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Gender Roles in the Disney Universe: The Influence of Image

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4910 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Gender Roles in the Disney Universe: The Influence of Image

Table of Contents



Why Disney?…………………………………………………………………………………Pg.6

Early Depictions of Gender in Disney Films Compared to Now…………………………….Pg. 7

 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs……….……………………………………….Pg. 7

 Peter Pan……………………………………………………………………………..Pg. 8

 The Princess and the Frog……….………………………………………………….Pg. 10

 Moana …..…………………………………………………………………………..Pg. 11

 The Classic Disney Formula……….………………………………………………..Pg. 12

The Depiction of Villains……………………………………………………………………Pg. 14

Should Disney Cartoons be Taken as Nothing More than Entertainment?………………………Pg. 16

Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………….Pg. 17

Bibliography…………………………………………………………………….………….Pg. 18




 For nearly a century, The Walt Disney Company has held the torch for animation and has become a staple for the word fun.  The reach of Disney is far beyond the TV screen, with merchandise being sold in nearly every store in America.  Due to the power Disney possess, they have notably influenced gender roles throughout the years.  As society changes, Disney studios has attempted to adapt to the societal norm, but is not always met with the best audience reaction. 

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 The Monarchy of Disney really began to grow in 1938 with the release of, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s first animated full length film.  This film was followed by major titles such as: Bambi, Dumbo, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, etc.  As time passed and society changed, people began to realize just how much characters, anywhere from the heroes to the villains, from these Disney movies were imprinting subconscious definitions and ideas of gender into the minds of children and adults. 


 In the far off world that is the 1920’s, a man named Walt Disney and his cartoon mouse, then named, “Mortimer Mouse”, began to take the world by storm.  From fairy tales to epic movies about love, Disney has reached an audience of millions.  In modern years, Disney has become one of the biggest influencers in pop culture and is often expected to reflect society and culture in a positive way.

 Though it may seem as though a child friendly animation studio would be the purist form of entertainment, for years Disney Studios has been criticized for the interpretation of their characters.  For the past forty years, one of the biggest issues in society has been gender roles.   Since Disney movies cater to children, it becomes an issue of how the child can compare and interpret themselves through the character on the screen.  Due to this and other criticisms, Disney has attempted to soften the social and political messages in order to have more entertainment value (Abler, 2008). 

 Disney is often brought up when discussing gender roles, because it was around for the gender shift during times of war and the women’s rights movement in the 1940’s.  Therefore, the films produced often reflect societal changes and developments.  That in turn makes Disney a visual timeline of behavioral norms.  However, as adaptive as Disney claims to be, there are still underlying commonalities throughout most of their films, that often stir disapproval and criticism. 

 Through numerous articles, books, and Disney films, some core questions that will be focused on will circle the way gender roles have been portrayed through out Disney’s time.  This will be done by breaking down the time line and comparing early Disney Creations (1920-1953) such as, Snow White and Peter Pan, to today’s modern Disney films such as, The Princess and the Frog and Moana.  In addition, character structure will also be analyzed from the heroes/princesses to the villains in numerous films.

 These films were chosen because often people overlook the underlying message the characters are conveying to the viewer.  Also, because Disney mostly produces animated films, the characters are often so out of this world that important character choices are unnoticed. 

 The questions that need to be answered are along the lines of what is the issue with the way Disney Studios projects genders in their films?  How are both males and females portrayed in these films?  Finally, should cartoons be regarded as nothing more as entertainment?

Why Disney?

The Disney Corporation was founded by Walt Elias Disney in 1923.  Disney signed a contract with M. J. Winkler to produce the Alice Comedies.  The Alice Comedies surged in popularity because of the creative aspect of having a live action girl in an animated landscape.  From that moment on, the  Disney Brother Cartoon Studio took off.  From 1923 to today, The Disney Corporation has created at least 142 full length films but owns 1,400 domestic titles.  Today, Disney affiliates include, ABC, ESPN, PIXAR, MARVEL, FREEFORM, and LUCASFILM just to name a few (Disney Company). 

