Women representation through Disney animated movies on examples of Snow White (1937), Pocahontas (1995) and Brave (2012)

A visual essay by Petra Marić

Every culture and country has its own typical gender representations and behaviours that are present in the society but are changing over time, namely as sociological, economical and political changes come over the society so are also the gender representation changing. This particular theme of gender roles and its portrayal is very interesting and has various, numerous fields where one can ”dive into” and research  the latter. However, in this visual essay I have chosen to interrogate the women representation in animation movies, namely in Walt Disney animated films. Today, Disney is known all around the world, and as Sims states, it is the biggest and largest media organization and movie producer (ibid.,3).

Most often Disney is compared to the Brothers Grimm, from where he took some stories and rewrite them, but not just from them, Disney took the writings of various other authors and presented them in a new way through animation and film. To all those tales he gave a new shape in a way that they reflected his own vision of American culture (Inge, 2004). As Zarranz also argues: ” The tendency to rewrite traditional fairy and folk tales has flourished in the world of Hollywood cinema with the cultural and commercial icon of Walt Disney” (2007:55).

Walt and his movies play a big and important role in defining the young women in his pictures, namely all his female characters have formed the romanticized worldviews of generations of girls. Moreover, Disney has established female identity and created an unreasonable expectations in love and marriage (Hoppenstand,2013). Young girls watching those pictures fall under the influence of animated, unrealistic Disney princesses, who then get lost in their world, and expect in their ‘real’ life ”prince on a white horse”. Furthermore, Morrison (2014) states that most of Walt’s films have a similar platform, namely one plot which is the center of the film, of founding romantic love, that is a brave handsome prince and a princess who needs rescuing either from physical or emotional danger.

In such plots and princess characters are not just young girls lost in, but also the females of all ages. Since media has the strong influence on people’s mind, Disney managed to leave a remarkable trail in shaping gender roles and expectations (Betik, 5).

Many scholars contributed their critics and analysis of different Disney princesses, but very few have considered to look at the changing female roles and portrayals through Walt’s films. The lack of this kind of perspective stimulate me to contribute to those few scholars and write about the change of female portrayals and femininity over time, taking three Disney movies, namely the first from 1937 Snow White, Pocahontas from 1995 and finally the movie Brave from 2012. The reason I chose those three films from those specific years is to get the clear picture at the end how Disney has prograssed during the years in redefining the gender norms. Garabedian (2014) divided Disney’s princesses into three categories, namely in Pre-Transition, Transition, and Progression. In her first category, which covers the years from 1937 to 1959, fits the first princess Snow White; in the second category of Transition, the princess Pocahontas has its place and in the final category of Progression, which begins only from 2012 with the princess Brave.

Firstly, I will give the analysis of the Snow White, later of the Pocahontas and finally of Brave, in order to stress at the end their relatedness and differences and at the same time to present the changes that occured in the representations of Disney women.

Snow White (1937)

The inspiration for making an animated film of Snow White, Walt got from watching a silent version of Snow White in 1915 and fell in love with it. From that moment on, he started doing fairy tales with the ”happily ever after” endings, since he didn’t have any in his private life, rather he undergone through many struggles (Mollet, 2013). The story of Snow White can be found across the world in many different versions, but they all have the basic structure, namely the origin, jealousy, expulsion, adoption, renewed jealousy, death, exhibition, resuscitation, and resolution (Inge, 2004).

image 1Disney’s Snow White is firstly presented in rags and scrubbing the floor of her Stepmother’s, the queen’s castle. Snow White is good, kind and she patiently awaits the coming of her prince. As Mollet (2013) here argues, Snow White’s acceptance of her heavy situation can be applied to the mentality of the American people during the Depression.

image 2Furthermore, what is unique in this movie is the singing, namely Snow White sings of her wish to find the prince and for him to take her away, and as the prince appears they two continue to sing together of their joy and happiness. However, much happens before they two conjoin together in marriage, that is the Huntsman saves her from execution, but she is unable to return for fear of death and she is then sent out into the world with no food, no water and no place to live, which is again applicable to the situation of plight that affected many people across America (ibid, 2013). Snow White never gives up hope and her dream of finding the love, and even when she meets the dwarfs, she is still singing of her prince. Mollet (2013) states that Snow White’s union and her marriage with her prince are at the center of Disney’s tale, making society hopeful for their own ”happily ever after”.

Inge (2004) continues, the Prince saves the Snow White and carries her, as in many Hollywood romantic movies, on his white horse to their new life together. The author argues that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs reflected the people’s attitude of that time toward the women’s role in the society, and have continued to portray women as ”passive vessels of innocence and virtue” (ibid, 200:141).

It is important to emphasize again that at the time of the film, namely the 1930s, was the time of Depression and people were struggling everyday, so Walt wanted to spread hope and positivity among the people by making this movie. Nevertheless, Mollet (2013) argues that Snow White could represent a lost culture, lost values and a loss of the simple life, that American people will never attain back.

Pocahontas (1995)

image 3This Disney’s heroine from 1995 Pocahontas steps out from the usual frame of Disney heroines and is a complete opposite from the Snow White of 1937 who passively waits to be rescued and dreams of her prince. Pocahontas was well accepted because this new heroine is now an adventurious young woman who believes in herself and is independent (Dundes,2001).

