Beauty and the Beast, Belle and Gaston
Cartoons, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: How Feminist Is Disney’s ‘Beauty & The Beast’?

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This article is part of the ‘Wicked Wiles’ series examining the positive and negative messages on gender that Disney Princess films impart to their target audience – girls. If you haven’t already, you can check out the introduction here, and search for ‘Wicked Wiles’ at the top of this page to catch up with the series.

Originally published on Fanny Pack, 26/05/2016.


Synopsis

Based on the classic French fairy tale and the 1946 French film, ‘Le Belle at la Bete’, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) is one of the most critically acclaimed and universally loved in the Princess catalogue. The story revolves around the titular ‘Beast’ – a vain and selfish Prince who is transformed into a monstrous animal by an enchantress as punishment for his flaws – and Belle (the ‘Beauty’), a kind and intelligent girl whom he imprisons in the hope that she might help break the spell put on him. Despite his poor anger-management skills (and inability to use cutlery) Belle slowly begins to tame the Beast’s temperament and work her way into his heart. But, before she can return his feelings and make him human again, an angry mob from her village led by the villainous Gaston – desperate for Belle’s hand in marriage – threaten to destroy everything.

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well?

Wait, who taught the Beast how to waltz so well? Source: Disney Wikia.

As usual, I’ll be using six key questions to filter the film’s feminist/anti-feminist messages through and ultimately give it a ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ or ‘Negative’ stamp on it at the end. So without further ago, let’s see how Disney’s sixth official Princess movie holds up.


How many female characters are there?

  1. Belle
  2. Mrs. Potts
  3. The old beggar woman/enchantress
  4. The feather duster maid (called ‘Babette’)
  5. The Wardrobe (called ‘Madame de la Grand Bouche’, which translates to ‘Madame Big Mouth’. Nice.)
  6. The Triplets (called the ‘Bimbettes’… Hmm.)

Total: 8 principle female characters (with speaking parts) compared to 11 principle male characters (with speaking parts).


Is the villain female, and if so what are her motivations?

In a word, no. And this is a good break with tradition, as nearly every Princess movie so far from ‘Snow White’, to ‘Cinderella’, to ‘Sleeping Beauty’, to ‘The Little Mermaid’ have had female villains motivated solely by vacuous jealousy.

Although the Prince/Beast is the perceived villain to begin with in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the real villain is Belle’s relentless pursuer, Gaston – clearly the more beastly of the two, personality-wise.

Gaston: 'Belle is mine!'

Source: Giphy.


How do the female characters interact with each other

Apart from Mrs. Potts, who acts as a surrogate matriarchal figure to just about everyone, Belle disappointingly has very little interactions with any other female character. All of her close allies – her father, the Beast, Cogsworth and Lumiere – are male, through a combination of circumstance and choice.

This serves subliminally to reinforce Belle’s ‘otherness’ as she seems unable and/or unwilling to maintain relationships with others of her gender. Unfortunately, this is also reflected across the rest of the film’s female characters, with the tightest bonds of friendship being between men: Gaston and LeFou; and Lumiere and Cogsworth.

Lumiere and Cogsworth: Pucker up, Cogsy.

Pucker up, Cogsy. Source: Tumblr.


Who drives the plot?

For the final two-thirds of the film the answer to this is Belle, with her father, Maurice, keeping things barrelling along through the first act. Yet, even when Belle does become the driving force of the plot, she doesn’t actually attract the majority of the viewer’s emotional investment. That’s because most of this investment is funnelled into the Beast’s quest to regain his humanity instead.

Belle: 'I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.'

Source: Tumblr.

At the start of the film, Belle flitters around a field belting out a song about “wanting so much more than this provincial life”, yet her unfalteringly charismatic character doesn’t develop one bit throughout the story. Geographically-speaking, she also only ends up living what can’t be more than a few miles away from the home she dreamed of travelling far away from. Meanwhile, the Beast’s character enjoys a dramatically shifting arc that also bears the weight of the entire story’s moral as an added bonus. In this respect, Belle – the eponymous princess of this supposed Princess-orientated movie – is effectively side-lined in her own film.


How do the male characters treat the female ones

If toxic masculinity took cartoon form, it would look like Gaston. Whilst Belle is a flawed but emphatically feminist heroine, Gaston is a perfect send-up of laddish, brutish and gross chauvinism. His interactions with her are all deliberately sexist, offensive, vile and stupid – i.e. The perfect counter-balance to Belle’s pragmatism, wit, and intelligence. Gaston’s attraction to Belle is based firstly on her obvious good looks, and secondly because her constant rejection of him turns his failing courtship of her into a game, and as a proud hunter who “uses antlers in all of his decorating”, you know that Gaston basically just sees her as little more than anther deer to chase, shoot, sling over his back and carry home to become another trophy over his fireplace.

During his solo song (sung in that flawless baritone), we’re given a handy checklist of things to have and achieve before any self-respecting ‘man’s man’ can be counted as worthy of the appendage swinging between his legs:

  • Body hair. A lot of it.
  • Spitting. Be good at it.
  • Hunting. Do it often.
  • Using animals as decoration. Everywhere.
  • Eating 4 dozen raw eggs to become the “size of a barge”.
  • Drinking. All the time.
  • Chess (although because being smart is basically useless, the only way to win is by slapping the board away from your oppenent.)
  • Stomping around in boots. No, really – go out and buy some, now you pussy! (Gaston’s words, remember, not mine.)

