Behind the Magic. An Examination of Gender Representations in Disney Princess Feature-length Animations

Bachelor Thesis 2017 43 Pages

Sociology - Gender Studies





Chapter One: Introduction
The Development of the ‘Mouse House’
Happily Ever After

Chapter 2: Investigating Gender
Stereotypical Ideas of Gender
Explaining Gender Differences
Gender in Hollywood Cinema
Gender Stereotypes in Disney

Chapter 3: The Study

Chapter 4: Discussion
The Damsel in Distress and the Knight in Shining Armour
The Independent Heroine and the Feminised Man
The Post-Feminist Era?

Chapter 5: Conclusion


Appendix – Coding Manual

List of Tables

Table 1: The findings of the content analysis

Table 2: The top five most commonly displayed behavioural codes


This study offers an examination of gender representations present in the Disney feature-length animations incorporated into the Princess Collection. The import of such films has become increasingly relevant in recent years due to the increased anxiety around media representations and the development of the Princess franchise into a dominant aspect of Disney. In attempt to test the claims of the existing debate and update the discussion through the inclusion of male protagonists, as well as female, the method of content analysis was adopted to conduct an in-depth analysis of; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Frozen (2013). This choice of films enables us to trace how these representations have changed overtime to reflect the changing attitudes of gender in mainstream society, to answer the question of; to what extent do Disney princes and princesses represent traditional gender stereotypes? After data was collected the results of the content analysis were interpreted by drawing on literature and situating them within their historical context. The findings have shown that these princesses have evolved from passive damsels in distress to much more active, dynamic heroines. Whilst the male characters were found to have experienced less change but have become more feminised. However, both were found to still be influenced by traditional stereotypical ideas.


I would like to acknowledge the sociology teaching staff at Keele University for providing me with the skills to complete this Dissertation. With special thanks to the Programme Director, Dr Emma Head, for delivering the dissertation workshops and Dr Jane Parish, who supervised this dissertation.

I would also like to thank my parents, Donna and Andrew Hilditch, and fiancé Benjamin Beech, for their continuous support throughout the last eight months.

Chapter One: Introduction

In recent years, there has been an increase of concern regarding the socialising function of media sources (Connell, 1987). This is especially true to children’s media as popular culture is assumed to provide a basis for children’s learning from an early age (Giroux, 1995). Disney has come to dominate children’s media, allowing it to be one of the largest producers of cultural symbols (Madison, 1995). This has initiated considerable academic attention. Whilst some have focused on the business model of Disney and the concept of Disneyization, others have drawn attention to the studios productions, opening its content up to a range of criticisms (Bryman, 2004). Disney have been accused of creating a range of stereotypes, arguably one of the most controversial issues in Disney’s animated films is gender (Giroux, 1999: 98).

Therefore, gender representations in Disney were chosen as the topic of study; however, the focus was limited to the feature-length animations incorporated into the Disney Princess line (Princess, 2017). This was because, Disney has become a prolific author of the princess, making this franchise prominent (Davis, 2006; Do Rozario, 2004). Content analysis was used to assess the extent to which the princes and princesses of these films conformed to gender stereotypes, but before discussing the study and its findings we must first situate the research in the existing debate. Therefore, a brief history of the studio and the development of its princess franchise will be outlined, before moving on to identify what gender stereotypes are and explore how gender has been portrayed in Hollywood cinema. We will then review the current debate regarding Disney and gender and present the findings of the content analysis. Finally, these findings will be interpreted and contextualised, allowing an in-depth discussion of the representation of gender and enabling us to conclude how these representations have changed overtime to suit changes in social attitudes.

The Development of the ‘Mouse House’

Disney, as we know it today, is “one of the richest and most powerful multi-media conglomerates and corporations in the world” (Davis, 2006: 15) which has come to monopolise the market with an ever-growing range of products, reaching a global audience (Brode, 2005). This Disney brand has been built around Walt Disney Studios, which has provided us with a canon of films since 1937 (Towbin et al, 2004). These films have remained an important part of American and European childhood for 80 years and are shared intergenerationally, allowing the earliest films to still have a hold on children’s entertainment today (Towbin et al, 2004). Due to this, Disney has become culturally important, therefore, is worthy of study (Davis, 2006). Although, this has not always been the case, so how did Disney come to be “one of the largest media companies in the world” (Towbin et al, 2004: 19)?