 Disney’s reach is so vast and constant that it hardly gets a second thought.  In this moment, a total of ten Disney movies will be produced by the end of 2018; they have eleven movies in the works.  Their merch is sold in nearly every store, and have platforms other than the big screen such as the TV station and the Disney YouTube Channel.  The Disney viewing experience has moved past the theatre and into the home with DVD’s or digital copies.  Due to this, the issue of influence can be more present than it was in past eras (Junn, 1997).  It is nearly impossible for an American child to grow up without Disney influencing them in some way. 

 Disney’s capability to market themselves and reach a large audience is a small part of the larger picture.  Disney films are an important topic to discuss because the stories they tell have major influence on children and will continue to do so into the future.  The most important developmental time period for humans is the ages of 6-14.  In that time, a sense of identity begins to form.  So if films, yes even cartoons, aren’t being held under a microscope and properly discussed, examined, or criticized, children and young adults could possibly end up reaching adulthood with a false sense of identity, branded by their favorite 2-D characters.

Early Depictions of Gender in Disney Films Compared to Now

 In the 95 years that Disney has been around, the world and society has undergone many changes.  Understandably, movies of 1938 and now will be drastically different, but by how much?  To analyze Disney’s early productions as a whole, titles must be chosen that not only reflect on the obvious, like princesses, but also movies that have other stories to tell. 

 It is only fare to start at the beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because the film was the start of Disney’s popularity and controversy.  The skeleton of the story was taken from the Brothers Grimm’s original fairy tale.  However, Disney chose to eliminate the gore and brutality of the story to appeal to a wider audience (Abler, 2008).  The film follows Snow White’s story with the appeal of catchy music, lovable characters, and the classic “lived happily ever after” ending.  Snow White is portrayed as the perfect woman, since in the time period, a fourteen year old was considered of age.  She is the beautiful, gentle, loving, and orderly, which is what was expected of woman at the time (Yerby, Baron, Lee).  Snow White is able to solve the dilemma of being homeless after escaping the evil queen by essentially becoming a good house wife for all seven dwarfs.  Her cooking and cleaning skills are put to use through most of the movie and even glorified through song.  Snow White’s story is dominated by the Prince, who is only in a few scenes, because he is shown to be the heroin, saving Snow White in her great time of need (Wasko, 1996).  Thus, the damsel in distress trope was factionalized.  The role of Snow White only reinforced the ideology of women being good house wives to their husbands, especially during that time in America. 

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 The release of, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was an incredibly anticipated event.  The original trailer for the film stated, “See for yourself what the genius of Walt Disney has created in his first full length feature production!”.  When it was available for the public in February, the film grossed eight million dollars.   Eight million dollars in the 1930’s is the equivalent to $114,662,325.60 in 2018.  Clearly, this movie was loved and reached a large audience.  The timing of the release and the coloration to real word issues created a connection to the characters as viewers began to see parallels within themselves. 

 This issue with this is the world of the 1930’s, the time of The Great Depression and war, is vastly different than it is now.  However, the film still lives on and is viewed by children on a daily basis.  Due to Disney failing to be as “progressive” as it is now, today’s children are still growing up with a dated view on gender roles. 

 Moving away from the flawed Princess edifice, we have Peter Pan.  Before getting into the main characters of the story, it is important to observe the family dynamic of the Darling household.  Mrs. Darling, though only in the movie for a short while, is a proper woman who respects her spouse.  Mr. Darlings is the obvious man of the house, making family decisions even if the general consensus is against his ruling.  Mr. Darling is the sole provider of the family, while Mrs. Darling takes care of the children at home.  Mrs. Darling’s opinions and thoughts are overwhelmingly pushed aside by her husband.  This is perceived as a relatively normal part of life for a woman to sacrifice her beliefs so that the man can benefit (Madsen, 2000). 

