Essay: Misrepresentation of women through the Disney Princesses

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays
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  • Published on: August 2, 2018
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It is commonly said that a story is only as strong as its antagonist (Foutch, 2016) and for centuries, the age-old conflict between good and evil has been told through many different adaptations. Davis, 2006 explains that when following the traditional ‘Paradigm’ narrative structure (as most Hollywood films do), the plot is structured to depict an on-going contest of protagonist against antagonist. The antagonist, particularly in animation, usually takes the form of an evil, villainous being whose aim is to use pain and destruction to gain power; on the other hand, the protagonist takes the form of a younger, more innocent character who has to overcome obstacles in order to defeat them. The female protagonist in particular is often described as being young, beautiful, slim, subservient and overly feminine (Nusair and ThoughtCo. 2017); however, this description of a ‘good’ woman is a matter of some debate. As feminist critics have noted, Hollywood has traditionally reinforced the patriarchal, largely Victorian, value system which has dominated Western culture throughout the history of cinema (Davis, 2006). Recent discussions from feminists have raised this issue of the representation of women through these depictions of heroines, mainly focusing on the rise of Disney films and the misrepresentation of women through the Disney Princesses. Over the past 60-70 years these female protagonists have acted as role models for young girls and provides them with someone to model their behaviour on, teaching them what is accepted and desirable in our society. Whilst the heroine in these adolescent tales gives directors and animators an opportunity to teach young women how they should look and behave, it is often overlooked that the antagonists of these stories provide a platform for them to illustrate what our culture deems as unacceptable in accordance to our social standards.

Davis, (2006) adds that children are very likely to incorporate the things they see in films into their activities, thereby repeating, analysing, and incorporating into their subconscious the ideas and themes they take from them. Davis continues to explain that while there have been a number of studies in the past which have attempted to explore the effects of various media (mainly cinema) on children, these studies are of no use to modern-day researchers into media’s effect on children as they were often distorted by the attitudes towards race, ethnicity, and class during that period. Over time, specifically with reference to appearances, many animated female protagonists have always been displayed with the contemporary beauty of the era, an example being Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) who had a very ‘pin-up’ styled appearance in regards to her hair and make-up that reflected the desired beauty of the 1930s. However, it is interesting to note that since the beginning of animated family films the stereotypical female antagonists has remained, predominantly, the same, confirming the idea that the social stigma against women has also stayed the same.

PART 1

ANALYSING APPEARENCES

A first impression is vital when establishing any character. For the antagonist, in particular, this first appearance needs to exude a lasting impression of fear and dread that will both captivate and haunt the audience with every exposure. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when animators design these villains the way they do, in order to maximise this reaction from their viewers. It may however be a cause for concern when these antagonists are designed using stereotypes that reflects our cultural prejudices and what our society deems as negative attributes, especially when it comes to appearances. It is very common for a villainous character to be designed with an extreme physique that aims to give the viewer a sense of discomfort. This is much more apparent in animated films as there is a lot more allowance for exaggeration, but it does not minimise the fact that these characters can influence children’s primary socialisation and can feed into negative stereotypes associated with body image later in their lives (Li-Vollmer & LaPoint, 2003).

When thinking about the typical depiction of a female villain the most obvious physical traits they possess are usually being tall and slender with short or no hair. One of the most well-known characters with these traits is Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians, 1961; see Figure 1). Emphasised by her incredibly oversized fur coat, De Vil’s body was designed to be extremely skeletal and gaunt. Her exaggerated cheek bones and long, bony fingers put a lot of emphasis on the idea that she is ‘truly what nightmares are made of’ (Disney Wiki, 2015). Cruella’s wickedness is amplified when comparing her appearance to that of the other, human, female characters whose features are a lot softer and more conventional, for that era (see Figure 2). In a lot of ways, the appearance of this ‘devil woman’ relates back to our societies negative views on body image extremely well. As we know from her fascination with clothing from her collection of fur coats, made from the innocent animals she has killed, Cruella has had a long association with the fashion industry (IMdB, 2008), and she is shown as “a wealthy, fashion-obsessed heiress who wishes to use the skins of 99 Dalmatian puppies for a fur coat” (Disney Wiki, 2015). Although her actual career is never officially stated, Cruella perfectly represents the stereotypical CEO or Editor-in-Chief of a fashion corporation who is very egotistical and has to look a certain way, and be a particular weight based on the strict rules within the industry. It is said that Cruella De Vil is partially based upon the famous original Hollywood bad girl; the chain-smoking, fur-wearing actress of the 1940s, Tallulah Bankhead (Darcy, 2016; see Figure 3). Whilst you can imagine a resemblance between their temperament, there is a distinct difference between their appearances. So why did Disney make the decision to manipulate Cruella’s design to become a much slender woman? Other than a change in era which introduced the popular “twig” physique of the 1960s that would fit a fashionable character who clearly follows trends, the misrepresentation of her emaciated body was avoidable. This idea presented to us in such a negative way, through the form of an evil character, can misrepresent women who are skinny, unhealthy or may have eating disorders. In turn, this could deem them as also being cruel and heartless, analogous to these villains, and it does make one question what an audience finds so nefarious about underweight characters. Other examples of female villains who carry these attributes could be Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, 1959; see Figure 4), Scarlet Overkill (Minions, 2015; see Figure 5) and Captain Chantel DuBois (Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, 2012; see Figure 6). Whilst these particular characters are not nearly as extremely emaciated as Cruella De Vil, they all still display the same traits, especially in comparison to their protagonist counterpart(s) within the narrative.