With his square jaw, bulging muscles and operatically-deep voice, Gaston is kind of like a Disney prince gone wrong. And Belle, with all her well-developed intellect, seems to be the only person to call this out. Even her father says that he “seems handsome” and suggests Belle should give him a chance in the romance department. The rest of the town – especially his loyal lackey, LeFou, and the horny triplets – treat Gaston like the village hero, never questioning his judgement, and happy to attend an impromptu wedding for he and Belle (before she’s even agreed to it) or sing an ode to his chest hair in the tavern, or later on be led blindly on a witch hunt to kill the Beast he showed them in a “magic mirror”.

Belle and Gaston: None of it. That's what Belle's having.

None of it. That’s what Belle’s having. Source: Disney Wikia.

The Beast on the other hand, with his anger problems, selfishness and emotional unavailability is someone who starts off in a similar place to Gaston – albeit minus the gushing self-confidence. He doesn’t even call Belle by her name to begin with, just “the girl”. The difference between he and Gaston is that rather than forcing himself upon her, the Beast allows himself to be changed for the better by Belle, thus turning himself into a man worthy of her love. As Gaston becomes more and more incensed and crazed to the point of trying to blackmail Belle into marrying him, the Beast learns to control his anger and becomes more docile and open to the needs of others until he earns rather than wins her affections.

Belle and the Prince: Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast?

Is it just me or did he look better as the Beast? Source: Disney Wikia.

The ultimate proof of his transformation comes when he allows Belle to leave the castle to attend to her sick father at the expense of him being able to break the spell. (Although, seeing how close the town and castle seem to be, there’s no reason he should have assumed Belle couldn’t have popped back to the castle later on…)


Does the princess have characteristics beyond her princess role

Most of Belle’s characteristics fit the usual wish list for Disney Princesses we’ve encountered so far: beauty, charm, kindness, a good set of pipes, and a touch of wistful longing for ‘something more’ than the life they’re trapped in. But Belle has another trick up her puffy dress sleeves: intellectualism. Like our previous heroine, Ariel, Belle is curious about the world around her. The difference here is that Belle has been able to satiate her curiosity with books, turning her into an imaginative, ambitious, sharp-witted, and worldly heroine.

Belle and books: Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! Source: CDN.

As I mentioned previously, the downside to all this glowing perfection is that Belle seems to have done all her character development off-screen, but she also has another severe weakness: Her heightened intelligence has given her one hell of a superiority complex.

At the start she sings about her “little town, full of little people” and is bored by the routine of everyone else’s lives. She laments that no-one reads and imagines more like she does. Similarly, the rest of the town look down on her for being intellectual and “weird”.

Belle realises the whole town is staring at her. Hmm, my ears are burning...

Hmm, my ears are burning… Source: LoveLace Media.

During this opening number we see a woman struggling with a comical amount of children – literally juggling babies in her arms – whilst desperately trying to buy some eggs. Meanwhile, Belle sails past on the back of a cart, smiling and singing about the joy of reading – unburdened by the troubles of being a working class mother. This is the best insight we get into Belle’s P.O.V: All sweetness and pleasantries on the outside, but internally judging the other women around her who have slavishly ‘given up’ on any hope of independence or self-empowerment.

Mother struggling to buy eggs while Belle rides by in the background. "I need six eggs!"

“No ma’am, a baby is not acceptable payment for eggs.” Source: Tumblr.

Belle’s quest for self-betterment is both her greatest strength and weakness. She is presented to young girls watching the film as a woman ahead of her time – a model early feminist before the term was even invented who dreams of living life beyond her designated place in society. Yet, by doing so, she can’t help but dole out pity to the other women around her who were not able to choose to live their lives in the way that she has so luckily been able to. In some ways Belle is the epitome of some of the feminist movement’s problems: white, elitist and judgemental. And also kind of a hypocrite – after all, let’s not forget that the only two books we see Belle actually engaged with are romance stories – one (pictured below) she reads a passage from referencing “Prince Charming” and the other is ‘Romeo and Juliet‘. Maybe her desires aren’t quite as wildly different from everyone else’s as she might wish.

Belle reading a romance book: "Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come. I-I mean, I'll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff."

“Look, sheep, someday my Prince will come… I-I mean, I’ll be going on my gap year to like, find myself, and stuff.” SourceLost In Drawers


wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

Yes, I know. How can one of Disney’s foremost feminist heroines be merely a ‘Neutral’ in terms of gender representation? Hear me out.

The core philosophy of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is to love what’s inside of someone rather than just what’s on the outside. This makes it the first time a Disney Princess film has broken the nonsensical ‘love at first sight’ BS that has been at the heart of every previous story – and this is where most of its plus points come from. Belle saves the Beast – not just physically by breaking the spell, but emotionally and psychologically by changing his behaviour and smoothing his sharp edges. He begins as a self-loathing, literal monster, and ends up as a well-rounded man who literally and figuratively reclaims his humanity thanks to Belle. Belle, meanwhile, is rewarded with the one thing she (secretly) always longed for: someone who truly understands her. Both of them begin as loners and societal misfits, but they end as the perfect fit in each other’s lives.

Belle and the Beast in the snow

Source: ImagesMTV

However, this nice, mushy message comes at a cost: Belle’s agency as a character. As I’ve established, when we are introduced to Belle she has no more growing left to do in this film other than learn to be less of a judgemental bitch and find a suitable husband. In fact, I was left feeling a little cheated by the end. The opening, uplifting number makes us anticipate the journey of a modern woman ready to go globe-trotting… only to lead down the same well-trodden path of her finding the nearest castle and Prince to hook up with and stay put in his library for the rest of her life.

In the end, Belle is actually demoted to the usual passive ‘Prince’ role – a one-note hero who swoops in to save the day in the nick of time, leaving  the Beast fulfilling the lead, active ‘Princess’ role. This, ultimately, is why what should have been a ‘Positive’ film for gender representation, has sadly balanced out into a ‘Neutral’ one instead.


 

Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: ‘Aladdin‘.

