In a previous post I discussed the stereotypical aspect of cartoons, and I want to further this research by focussing on how Disney portray female characters in their films. An interesting piece which also looks at this subject is this collaborative assignment by Amanda Yerby, Samantha Baron and Youjin Lee.
The piece brings up some interesting points – Disney has often depicted women as the weaker sex in the past, particularly when recreating fairytales in which there is a ‘damsel in distress’ who must wait for a valiant knight or prince to save her. In the case of retelling a classic fairytale, I don’t think Disney had the option to portray the female role differently without affecting the whole story.
The only other major part females would play (outside of the fairytale realm) until late is the ‘fem fatale’ role in which she would be driven by vanity to try to undermine the protagonist. Ursula from The Little Mermaid springs to mind, her goal is to have Ariel’s delicate voice and have Ariel as a shriveled sea creature. This domineering persona paints a vicious and dark picture of the female of the species (the song by Space seems quite fitting). There are also some male characters with similar goals such as Edgar in Aristocats who wants to get rid of the cats so he will be the recipient of Madame Adelaide Bonfamille’s fortune.
In the past 10-15 years I feel the roles in Disney films have started to change for the better, portraying woman as more capable beings. One character who illustrates this point well is Amelia from Treasure Planet – this feline humanoid is the first lady of the RLS Legacy in the film. She’s a perfect example of a female heroine in children’s film, she’s well spoken, agile and takes no-nonsense. She’s a solid rock for other characters to stand on, like the hyperactive and constantly flummoxed robot B.E.N.
Disney have also moved on to have female protagonists who save the day, like Mulan and Merida from Brave. These characters show a more naive determination and drive which is inspiring to see, I think they’re a good role model for young girls, however it’s ultimately up to the audience to allow themselves to be influenced by a film. I have two nieces who are 2 and 5 years of age and the eldest wants nothing more than to be a princess, but she likes to play fight too. We re-enact all the films she’s seen, I often end up either saving her from a monster or her dad who plays the baddie while simultaneously sitting on the couch watching TV (he’s very talented), or I play the role of the baddie who she battles with and kills. Whether the aspiration to be a princess is naturally appealing to a young girl or whether she has been conditioned to like that image by her experiences of the world so far is hard to tell. The same goes for the more ‘violent’ side. My niece has also recently discovered zombies, and I now sometimes laggardly and crookedly rise from where I’m sat to slowly chase and ‘bite’ her while morbidly groaning (I make a stellar performance). I suppose this is some sort of evidence supporting the argument that children are strongly influenced by what’s around them, and there are traits which aren’t hardwired into them. A counter argument would be that the more instinctive feminine traits of motherhood and empathy are naturally present.
Conclusively, I think Disney are managing to balance the portrayal of female characters well, there is still a sense of delicate beauty in some of the characters, which I feel there always will be, however there is a diverse number of roles played by females which are also played by males in their other films.