After losing the rights to Oswald the rabbit and falling close to bankruptcy, Walt created the iconic character Mickey Mouse who, following the success of shorts, such as Steamboat Willie (1928), struck Disney various deals with companies to produce Mickey merchandise, keeping Disney afloat in the early 1930s (Davis, 2006). This convinced creators to finance the first animated feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 (Davis, 2006). Marking a milestone in the evolution of the studio as it signalled a move away from slapstick animation towards more realistic, believable animation, capable of sustaining an audience’s attention for a much longer period (Davis, 2006). In order to do this, Disney appropriated the fairy-tale narrative which had previously dominated folk stories; leading to the birth of Disney’s princess genre, which this study is concerned with, as all of these films are adaptations of fairy-tales (Zipes, 1995). This revolutionised the studios animation and sparked a growth in Disney.

Happily Ever After

Folk tales were originally told by storytellers in prehistoric communities to; explain events, emphasise community harmony, communicate common beliefs and teach a moral way of living (Zipes, 1995). As well as providing happy endings to soothe anxieties in times of uncertainty, they also played a key part in cultural understandings, by influencing the identity of individuals and helping them to make sense of the world (Zipes, 1995). Through appropriating this genre, Walt rose as the storyteller of the 20th century and “obfuscated the names of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and Carlo Callodi” (Zipes, 1995: 21). Consequently, Walt’s name became synonymous with fairy-tales and his studio became a symbol of magic and happiness, with a reputation for producing safe family entertainment (Davis, 2006; Zipes, 1995).

This storytelling role allowed the studio’s films to take on a socialising role to educate society about traditions, historical events and complex, real-life themes – such as; love, death and morality (Davis, 2006). Due to this, Disney has come to possess cultural hegemony and impose dominant ideology on its audience by promoting the values of white, middle class America on a global scale (Giroux, 1995; 1999). This enables them to control imagination through subliminal messages, disguised by enchantment (Brode, 2005). Davis (2006: 222) claims that this teaching of hegemonic values is enhanced by the fact that Disney’s endless supply of happy endings remain significant and profitable long after their initial release, allowing them to emerge as “an integral part of the American social fabric”. Therefore, Disney is much more than a producer of entertainment and pioneer of animation, as it has become an icon of American culture which can shape our understanding of who we are (Attebery, 1995; Giroux, 1999).

This has influenced academics to move beyond seeing Disney animation as transparent entertainment to critically look at the cultural and social messages it conveys (Giroux, 1999). Many have accused Disney of cleansing history and exploiting children as consumers (Bryman, 2004; Giroux, 1999). However, most relevant to this study are those criticisms concerned with Disney’s representations. As Giroux (1999: 17) informs us, although Disney is presented as a land where “fantasises come true, happiness reigns, and innocence is kept safe through the magic of pixie dust”, behind this magic lies ideologically loaded stories. Therefore, those characters assumed to be positive role models may communicate damaging messages, which legitimise inequalities within society (Giroux, 1999). With the rise of home entertainment, anxieties around the effects these representations have on children have become topical (Davis, 2006: 218). Arguably one of the most telling lessons of Disney is that of gender which is what the rest of this essay will be concerned with (Bell et al, 1995: 10).

Chapter 2: Investigating Gender

To enable us to examine how gender stereotypes have been represented by Disney princes and princess, we must first establish what gender stereotypes are and how they have been represented in the film industry as a whole. An interdisciplinary approach will be taken to; draw on sociological ideas of gender, explore issues discussed by film theory and cultural studies, and consider the historical context of gender. As Connell (2005) claims in his study of gender practices, gender is a complex concept which has attracted much scholarly interest. Despite this complex nature, there is consensus around what is masculine and feminine, forming stereotypes (Connell, 2005).

Stereotypical Ideas of Gender

Connell (1987: 167) coins the term ‘sexual character’ which promotes a unitary model of gender by identifying different traits, outlooks, abilities and personalities of men and women. This allows us to understand masculinity and femininity as binary opposites which are given meaning in relation to one another (Connell, 2005).