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Society and Politics, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles: Little Mermaid (1989)

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF A SERIES. YOU CAN READ THE INTRODUCTION HERE.

wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based loosely on the classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid tells the story of 16-year-old Princess Ariel, a mermaid who lives under the sea with her father – King Triton – and six sisters. Restless and adventurous, Ariel constantly collects human objects she salvages from shipwrecks until her obsession finally rests on one human in particular: Prince Eric, who she rescues from drowning when his ship capsizes in a storm. Eric awakens to the sound of Ariel singing to him, but she swims away before he can see her properly.

The Little Mermaid Ariel

Princess Ariel

Furious that she made contact with a human, Triton forbids Ariel from returning to the surface, pushing her into the lair of Ursula – the ‘sea witch’. In exchange for her voice, Ursula grants Ariel legs for three days on the condition that she must make Eric give her true love’s first kiss within that time, or she will belong to Ursula forever.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

There are 9 female characters with speaking parts:

  • Princess Ariel
  • Ariel’s six sisters: Princess Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana.
  • Ursula
  • A maid in Eric’s castle.

wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes, Ursula the ‘sea witch’.

Ursula the Sea Witch

Ursula, the ‘Sea Witch’.

Ursula is clearly motivated by her desire to dethrone Triton and take his power for herself, which she does through plotting to ensnare his daughter in a deal she think she can easily win. Even before hearing her deliciously maniacal voice, it’s immediately obvious in her character design that she is the villain as she’s completely oppositional to Ariel and the other merpeople. Rather than being half fish, she’s half octopus; her colour scheme is the classic Disney combo of black and purple; she’s not conventionally beautiful, and wears so much make-up she looks like a bit of a drag queen (which is probably intentional considering she was supposedly inspired by iconic drag queen actress Divine). Although brilliantly effective, it’s a design that once again falls into the trap of equating unattractiveness in women with villainy, and Ursula – although impressively powerful –  overall comes across as bitter and desperate.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism

Considering there are nine female characters with speaking parts, and Ariel herself has a mainly female family, it’s odd that there’s hardly any real interaction between all of them. In fact, the film works hard to set them all as far apart as possible.

Ariel's Sisters

Ariel’s sisters performing a musical number for their Father, King Triton.

At the start of the film Ariel – the youngest – is meant to be making her musical debut with her sisters in a show for their father, except when her moment comes… she’s not there. Instead, she’s exploring a sunken ship with her fish friend Flounder, which shows her sisters to be obedient ‘good’ daughters, whereas Ariel comes across as more individual and rebellious preferring the company of male companions, and this is also visually represented through her unique colour scheme: red hair and green fins.

disney wicked wiles gender feminism disney

Ariel and Ursula drive the plot together, with Ariel being in control in the first half, and Ursula taking over more in the second as she realises that Ariel may come out on top from their deal. Ariel is a headstrong character that gets to make a lot of her own choices in the film, both good and bad, but unfortunately this seems to come across as one of the ‘quirks’ of her character rather than something that should be a given for any protagonist of any gender.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

As previously mentioned, Ariel interacts with male characters far more than female ones with the sole exception of Ursula. Although this lack of female camaraderie is negative, the bonds she has with the central male characters –  Triton and Eric – are probably the most endearing parts of the film.

Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.

Ariel and King Triton embrace on her wedding day.

It’s clear that despite their differences, Triton is a deeply loving single father to his troublesome teenage daughter. Although he comes across as overly tough at times due to the stress of his job and Ariel’s bouts of rebellion, in the end when it comes down to Ariel’s life being under threat – he chooses to sacrifice his own power and freedom for hers, and ultimately he learns to relinquish his control over her to allow her own autonomy to flourish like any good father would.

Eric and Ariel meet face to face.

Eric and Ariel meet face to face.

Eric – although strangely pretty happy to fall in love with a mute girl he found on the beach after three days –  seems pretty well matched for Ariel. Like her, he is curious, adventurous and not interested in being part of the traditional stuffy ruling elite. This relationship ultimately provides the central emotional crux of the film: both Eric and Ariel are missing something in their lives that nothing from their own worlds can adequately fill until they find each other, and this is what makes their romance seem to have a stronger foundation than Disney’s previous Prince/Princess dynamics.

disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

From an early point in the story Ariel is shown to be completely disinterested in her traditional Princess role, preferring to go salvaging junk from a shipwreck rather than appear in her father’s concert with her sisters. She’s curious, adventurous, and absent-minded – perhaps supposed to be on the quirky-side, as she’s completely different from her rule-abiding sisters.

Ariel singing Part of Your World gif

Ariel singing “Part Of Your World.”

Lyrically, ‘Part of Your World’ could be more multi-layered than you might think. On the surface, it is about a teenager’s dream of running away from home, sick of her father’s stifling rule. However, closer examination could provide deeper meaning relating to gender. Ariel laments in the song that although she has a massive hoard of “neat” stuff from her treasure hunts, she still feels unfulfilled. “Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl who has everything?” A privileged princess surrounded by material wealth and a big, close-knit family should be happy, right? But the only thing that Ariel thinks will truly make her happy is “to be where the people are.” You could argue that she’s after another physical thing – legs, but really she’s after something that can’t be stolen, found, or bought – she’s wants change, to be part of a different kind of society – or in her case, species.

“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women” by Susan Faludi (1992)

The 1980s – when this film was released – was an uncertain time for women as the huge momentum that the women’s liberation movement gained through the 1960s and 1970s was somewhat stunted by a joint political and media backlash. According to writer Susan Faludi, this backlash was designed to pin the blame for women’s socio-economic struggles on feminism for forcing them to feel pressured to “have it all” – an unachievable dream. In this context, “Part of Your World” could represent the disillusionment of women in this decade – sick of being told to settle with their lot and placate their dreams of true liberation with capitalist consumerism; in the same way that Ariel has been forced to satiate her true desires with meaningless trophies by her father’s patriarchal subjugation.

Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.

Ariel surveys her trophies from the human world.

“Betcha on land, they’d understand, bet they don’t reprimand their daughters; Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand”.

Keep on dreaming, Ariel.

Of course, this being a Disney romance, it isn’t long until the “Your” in the song’s name becomes specific to one person – a man. You could surmise that rather than fulfil her original dream of exploring the surface world like she has the sea, Ariel instead chooses to pass from under the rule of her father’s kingdom to Eric’s. Rather than obsessing over ‘stuff’, she obsesses over Eric, both of which could be seen as distractions from real freedom. This is all highly subjective, of course, but the pieces seem to fit.

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

This one was tough to call. Although there is a lot to celebrate in terms of positive gender representation in this film – the high female character count; the female-driven plot; the positive treatment of female characters by male ones; and Ariel’s character being fully fleshed out beyond that of just beauty and a great singing voice – there is also a lot to criticise. Yes, Ariel is the first overtly rebellious Disney Princess, but her lust for freedom is quickly tempered into teenage romantic obsession. Ursula, though an outrageously brilliant villain and fearsomely powerful witch, is weakened by the comedic value of making her look like drag queen; and despite there being the highest female character count yet, with the exception of Ariel and Ursula, none of these female characters really interact with each other.

Conclusively, The Little Mermaid is a Disney Princess film that has all the pieces in place to make a truly gender-positive film, but doesn’t quite fit them together properly.


Next up in the Wicked Wiles series: Beauty and the Beast!

 

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Wicked Wiles: Robin Hood (1973)

This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction here.

First published on the Fanny Pack blog on 12th September 2015.


Wicked Wiles Synopsis

Taking inspiration from a mix of British history and folklore, Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) reimagines the classic tale of the notorious morally-minded outlaw who robs from the rich to give to the poor during the reign of Prince John (1199 – 1216), set in – yes, you’ve guessed it – Nottingham. In this version, Disney chose to reinterpret the entire Kingdom as anthropomorphic animals: Robin Hood and Maid Marian are foxes; Little John is a bear; Friar Tuck is a badger/mole (I honestly couldn’t work out which one…); Prince John and King Richard are Lions; the Sheriff of Nottingham is a wolf; Sir Hiss (aide to Prince John is a snake); Lady Kluck (Maid Marian’s Lady in Waiting) is a hen; and other characters include dogs, rabbits, mice, and even a tortoise.

Robin Hood: Foxy.

Robin Hood: Foxy.

This version – filled with a strange mixed cast of both British and American voice talent – follows Robin and Little John on various escapades to recover the money that Prince John has heavily taxing his subjects for – leaving most of them destitute. (In reality, this was to fund the Prince’s war with France, but the film chooses to simply chalk it up to greed alone.) However, the thread that weaves everything together is actually the reuniting of Robin with his childhood sweetheart, Maid Marian. After returning to her uncle’s (Prince John’s) castle in Nottingham, both she and Robin long to see each other. Prince John – eager to capture the outlaw who continually makes a mockery of him – stages an archery tournament with a kiss from Marian as the Grand Prize, knowing that Robin wouldn’t be able to resist showing off his skills.

Robin enters in disguise and is of course victorious; at which point the Prince’s guards jump on him. Robin manages to escape execution thanks to Little John’s help, and elopes with Marian to Sherwood Forest. Furious once again, Prince John captures Friar Tuck – a loyal ally of Robin’s – and announces his public execution to lure Robin out again.

Wicked Wiles How many female characters are there?

There are 6 female characters with speaking parts:

  • Maid Marian
  • Lady Kluck
  • Little Rabbit girl
  • Rabbit mother
  • Elderly owl
  • Church mouse

Wicked Wiles Is the villain female and if so what are her motivations?

There are no female villains. In fact, none of the female characters have any villainous or unfavourable character traits at all. This could be seen as positive as none of the female characters are portrayed in an actively negative light, but on the downside, it also means that none of them actively contribute to the driving of the plot.

Wicked Wiles How do they female characters interact with each other?

As all of the characters are animals, the animators sometimes felt the needs to make their genders unmistakeable by exaggerating some elements of their design. The little girl rabbit, for example, is flagged out as a girl by a cute dress, long eye lashes, and a massive pink bow (despite having no hair).

Wicked Wiles Robin Hood Disney

I guess her ears were getting in her eyes..?

Despite these cosmetic issues, I actually really enjoyed the tight bond that Maid Marian and Lady Kluck shared. Maid Marian is a classic – if not the classic – ‘damsel in distress’ archetype, and as such could have easily been portrayed as little more than just another object to steal from Prince John for Robin’s trophy collection in this version. However, for the first quarter of the film we see her only interacting with Lady Kluck and a little gaggle of children from Nottingham who stumble into the castle gardens to retrieve an arrow they accidentally shot over the walls.

As the children sneak through the bushes – terrified of running into the short-tempered Prince John – we hear whoops of laughter and shouts from the two ladies, until we see what they’re doing: playing badminton together. Later on when they are alone in Marian’s chambers, they gossip and giggle together about her romance with Robin, and Klucky assures her – as a good friend would – that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Although Robin does unfortunately occupy the majority of their conversations, I still found it pleasantly surprisingly that the film would take so much time to build up Marian’s relationship with another female character, especially one as relatively minor as Klucky. It leant Marian’s character a little more weight and independence; and Klucky – voluptuous, eccentric, feisty, and inexplicably Scottish – is a very easy character to fall in love with.

