The average Canadian child watches nearly 14 hours of television each week (Stats Canada, 2007). Children’s films and media play a serious role in constructing the personality and development of a child’s cognitive and social development. Throughout childhood, media exposure is part of sociocultural factors that promote gender representations for girls and boys (Harrison & Cantor, 1997). The National Association for the Education of Young Children researched and found that, children in the early school years start to become conscious of race, ethnicity, gender and disabilities. Children develop their own identity during preschool and elementary school years (Ramsay, 2003). Considering children have a confined exposure of their surrounding, they are especially susceptible to being influenced by media stereotypes. Disney films maintain a big-name in children’s media consumption. This paper will talk about the gender representation in Disney and how gender and sexuality interact with one another to provide a routine dose of gender stereotype, the kind of characters Disney portrays in its films and how the effect of magically “fixing” life may have an ever-lasting effect on children’s social development.
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The Little Mermaid in 1989, proved to be a major success for Disney corporations. Disney’s creation of the teenage mermaid, Ariel, propagated the beginning of an ideological debate among feminist scholars. As Laura Sells (1995) explains, “the mermaid figure becomes both an icon of bourgeois feminism and a sign of the stakes in reinventing the category of “woman,” or reimagining women as speaking subjects”. A different line in criticism describes Ariel as “the very embodiment of being a woman”. Ariel tries to do everything in her power to allow the prince to fall in love with her. She even gives up her voice so that she can have legs (Byrne and McQuillan, 2000, p. 23). Similarly, it has been argued that Ariel was modelled after a “slightly anorexic Barbie doll” with “a thin waist and prominent bust” (O’Brien, 1996, p. 173) thus, portraying a dangerous model for young women. Stereotyping can have a negative affect. Disney usually portrays females as docile and emotional, with limited or no occupations and show subliminal sexual messages. For example, Ariel asks Ursula how she will be able to attract Eric without her voice. Ursula responds as she swings her hips, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language.” The witch then comments that women who hold their tongue get the men and that men don’t like conversation anyway (Clements, 1989). This sends a wrong message to children, especially girls.
“Beauty and the Beast”, gives the message that love of a woman changes a horrible beast into a handsome prince. Maio argues that the message is “if a young woman is pretty and sweet-natured, she can change an abusive man into a kind and gentle man. In other words, it is a woman’s fault if her man abuses her” (Maio, 1998, p.17). Susan Jeffords (1995), points out that in no versions other than Disney’s is the story told from the Beast’s perspective, by explaining the curse at the beginning instead of the end (p.166). This persuades the audience to feel compassionate more so with the Beast knowing what is at stake for him. In the Disney movie, the Beast is selfish, resulting in the curse. He must not only cause someone to love him, but to also love that person in return. This person is never questioned to as anyone other than a woman (Jeffords, 1995, p.167), and his love is never challenged as whether it must be heterosexual. It clearly shows that Disney does not entertain sexuality other than hetero; children of same sex marriage can possibly be scrutinized by their peers. The story becomes the Beast’s more than Belle’s (masculine domination is clear) to continue the patriarchal class tradition of Disney.
Marcia Lieberman (1972) argues that traditional fairytales uphold traditional values and instead of introducing feminist ideas, original fairytales actually “acculturate women to traditional social roles” (p.383). Byrne and McQuillan (1999) argues in Deconstructing Disney, domesticity is a goal for Disney’s characters, using examples such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast to prove their point. Snow White domesticates the Dwarves; both the Beast and Gaston offer Belle a domesticate role as a wife. Jack Zipes (1995), in “Breaking the Disney Spell,” affirms this view of the recurring theme of the domestication of Disney women. He describes Disney’s heroines as “helpless sexualized ornaments in need of protection, and when it comes to the action of the film, they are omitted” (Zipes, 1995, p.37).
Marwan Kraidy’s (1998) article about Disney’s Aladdin describes Jasmine in quite the same terms as one would Belle. Jasmine, like Belle, is “on the surface strong and independent but in fact submissive and dependent” (Kraidy, 1998, p.50). Both have no mothers (the closest construction of a motherly character is Rajah, Jasmine’s pet Bengal tiger, and Mrs. Potts, the enchanted teapot/maid of the Beast’s castle), and the highly sexual tones in both texts (Aladdin and Jasmine are always interrupted before a kiss Kraidy, 1998, p. 52). But as Aladdin sings, “I will open your eyes” to Jasmine, putting him in the ideal dominant position as the male lead, the Beast similarly was the one to release Belle from her “provincial life” into the world of the enchanted, into the world of the fairytale she desired as in her books. Revealed, Jasmine and Belle show their fulfillment through their male counter-parts, never quite standing alone, as they initially desire.
There is evidence of patriarchal codes as well as weak female characteristics within Disney animated feature films; starting with the audacious Ariel of The Little Mermaid (1989), or the intellectual and cosmopolitan Belle of Beauty and the Beast (1991). From the argument above it is evident that the idea of portraying females as weak and males as strong sends a wrong message to children across the world. Disney has sexualized women in a very subtle way, Pocahontas wears a low-cut dress with plenty of cleavage while Ariel wears nothing but a bikini top. Jasmine’s two-piece outfits are of the harem girl style rather than what real Arabic women wear. According to Disney, women are encouraged to view themselves as attractive through the lens of physical sexual attractiveness. Women are not just of one color, but a combination of many aspects that make up a whole person, it is almost impossible to talk about women as if they are a one single homogenous group and unfortunately that is what Disney does. There has been not one coloured woman in any Disney movie up until “Mulan”, this gives rise to clear discrimination towards minority groups. From an Intersectionist point of view, Disney is reinforcing the society’s notion that skinny thin girls are attractive whereas fat, unattractive coloured women like Ursula are “bad” and “evil”. This sends a wrong message to visible minority, “fitting in” can not only hinder their potential but also create problems on developmental order. On the other hand, children that do not belong to visible minority group watch these cartoons; they absorb these gender stereotypes and begin to apply them within their own frame of thought. As they grow older these ideas remain in their mind, which thus leads to further generation of stereotypical mindset.
In a nutshell, I would like to state that the movie, “The Heavy Metal”, has inspired me and made me reflect in such a way which allowed me to introduce this essay topic. I believe it is our responsibility to raise these issues and be more vocal about it. I think it is a serious issue and still very much active in our society. We have to raise our voices in order to make people realize the underlying themes of such creations.
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