I Blame Disney

Disney was the very first company I ever boycotted. I think I was 10 when the idea came to me.

Realizing Disney had never once in all those years produced a story that featured a female hero (heroine, whatever), I decided to avoid spending money on anything from which they might draw a profit. They featured females, all right, so long as said females were comatose or destitute, and in need of rescue by a man. Eventually, The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas came along, and I think a very young cousin did eventually rope me into seeing The Little Mermaid, but honestly, by that point I was so soured on the whole idea of Disney that I don’t remember the movie at all. People assured me that those two were different.

Color me underwhelmed.

I had gained more reasons for boycotting Disney over the years. One was that I felt their marketing was designed to pit kids against parents, with the kids guilting the parents into buying them everything. After all, you can’t just have the Disney stuff you want. Disney pretty much invented the whole “Collect All 6,512 Pieces” craze, partnering themselves with other mega-gloma-corporate entities, assaulting us all with a consumerism that rivaled that of Christmas.

Disney presented a very narrow view of the world. There are two genders, girls and boys. Girls strive to be lovely, inside and out. Boys strive to be strong, inside and out. Girls like dresses and parties. Boys like sports and fighting. Girls fantasize about their weddings, and finding true love. Boys fantasize about slaying dragons and rescuing people.

Did Disney invent this world view? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer, since it all started before my time and history is written by the people in charge of the present. Was the world always so narrow minded? I don’t get the impression it was, when I read about the Romantics, or about cultures throughout history in which women have been trained for battle as well as cooking. Humanity has always had a tendency to define gender roles, to be sure; but at many points, we seem to have recognized that a society is stronger if it takes advantage of whatever an individual has to give, whether it fits a predefined construct for them or not.

The twentieth century was not one of those points, and Disney played a role in that by laying the stereotypes on thick – always the same relentless message, like some nightmarish scene out of 1984. The chant just keeps on, monotonous, drumming the ideas into society’s skull. There’s a reason repetitious chants are used in brainwashing prisoners of war. And as a kid, I was very angry and very vocal about what I perceived as wrong with these messages: I didn’t realize it then, but I was counter-chanting my own message, trying to keep myself from falling under the spell.

Kids look for messages from society on who they’re supposed to be. People get very excited about the message a shoot-em-up movie sends, but what about Snow White, where the lead female’s stepmother keeps trying to murder her out of jealousy over her beauty? Just what kind of a message do people think that sends?

Well, once Disney got done wrapping it in Technicolor and choreographsed musical numbers, all most people seem to remember is the message someday my prince will come. But I think we’re internalizing a lot more of the message than that.


  1. vicky says

    im currently doing a topic on hoe Disney represnets woman in animation, i would be intrested if anyone could give me there views on Sleeping Beauty and Pocahontas.

  2. Keith says

    I’m curious about whether you’ve seen Mulan, and what your take on it is (I do realize that you don’t owe me a reply). It’s not without its flaws, but I felt that it was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty much the only step Disney cartoons ever took in that direction. The thing I liked about it is that Mulan’s heroism isn’t achieved simply by being physically strong in the typical male action hero sense. Instead, she sees and uses everything available to her, and turns handicaps into advantages.
    I also like that it’s almost certainly the only Disney cartoon to feature the sound of the main character breaking someone’s arm.

    • The Other Anne says

      Hm. I wrote my Uni Honors Thesis on Disney’s “damsels” and one of the ones I found the most problematic was actually Mulan. There is an incredible book that discusses it better than me, but the basics of the argument is that for the simple reason that Mulan WAS touted as a feminist character, and yet had so many issues, is a huge problem because then suddenly these incredibly anti-women narratives were put forth as feminist. For example: Mulan’s main failing in the beginning is that she fails her father–she shames him and her family–but the shame her female relatives face is not her priority. So she joins the military to protect the man in her life, her father. She sacrifices herself not for her country but for a man.

      Than action, blah blah, Mulan interacts with a lot of men, who other her as a woman by having fantasies about women that don’t fit her at all. Then she saves the nation and Emperor by being all bad ass, supposedly coming into her own in the process, and promptly present her hard-earned medals and gifts from the Emperor to her father. (Who then goes all “look how benevolent this man is! He just loves you for who you are!”)

      Further issues: of the main cast all break gender barriers except for the main man who must always, always remain untaintedly masculine. The mentor figure and comedic relief, Mushu, says he can “see through” Mulans armor (while staring at her breasts). When she retaliates and smacks him for being perverted and sexually harassing her, he threatens dishonor on her entire family.

      AND THE KICKER, the main part of MY argument: the poem Mulan is based on does NOT involve all the gender issues that the Disney film does. The film FABRICATES the “women can’t fight” issue, portray Mulan as being obsessed with her father’s view of her, etc. etc. In the poem Mulan wants to fight for her country. She fights for eight years before returning home a decorated war veteran, at which point, after she removes her armor and returns to women’s clothes, her comrades in arms realize she was a woman the whole time. They’re surprised but she does not face a death penalty.

      The class issues of the movie are also apparent, then, from the poem. In more rural, poor parts of China (and most places) women had more “freedom” and worked “male” jobs more. Mulan’s story is originally a rural epic, a commoner’s tale meant for inspiration and hope as well as entertainment. There just wasn’t as much of the social taboo surrounding women in general as Disney just made up. Not to say that there weren’t or aren’t womens issues in historical and present China, but the problems Disney adds to the story show how much of an issue, IMO, DISNEY has with women.

      Mulan is not able to be herself as a woman because she is always being herself in relation to men. Her father, Mushu, the Captain (who is the man her father hands her off to at the end), etc. She’s never actually doing anything FOR HERSELF. The only time it seems that way is when she goes to save the Emperor, but at the same time she hands off those victories to her father, and then ends in the embrace of a man.

      As much as I love the film, I just find too many problems with it to call it a feminist movie or not label it as endemic to the issues of the presentation of women in the film industry. Disney just….really fails spectacularly the majority of the time but they hide it well in terrific animation, great songs, and humor.

      …To write an essay on it. I hope that didn’t come off as TOO negative. Despite myself I still love Disney movies.

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