Wicked Wiles Robin Hood Maid Marian Lady Kluck Disney

BFFs.

Wicked Wiles Who drives the plot?

The plot is driven mainly by Prince John as he devises most of the major events in the story, such as the archery tournament and Friar Tuck’s execution. Moreover, even though Robin Hood is the titular character, it’s Prince John’s constantly unreasonable tax escalations that fuel his escapades. None of the female characters significantly contribute to the driving of the plot.

Wicked Wiles How do the male characters treat the female ones?

Robin and Little John seem to really love playing dress-up in this film. Less hardened bandits than happy-go-lucky conmen, the first we see of them in ‘action’ is interestingly them scampering through Sherwood forest pulling on various items of women’s clothing. Disguised as fortune tellers, they intercept Prince John’s carriage, knowing that he would never suspect women to rob him: “Female bandits? Poppycock. Whatever next!”

Neither Robin nor Little John seem even vaguely embarrassed or uncomfortable playing up to their gender-bended disguises – Robin comically modulates his voice as he pretends to see the Prince’s fortune in his looking glass; whilst Little John even sashays around flirtatiously teasing the guards outside.

Disney Wicked Wiles Robin Hood Little John

Possibly one of the strangest Disney screen caps ever.

Even domestically, the pair seem no strangers to more ‘feminine’ pursuits. John wears a frilly apron as he hangs washing out to dry on a line whilst Robin absent-mindedly stirs a pot of stew, dreamily thinking about Maid Marian. The stew starts to boil over, and Little John scolds him as he tries to salvage their dinner. These Disney bachelors seem a lot more maturely developed than the dwarves of Snow White who lived in squalor for fear of taking up ‘womanly’ chores. The tone, however is still frustratingly unclear: Are Robin and Little John progressively comfortable enough in their masculinity that they can easily affect traditionally female activities? Or are these scenes – complete with emasculating filly aprons and fake breasts – played for laughs?

Something more troubling though is Prince John’s character. Other than the decimation of the working class, his villainous quirk is that he is a “mummy’s boy”. Clingy, babyish, squeaky-voiced, and easily wound-up, he wails and sucks his thumb every time his late mother is mentioned, which he is mocked for, of course. He is the complete opposite of his brother Richard “Lionheart”, who we see later as a large, strong, and deep-voiced character – and well-loved by his people.

The oppositional twinning of Prince John with weakness and King Richard with strength sheds John’s close bond with his mother in a negative light as it reinforces the negative stereotype of boys’ who identify more with the mothers as being “feminised”, and therefore weak.

Robin Hood Disney Wicked Wiles Prince John

Prince John curls up with his riches.

In terms of the physical treatment of female characters by the males ones, the story seems mainly predicated on Marian and Robin’s romance, and as I mentioned earlier – Marian is by no means completely sidelined. As she and Robin make their escape from his capture and near-execution at the archery tournament, she does her best to fight alongside rather than hinder him. I’m not saying she’s a feminist icon by any stretch of the imagination, but Disney could have done a lot worse by her. Klucky, of course, is the stand-out performer in this scene:

Wicked Wiles Does the Princess have characteristics beyond her princess role?

Although Marian is not technically a Princess, her familial status as King Richard and Prince John’s niece, coupled with her being the object of the heroes’ affections puts her in the ‘might as well be’ category.

Aside from performing her duties at the archery tournament and generally living the lifestyle of a Princess, Marain’s main function in the story is to abandon these duties to elope with Robin. And although he is absolved of his crimes once King Richard takes back the throne at the end, she is still the most consciously rebellious Princess we have seen so far.

Disney Wicked Wiles Neutral Classification

As much as I wanted to give this film a positive stamp of approval, there were certain negative factors I couldn’t let slide:

  • No female characters significantly drive the plot.
  • The majority of Maid Marian and Lady Kluck’s conversation focus on Robin.
  • The tone of Robin and Little John’s “feminine” escapades is unclear.
  • Little John’s intrinsic weaknesses as a leader are implied to be rooted to his close relationship with his mother.

But, there were enough positive elements in the film to balance it out to a neutral classification:

  • Maid Marian is allowed to make the decision to rebel rather than wait to be rescued.
  • She also has a close bond with another female character, in this movie the female characters are not pitted against each other.
  • Despite still being defined mainly by her relationship to Robin, Marian is given a fair amount of screen time on her own.
  • Lady Kluck doesn’t fulfil conventional beauty standards in the way that Marian does, but is still shown as a positive character: vibrant, funny, independent, and loyal.

Next up in the “Wicked Wiles” series: The Little Mermaid!
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Wicked Wiles: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction here.


Aurora

 ‘This is the 14th century father, you’re living in the past!’

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Based on the fairy story by Charles Perrault, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a Princess named Aurora who is cursed by the Evil Sorceress Maleficent as revenge for being snubbed by her parents – the Royal Family. The curse dictates that Aurora will grow in beauty and grace, only to be pricked in the finger by an enchanted spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and die. Luckily, three good fairies counteract the curse by altering the death clause to an ‘eternal sleep’ to be broken only with ‘love’s first kiss.’ Despite hiding Aurora in the woods to raise her as their own for 16 years, the good fairies cannot stop the curse from being fulfilled, and the only way to save Aurora is to send the kingdom to sleep with her and find her true love –who just happens to be the Prince she is unknowingly betrothed to.

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  • Sleeping Beauty – Princess Aurora
  • Queen Mother (Princess Leah)
  • Maleficent
  • The three Good Fairies – Mistress Flora, Mistress Fauna, and Mistress Merryweather.

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Yes – Maleficent.