Family structure is a key part of teaching a future generation.  As Mrs. Darling teaches Wendy to be proper and how to respond to a man’s dominance, Wendy grows the skills that will enable her as the mother of the lost boys.  In contrast, though vague, the actions of Wendy’s brothers John and Michael mimic that of their father.  Once the boys arrive on Neverland they refuse to listen to Wendy and only respond to Peter or the other boys. 

In this way, the family becomes a powerful force of socialization for both men and women. The family produces individuals who have internalized society’s hierarchical relations by defining themselves, and being defined, according to the structure of patriarchal capitalist relations (Madsen, 2000).

 Since the family is structured this way, even while off on an amazing adventure, Wendy must assume the gender-role that was taught to her while her brothers experience the events without a care in the world.  Sure enough, the overall image of Wendy is beautiful, gentle, loving, and orderly. 

  The original outline for Peter was taken from the book, “The Little White Bird”, which was later translated into a play.  Throughout, all variations, Peter remains a fun loving fighter that doesn’t want to grow up.  Peter is seemingly loved by all in Neverland and has a knack for the ladies.  This is a stereotypical gender-role for males.  As Peter demonstrates, boys should be brave, fighters, and independent.  Peter, being the leader of the lost boys and a respected figure in Neverland, creates most of the rules and enforces them, making him, in some ways, the sovereign.  Gender-roles for males have been shown to be just as complex as female roles, however, as a result of “masculinity” a slight problem ensues (Eller, 2015).  Peter’s whole purpose in life is to not grow up, however, because the children are conditioned to address the female leader as “mother”, they begin to refer to Peter as the “father”.  Though Peter does not seem to mind, this now affects Wendy.  Since, in a figurative sense the two are parenting, Wendy cannot object to some choices made by Peter.  Once again, this in turn leads to Wendy taking on the responsibility of a proper women in the 1900-1950’s when the movie was released.

Though the old wave of Disney movies had its flaws, Disney has adapted to new demands and beliefs, or have they? 

Disney’s adaptation of The Princess and the Frog was a milestone for woman, especially woman of color.  The main character, Tiana, is an African American woman who is working unbelievably hard to make her dreams come true.  The movie takes place in 1920’s New Orleans.  Throughout the movies, we can see an honest depiction of how woman and woman of color were treated in that time period.  Tiana’s male boss continuously states, “You ain’t never gonna get that restaurant.” and the Real Estate Business owners refuse to sell it to her because, “a little woman of your background would have had her hands full trying to run a big business like that.” Tiana’s strong will and hard work is overlooked, until Prince Naveen comes into the picture.  True, Tiana may not be a physical damsel in distress, but emotionally and financially, Tiana is being saved by Prince Naveen.  Throughout the movie, we see Tiana’s strong will bend to Naveen’s charms.  However, we also see Tiana become the mother/caregiver figure to Louis the alligator and the prince.  Tiana cooks, bosses, and keeps things orderly for them.  The occurrence of domestic house work is an important and reoccurring theme in the Disney Princess movies (England, Descartes, Collier-Meek, 2011). 

Prince Naveen is the stereotypical male, portrayed as carefree and fun loving.  If you were to compare that overall feature to other Disney males, it would unarguably align.  A theory for this is, males whose biological make up is different from that of a woman who is programmed to be a mother, must assert themselves creatively through displays of talent, skill, and charm (Pan, 2001). 

Though this particular movie does try to combat stereotypical norms by putting them at the forefront, the overall movie plot still follows a dated storyline that Disney has not cared to fix. 

