“Disney Princesses”: An Existential Threat?

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Whenever I see reports like this, I sit up and take notice. I wonder: how I am doing? I have quite a few women characters, so I take my portrayal of them seriously:

Screen capture of the Washington Post.
Screen capture of the Washington Post.

Its main argument is:

….The plot of “The Little Mermaid,” of course, involves Ariel literally losing her voice — but in the five Disney princess movies that followed, the women speak even less. On average in those films, men have three times as many lines as women.

The data come from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise. Because so many young girls watch these movies — often on constant repeat — it’s worth examining what the films are teaching about gender roles.

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” says Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

That last struck me as an odd statement. “A big question?” That’s hardly true: social scientists have long known that “we” have all been “taught our ideas” about how we are ourselves.

About myself. On the cartoon front, I was not a Disney fan. My pre-teen mornings – long before DVDs – included New York City local TV in which Bugs Bunny always bested Daffy Duck, or Speed Racer crashed out and Racer X came to his rescue. I also loved the decidedly uncartoonish Mister Rogers. How the likes of those supplied my “ideas about being a boy” is anyone’s guess.

In the real world, seeing how male contemporaries behaved clearly made a bigger mark – “peer pressure” to some extent.

However, I remember the bulk of my “learning how to be a boy” stemming from innumerable day to day examples set by actual men: primarily my father, my grandfathers, and my uncles. It wasn’t always unspoken, though. I do also recall being “smacked” (lovingly) a couple of times over my “boyish” head:

Excerpt from "Frontiers," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Frontiers,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

Another major input was from women. These researchers are evidently focused on (how powerful men seek deviously to create submissive) “girlie girls,” but we all tend to overlook how much women influence boys about being boys. Naturally, for me, my mother was top of that female group:

Excerpt from "Distances," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Distances,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

However, what, uh, teenage girls appeared to expect of me as a teenage boy would eventually mean lots more to me than anything else. One of them, well, she was….uh, Wow!….and her school locker was in the same row as mine and I’d see her between classes now and then. I was too scared to say much to her. Then when we ended up in a class together, I discovered she LIKED ME TOO!:

Excerpt from "Frontiers," on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Frontiers,” on the iPad app for Kindle. Click to expand.

The piece does note the research is in its early stages. But that doesn’t stop one of the researchers from sharing what she evidently believes their research will likely uncover:

“….are these movies really so great for little girls to watch? When you start to look at this stuff, you have to question that a little bit.”

And when you start to look at this stuff, we all know that “gender roles” didn’t begin in 1937 with Disney. Just how did girls “learn” before there was such a thing as a Disney “princess film”? And, by the way, how do girls happen to “learn” if they never see one?

It would seem self-evident that as non-screen men pass on to boys how to behave as boys and then men, real-life women have always done much the same to the girls in their lives. But as a man I leave it to women to address such questions about themselves for themselves. However, if we accept some girls may “learn” some things about “being girls” as a result of watching Disney “princess films,” nothing in the piece indicates the research doesn’t merely skim the Disney surface. For example, back in the 1930s-1950s, where did Disney writers “get their ideas” about how to be a “girl princess” in the first place?

We have to believe some real-life princesses must have had something to do with it. Assuming that was so, how in their own childhoods and young teen years, did, say, the eventual real-life Queen Marie-Antoinette of France and noblewomen of her era “learn” to be “girls”? Only they would be able to tell us, of course, but the former academic historian and now novelist in me knows this much with absolute certainty: they definitely didn’t “learn” how to by sitting in front of their DVD players watching Disney “princess films” over and over.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

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