Early in the film Maleficent crashes the party to celebrate Aurora’s birth, offended she wasn’t invited. For this discrepancy, she curses the baby princess after two of the three good fairies have blessed her with magical gifts, and whilst there definitely seems to an unspoken history between her, the royal family, and the fairies, the sole motivation we are given for Maleficent’s villainy is this particular story is her exclusion from the celebrations alone. Is killing a baby an appropriate response for not getting a party invite? Not sure I can sympathise with her on that.

Despite her weak incentive, Maleficent is by far one of the most memorable and powerful Disney villainesses. Even the good fairies say her powers are ‘too great’ which is presumably why they can’t completely undo her magic, and even after all their efforts to prevent it, Maleficent simply hypnotises Aurora towards her doom. While the three good fairies have power in sisterhood, Maleficent derives power from isolation, with only her pet raven and goblin army for company in the ‘Forbidden Mountains’ where she rules as ‘the Mistress of all Evil.’  Her animalistic design – horned headdress, grey hued skin, yellow eyes, and black ragged cloak – casts a bat’s silhouette, and hints at her incredible transformative abilities later in the film.

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STAY BACK PEASANTS!

She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, but is she a positive female role model? On the one hand you could argue Maleficent’s fierce power and dominance, but her adversarial aggression towards every other female (and male) character casts her more negatively to me, as her independence can be more easily read as maniacal supremacy.

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The three good fairies – true to their kind and ‘cuddly’ appearance – treat Aurora’s wellbeing as their top priority for the entire film to protect her from Maleficent’s wrath. And between them, they also provide the first positive examples of true sisterhood in the Princess catalogue so far. Whether they’re actually related or not, they definitely act like a real family – bickering and all – and it’s genuinely endearing.

They also have refreshingly distinct personalities from each other – Flora is the ‘leader’ and the bossy one, Fauna is the middle child and the more sweet and mild one, and Merryweather is the younger, grumpier one that argues Flora constantly. This affects their difference of opinion concerning Maleficent as well, as Merryweather is determined to use her magic to get revenge, but Fauna doesn’t think she’s ‘so bad’ and points out they can only use their magic for ‘good and happiness’.

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(Left to right) Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather

There is also an obvious parallel with nature as their names all have connections with plants, animals and weather, which is perhaps where their powers stem. As they debate where to hide the princess, Flora suggests turning her into a flower, but Fauna – logical as usual – points out that ‘Maleficent would send a frost to kill it’ implying that Maleficent’s powers might be rooted in nature also. We could even surmise from this comment that the fairies might be connected to spring, and Maleficent to winter, deepening their opposition to one another. It also means that Maleficent might be a similar creature to a fairy – but obviously not a good fairy, which the good fairies use to their advantage as they say she cannot understand ‘love and kindness’ – exactly what they use to hide Aurora.

In the woodcutter’s cottage that they raise Aurora in, the fairies induct her into their family by renaming her ‘Briar Rose’ (another plant reference like ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’.) Aurora seems happy enough living with her ‘aunts’, but complains that they treat her like a child, as she is not allowed to be truly independent – a typical frustrated teenager, really. And like a typical Disney Princess, she also confides in her animal friends that she dreams of meeting her prince to remedy her loneliness.

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Maleficent’s curse and her pursuit of fulfilling that curse drives the fairies to protect Aurora by raising her in the woods for 16 years, meaning that Maleficent and the good fairies supply the motivation, development, and resolution of the story, and making the plot driven almost entirely by its female fairy cast. Most of the film feels really like a battle between the fairies and Maleficent with others simply caught in the crossfire.

Even in the final battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in her fiery dragon form, the good fairies are there to help him flee his prison in the Forbidden Mountains and summon the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue (‘weapons of righteousness that triumph over evil’) to his aid. Flora even says an incantation to help his sword fly true into the dragon’s heart.

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RAWR.

But sisterhood is also a key positive driving force here. After all, are they doing all this just to get Phillip a wife? Or to thwart Maleficent once and for all? Nope. It’s all for the sake of their maternal bond with Aurora and putting her happiness before their own.

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The male characters are:

  • King Stephen – Aurora’s father
  • King Hubert – Phillip’s father (Stephen’s old friend)
  • Prince Phillip
  • Samson (Prince Phillip’s horse)

 ‘Fondly had these two kings dreamed their kingdoms would unite.’

The male characters have little interaction with the female characters, or influence on the plot for that matter. The most significant event is that Phillip and Aurora are arranged to be married by their parents at the very start of the film, and this sets their playful romance in motion. The next time they met – 16 years later – they have no idea that either of them are royalty, but are drawn together through a kind of ‘magical’ bond of destiny.

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‘Hey there, handsome…’

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

‘I preferred the owl.’

Right from the start, Phillip is given far more personality than the previous two Princes we have seen in Snow White and Cinderella, as we see him wrinkle his nose with genuine childish ‘ickiness’ at the sight of the baby Aurora when presented to her. Even into adulthood, he remains cheeky, charming, and adventurous evidenced by his play fighting with Samson in the woods. His courtship with Aurora, however, is typically short – a quick dance in the woods, a few exchanged words, and that’s it: true love.

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The good fairies deep desire to protect Aurora is a familial one, but it may also stem from their connection to her magical properties, which are hinted at throughout the story. We are told by the narrator that Aurora is a ‘miracle’ baby that her parents wished for, and her name even means ‘dawn’, linking her irrevocably to that magical time between day and night. Her stereotypical Princess characteristics of beauty and a great singing voice are also ‘gifts’ from the good fairies’ spells cast after her birth. This makes the disgusted expression that young Phillip pulls when peeking into her crib before the spells are cast all the more interesting. What did Aurora look like before she was given the gift of beauty? Even as an adult, Phillip also comments when he hears her voice in the woods that it sounds ‘too good to be real.’ Aurora seems to have entirely engineered virtues. What would she have been without these conjured qualities, I wonder? What would Merryweather’s spell have given her if she’d been able to cast it before Maleficent turned up to cast her curse? Intelligence? Super strength? Laser vision?