The most modern addition to the Disney Princess film collection is Moana.  Before the release of the film, Moana was being highly anticipated and criticized.  The anticipation stemmed from Moana’s background of being a Pacific Islander and the lack of representation of the culture in Disney films.  However, the criticism was based off of the same excitement.  People were tired of seeing redundant characters within Disney’s films and wanted an accurate representation of a young woman of Pacific Islander decent.  Disney addressed both sides of the spectrum by stating they had done research in the Pacific to insure the movies authenticity.  Whether Disney delivered on the cultural portrayal is up for debate, but what about redundancy of characters?

Since there has been a classic trend of guidelines showing up in the last three movies discussed, how does Moana differ or relate to them?  In all three films, Snow White, Peter Pan, and The Princess and the Frog, all of the female characters have been beautiful, gentle, loving, and orderly.  Moana is a beautiful young adult with a loving personality, shown through her interactions between her grandmother and family.  In some cases her character can be considered gentle and orderly, however, this movie takes place 3,000 years ago in a time where “proper” was not a part of society.  Disney took into account the massive time difference between Moana and their usual time periods. 

Another key part of the three movies was the male role, being dominant in the story and necessary for the woman lead to complete her goal or ascend.  Moana is the main character of this story; she has the entire ocean on her side helping her along her way.  However, Moana cannot complete the task given to her, unless she finds Maui.  Maui then helps her by opening the gate to the monster realm and fighting off Te Fiti near the end.  Even with the largest and oldest mass of substance on the planet fighting alongside Moana, the story could not function without a man saving the day.  Maui is the embodiment of a carefree male and follows the same pattern of being convenient as to change/teach Moana so that she can be able to reach her goal. 

This is a clear example of the Classic Disney Formula at work.  In all Disney movies, the storylines seem to recycle a number of basic guidelines.  These were the guidelines that started Disney and the values represent Walt Disney’s own conservative values along with his notion of what the audience would be willing to see (Wasko, 96).  The guide lines are as follows:

  1. Escape and Fantasy”:  Throughout Disney movies, the characters often find themselves wanting to go on an adventure or escape their situation, whatever they might be.  Often it is depicted through songs.  Snow White’s song, “I’m Wishing”, tells the story of her wanting her prince to take her away from her current situation.  Though not through song, the Darling children wish to go on adventures, like the ones their mother tells them.  Tiana wishes to lead her own life and business and displays her passion through the song, “Almost There”.  Moana wishes to see the world and sail beyond the peaceful reef of her home island.  This is perfectly told by the song, “How far I’ll Go”.
  2. Innocence”:  Walt Disney once said, “ I do not make films primarily for the children.  Call the child innocence. The worst of us, is not without innocence, although buried deeply it might be.  In my work, I try to reach and speak to that innocence.” (Elliot, 1993).  The worlds of Disney film are often pure and an escape from the day to day reality of the real world. 
  3. “Romance and Happiness”:  One of the largest Disney tropes is “love at first sight”.  Often, the entire plot moves around the story of love and ends with “happily ever after”.  Most problems in the Disney Universe are personal and possibly romantic.  Therefore, stories end happily and the negative ideas of failure are not explored. 
  4.  “Sexual Stereotypes”:  As explained through the break down of the four films, Disney is notorious for having generic stereotypical characters throughout all of their works.  It can be argued that, in trying to update this part of the formula, the result is the reinforcement of classic Disney values. 
  5.  “Individualism”:  The American ideology of the individual helping themselves to become greater and achieve their goal is a common theme throughout both genders.  By watching a film where the character male or female works hard to achieve their goals, the viewer is more inspired to do the same and be more like the character.
  6. Reinventing Folk Tales”:  Obviously, Disney is no stranger to reinventing classical literature.  However, some of the overlying themes in the original stories are undermined to push Disney’s ideal narrative.  Good triumphing over evil (Real, 1983).

By following this strict formula, Disney has been unable to truly evolve and advance their overall message when it comes to gender.  Afterall, Walt Disney himself said, “Girls bored me.  they still do”.  This alone is likely the cause of Disney’s portrayal of female gender-roles and in turn male gender-roles.