According to Curry (2008), the concepts masculinity and femininity, are rooted in tradition and communicated through a range of discourses which teach us how to behave in gender appropriate ways from an early age (Pilcher, 1999). As a result, some behaviours have become inseparable from the gender they are associated with, leading to stereotypes which legitimise inequalities, allowing gender to structure society (Connell, 2005; Curry, 2008).

Pilcher (1999) explores the idea of gender as an ordering social practice, claiming that at the bottom of the gender hierarchy is femininity, whilst at the top is hegemonic masculinity; informing us that this was largely due to the gendered division of labour following the industrial revolution. As women became confined to the home where they fulfilled the caregiver role and were responsible; for rearing children, satisfying their husbands needs and maintaining the household – forcing them to be inferior and economically dependent (Connell, 1987; Witherspoon, 1985). Whilst men fulfilled the breadwinner role, which centred around authority, endurance and physical toughness, resulting in masculinity belonging to the public sphere, helping them to assert their superiority over women in a patriarchal society (Connell, 2005; Pilcher, 1999). According to Rowbotham (1999) motherhood also became a serious commitment during this time due to the rise of seeing children as in need of care following the abolishment of child labour. This reinforced their confinement to the home and meant that they were typically seen to embody undervalued qualities, such as being caring, passive and expressive (Curry, 2008; Pilcher, 1999). Such roles have developed into common-sense stereotypes and have influenced the idea that women should be pretty and slim, whilst men should be handsome and muscular (Seilder, 2006).

Explaining Gender Differences

In the late 19th century stereotypes were explained through biological differences as traits were believed to be inherent to the sexed body (Connell, 2005). This was particularly true to the construction of femininity as women’s reproductive capacities meant that they were closer to nature and consequently more irrational and affected by emotions, making them the weaker sex (Seidler, 2006). Meanwhile, men were associated with rationality, which was highly valued since the enlightenment period and their muscular stature helped to portray men as strong and powerful; hence legitimising women’s subordination to men (Curry, 2008; Seidler, 2006). However, Connell (2005: 21-2) contrasts this by claiming that we are culturally cued to exaggerate these biological differences, generating sex roles that promote stereotyped expectations attached to one’s biological sex. Pilcher (1999) expands on this, claiming that we are not born with innate characteristics but are rather socialised to internalise traits to fit into gendered categories. This suggests that gender is non-unitary as both masculine and feminine behaviours coexist in everyone and are just performed to varying degrees by individuals, as opposed to being biologically determined (Connell, 2005; Pilcher, 1999). The idea of gender being a social construction formed the basis of sociological ideas of gender in the 1950-60s and has since become central to the work of feminist researchers, giving hope that if the duality of fixed gendered categories is a social construction, it could surely be deconstructed (Connell, 1987; Seidler, 2006).

Seidler (2006) informs us that 2nd wave feminism recognised how stereotypical gender roles were subordinating women and set out to challenge this; arguing that, with no biological basis, these characteristics should not be generalised to all women (Pilcher, 1999). This supported the idea that gender is non-unitary, suggesting that individuals should have the freedom to construct their own personality and that social roles should be “negotiated within relationships with no prior assumptions” (Connell, 2005; Seidler, 2006: 89). Simone de Beauvoir was one of the key thinkers of this feminist approach, arguing that one is not born a gender, but becomes one afterwards (Rowbotham, 1999: 280). More recently, Judith Butler furthered such arguments by claiming that sex too is a social construction with no essence which precedes its performance (Thornham, 2005: 290). Such ideas led to the acceleration of progressive social movements which fought for the emancipation of women in the latter half of the 20th century (Connell, 2005).

Enabling the destabilisation of gender discourses by changing social attitudes and initiating developments such as, the contraceptive pill, which gave women control over their reproductive capacities and freed them from the burden of child bearing, allowing them to pursue careers first (Knee, 1993; Pilcher, 1999). This also led to the rise of a more feminine man as the breadwinner role diminished; consequently, calling for a reworking of masculine and feminine idioms (Pilcher, 1999; Rowbotham, 1999:). Thus, individuals have been assumed to be less confined to gender stereotypes in more recent years, implying the distinction of genders in terms of being active and passive no longer resonates (Seidler, 2006). Although, Witherspoon (1985: 77) recognised that despite emancipation, “traditionalist attitudes on occupation stereotyping” remained and women’s subordination persisted. According to Connell (1987), these ideas are reflected in popular culture, as the media has become an agent of socialisation with representations that rarely go beyond conventional discourses (Pilcher, 1999). Before narrowing the focus to Disney, the discussion will be situated in the context of broader Hollywood cinema.