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representation

‘Ugh.’

In terms of her Princess role, Aurora spends most of the film unaware that she is royalty, but still possesses the beauty, charm, and ability to communicate with animals that a true Disney princess should have. We also see her cooking and cleaning in the cottage in the woods for her ‘aunts’, meaning that they have brought her up to do her fair share of domestic chores similarly to Snow White and Cinderella – the main difference being that she does those jobs wilfully.

When the fairies reveal her true identity to her, they expect her to be delighted, but instead she rejects her princess role upon learning that she cannot marry the random stranger she danced with in the woods as she is already betrothed to a Prince and must fulfil her responsibilities now that she is 16-years-old.

the importance of family and responsibility, and the accepting or shirking of it. Aurora and Phillip have preordained paths that they want to escape as young adults, and even though she doesn’t know it, Aurora is also trapped by Maleficent’s curse that the fairies are trying to help her escape from. In the end, they are both forced to follow these destined paths but to a happy ending, which makes these flirtations with defiance ultimately empty threats.

wicked wiles fanny pack disney princess gender representationConsidering that Snow White and Cinderella were classified as negative, Sleeping Beauty makes significant strides in the right direction in terms of positive gender representation. The film is almost entirely female driven; the villainess is a powerful bad-ass; the good fairies have a strong sisterly bond; and the Prince is given an actual personality compared to his bland predecessors in the Disney films before it. It teaches that women can indomitable forces of nature – both good and bad; independent and communal.

Equally the film unfortunately suffers from the same negative problems as the previous ones – lack of real motivation or empathy for the female villain; the titular Princess has little control of her own destiny or of the plot, and possesses very few distinctive characteristics beyond the typical Disney Princess ones – beauty, charm, and grace (even if these are revealed to be completely artificial). There is a lot more to praise than the previous two Disney films, but a lot of the same problems remain, which is why – as much as I wanted to – I couldn’t give it a positive classification.

Please not that I have not taken Maleficent (2014) into account in this analysis. 


Next up in the Wicked Wiles series – Robin Hood!

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.

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wicked wiles princess disney cinderella gender feminism representation analysis
Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory, Wicked Wiles

Wicked Wiles – Cinderella (1950)

Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.

This article is the third in a series. You can read the introduction to Wicked Wiles here.


Cinderella wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

“A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”

Cinderella wicked wiles disney fanny pack feminism gender

Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Disney’s Cinderella (1950) is set in a ‘far away land long ago’ where a girl named Cinderella lives happily with her family. Sadly, this doesn’t last. Her mother dies and Cinderella’s father remarries a woman with two daughters, who turn out to be cold and cruel. Upon his death, they force Cinderella to become their maid. Meanwhile in the royal castle, the King – longing for grandchildren – plans a ball for his son the Prince to find him a suitable bride. Invitations are sent to every eligible lady in the land, and Cinderella begs her stepmother to let her go. With the help of her mice friends, Cinderella fashions a beautiful dress to wear, only to have her stepsisters tear it to shreds and her dreams of happiness destroyed.

Luckily, Cinderella’s laments are heard by her Fairy Godmother, who whips up a new dress, a pumpkin carriage, and some glass slippers that will last until midnight. Cinderella charms the Prince at the ball but is forced to run away prematurely as her curfew approaches leaving only a glass slipper behind. This forces the King to send out a search party to try the glass slipper on the foot of every woman in the land in the hopes of finding its mysterious owner.

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The film’s character are mostly female, consisting of:

  1. Cinderella
  2. Cinderella’s stepmother (Lady Tremaine)
  3. Anastasia (stepsister)
  4. Drusilla (stepsister)
  5. The Fairy Godmother
  6. An unnamed female narrator at the start of the film.

cinderella fanny pack feminism gender disney

Yes – Cinderella’s stepmother and her two daughters.

Jealous of Cinderella’s ‘charm and beauty’, her stepmother forces Cinders to become a servant. This also kind of makes financial sense as she presumably cannot afford to employ actual servants after squandering her late husband’s wealth – as the narrator reveals at the start. Just like Disney’s previous Princess film – Snow White – the jealousy of a bitter stepmother provides the only villainous motivation. The difference this time being that Cinderella’s stepmother is not an evil Sorceress. She’s just plain evil.

Anastasia and Drusilla are described as ‘vain and selfish’ by the narrator and are not forced to do any work around the house due to their mother’s favouritism. The stepsisters aren’t exactly ugly, but certainly plainer and ‘less feminine’ compared to Cinderella. During the fitting of the glass slipper scene, for example, the mislaid slipper barely covers either of their feet – implying both sisters lack the aspirational feminine trait of small and dainty feet, which by default Cinderella must have. This also follows the Disney tradition of personality dictating appearance.

cinderella step sisters disney fanny pack wicked wiles gender feminism

Anastasia & Drusilla.

In the case of the step-family, however, this rule seems unbalanced as their personalities really are worse than their looks. Upon receiving the invite to the ball, Cinderella’s stepmother agrees she can attend on the condition that Cinderella completes all of her chores and has a suitable dress. When Anastasia and Drusilla object she repeats her condition: ‘I said if.’ Obviously she has no intention of letting Cinderella attend, but clearly gets some sick pleasure out of dangling hope in front of her unfortunate stepdaughter so she can rip it away from her; a metaphor that turns out to be literal when she manipulates Anastasia and Drusilla into tearing Cinderella’s dress to shreds.

