Masculinity and the Disney Princess
From Disney’s first princess film in 1937 to its latest in 2013, there is no denying that the Disney Princess has evolved. If a person were to pull a Disney princess movie marathon, it would be possible to get a glimpse of Western society’s changing views of gender over more than three-quarters of a century. Disney has come under criticism in the past for its portrayal of women as the typical damsel in distress archetype, which has arguably caused the company to move in the exact opposite direction. Mainly, this means giving stereotypically “masculine” traits to the female protagonists such as independence, athleticism, and bravery. Sometimes, they go as far as making women reject men totally, or even reject their own femininity.
In many ways, this could be considered great progress. Males do not have a monopoly on traits historically (and often unfairly) associated with them, after all. Can’t a woman be independent, strong, assertive, and brave? Still, is encouraging women to be “masculine” rather than embracing their more “feminine” traits really a good influence on impressionable young viewers? Is this evolution really positive, or is it just another way to prevent self-acceptance?
The answer to this question is clear when movies with the most traditionally “masculine” princesses are looked at as a whole. While movies such as Mulan and Brave both feature protagonists who initially reject their femininity, this is an important part of their story-arcs that ultimately end with self-acceptance. If anything, they prove that a reconciliation of traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” sides, regardless of which is more prominent, lead to the strongest person.
Charming, or not so Charming?
To begin, it’s important to understand what Disney portrays as “masculinity”. As the first of a long line of movies in a similar vein, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) established many stereotypes – particularly in terms of gender – that became an important part of Disney movies for years to come. These stereotypes are ones that fit with traditional views of gender; men are portrayed as more powerful, decisive, aggressive, and heroic, while women are portrayed as passive people with very little to offer besides good looks, the ability to do housework, and a soft heart. In the early Disney movies, female characters have little to do with any significant change in their own stories. They may be the title characters, but they aren’t the heroes.
An interesting thing to note is that, for a movie that is often criticized by feminists for its less-than-empowering messages about women, Prince Charming himself has very little screen-time in Snow White. Admittedly, the movie is called Snow White, not Prince Charming, but this still raises the question of whether the film portrays men as unimportant. In addition, Prince Charming is flat and unchanging. Still, that could be argued for all characters in the movie, who seem to function solely as archetypes rather than real people. In fact, this archetypal characterization is exactly what makes Snow White such an ideal movie for study when it comes to gender ideology; Prince Charming’s limited scenes and flat characterization give a wealth of information about what it fundamentally meant to be a man in 1937.
The scene in which Snow White meets Prince Charming is the first encounter the viewer has with his character. When we first see Prince Charming, he is riding a white steed up to the castle. The background is brown, earthy, and unremarkable, which makes the lone figure of the prince stand out even more in his dark, royal blue clothes, bold red cape, and feathered cap. From this first image of him proudly riding his horse, the audience already knows several things about him; he’s bold, adventurous, and independent.
Then, all of these ideas are taken further. He hears a beautiful voice, and he follows his adventurous impulse; he is not afraid to break into someone’s home and check out this woman who has caught his interest. This is boldness that would be ridiculous today and probably end with a charge of breaking and entering, but, in this context, it is portrayed as a positive, heroic pursuit of his goal.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing, from a feminist point of view, is his pursuit of Snow White once he interrupts her singing. Snow White sings of hoping “for the one I love to find me”, yet her reaction when the prince appears is not one of recognition, but of fear. As a result, it is easy to conclude that Prince Charming and Snow White have never met before. Yes, he is polite enough to take off his hat and ask about Snow White’s feelings, like a gentleman. However, when she runs from him and slams the door in his face, he refuses to accept this rejection. He continues to harass her from the courtyard, moving closer and closer to the closed door as he sings. Worse, it portrays Snow White as secretly enjoying this pursuit.
From this, we can conclude several things about Disney’s views of men. A man must be bold and follow his instincts, regardless of the reactions of others. A man’s choice of mate can be solely based on shallow things such as the beauty of a woman’s voice and face, and constant harassment will win her over. In fact, that is a demonstration of his manly determination and drive.
The next significant scene for his character is when he “saves the day” by kissing Snow White. Again, this scene has some dark undertones; the prince is, after all, kissing an unconscious woman that he has met once. Still, it is portrayed as acceptable; he saves the day, and Snow White is happy to leave with him. Once again, the winning attributes of a man are clear; a man must protect the weak, be bold and independent, and work to get what he wants. Ultimately, this will make him a hero. Good dress sense and good looks are a plus!
One last notable thing about gender ideology in the film is the difference between Snow White and the Evil Queen. Snow White is portrayed as the perfect woman by traditional standards: hardworking, humble, beautiful, and innocent. The Evil Queen is a woman who singlehandedly has the power in her kingdom. She is portrayed as an evil witch, but her worst evil could be stepping outside of her gender role into a position of leadership. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves portrays the defeat of a woman outside of her gender role to protect a woman comfortably inside of her gender role, a feat ultimately accomplished by men.
