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Essay: Gender stereotypes enforced on female leads in Disney films

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  • Published: 11 March 2022*
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Disney has always been a big name in the entertainment industry for over ninety-five years, capturing little minds and being a part of every child’s life. Therefore Disney movies have a significant role to play in influencing young minds. This thesis is a qualitative study of gender characterization and the representation of gender roles in Walt Disney’s animated movies. This content analysis examines how female roles are depicted in six selected Disney animated films from a time span between 1940-2015. The selected films include Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mulan (1998), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012) and Frozen(2013). Mainly, this research attempts to determine whether there is an imposed expectation of beauty and physical appearance along personalities depicted by female protagonists and antagonists in the films as mentioned above. This research also explores whether there are gender stereotypes enforced on female leads and other female characters in these films; and if there is a change and improvisation in the representation of women as female protagonists and antagonists from Cinderella (1950) to Frozen (2013).

Taking the Feminist Standpoint Theory and Hegemonic Theory as a research tool, the study revealed that the six selected films had specific norms and perceptions when it comes to female beauty. In essence, female protagonists are all beautiful, with outstanding white skin, perfect shiny hair, and elegant body structures. However, the negative female roles portrayed in these movies are mostly older women with pale white wrinkly loose skin with messy hair and a very large or extremely lean body structure. Furthermore, the research findings indicate that Disney films during 1950-2000 had gender stereotypes enforced on the leading female character. The main female characters are caring, naive, modest, and belong to a high social class, and even higher after meeting their charming prince leading to having a happily ever after. The antagonists in these Disney movies are portrayed as the polar opposite of the protagonists. The antagonists are cruel, cunning, egotistical, and they end up down the social ladder.

Ultimately, the study shows whether the representation of women as a female lead character has progressed and evolved over time and if animated films female characters have developed from stereotyped roles to more motivated characters.


The animation industry has evolved becoming a complete behemoth in the entertainment world.

Although recent animated films need large teams to operate well for ages, they have always been the most prosperous and successful of any genre of film. For several people, the term “animation” starts and ends with Walt Disney. With further inventions and groundbreaking creations throughout the 20th century (and even after) than we could ever expect to mention today, Disney’s studio and their turbulent past have set a precedent for the whole animation field.

Films Fairy tales have always been a significant part of every individual’s life. Fairy tales were initially written for adults; however, by the late nineteenth century, adults started telling their children more of these fairy tales, which in turn made it extremely appealing for the kids. Fairy tales educated children and engaged them in being creative and imaginative. Disney was a brand that created these imaginative fairy tales into influential animated movies. These creations of Disney was widely accepted by not only kids but adults also. The founding of Disney Studios is the most significant turning point in animation history so far. 2017 was the 100th anniversary of animated feature films. Today, animated movies are box office juggernauts.

Over the years, Disney has produced fantastic pieces of work which includes animated feature films, their theme parks, children’s’ books. Walt Disney’s first animated feature film was released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was extremely revolutionary. This was the first feature to use cell animation, which was said to be the main form of animation until the introduction of software and technology. This was their first step towards success in the entertainment industry. Their fantastic work turned out Disney to be a big brand in the entertainment industry that is always remembered. Their dominant means of storytelling has played a significant role in shaping and influencing the minds of children and young adults. This has led Disney studios to be the most prominent media conglomerate in the world. This thesis will discuss the stereotypes and representation of women in selected animated films that Walt Disney Studios has created over the last ninety-five years.

Disney has been battling the media and its viewers for several years for being blamed for depicting their characters, especially women, in a stereotypical way. Gender stereotypes and their connotations play a crucial part in our society and can affect audiences and the manner they relate oneself to others around them. Media has also had a tremendous impact, representing what is required of cultural and social norms (Garnder, 2015).

From the mid-nineteenth century until now, Disney has evolved in the representation of their female protagonists, especially princess characters. The representation of female characters evolved according to the cultural ideals and social norms of a particular era. This portrayal depicted society back during that period. While Disney, now recognized as a prominent pioneer in the Hollywood film industry, it is still unclear as to how Disney has responded to evolving expectations and views regarding social norms and gender roles. Therefore, I consider undertaking literature reviews of case studies and journal articles on similar topics that are previously published, as well as studying cultural trends and improvements over the period from the creation of Cinderella in 1950 to part one of Frozen in 2013.

Through this research, the protagonists and antagonists portrayal of women in Disney movies have been intensely studied and analyzed. This study determines if Disney, being one of the six largest media conglomerates, perpetuates the correct representation of women that kids should be taught. The lead female characters, as well as the female antagonists of six Disney animated movies, have been studied. Analysis of this research will also look into if and how the characteristics of these main lead characters have changed, and if they were stagnant over time. The six movies include Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mulan (1998), Tangled (2010), Brave (2012) and Frozen(2013).


