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The Presense Of Gender Stereotypes In Disney Princess Films

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Introduction

The recent #MeToo movement which saw several high-profile women reveal their experiences of sexual abuse in Hollywood, has led to issues such as the treatment of women and gender equality to gain greater prominence. It can be argued that such social problems arise due to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes in the media and this issue will be examined in this essay. In particular, gender stereotypes in three Disney films, Cinderella (1950), Mulan (1998) and Frozen (2013), will be analysed. Although the propagation of gender stereotypes in Disney’s earlier films has contributed to such social problems, the use of these very stereotypes in their later films to subvert such impressions is crucial to altering audience’s perceptions of gender identities. In this sense, it is not only acceptable, but salient, for gender stereotypes to be used if they are tools to undercut prevailing stereotypes.

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The make-up of gender stereotypes in Disney Princess films

Gender stereotypes in Disney Princess films are clearly evident in its earlier films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950). In these films, the female protagonists are commonly associated with traits such as being gentle, compassionate, warm, understanding and yielding. On the other hand, the male protagonists are portrayed as being ambitious, athletic, self-reliant and willing to take risks. In the films, the gender stereotypes are exemplified not only through language but also other aspects of discourse, “a unit that goes beyond the sentence”. This includes various cinematic aspects such as setting, language, the physical appearance of the characters and their behaviours.

Cinderella and its stereotypes

Cinderella is a 1950 animated feature film released by Disney to generally positive acclaim. The film was also a box-office success, earning $263. 6 million against a budget of $2. 9 million (1950). Its narrative follows the life of a young maiden named Cinderella, whose parents passed away and left her in the care of her stepmother and stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia. Cinderella remains “good” and “kind” throughout the story despite being ill-treated by her stepmother and stepsisters. The prince eventually falls in love with Cinderella after she shows up at his ball in a gown and glass slippers bestowed upon her by her Fairy Godmother and they lived “happily ever after”. In accord with its trite story arch, criticisms about the characterisation of Cinderella as “banal” followed. Gender stereotypes are clearly propagated in this film through tools including language, setting, gender roles and the behaviour of the characters.

Language

Language is not only a tool for passing on information but also a means of actively constructing one’s identity. Language is hence a prominent tool used to either perpetuate or undercut gender stereotypes. Lexical decisions constitute a speaker’s active role in the construction of his identity. The use of coarse words such as “stupid” and “fool” by Anastasia portrays her as not only a mean character but also unladylike. The function of the stepsisters as foils to Cinderella hence conveys that such qualities are undesirable in a woman. Rather, Cinderella is depicted as the embodiment of the female stereotype, that one should be yielding. Instead of the use of language, the lack of dialogue in key scenes highlights how women are expected to be submissive. Most prominently, the absence of dialogue in the ballroom scene when the Prince first met Cinderella shows how women are more passive than active in choosing a partner. The minimum interaction between both characters before they married also implies that one’s physical appearance is more important than his/her personality and other intangible aspects, encouraging the perception that women should always look flawless and perfect to be perceived as attractive by the other gender.

Gender roles

Roles of the various genders also constitute a major part in a film’s representation of gender stereotypes. According to Plato in Twelve Volumes, men’s duties are that of being “competent to manage the affairs of his city, and to manage them so as to benefit his friends and harm his enemies”. On the other hand, a woman is ascribed to duties within the household, “ordering the house well, looking after the property indoors, and obeying her husband. ” The presence of such role divisions since Plato’s time is continued on till the time of the production of Disney’s earlier films. In Cinderella, the main role and arguably, the ultimate goal of women is portrayed to be a wife and mother. This is exemplified by how Cinderella’s reward for her kindness despite her troubled circumstances is marrying the prince, a form of victory over her stepsisters.

Setting

The setting of a film not only introduces basic details such as the time period and location of the movie but also serves as a constraint of the action of the characters. In Cinderella, the narrative mainly takes place within the confines of the house, with Cinderella mainly doing household chores and tending to domestic affairs. As a representation of gender attitudes of the 1950s, Cinderella demonstrates the continued prevalence of such an ancient idea of sex-based role division. In addition, the use of the long shot that portrays the façade of the palace not only emphasises its grandeur but also its elusiveness, especially to Cinderella. The interweaving of this symbol into the narrative also contributes to the film’s perpetuation of the gender stereotype that women’s ultimate happiness can only be attained through marriage.

Behaviour

The behaviour of the characters can be considered to be one of the most important aspects of gender stereotypes, as their mannerisms are one of the most telling characteristics that would signal to the audience whether or not they adhere to prevailing stereotypes. As stated earlier, women are stereotypically seen as submissive and gentle while men are more ambitious and stronger. These stereotypes are perpetuated in Cinderella, through the use of Drizella and Anastasia as foils to Cinderella. Cinderella’s grace and poise are contrasted with the coarse and undignified behaviours of her stepsisters. The stepsisters engage in violent behaviour as seen in how they mercilessly rip Cinderella’s dress to pieces just before she is about to leave for the ball, and how they physically fight with each other over the King’s letter which commands all eligible maidens to try on the glass slipper. By pitting them against Cinderella as the antagonists of the film, Cinderella’s stereotypical traits are presented as desirable.