Two other cases of female villains that show this same concept are Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove, 2000; see Figure 7), and The Other Mother (Coraline, 2009; see Figure 8). These women also perfectly demonstrate the adversity of the cultural expectations of body image within our society. Yzma’s angular shape is exaggerated to the point where she is more creature than human, her long eyelashes and spindly body enhances the idea of an almost spider-like being. This notion is additionally very apparent with The Other Mother, as the entire narrative of Coraline is revolved around the idea of the ‘perfect’ family with the ‘perfect’ mother, and The Other Mother’s malnourished appearance opposes that concept. We see this during the conclusion of the film as The Other Mother begins to morph into her natural, demonic form; she becomes skinnier and skinnier, and with that, less of the ‘perfect mother’ she originally claimed to be. The relationship this character’s design has made between the slenderness of her body and her incapableness to be a mother is self-evident, distorting the idea that a woman who is disinterested in family life is considered deviant, cruel and inhumane. This notion can also be related back to Cruella De Vil and her unmotherly instincts towards animals, which is intriguing due to the similar physiques they have been designed with. The great contrast between the desolate villain and the family orientated protagonist is very clear, with many family films displaying the same idea that women without children are considered bad people. In conjunction with this, the common association with the unmotherly villain being portrayed through someone underweight.

Alternatively, characters such as Ursula the Sea Witch from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989; see Figure 9), and The Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland” (1951; see Figure 10), show the antagonist as overweight, which again shows a very extreme body type in a negative way in comparison to the other characters involved in the plot. The heroines in these tales, Alice and Ariel, are both young girls who are slim with long wavy hair – the complete opposite of their villainous counterparts who are both much larger, middle aged women with very short hair. Ursula, in particular, is seen to completely overpower Ariel with her enormous body and the thick tentacles she uses to terrorize and intimidate her. However, Ursula wasn’t always depicted in this way. In the Little Mermaid’s original novel by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson, the Sea Witch was never given much description, but Charles Santore’s illustrations interprets her as much slimmer, almost commensurate to the “Little Mermaid” (Anderson, 1837). Despite also being depicted as a mermaid in this version instead of a Cecaelia , the only real difference between the two adaptations is their age. Although, at this time, the Sea Witch’s character was not yet a complete antagonist within this story, but more of a ‘neutral enabler ’, the reasoning as to why Ursula had to be transformed into a much larger female character is still unclear (Darcy, 2016). If Disney animators wanted to create an overweight character for this story, why couldn’t it be Ariel? There is a lot of leeway within children’s film, especially animation, as there is a suggestion that simple shapes and colours are presented to acquire certain adolescent responses. For example, a darker colour would naturally suggest something negative to a young child, whilst a lighter colour would suggest something positive. In the same way, it could be thought that a smaller shape is naturally considered more innocent in opposition to a larger shape, which is more likely to be considered strong and powerful (Simonson and Schmitt, 1997). With this idea in mind, one can understand that Ursula’s large design could only be to enhance her intimidating aura and her ginormous shape would heighten Ariel’s innocence in comparison. The extreme juxtaposition between the two characters physiques and the clear presentation of good and evil in these forms, gives a strong subconscious message to children, strengthening their negative societal stereotypes.

Recognising the other female villains in this chapter, there is another contrast between the representation of evil and the use of extreme body types, which can be seen as conflicting to a lot of audiences as the form of evil is being present through both extremely skinny, and extremely large characters. So where does this leave the protagonist? This idea teaches young girls that in order to fit into society and be considered ‘good’ or ‘innocent’ you have to remain slim, but not too skinny otherwise you will be considered wicked and unmotherly. Women must maintain a certain neutral weight otherwise a man won’t fall in love with them and they will be ostracised from society.

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