In Walt’s film, it is 1700s and English arrive in Virgina to plunder the land. At the same time our heroine Pocahontas and John Smith meet for the first time  and slowly their passion towards each other start to rise. When Smith has to return to England because of his wounds at the end of the film, Pocahontas is left with the decision whether she will follow him or stay. Surprisingly, Pocahontas decides to stay and fulfill her obligation towards her villagers (ibid, 2001). She embraced a role of an adult and put her villagers needs in front of her own desires and wishes. This decision separates Pocahontas from typical Disney princess who waits to be rescued by her prince, as on the other side, here Pocahontas must rescue the male role, John Smith. In the moment when her father wants to shoot Smith, who lies powerless on the ground, Pocahontas steps in front of her father and in that way saves Smith.

image 4As Dundes (2001) argues, Smith’s bravery at the beginning is driven by his adventurous spirit, but at the end he becomes a target, instead of the Chief, in order to keep the peace. Furthermore, Pocahontas learns that her actions can make a difference, and her action is to save John Smith. She is driven by emotions, rather than by rational thought.

In a society at the time of the movie, people had difficulties to accept the appropriate role for women, as well as their changing roles, like Pocahontas went through her transformation from self-indulgence to altruism. To quote the author: ”. No one expects the two sexes to be identical , yet portrayals that reinforce limitations on women’s function in society should be replaced with roles that place no boundaries on what women can acheive” (ibid, 2001:363).

Brave (2012)

The last example is the movie Brave from 2012 that shows how the role of women protagonists have changed, namely now the woman adopts very masculine traits.

image 5The movie centers around the young princess Merida and her relationship towards her mother. Merida, together with her mother Queen Elinor, her father, King Fergus, and her three little brothers lives in the Scottish Highlands. Merida’s hobbies are horse riding and archery, which she enjoys perfecting. After her parents tell her it is time to get married, Merida proposes the archery competition, namely that she self shoots for her own hand, which at the end she beats all three of her suitors. That results in a big fight between Merida and her mother, when afterwords Merida runs away into the forest and finds the witch, who gives her the spell in a form of a cake that later her mother eats and turns into a bear. Ultimately, Merida is the one that can reverse the problem, which at the end she succeds, and the last scene shows Merida and her mother riding horses together (Morrison, 2014).

image 6Firstly, Merida’s appearance is clearly different from the previous Disney princesses and heroines, namely Merida has orange big messy hair, rounder face and more realistic body proportions. Her clothing is more comfortable even though she does wear a dress. As for her character, she is presented as a strong individual who doesn’t submit hersef to the patriarchal ideas and rejects to partake in the usual domestic activities that often are performed by other Disney princesses. As Morrison (2014) states, she challenges typical gender roles in a way that she does many activities that are traditionally associated with the male characters. Another unusual example is that we can always see Merida eating, stealing cakes and other sweets, which before we couldn’t see by other princesses.

Although she doesn’t fit into the typical frame of Disney’s princesses, she still has some typical gender norms of the princess. Betik gives the example of typical princess norms which also appears in this movie Brave, that is saving the kingdom that Merida has to do by using her princess lessons to repair her mistake (ibid, 8). Furthermore, the central and main plot of this movie is not the marriage, but Meridas seeking not to get married, and also her relationship with her mother, which is the main point of the movie.

How have the Disney women roles changed over time?

Above presented examples of three Disney movies from different time periods give us the answer to the research question, namely how have representation of women changed over time. It is clear that the year when the movies are made are crucial in analyzing the Disney’s heroines and princesses, since Walt draw his motivation and inspiration from that time’s reality and society. In another words, they are an important aspect of American culture that had the task to entertain but also to shape the worldviews by all generations.

What connects all those three princesses and heroines is their clothes, namely the dress and their princess skills to save their kingdom.

Snow White is the stereotype of the princess, with her elegant posture, white skin color and black hair. She had all good virtues and above all, the patients in waiting for her prince on a white horse. This story resembles the 1930s America, the time of Depression. As Mollet (2013) argues, Snow White represents America, namely its suffering from poverty and hunger, and it dreams about better times that can only come through positivity and goodness, not through greed or selfish desire for material goods.

Fifty-eight years later the situation in America is quite different from the time of Snow White, rather now women are more engaged in the society and they are finding a new jobs. Unlike the time of Depression when they had to keep the family together while the man was in war, now their role has progressed and they found their place in society. Pocahontas is a great example of that time, namely she breaks the stereotype of Snow White-like princesses, in that she fights for what she believes in and is driven by her emotions. Nevertheless, Pocahontas’ romantic relationship and her need to nurture is not so different from the role of Snow White.

Disney changed completely the physical look of his 1995 princess Pocahontas and made her beautiful Native American woman with dark skin and hair. She still radiated with feminitiy and elegance, even though she went through many adventures.

Our last heroine made in the 21st century, namely in 2012, stands out from the previous mentioned princesses not just in her looks but also her character and the movie plot. Seventy-five years past since the Disney’s Snow White and many things have changed. The movie Brave does not have the marriage as the central focus, rather the relationship between the mother and daughter is what matters. To improve their relatioship both Merida and her mother have to learn first about themselves, that is to be patient and to take action. In other Disney movies there was patience as one of the traditional atributes for women, but now action is also something that the main female character has to posses, that gives her independence to act herself and to fit into a society. As Zarranz (2007:12-13) states: ”Merida bravely and consistently completes actions deemed “inappropriate” for a woman despite the disapproval of those around her, and in doing so acts as a strong model for others who do not fit into society’s narrow conceptions of gender”.

At the end, it is obvious that the characters in Disney’s stories have become more masculine and less oriented on marriage and waiting the right prince to come. The stereotypical women roles are changing, with women still fighting for their rights and voice. Disney tales, among many other visual arts, is a great platform to use to reflect on the everyday’s society, but also to teach younger generations that it is good to be different, and that with action,  positivity and determination one can achieve their dream goals.


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