Relevance of Cinderella for future films

Despite its considerably unhealthy propagation of gender stereotypes, Cinderella remains an important film in Disney’s history. As a reflection of gender stereotypes of the 1950s, Cinderella brings to light the importance of the media, especially animated cartoons targeted at younger children, as one of the core contributors of attitudes towards both genders. It hence allows for more “current” films, in the sense that they work towards eradicating these stereotypes, to build on these ideas perpetuated by Cinderella to reshape audience perceptions of genders.

Mulan and gender stereotypes

Released in 1998, Mulan featured the first ever non-White Disney Princess. The film grossed $304. 3 million worldwide, proving its success and degree of influence over its audience. Mulan’s portrayal of the female protagonist is hence salient in undercutting existing stereotypes. Mulan, based on a Chinese folk tale of Hua Mu Lan, tells the story of how Mulan disguised herself as a man to take her ailing father’s place in the army after the Emperor passes orders of conscription. She undergoes training in a troop led by Captain Li Shang, son of the General of the Imperial Army. Upon the revelation of her true identity, she is ordered to return to her hometown while the troop carries on to the Imperial City. She refuses and goes to the Imperial City with her dragon guardian, Mushu, and her lucky cricket. She ultimately leads the troop to victory against the villain, Shan Yu of the Mongolian tribe, and is celebrated as the hero. Mulan subverts the female stereotype by removing such traits and portraying Mulan as someone who does not embody the stereotypical traits of a female. The film, rather, presents Mulan as a strong and courageous woman who embraces her traits and utilises them in her own way to emerge victorious from her battle with Shan Yu. In this aspect, the use of gender stereotypes as a tool to subvert the stereotypes themselves is acceptable as it attempts to reinvent the stereotypes and encourage healthier perceptions.

Setting

Mulan attempts to subvert the stereotype that women are supposed to be confined to the domestic arena, and this is most evident in the chosen setting of the film. Much of the film takes place in the open area, such as a troop camp, and the valleys the troop passes through on the way to the Imperial City. These areas expand the possibilities for the characters, especially Mulan. In open areas, she can engage in more physical activities such as climbing up a tall wooden pole and running up mountains while carrying two wooden poles on her back. Mulan is thus portrayed to be the opposite of a stereotypical woman. She possesses physical strength and engages in activities other than household chores and other more mundane activities. Furthermore, the eradication of the domestic area for a majority of the film means that Mulan is placed directly in an environment dominated by men and their associated activities. While female stereotypes can be said to be removed from this situation, its removal only serves the enhance the male stereotype. Upon her conscription, Mulan reports at a soldier’s camp where half-naked men are walking around freely and are seen partaking in “disgusting” habits such as picking one’s nose according to Mushu, Mulan’s dragon guardian. The activities that the soldiers take part in are also generalised by Mushu as “(fixing) things” and “(cooking) outdoors”. Men are thus typecast as being involved in rugged business. Although the prevalence of male stereotypes may be interpreted as the imposition of masculine traits onto females for their success, the ending of the film suggests otherwise. After being revealed as being a female, Mulan utilises her wits more than other aspects such as physical strength to concoct a plan to defeat Shan Yu. Her fellow soldiers disguised themselves as women to attract the attention of the guards, which allows Mulan and Li Shang to slip on to the balcony where Shan Yu was holding the Emperor captive. The role reversal here emphasises the identity of Mulan as a female who relies more on her own strengths rather than attempting to adopt other traits that are deemed “better” than society. This message is made more prominent due to pre-existing films such as Cinderella which promote a vastly different image of women. The ideas espoused in this film may hence incite audience to re-evaluate their current perceptions of both genders, in particular, females.

Gender roles

Mulan differs from Cinderella in its portrayal of female roles. While Cinderella portrays its female protagonist’s ultimate achievement as marriage to the prince, Mulan presents Mulan’s role primarily in relation to her family and her country than a man. Mulan’s role as a daughter is emphasised, especially since it forms the crux of her decision to disguise as a male. Her extreme action as told in the narrative is a result of her desperation to bring honour to the family which she is unable to do within the capacity of being a female in the Chinese society since she does not possess the typical traits expected of a Chinese woman such as “grace” and “poise”. This is unlike Cinderella which portrays Cinderella’s greatest achievement and reward for her gentleness and kindness as marriage to the prince. Mulan hence presents a different dimension of female roles than Cinderella and shifts the focus away from female stereotypes. However, it should also be noted that the ending of Mulan hints at a blossoming romantic relationship between Mulan and Shang, met my intense approval of Mulan’s grandmother and mother. While subtle, this remains a form of perpetuating the stereotype that women should aim to find a romantic partner in order to attain their “happily ever after”. Nonetheless, Mulan should still be celebrated as an attempt to reinvent female stereotypes, setting the stage for future films to develop on this progress towards deviation from gender stereotypes.