Be a Man
If Snow White and the Seven Dwarves can be said to represent one side of the gender spectrum, Mulan (1998) represents the other. Here, we see a woman who is uncomfortable in her own skin, and who can’t find acceptance until she literally becomes a man. While Mulan is a strong character, she has to ultimately reject her “feminine” side entirely to find both self-affirmation and affirmation from others.
The song “Reflection” is the clearest demonstration of her rejection of her own femininity. Because she doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter definition of what a woman is, she rejects her identity entirely. She decides that being herself “would break [her] family’s heart”, and that she wasn’t meant to be “a perfect bride or a perfect daughter”. In the refrain, she even admits that her reflection is “someone I don’t know”. From these lyrics, we get that she is very lost when it comes to her definition of self, and she considers herself a failure for not fitting her society’s definition of what a female should be. Why doesn’t she fit these, though? It’s because of her “masculine” traits. She cares little about appearance, enjoys adventurous things like riding her horse, and is hopeless at “womanly” duties like pouring tea. Therefore, we see that her strength of character that comes with these traits makes it impossible to be accepted as a woman.
Her reasons for becoming a man are not due to her rejection of self, though, but rather for the noble cause of saving her father’s life. This is a clear example of the fearless – even reckless – protector-hero archetype from the Prince Charming days, and is yet another example of a traditionally “masculine” trait.
While she originally doesn’t fit in with the men of her military training camp, she eventually earns respect through hard work and the help of a male guidance figure in the form of her dragon, Mushu. However, what is she achieving through her hard work? She isn’t changing her quirkiness or clumsiness. Instead, she is earning respect through continuing to work for what she wants – much like Prince Charming when he meets Snow White and attempts to win her affections – and through her increased athleticism and militaristic skills. So, what does this continue to tell young viewers subliminally? Simply that to be accepted as a woman, you must take on traditionally “male” traits of perseverance and militaristic athleticism. However, whether or not this is a negative thing is debatable; women are typically taught to be submissive, and encouraging a move in the opposite direction could be an important move towards gender equality.
Mulan’s heroism against the huns continues to characterize her new “masculine” traits. Again, she takes “crazy” risks to slaughter almost the entirety of the Hun army through an avalanche. This causes her friends to dub her “the bravest of us all”. Once more, this acceptance is entirely through traditionally “male” traits: impulsiveness, rash bravery, and even violence. This is the height of her adoption of masculine traits: there are few things historically more manly than the warrior.
This all becomes inconsequential once she’s discovered to be a woman, though, proving that even male traits aren’t enough for her to be accepted by society at large; she must literally be a man to earn respect.
However, this damaging message is later contradicted when both Mulan’s male friends and the emperor learn to accept her gender. She is honoured in front of the ultimate authority in her country, in spite of her sex. In this way, she is given respect as she is… as a woman. She receives the acceptance from society that she desperately yearns for as a female hero, rather than a fake male one. The moral of this story is clear; being a real, if flawed, version of yourself is better than pretending to be someone else. Throughout the movie, we see Mulan try to be two false versions of herself: a stereotypical woman, and a man. The end result is that she becomes herself.
For this reason, in spite of its flaws, Mulan is a great role model for children. Yes, the protagonist has to become a man and take on “masculine” traits to receive respect, but she ultimately “blooms” as a woman. In addition, we see that Mulan doesn’t have to outwardly change to be accepted. She doesn’t need to give up her traditionally “masculine” traits; she’s still outgoing, adventurous, and assertive. Instead, she has to change inwardly by learning to accept that her “masculine” traits make her who she is: a strong woman who takes charge of her own fate.
The Disney Tomboy
Another case study of a “masculine” princess is the tomboyish Merida from Brave (2012). While she doesn’t “become” a man in the same way that Mulan does, she rejects traditional femininity to a far greater degree. She challenges all female stereotypes of the Snow White era; she is decisive, athletic, strong-willed, stubborn, uninterested in romance, and, of course, brave.
Frankly, Merida seems to hate being a woman and all it entails within her society. She notices the disparity between her parents’ treatment of her brothers and herself, claiming that “they can get away with murder” while she “can never get away with anything”. This injustice, and her unwillingness to accept it, already prove that she has assertiveness and insight that is unheard of by the early Disney princess.
Merida rejects suitors and is willing to risk war for her own happiness. She takes charge of her own life and doesn’t require a man to be happy or successful. She puts herself first, which is a potential parallel with Prince Charming from Snow White. After all, he is a prince, and Snow White’s stepmother is a queen. Isn’t opposing her, the central power of another kingdom, a risk? Either way, it’s easy to see that both Merida and Prince Charming go after what they want, regardless of consequences to themselves and others.