The Depictions of Villains

 Some of the most important depictions of gender and gender roles are portrayed by the villains of the Disney universe.  Due to the fact that Disney female characters are often displayed as “ultra-feminine”, this creates a huge contrast to their female villain counterparts.  Some of the counterparts include, Ursula to Ariel, Maleficent to Aurora, Lady Tremaine to Cinderella, so on and so forth.  Disney protagonist are often beautiful, well-formed, and desirable, while female villains are “ugly” and extremely thin or tremendously fat (Wasko, 1996). 

 Ursula is an interesting example to discuss.  Her character concept was taken from one of the a famous drag queens of the time, Harris Glenn Milstead.  Ursula purpose for looking, sounding, and acting the way she does is to de-feminize her.  Her large breast and love mark on the cheek are dramatizations of womanly features.  Her voice is gravely and deep, making her sound more mainly. Her hair is cut short and white, an off hair color for the time period in which the movie was released in 1989.  Ursula’s queerness creates a sub image of her, so rather than being a sea witch, she becomes a crossdresser (Sharmin, Sattar, 2018).

 Another extremely prominent example of a female villain is Yzma from, The Emperor’s New Groove.  In contrast to Ursula, her womanly features have been stripped from her character.  She dresses in stylized clothing, yet she is flat chested and has no figure.  She has makeup and long eyelashes that only work against her character.  This exact same character outline can be said for Cruella de Vil.  This is a classic way of creating female villains, either purposely exaggerating qualities or completely taking them away.  The question can then be asked, what about male villains? 

 Male villains are typically portrayed as overweight and brawny, however, as social beauty standards dictate, is not necessarily unattractive.  Gaston and Ratcliff both fit this description and neither are inherently ghastly in comparison to the female villains.  Other male villains include Captain Hook, Hades, Prince Hans, Shan-yu, and Jaffar.  Though some may have unique qualities, as stated before none are as over exaggerated or feminine.  In the contrary, their character design often attempt to make them look as cunning and slick as possible (Sharmin, Sattar, 2018).

Should Disney Cartoons be Taken as Nothing More than Entertainment?

 At the end of the day, Disney is a corporation; corporations always have agendas.  Disney must be criticized and put under a microscope because the cultural influence that they exercise in our society.  In addition, The Disney Corporation is driven by profit and aims to please ideas and values that will reward them best.  Though challenging this sort of media is often referred to as “liberal regulation”, it is important to bring attention to structural changes that must be made (Giroux, Pollock, 2010). 

 As mentioned before, Disney is one of the most influential things in pop culture.  Disney movies have and will continue to reach millions upon millions.  It is important to make sure the generations that follow are being shown films that will impower and inspire them, not imprint gender-roles onto them. 

 Many may argue that cartoon are just cartoons but they are way more than that.  The target audience that they are created for are so much more moldable and impressionable.  Adults may be able to overlook certain aspects of characters but, a child’s mind is programmed to mimic and take over traits that are shown to them.  It is absolutely important to regard Disney films as forms of media.  Just like news stations trying to sway a viewer one way or the other, Disney films do more than just entertain.



 By showing the reach of Disney, we are able to see just how influential they can be without people noticing.  In addition, by breaking down films from the past to recent releases, it becomes obvious that The Disney Formula has not changed.  Gender-roles remain the same as they were in the 1930’s with a hint of rebellion. 

 Also, it has become clear that princesses and main characters are not always the main issues in Disney films.  A villains image plays an important part in depicting a “bad” person in a child’s life.  Not only that, but it is clear that Disney tends to depict their female characters in a much harsher fashion.  While in contrast, the males get a more complex and “cool” designs. 

 Disney should consider themselves responsible and spread a neutral message in their films.  It is possible to spread a positive message if they were to leave the old ideas of gender in the past and move forward with better messages in mind.  It is important for adults to speak up against biased messages and help to create a progressive world with less tearing down and more building up. 



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