Media and Gender Roles:

The representation of different characters in the media has influenced in stereotyping character traits and gender roles in the society. One way of describing gender roles is the fact that gender roles are viewed as a collection of behavioural “norms” that are generally associated with males and females that belong to a particular culture or community (Yerby, Baron, and Lee). A women’s skills, personality and ability are often characterized by the typical traditional portrayal of gender roles by the media.

Children and teenagers of this 21st century have been brought up in the generation of media and technology surrounding them. This, in result, has become a considerable part of their lifestyle and has influenced them more profoundly. The power of the entertainment industry such as television, music and movies today has become one of the most significant aspects of an individuals life. As per the statistical data, there are 116.4 million households in the United States of America with at least one or even more televisions (Newswire 2015). Apart from that, American citizens alone invest 250 billion hours every year watching television (Tonn, 2008). The immense control of the media influences the complex issue of gender roles. Gender roles are perceptions of how women and men should perceive, behave and respond (Ruble, Martin, & Berenbaum, 2006). Inside cultures, there is typically a gender hierarchy that rates one gender more dominant than others (Hatfield, 2008). This is most commonly seen by male dominance over women, or female reliance on men (Hatsfiel, 2008).

“There are different types of observational behaviour that are commonly found” as quoted by Kretchmar, and they are live, verbal instruction, and finally, symbolic media. Cohen says that “the stereotypical representation of female characters by the media and the impact of this theory could harm a child’s increasing sense of self-confidence. Cohen also discusses the appearances and behaviours of Disney villains, which often deviate from acceptable portrayals of the gender stereotypes. In the end, Cohen believes that this portrayal connects pseudo-conforming people as individuals who seem to be unreliable and rambunctious.

It also noticed how such representations could influence the way kids behave and dress. Eventually, several studies concluded that the more restrictive a child’s perception of his or her gender, the more certain it was to adhere to traditional conceptions of gender, including clothing, pragmatism, and body language when interacting with anyone and everyone.

While movies and television programming is not a genuine or realistic representation as to what life is like; however, unfortunately, many children assume it is (Tonn, 2008). Kids also relate themselves to movies and television characters and the lifestyle their characters represent. These also affect societal standards and create intolerance among their peers (Palmer, 2013).

Society has set specific social standards regarding gender roles which is even passed on to every child. These social norms play a vital role in influencing young minds and having an impact on their life. In today’s world, according to societal norms, girls are stereotyped and considered to play with dolls, wear vibrant outfits and be engaged in extra activities like dance and music. In contrast, boys are considered playing sports and video games. These societal norms and set expectations are what has made children restrict to certain boundaries, and those who do not follow these are expected to face the consequences later on. Such kids are at risk of being bullied, discriminated against, and even assaulted by their family, friends, teacher and other adults (Gardner, 2015). Often children obtain knowledge regarding gender roles and other views or values from the media(Tonn, 2008).

Beauty and Personality Traits of Women according to Fairy Tales:

The idea of constructive consumption describes how girls actively look up to popular media representations, experienced societal constraints in princess characters, invented character acts, and revamped story plots to create their counter-narratives. More and more acquainted a kid is with the plot of her most favourite princess character, the more possibly the child will participate in actions or behaviours that he/she thought his/her favourite princess would be doing.

Various storytelling methods have always been a tool of persuasion for individuals. In the Increasing prevalence and Persistence of Feminine Standard of beauty in Kids Fairytales, a review by Lori Baker-Sperry and Liz Grauerholz (2003) from Purdue University, scholars have observed that “feminine attractiveness is a dominant influence in fairy tales. It is found that 94 per cent out of 168 Grimms’ stories remembered the actual presence of protagonists (such as appearances, physicality, attire, and much more of both sexes) with a total of 13.6 comparisons for each plot. Nevertheless, female beauty has been listed 114 times, while male beauty has been referred to 35 times across every novel, suggesting that feminine attractiveness is still extremely emphasized in fairy tales.

Furthermore, the study reveals that appearance and attractiveness plays a significant role for young women than elderly women. A significant percentage of stories that include younger females have been portrayed as attractive, attractive, or fairest in comparison to old characters. “In conventional fairytales, elderly women are characterized as hags, witches, and wicked stepmothers or wicked stepsisters such as the Cinderella’s Stepmother.” (C. Claire, 2012).

Evolution of Portrayal of Women in Disney Films

Over the years, Disney has successfully created a lot of popular, recognizable, and widely accepted characters through their cartoons and animated movies. It became widely popular that these characters created by Disney were used for educational purposes to students. Disney’s characters became a part of every classroom. With this, it is clear that Walt Disney Studio has a broad marketing reach. Their films, particularly the ones in the “Princess Line,” have for ages described femininity and masculinity in a particular way. Just like the young generation are inspired by the characterizations in these films, Disney inspired the public for more or less a century


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