This glimmer of hope is both a fantastical and tangible thing for Cinderella as the narrator tells us that the kingdom is ‘tiny’ and she can see the castle in plain view from her bedroom window. Yet, I would go so far as to say that if you look a little closer than the film would want you to look, that glimmer of hope is a thematic thread for all of its characters, including the villains, and provides their real motivation.

cinderella disney wicked wiles gender feminism

The iconic Disney castle.

This realisation struck me when Anastasia and Drusilla complained to their mother that they had no new clothes to wear to the ball, and I remembered that narrator explained that the stepmother had married Cinderella’s father for his money – all of which she and her greedy daughters spent. The implication is that the stepmother is a ‘gold digger’ – yet another demonising female quality. Having sucked one source of income dry, she is now forced to set her sights on marrying a daughter off to the bachelor Prince in that oh-so-visible-castle-from-the-window to sustain the opulent lifestyle they have become accustomed to.

But let’s consider the social context of this: In the not-so-long-ago times when either a rich father or husband was the only means for a woman of status to survive, what other choice did the stepmother have? To Cinderella, the castle represents freedom from her oppressive stepmother, but to her stepmother the castle represents financial freedom in an oppressive society. And whilst she cannot be excused for it, perhaps her cruel treatment of Cinderella is a venting of frustration upon the remnant of a marriage she hoped would afford her security, and an added burden of an extra mouth to feed with money she has (stupidly) frittered away.

The motivational jealousy she feels at Cinderella’s ‘beauty and charm’ is because those natural qualities that Cinders has been gifted with mean she could easily find an affluent husband… if she is ever allowed out of the house.

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From start to finish, all of the interactions between the film’s central female family members are irrefutably negative. As the maid, Cinderella is unquestionably submissive to her rude and demanding stepmother and stepsisters, with the exception of bravely asking her stepmother’s permission to go the ball.

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YOU SHALL NOT GO TO THE BALL.

The only positive interaction Cinderella has between another female character is with the Fairy Godmother who is basically everyone’s ideal Grandma – lovely, huggable, and quirky. She comforts Cinders and works her magic to restore her self-confidence and get her to the ball. She even has the foresight to allow Cinderella to keep the remaining glass slipper after her magic fades, enabling Cinders to prove later on that she is the true owner of the shoes when her stepmother ‘accidentally’ smashes the other.

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Cinderella is light on plot and high on filler, and by filler I mean lots of animals in clothes faffing around for too long (in my opinion). This makes answering this question tricky, but arguably it is the King who sets everything in motion to achieve his goal of having grandchildren, and the entire story revolves the ball.

The stepmother contributes only by blocking Cinderella’s opportunities to escape her control, and these are opportunities that are given to Cinderella rather than creating opportunities herself. The only time she asserts any kind of influence is when she asks to go the ball. In fact, Cinders is so lacking in drive that even after the ball when the magic wears off she shrugs her shoulders and trudges back home obediently instead of seizing her opportunity to run away for good.

cinderella disney wicked wiles fanny pack feminism gender

The male characters are:

  • Prince Charming
  • The King
  • The Duke (the King’s aide)
  • Various animals that live in Cinderella’s chateau

The King states that he has no interest in which woman the Prince picks as his bride; as long as she can provide him with grandchildren: ‘What’s love got to do with it? Just a boy meeting a girl under the right conditions.’ The Prince also has no interest in any of the women at the ball – stifling a yawn as they are all introduced to him. That is, until he spots Cinderella entering at the back of the ballroom.

Obviously taken by her looks, he rushes over to meet her, and the pair spends the night walking and talking through the castle gardens. We never get to hear what they are saying (other than a weird telepathic duet) until Cinderella suddenly tells him she must leave as her curfew approaches. This is also the last we really see or hear of the Prince, as it is the Duke who is tasked with searching the Kingdom for the mysterious maiden that the Prince stupidly failed to get the name of his new crush despite all those hours of implied conversation.

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“I have absolutely no character!”

I mentioned earlier that the castle represents hope, and this is also true of the Prince. He is a sadly tokenistic character – known only as ‘Charming’ – serving purely as wish fulfilment for the female characters; therefore a surprisingly weak male presence despite his narrative importance.

cinderella disney wicked wiles fanny pack gender feminism

Just like Snow White before her, Cinderella’s skills are enforcedly domestically based. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella – although born into wealth – has to marry to attain Princess status and we don’t get to see what kind of Princess she becomes. (Although, if the King got his way, she’d most likely be spending most it popping out kids and little else.) Otherwise, she possesses natural beauty and charm, kindness, and the ability to communicate with animals – typical of a Disney Princess.

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Unfortunately under my criteria it’s another negative Disney Princess film in terms of gender representation. Here’s why:

  • Cinderella barely influences the plot.
  • Negative interactions between nearly all female characters.
  • Cinderella is given the opportunity to follow her dreams but only to satiate the King’s need for grandchildren. He doesn’t care who she is, he just wants a woman – any woman – to marry his son and produce heirs.
  • The film missed opportunities to give depth to the stepmother and stepsisters’ jealousy – some kind of social context might have made it more balanced and more interesting.

Overall Message:

Positive –

  • The animals help Cinderella because she helps them, which shows that if you are nice to others they will return this kindness.
  • There is also a positive message about working hard and being rewarded, except Cinderella’s opportunities happen mainly by chance.

Negative –

  • Unfounded jealousy is the only motivation for female villainy.
  • Marriage is your only chance at happiness/means to financially support yourself, with no option to become self-sufficient.
  • The film is critical of women who marry for money alone, yet offers no context/solution to this problem.
  • Male characters are depicted negatively – either talking about women as baby-making machines, or treated as nameless and voiceless tokens.

Next in the Wicked Wiles series: Sleeping Beauty!


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.

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