Gender in Hollywood Cinema

Hollywood cinema is a representational system where gender stereotypes are highly visible as stars typically conform to the heterosexual ideal and narrative structures centre around patriarchal ideology (Bozzola, 2001; Gledhill, 2005). These ideas are supported by feminist film theory which identifies film as offering a male point of view of the world, which reinforces prejudice stereotypes and damages self-perceptions by offering limited gender representations (Thornham, 2005: 10). Therefore, according to Cohen and Hark (1993: 2) film equates masculinity with “activity, voyeurism, sadism, fetishism and story” and femininity with “passivity, exhibitionism, masochism, narcissism and spectacle” in order to preserve male hegemony. As a result, female characters usually had little character development in early cinema and were often shown to be sitting around waiting for a man, reinforcing their seclusion to the private sphere and dependency on men (Rowbotham, 1999). This fixed position meant that women were reduced to glamorous figures who often froze the flow of action or represented narrative closure, whist the male protagonist held the power in the film and made things happen; implying that narrative structure was controlled by an active/passive gender divide and therefore reflecting wider society (Lauretis, 2005: 87-8; Mulvey, 2005). This relates to Mulvey’s (2005: 62-3) concept of the male gaze which identifies women’s role of “to-be-looked-at-ness” and suggests that their presence in film works against the storyline and positions them as objects of desire. As Thornham (2005) observed, female spectators often have a strong sense of identification with characters. Therefore, with the rise of women whose roles revolve around men and physical attraction, accompanied by the proliferation of elegant female figures, such as Marilyn Monroe who portrayed an ideal image of femininity in the 1950s-60s, enabled Hollywood cinema to maintain gender order by encouraging women to see themselves as objects of desire (Rowbotham, 1999; Smith, 2005).

Meanwhile, films for a male audience represented masculine anxieties and asserted manhood at a time when masculinity was in crisis (Gabbard, 2001). As Fischer (1993: 70-1) claims, men returning from war in the late 1940s experienced hysteria about manhood when leaving this world of toughness and male solidarity for a world where women had entered the male domain of work (Rowbotham, 1999). This disrupted the hyper-masculine ideal, generating a crisis of masculinity and initiating the emergence of cults which encouraged men to assert their superiority through violence and chauvinistic behaviour (Connell, 2005). Hollywood cinema appropriated such ideas through the likes of Rambo, which adopted the “tough guy persona” (Knee, 1993: 87) to address tension and reinforce men’s power (Connell, 2005). Likewise, figures such as Clint Eastwood emerged to represent a macho image of what men should be like (Knee, 1993: 101). In more recent years however, Hollywood has recognised the changing attitudes in society. Consequently, Hollywood’s women have undertaken journeys of self- discovery, portraying them in more active roles (Aronson and Kimmel, 2001). Similarly, men have been liberated from the emotional constipation they once suffered and are now able to express emotions within the world of film (Robinson, 2001). This implies that the active/passive divide has collapsed (Bozzola, 2001).

However, femininity is still associated with domesticity and helplessness in a substantial proportion of Hollywood cinema and many action films featuring domineering male protagonists continue to be produced; suggesting stereotypical views are still upheld (Pilcher, 1999). This is particularly true to children’s media, which Disney has come to dominate (Pilcher, 1999: 110).

Gender Stereotypes in Disney

Several key texts on the topic of Disney and gender were identified and must be considered to enable us to situate the study within existing discussions. All of the texts reviewed recognised that, due to Disney being a sacred entity which symbolised innocence and magic, it has been largely absent from film theory and attempted to address this by stressing that Disney must not be disregarded as pure entertainment (Bell et al, 1995; Giroux, 1999). Although there were some opposing views about the approach we should take to looking at Disney. Whilst the majority of the texts saw the need to look at Disney through a critical lens and deconstruct their content to uncover the ideological messages, which promoted capitalist and patriarchal views behind the magic of Disney (Murphy, 1995). Brode (2005), provided a much more positive, open-minded approach towards Disney’s messages.