Her hobbies, in particular, demonstrate her similarity to the typical Disney prince. She loves to go on adventures with her horse, and archery is her passion. This is another show of her independence and adventurous spirit: her equivalent of Prince Charming climbing Snow White’s castle wall. More than that, her hobbies shows an acceptance of the warrior lifestyle that Mulan also lives. However, the difference between them is that Mulan becomes this ultimate male stereotype of the warrior for the necessity of protecting her family, not necessarily because of her rejection of womanhood. After all, while Mulan may not fit the typical woman in her society, she doesn’t seem to hate being a woman. Without the need to protect her father, would she have gone to war as a man? It’s doubtful. This sacrifice is also more typical of the traditional woman in the sense that she is putting others before herself. Merida is the opposite, taking up warrior pastimes by choice – purely “selfish” reasons, if you will – rather than because she’s backed into a corner. In fact, she openly admits that she doesn’t want to be a princess because her gender restricts her freedom.
This rejection of stereotypical femininity causes conflict between Merida and her mother. If Merida represents the rejection of femininity, Queen Elinor represents its embrace. This means that Merida’s rejection of her mother and her ideals can then be seen as a rejection of her own femininity.
If this is the case, Brave and Mulan actually have very similar plots. Throughout the film, Merida doesn’t lose the essential traits that make her who she is, but she comes to repair her relationship with Queen Elinor. While still respecting herself, she learns to also respect her mother’s femininity. This is about much more than a mother-daughter relationship; the entire film is a metaphor for Merida coming to terms with her own femininity… and with it, her whole self. Both Mulan and Merida, arguably the most “masculine” of the Disney princesses, are characters who make a journey of self-acceptance. Therefore, neither are movies that teach young women that a woman must be “masculine” to be strong. In fact, they teach the opposite!
A Happy Medium?
The examples so far have been extreme, but that’s not to say that there aren’t princesses in the middle of the feminine-masculine spectrum. In fact, there are a few that manage a very successful blend of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. In particular, the movies Pocahontas (1995) and Tangled (2010) offer strong female role-models that embrace their femininity while remaining strong characters with more to offer than beauty and obedience. Both Pocahontas and Rapunzel are the heroes of their own stories without having to reject their traditional gender identities.
Pocahontas embodies many typically “female” traits. She is beautiful and exotic to John Smith, which really starts their relationship. If she were less beautiful, would he have pursued her or listened to her views? Would they ever reach a new kind of cross-cultural understanding? Considering John’s initial attitude towards First Nations people, likely not. Physical beauty is certainly something that is important to her story, but, unlike the early Disney princess, she has much more to offer than good looks and housekeeping skills. Love and empathy guide her actions and are actually necessary for her heroism, even if they’re often considered weak “female” traits. Her acceptance of another culture, something that comes from her gentle spirit, allows her to risk everything to prevent a war. In addition, her unwillingness to single-mindedly pursue her desires without thinking of consequences – in the way that Prince Charming does – is an important part of her heroism. Prince Charming seemingly abandoned his kingdom to search for “love”. Pocahontas does exactly the opposite; she gives up the opportunity to be with the man she loves to act as a peacekeeper for her people and the Europeans. This sacrifice is courage to the extreme, but not something we would see from a character like Prince Charming. It’s a quieter kind of a courage, much different than battling dragons or breaking into the homes of Evil Queens. This is a woman’s courage rather than a man’s.
Her adventurous independence, assertiveness, determination, and courage are also essential parts of her, though. It is exactly the balance of traditional female and male traits that make her such a successful protagonist. She is flawed, complex, and self-affirming, and she does it without being a warrior or a tomboy. Pocahontas is a character who teaches young girls that you can be a hero while still being feminine, which is certainly a great improvement on the gender ideology portrayed in Snow White.
Rapunzel is a heroine who fights for what she wants, but, again, we see her embrace her typically female traits. She is kind, accomplished at “feminine” activities, innocent, indecisive at times, and, yes, beautiful. These are all important to her character, but don’t serve as weaknesses. Indeed, her empathy gets herself and others out of multiple scrapes throughout the movie, including befriending a tavern full of thugs and coaxing the good heart out of a wanted thief. Nevertheless, she is not a Snow White. She pursues what she wants without needing a man to save her. Her relationship with her lover is one of mutual respect rather than dependence. She is her own person, but she does it as a woman content with her gender identity.
Is this in-between princess better than complete rejection of “feminine” traits? Perhaps not. After all, Mulan and Merida need to reject their femininity first to enable them to embrace it later. They also show a different kind of woman than earlier Disney films or the in-between films like Pocahontas and Tangled, promoting acceptance of yourself regardless of how well you conform to society’s gender identities. In fact, the evolution of the Disney Princess may be helping to redefine the definition of “masculine” and “feminine” entirely. By portraying characters with varying degrees of traditional femininity and masculinity that are at ease within themselves and society, we can see that it is neither “feminine” nor “masculine” traits that truly give a man or a woman his or her gender.
With the current trend of Disney princesses, it’s possible to hope that future generations will not consider personality traits to be gendered at all. If this is the case, then the evolution of the Disney princess is truly a positive thing for youth of any gender.
What do you think? Leave a comment.