To modern eyes, the classic trio of Disney princess films released between 1937 and 1959 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – can seem painfully retrograde. It took 30 years for the studio to produce another animated princess feature – but in 1989, when Disney finally released The Little Mermaid, critics praised this modern new heroine. Unlike her predecessors, the New York Times said, Ariel was “a spunky daredevil”.
And yet, in one respect, The Little Mermaid represented a backward step in the princess genre: for a film centred on a young woman, there's an awful lot of talking by men. And it started a trend. The plot of The Little Mermaid, of course, involves Ariel literally losing her voice; but in the five Disney princess movies that followed, the women speak even less. On average in those films, men have three times as many lines as women.
The stats come from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyse all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise and examine what the films are teaching about gender roles. The research is still in its preliminary stages, but they have already found a surprising result.
In the classic three Disney princess films, women speak as much as, or more than, the men: Snow White is about 50-50; Cinderella is 60-40; and in Sleeping Beauty women deliver a whopping 71 per cent of the dialogue. By contrast, all of the princess movies from 1989 to 1999 – Disney's “renaissance” era – are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 68 per cent of the time in The Little Mermaid; 71 per cent in Beauty and the Beast; 76 per cent in Pocahontas; and 77 per cent in Mulan (not counting when Mulan is impersonating a man).
Part of the problem is that, aside from the heroine, these newer films are mostly populated by male characters. “There's one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought says. “There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs. Everybody who's doing anything other than finding a husband, pretty much, is a male.”
The older princess films had fewer speaking roles in total, and more gender balance. But The Little Mermaid pioneered a new style, modelled on Broadway musicals, with their large ensemble casts. As the number of characters grew, so did the inequality. “My best guess is that it's carelessness, because we're so trained to think that male is the norm,” says Eisenhauer. “So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that's just really ingrained.”
After Mulan (1998), Disney took a 10-year break before releasing its next series of princess films. These newer films are better at giving lines to men and women equally. In Tangled, women have 52 per cent of the lines, and in Brave, about a mother-daughter relationship, they had 74 per cent. Frozen breaks with that trend, however. Despite being about two sister princesses, men claim 59 per cent of the lines.
It's of course incomplete to judge a film just by the number of words that characters say, when what they say is equally important. So far, Fought and Eisenhauer's analysis has focused on compliments – and this is where the trend is positive.
In the classic princess films, more than half of the compliments that women received – 55 per cent – referred to their appearance, and only 11 per cent to their skills or accomplishments. But in the renaissance-era films, from the 1990s, the ratio shifted to 38-25. And in the latest batch of films – The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave and Frozen – the pattern is finally reversed to 22-40.
Part of this may be down to the people at the helm of these more recent movies. Frozen and Brave were both conceived, written and directed by women or a team that included women. (Brenda Chapman, who created Brave, said that she specifically wanted to smash the stereotype.)
And the studio has been making visible efforts to inject feminism into its movies. Belle, from 1991's Beauty and the Beast, for instance, was designed as a feminist role model, with scriptwriter Linda Woolverton modelling the character on Katharine Hepburn in Little Women – “both strong, active women who loved to read,” as Woolverton told the LA Times in 1992.
Disney is clearly proud of its efforts to modernise the genre, but it has a lot of work to do. “If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there's so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and it's always feminist in some way,” Eisenhauer says. “But it never seems to have gone beyond the princess.”
Fought and Eisenhauer's research reminds us that it's not just how the princesses are portrayed; it's also important to consider the kinds of worlds these princesses inhabit, who rules these worlds – and even who gets to open their mouths.
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