As stated, Walt took on the storyteller role in the 20th century, through the appropriation of folk tales, allowing his studio’s productions to become cultural artefacts which blur the boundaries between entertainment and education (Bell et al, 1995; Davis, 2006). It is this educating function which has formed the basis for many critiques of Disney as teachings have been questioned and are often accused of being problematic and stereotyped (Davis, 2006). Davis (2006: 83-4) recognised that, through introducing a female protagonist, these films presented women as more important, as they were no longer insignificant foils created for their male counterparts, like in the Silly Symphonies. However, these prominent characters have been accused of promoting cultural stereotypes by conforming to the image of the perfect, all-American, typical girl, challenging the idea that these women were empowering (Davis, 2006). Such messages have been problematised by critics who claim, that due to Disney’s teaching role, their films encourage the internalisation of outdated stereotypes, especially amongst children (Davis, 2006; England et al, 2011). Brode’s (2005: 270) arguments contrasted with these critiques as he disagreed with this damnation and perceived Disney’s messages much more optimistically. This led Brode (2005) to claim that Disney’s representations were not as problematic as others assumed, as no group was singled out and stereotypes were only in keeping with their satirical artistic approach of caricature. He furthers this by claiming that Walt was committed to providing positive teachings, demonstrated by the introduction of EPCOT and the iconic ride ‘it’s a small world’ which celebrates multiculturalism (Brode, 2005).

Despite these opposing views on Disney’s teachings, all of the texts agreed that the love conquers all narrative was central to Disney’s animation (Giroux, 1999). This is because, Disney’s adaptions of traditional tales have emphasised love though the incorporation of a romantically linked male and female (Davis, 2006). Consequently, the love at first sight cliché has come to dominate Disney and “someday my prince will come” has emerged as a theme song for their heroines (Brode, 2005: 186; Murphey, 1995). Similarly, these films commonly end at a wedding scene and living happily in marital bliss is assumed, helping Disney to uphold hegemonic ideas around marriage and chivalry at a time when divorce is increasingly common (Bell et al, 2011; Davis, 2006). By clinging to the idea that heterosexual love is women’s ultimate goal, Disney relies on traditional gendered roles (Madison, 1995). Therefore, as Davis (2006: 101) claims, these fairy-tales follow stereotypical storylines with easily identifiable archetypes of commanding, handsome males who are naturally strong and heroic, coupled with “kind, graceful, good-natured, beautiful” girls (Putman, 2013).

Davis (2006) furthers this by recognising Disney’s women’s passivity as an unquestioned representation and observed them to be preoccupied with beauty and romantic relationships, as opposed to practical concerns which became associated with men. Likewise, Bell (1995: 120) and England et al (2011) recognised these women as having a “mesmerising presence”, making them subject to the male gaze. Meanwhile Disney’s men embody a range of traditionally masculine attributes such as ambition and rationality and often see women as property, allowing them to be depicted as powerful (Giroux, 1999). The way these characters are illustrated also communicates stereotypical ideas as men are often broad shouldered, squared- jawed and muscular, whereas women are beautiful with perfect hair and unrealistic waist sizes (Putman, 2013: 158-160). This allows Disney to promote the idea that those complying with “narrowly defined gender roles” (Giroux, 1999: 98) will be rewarded and have their dreams granted. This has led to the accusations that Disney brainwashes young girls and serves male status quo by: pushing them towards domesticity; creating a desire to be thin and beautiful; manipulating them to believe that true love is their destiny; and encouraging them to see themselves as ornamental and supress intellect (Brode, 2005: 171; Towbin et al, 2004). Putman (2013) informs us that, such damaging messages are reinforced by the rescue scenes of the princess animations. This is because, although princes occupied a marginal position in the films, they were highly active in the climatic scenes; whereas princesses often sat around waiting to be rescued (England et al, 2011).



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behind magic examination gender representations disney princess feature-length animations Sociology Feminism Masculinity Film Children's media Dissertation




Title: Behind the Magic. An Examination of Gender Representations in Disney Princess Feature-length Animations