Disney exudes magic: its films, shops & attractions all possess a dream-like experience, like a fairy-tale. Maybe this is what makes Disney so popular; it helps us escape from our mundane existence. However, the concept of complete immersion into fantasy can actually be a damaging one, as we idealise the lives that Disney characters live & often want this for ourselves. After all, how often have you heard somebody liken a situation to ‘something out of a Disney movie’? However, the reality is that life isn’t like a Disney film; happily-ever-afters aren’t quite as simple.
Most children would love nothing more than to be a Disney princess when they’re older, with their beautiful looks, breath-taking castle & their prince charming whisking them into the sunset to live happily-ever-after. It’s something I definitely wanted. But what kind of message do Disney project with these repetitive endings? Classic films such as Cinderella or Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs answer this perfectly. Cinderella was only whisked away from cruelty & poverty because the prince thought she was the most beautiful at the ball. Similarly, Snow White was repetitively dubbed ‘the fairest of them all’, so it’s no surprise that love found its way to her even in her unshakable slumber. Films like these not only reiterate the notion that to be conventionally beautiful is their most important asset, especially in finding love, but Disney further suggests that women need to be dependent upon men in order to succeed; after all, both princesses can’t rescue themselves (unfortunately). This notion is extremely damaging, especially for young girls, as they’re sub-consciously being taught to adopt passivity.
Recently however, Disney have produced films which depict increasingly independent women, & thankfully this gives young girls a more positive role-model. Brave, I would argue, was the first ‘Disney Princess’ film to be released which told a story absent from the protagonist’s reliance upon a male character. Merida completely rejects the proposal her father has of an arranged marriage, & ultimately becomes the hero of her own fate; not needing to be rescued. Merida’s role in defeating Mor’du & the spell placed upon her mother is far from the passive & subservient nature of Snow White, for example. Similarly, when Frozen was first released in 2013, we see Elsa ruling her kingdom in the absence of a man. Furthermore, Disney chose Anna to be her sister’s rescuer, offering something far more powerful by rejecting the classic trope of a princess being rescued by a prince. By the time Moana was released in 2016, Disney finally produced a film with the ‘princess’ being completely separated from typical tropes of royal decorum & romance. This was a hugely positive step for Disney; Moana represents a character who encompasses strength & independence. She is someone a little girl can look up to without patriarchal ideals & expectations becoming internalised. We could argue that these stronger characters have been implemented too late, but it’s definitely better late than never!
While their patriarchal tendencies are gradually diminishing, Disney still have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity. Body image is a huge issue within Disney, both in terms of female & male characters. Could they be partly to blame for the rise of young people’s body image issues? While Disney films are unmistakably fiction, I still believe that they hugely impact how we view our bodies today; if you grow up seeing exclusively one body type on-screen, it’s easy to carry an idealistic image of what you feel you ‘should’ look like with you. Had I seen a female character who mirrored my body type, perhaps I’d be much more confident & today’s society might have viewed me differently. Female protagonists are mostly being depicted with flawless skin & petite waists, while male protagonists almost always have purely muscled physiques. This perpetuates the notion that this is how everyone should look.
Another important issue that Disney should begin to tackle is their representation of the LGBTQ+ community within their films. Until the release of the 2017 live-action Beauty & the Beast film, there was hardly a slither of LGBTQ+ representation to be seen. It can be argued that Disney’s choice to make the character LeFou gay was a positive step forward. However, I believe it to be a merely tiny step forward. The introduction of an LGBTQ+ character should have happened much earlier, & the scene in question is only a couple of seconds long, showing LeFou dancing with another man. While this is positive for any younger children who may be starting to discover their identities, I do wish that LGBTQ+ representation was more normalised. Recently, Disney used the show Andi Mack to introduce their first ever gay character, Cyrus, as he embarks upon his ‘coming out’ journey. This is an extremely positive step for Disney – though why is it taking them so long? Disney still lacks transgender & non-binary characters, who could bring comfort to those children who see no relatable gender representation on their screens.
Disney’s representation of disabled characters is similarly very sparse. For many children with a disability it would be a relief, I’m sure, to see someone that represents them & their situation. One of the few Disney film characters with a disability that comes to mind is Captain Hook. However, Disney chose to make his character the villain; this in many ways opposes any representation Disney may have intended to include. Quasimodo is similarly looked down upon & struggles to fit into society throughout The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which gives younger people a distorted view of how society reacts to those who appear ‘different’. Perhaps including more characters with disabilities would break stigmas, creating a younger generation who grow up to be much more accepting.
While it’s clear that Disney are becoming more inclusive, I believe that this is happening at too slow of a rate. In a society where people constantly feel judged by & compared to others, representation of any kind could completely change someone’s sense of self. Children being shown representations of a wide variety of sizes, races, disabilities, genders & sexualities could grow into a society where difference is normalised & celebrated. Are Disney too stuck in their ways & tropes to see the benefits of wider representation and their ability to inspire younger people? Can the damage of some of their older films be un-taught? We’ll have to wait & see…
Words By: Ellen Churchyard
Edited By: Megan Clayton