, with a new fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no, or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming.

*Please note that only human characters are ranked. I don’t care how feminist Nala from The Lion King or Bianca from The Rescuers or Lady from Lady and the Tramp are; they are fucking animals.

This feature was also published in the Auckland University Students’ Association’s women’s magazine Kate.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Max says:

    The criticism aimed at Wendy is harsh. Feminism is about choice, and Wendy was choosing (at the time) to be a mother-figure. So don’t tell her no, or where to go etc.

    Also, list misses all the best examples of Disney cartoon feminism:
    Tinkerbell
    Nani
    Cruella de Vil
    Alice
    Cinderella (and her Fairy Godmother, whatever her name is)
    Snow White & her Queen step-mother
    Elastigirl
    Christopher Robin (I always thought he was destined to swap teams)

    Bambi’s mother should be allowed a special entry, just to represent all the solo mum’s in the woods who get shot by hunters.

  2. Dennis O'Saur says:

    Elastigirl doesn’t count.

  3. Spanky says:

    Wendy didn’t ‘choose’ shit. Being indoctrinated with the domestic ideals of what is expected of a woman in the 1950s isn’t ‘choice’ at all. And what sort of message does that give to the children watching it? That in a rollicking tale of adventure in a faraway land, your only worth is your domestic sensibilities and as a damsel in distress? Fuck that. Your list of omitted female characters that you consider ‘feminist’ are highly dubious too.

  4. Alpha says:

    “[Idiot Single Dad Syndrome is] … any narrative where the main conflict arises solely due to the patriarch’s stubbornness or pride, a situation that can only logically precipitate because there is no mother figure around to tell said patriarch to shut the fuck up and stop being such a proud self-righteous douchebag.”

    I take umbrage with this. You don’t seem to have an issue that Disney has created male characters that are uncaring, “stubborn”, proud to the point of selfishness, and who must be rescued by female characters who have common sense which the male lacks.

    Furthermore, you state that a male who does not follow such a ludicrous outline must be gay. “Jane’s father is loving, sensitive, and easy-going. Traits which lead me to believe he isn’t heterosexual.” A white heterosexual male has thus been created as one who is incapable of being a nice male and/or father figure. No, all males are violent and mean-spirited, aren’t they?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m as feminist as women will allow me to be feminist, but I don’t appreciate when feminism ignores one whole side of the story. What’s the term for someone who is actually equally concerned for (the non-negative portrayal) both genders? I’m one of those.

  5. Valentine says:

    “I take umbrage with this. You don’t seem to have an issue that Disney has created male characters that are uncaring, “stubborn”, proud to the point of selfishness, and who must be rescued by female characters who have common sense which the male lacks.”

    Name me a Disney movie where the female Disney character ‘rescues’ a caricatured male by themselves and due to their female ‘common sense’. And not as a sidekick to the male protagonist. Mulan doesn’t count, her skills that allow her to be a heroine aren’t gender-defined. Also, I do have an issue with such characterisation, hence my raising awareness of the phenomenon by labelling it an arbitrary narrative ‘syndrome’. I could’ve said something should be done about it, but frankly the article was long enough as it was and I already had to cut Esmerelda and the Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty triumvirate.

    “Furthermore, you state that a male who does not follow such a ludicrous outline must be gay. “Jane’s father is loving, sensitive, and easy-going. Traits which lead me to believe he isn’t heterosexual.” A white heterosexual male has thus been created as one who is incapable of being a nice male and/or father figure. No, all males are violent and mean-spirited, aren’t they?”

    Did you not read the sentence that came DIRECTLY after that ‘must be gay’ line? Here, I’ll requote it: “Unless of course the story is just…you know, well written.” That was a joke, buddy. Geez. Y so serious?

  6. Phoenix says:

    May I ask your take on Esmerelda? Because I think she’s great, but I’d be interested to hear a feminist’s POV. I suppose you could take the side that she’s almost more of the protagonist than Quasi, and she’s going against the system, yada yada. But on the other hand I suppose someone could argue she’s like the “reason” why Frollo was evil, that she seduced him or whatever (putting aside the fact that she’d rather be burned alive than snog him).

  7. Valentine says:

    I think Esmerelda is pretty kick-ass! Most of the problems with Hunchback are due to those annoying stone gremlins – if they weren’t in there that movie would be so deliciously dark (for a Disney film. Lion King dark, I guess). She also gets bonus points for being a Gypsy. It’s pretty clear that Frollo is just plain evil and is using her to justify his bastardity. Her burning at the stake is also eerily Joan d’Arc-ish too. While I agree that she shares a lot of protagonist screentime, that makes it all the more lame when she passes out and is carted around in a white smock. She could’ve kicked so much ass in the invasion of Notre Dame. Oh well, it was just the way they decided to adapt it, which is already so far removed from the source material it’s ludicrouse, but that’s Disney for you. Just look at The Little Mermaid…

  8. Phoenix says:

    Yep, scrubbed so clean they might as well give it a different name. The gargoyles did get annoying, but Disney had to find comic relief somewhere – God forbid they make a film that’s not tailored to the youngest of children.
    And I’d forgotten about the ending – how they turned her into the fainting damsel, It’s been so long since I saw it. I should do a Disney marathon in the holidays…

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