Longtime Mama Bear readers know that I overthink everything about feminism in Disney movies.
It might surprise you that, despite seeing the tentacles of the patriarchy in everything, I’m a pretty big defender of the princess genre, especially as it’s evolved post-Princess and the Frog. In the older Disney movies—Snow White and Cinderella especially—the princes are so boring and nondescript their facial features aren’t even fully drawn in. The dwarves and the mice have more dimension. The stories are—in their way—at least female first, even if they do hew to a rescue narrative.
It’s really post-The Little Mermaid where I’ve cringed the most re-watching the Disney cannon with my kids. There is the uncomfortable cultural/racial stuff going on in Mulan and Pocahantas for starters. (There’s always been a lot of racism in Disney movies: Peter Pan and the Native Americans, the Siamese cats, to say nothing of Song of the South.) And for a movie that’s about to be about exploding gender distinctions, Mulan’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You and “A Girl Worth Fighting For” only encourage them.
But what’s really creeped me out is the male gaze in this wave of Disney films, from about 1995 to 2009. There’s been plenty to say about how movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds legitimized sexual assault for a generation of men, and treated a generation of women that it was their fault if it happened. But it’s uncomfortable how much ogling and attempts at grabbing women happen in Disney films of the same era.
How Aladdin looks at the sexy women in the harem he falls into is one thing. But I just watched Hercules for the first time with my kids this weekend and it was far more blatant. There was Danny DeVito’s character hiding in bushes to spy on sexy nymphs, before chasing them and trying to grab them, and later climbing onto Meg’s lap…uninvited. Everything about the way women were treated in that film seemed to position them as there for male creatures to grope, watch, and exploit. A core plot point is when Hades use Meg as a combination of a slave, prostitute, and bait, saying he’d thrown every “curve ball” at Hercules but maybe he’d been throwing “the wrong kind of curves.”
What place does any of this have a kids movie??? Watching it has made me far more uncomfortable than the princess narrative ever has. Snow White volunteered to clean the dwarves’ house, but they didn’t grab or ogle her when they found her asleep in their beds. She was more of a mother figure for them.
I get some of this comes from the mythology itself. But Disney changed the end of The Little Mermaid. It rewrites stories all the time to make them more appropriate.
Was it a pre-Pixar attempt to make these movies more entertaining for adults? Or was the right to cat-call, objectify, and even grab women so accepted in our culture in the 1990s that no one batted an eyelash at it?
Re-watch this era of Disney films and there’s a surprising amount of this kind of thing.
The Little Mermaid itself had a pretty evolved prince. Sure it’s weird that a voice is the only thing he really values in a potential mate, but it’s better than looks. He seems somewhat protective of Ariel, not giving her the creepy once over when he finds her abandoned wearing a torn sail mast. And in Beauty in the Beast,”only Gaston judges Belle by appearance alone, the town indeed laments that she won’t play the benevolent sexism role that her beauty would afford her. It seemed to start to go downhill in 1995, and in 2009 started to get more feminist than ever before. I haven’t seen all the Disney movies from this time, because I was too old to watch them when they came out. Each one I watch with my kids has creeped me out. I’m not sure I want to see anymore.
Maybe those should all go in the vault forever…