Frozen and gender stereotypes

Frozen was released in 2013 to positive acclaim, in particular, receiving praise for its more realistic portrayal of women as a Disney film. Frozen tells the story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa, who grew distant due to Elsa’s fear that her powers may hurt others resulting in a self-imposed isolation until her coronation. The accidental revelation of her powers on her coronation day forced Elsa out of her kingdom, Arendale, and she sought refuge in the North Mountain. Much of Frozen details Anna and Kristoff’s journey to search for Elsa to stop the snowstorm she accidentally created before she left Arendale. Right from the beginning of the movie, Frozen attempts to undercut prevailing gender stereotypes, an idea similarly espoused by Mulan. However, Frozen executes this differently from Mulan, in that it depends more on the element of intertextuality. Intertextuality allows us “to see how another outside text, a hidden quote, can both organise and modify the order of elements in a given text” (Iampolski and Iampol’skii). In other words, the element of intertextuality can be seen as a lens through which certain concepts are interpreted in a film. Frozen depends heavily on this tool to undercut female stereotypes, especially by alluding to prevailing stereotypes. In this case, the use of gender stereotypes is not only acceptable, but paramount in the film’s subversion of them.

Setting in Frozen

Just as how Cinderella is set in country headed by a monarchy, Frozen is situated in a similar setting as well. The establishing shot at the beginning of the movie depicts the castle in which Anna, Elsa and their family live. However, it should be noted that unlike other fairy tales such as Cinderella, the grandness of the castle is not emphasised. This can be seen in the dark grey exterior of the castle, which blends in with the darkness of the surroundings. This contrasts with the depiction of the grandness and elusiveness of the castle in Cinderella. The allusion to the stereotype that princesses who live in castles are dignified is immediately undercut in the next scene as Anna and Elsa are depicted as having a typical sibling relationship. In the next scene, young Anna wakes Elsa up and pesters her to play. This immediately makes the characters seem more relatable to the audience and hence makes them seem less elusive, unlike the typical royal characters portrayed in the earlier Disney films. This subverts the stereotype that girls are supposed to behave in a dignified manner all the time, which Cinderella propagates. In addition, similar to Mulan, Frozen situates Anna outside the comforts of the palace as she ventures into the snowy mountains in the search for her sister. In this outdoor setting, Anna demonstrates her wits and knowledge of the ways of the streets. Shortly after losing her horse and being forced to buy new clothes from a wooden shack in the mountains, Anna meets Kristoff, an iceman who sells ice for a living. To get him to take her to the North Mountain where her sister is, she buys him a sack of carrots which he failed to get earlier. This demonstrates her grasp of the concept of bribery, presenting her as the foil of a sheltered girl. This again subverts the stereotype that women are naïve, a concept perpetuated in Cinderella. The references to parallels in earlier films such as Cinderella is thus an indication of the use of intertextuality in this film to make its themes more prominent. The perpetuation of gender stereotypes in films such as Cinderella is hence crucial in setting the stage for more recent films to progress from these anachronistic notions.

Gender roles

In Cinderella, a woman’s ultimate goal is portrayed as attaining her “happily ever after” with the love of her life and becoming his wife. The stereotype underpinned here is therefore the dependence of women on men for their happiness. However, this notion is deliberately rejected by Frozen, seen most prominently in its ending scene. The reliance on intertextual references is seen in the scene again as Anna rushes back to Arendale from the North Mountain to be reunited with her supposed true love, Prince Hans, to whom she was engaged at the beginning of the film. She needed “an act of true love” to “thaw (her) frozen heart” as it was struck by one of Elsa’s ice icicles. By priming the audience to think that a true love’s kiss from Prince Hans is going to save Anna, the revelation that he only wanted to marry Anna for her crown was made more impactful. It was ultimately Anna’s love for her sister that motivated her to protect Elsa by putting herself between Elsa and Prince Hans’ sword. An “act of true love” was thus reinterpreted to include sisterly love rather than romantic love. The intertextual reference to the common trope of “true love’s kiss” thus makes the subversion of the stereotype of women’s dependence on men even more poignant. However, it can be argued that Frozen did not entirely undercut the stereotype of women’s happiness as dependent on men since Anna and Kristoff developed a romantic relationship by the end of the movie. Nonetheless, this romantic relationship was only a by-product of Anna’s love for her sister which gave her the courage to leave Arendale and enter the mountain range alone. It was only during that process that she came to know and love Kristoff. Frozen hence still remains a relatively good attempt at undermining stereotypes perpetuated by earlier films.

Conclusion

Ultimately, gender stereotypes are used in Cinderella, Mulan and Frozen to either sustain or subvert these impressions. Because Cinderella does not balance out its gender stereotype with other politically correct ideas, its use of gender stereotypes would not be considered salient in its representation of a fairy tale. Regardless, it still provides an important stepping stone for future films to question these stereotypes. Mulan and Frozen do attempt to repackage the gender stereotypes and hence contribute to a healthier formation of gender roles and stereotypes in its malleable audiences. Undoubtedly, both films still have room for improvement in terms of re-representing prevailing stereotypes. They can strive towards the representation of more realistic body types or refrain from overcompensating when attempting to undermine prevailing stereotypes. Nonetheless, these films are still a reflection of society’s progression towards breaking away from these stereotypes and cultivating improved attitudes towards either gender.

15 July 2020

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