Feminists have long been critical of animated Disney films1 for promulgating outdated gender roles that see women as subservient, dainty, perpetually sexualized, and overly fixated on romance and the "happily ever after" with their dashing prince. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have been criticized as evidence of rape culture (anyone who is unconscious cannot consent), while Beauty and the Beast romanticizes domestic violence. The Little Mermaid encourages little girls to give up their voice and change who they are for men. In most of the princess movies, the story's grand finale is the magical marriage. After that, the story ends. Youth, love, and matrimony are portrayed as the end all be all for women. Women don't have interesting adventures, their male counterparts do. Female characters are only the objects of rescue and the trophy to be won. Magic and romance control their destiny; they are rarely the determiners of their own lives.
|Source: Sociological Images|
Many have also criticized the Disney princess collection as overly white. Very few women of color are featured, and those who are tend to be stereotypical or otherwise lacking in depth and cultural sensitivity. Because the media is an important agent of socialization and these images are heavily marketed to young children, feminists and critical media theorists are right to be concerned.
In this essay, I extend this gender and race critique to explore the representation of nonhuman species in Disney princess films. While women of color are grossly underrepresented in Disney animations, nonhuman princesses do star in several films.2 Unfortunately, the diversity ends there, as many of the same gender scripts persist.
Nonhuman Disney Princesses
Perhaps the first nonhuman Disney princess was Faline in Bambi. After meeting as fawns, she and Bambi begin a courtship that necessitates Bambi battling another buck to "win" her. He will later face a disastrous forest fire and rescue her from hunters and their dogs. Following this, he becomes the "Great Prince of the Forest" and starts a family with her.
|The Aristocats (1970)|
After their wealthy mistress bequeaths her vast wealth to them, Duchess and her kittens are ousted from their Parisian mansion by the jealous butler. Stranded in the country and handicapped by her femininity and hyper-daintiness, Duchess and her children are rescued by tom cat Thomas O'Malley. It is indicated that some sort of romantic relationship forms between Duchess (who is lonely after the loss of her former male partner) and her hero.
|Robin Hood (1973)|
Disney's animated version of Robin Hood features a fox princess who is trapped in the court of the miserable and murderous King John. Robin Hood faces certain danger to participate in an archery contest to win Marian's affections (and "earn" the prize kiss). As King John's sights narrow in on Robin Hood, Maid Marian's situation becomes increasingly precarious. Robin Hood eventually liberates the kingdom and marries his damsel in distress.
|The Lion King (1994)|
The Lion King features a relatively strong nonhuman princess, Nala, who struggles to keep the pride afloat in Simba's absence. A bit of a "manic pixie" character, she encourages Simba to "find himself" and be the man he is destined to be. As a result, she is relegated to sidekick status. We never learn much about her own interests, desires, challenges, or background. Predictably, she also becomes a love interest, and soon realizes her other primary female role in producing an heir to the kingdom.
|The Princess and the Frog (2009)|
More recently, Disney's The Princess and the Frog sees a young Creole princess transformed into a frog and partnered up with her obnoxious amphibian prince. This film has been criticized as squandering the only Disney princess film to date that features an African American girl by presenting her as a frog for most of her screen time. This film is also problematic because this young girl is basically preyed upon by a man who exploits her empathy for his gain. Of course, he also uses her forced time with him to woo her and they are eventually married. Unique for Disney films, we are at least left with the understanding that Tiana has a life after marriage, as she founds her own restaurant.
Gender Norms and Anti-Speciesist Values
Sadly, then, we see many of the same gender norms perpetuated in films starring nonhuman princesses. They remain side characters who must be rescued, who must encourage and inspire the more important men, and who must be won and married. Love is always the end result, with romance and marriage the epitome of a happy ending. And, though these characters are illustrated as deer, foxes, cats, lions, and frogs, they are overwhelmingly white normative. That is, epistemologies of whiteness structure the characters in speech, behaviors, and values.3 Of course, most of the voice actors are also white. Though Nala is supposed to be an African character, adult Nala is voiced by a woman of Irish decent who identifies as white.4 These films are also representative of Disney productions in that they are painfully heteronormative. That is, they present romantic love and marriage as an institution only applicable to opposite sex couples.
However, anthropomorphized as they are, these films are important for granting personhood to other animals. For the most part, respectful attention is paid to their unique challenges as nonhuman "others" in a human world. We learn to empathize with "stray" cats, scorn hunting, take forest fires seriously, and see frogs as complex individuals.
Like many children, my concern for other animals was greatly shaped by the animated films I grew up with. A child of the 1980s, my family only had a handful of VHS tapes, two of which were Charlotte's Web and Disney's Honey I Shrunk the Kids . Charlotte's Web tells the story of a runty piglet who didn't want to become bacon and a wise spider that craftily saved his life. Honey I Shrunk the Kids featured Anty, the courageous ant that befriended the shrunken children over an oatmeal cream pie, eventually giving his life to protect them from danger. One blogger admits:
It is hands down the bravest thing ever done by a fake insect and as much as one may hate to admit it, it made you cry… Or at the very least made your eyes fill with tears. The noble ways of Anty made many; myself included, really reconsider how we treated ants. I’ll admit, as a kid I liked to play Godzilla and stomp on bunches of innocent bystander ants from time to time, but seeing Honey I Shrunk The Kids changed all of that.
|Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)|
My brothers and I watched these movies over and over. I didn't come from a vegan or vegetarian family and I grew up in rural Appalachia. My anti-speciesist leanings came from somewhere else. Children's media acted as a window into the outside world, shaping my values and raising my awareness.
Nonhuman Animals hold a special place in many children's stories, which is especially helpful for challenging speciesist ideologies in a very animal-based world. The problem arises when other animals are used as vessels for oppressive norms that marginalize women, people of color, homosexual persons, and other vulnerable groups. I would like to see more nonhuman Disney princesses that exhibit egalitarian values. Strong female characters that control their own lives and are not fixated on men and romance would be a great improvement. A better film would not anthropomorphize other animals as white, straight, subservient women or hyper-masculinized, entitled men. bell hooks reminds us that media of all sorts is a kind of fantasy. It reflects the world we idealize and constructs political narratives. Disney films specialize in fantasy-making and are especially well suited to using the magic of the movies to inspire social change. I want to see Disney princesses taking on human supremacy without appealing to white supremacist patriarchy.
Corey Lee Wrenn
Founder of Vegan Feminist Network & Council Member for the American Sociological Association's Animals & Society section.
In cooperation with the Animals & Society Institute, ASA's Animals & Society section facilitates improved sociological inquiry into issues concerning other animals and is currently seeking members. Membership is $5-$10; you must be a member of the ASA to join.
1. See Jezebel's "Feminist Guide to Disney Princesses," The Root's "Enough with the Disney Princesses!," Sociological Images' "Disney Princesses, Deconstructed," and Feminist Disney Tumblr.
2. Many animated Disney films have nonhuman main characters that would be relevant to this discussion, but were not included as they were not considered "princesses." For instance, Lady from Lady and The Tramp is not exactly "royalty," just a dog from "better breeding."
3. Aristocats explicitly draws on many racist stereotypes.
4. Especially curious is the fact that juvenile Nala is voiced by a Jamaican American girl. This seems to suggest that ideal womanhood actually reflects white womanhood, with blackness associated with immaturity and lack of development.