August 01, 2007

Masculinity in Disney films

Here's an interesting little documentary about portrayals of sex, gender, and race in Disney animated films. The claim is, unsurprisingly, that Disney uncritically promulgates vicious, traditional gender roles, especially in their portrayals of masculinity as violent and domineering. But their evidence for this claim is a bit on the weak side -- many of their clips show villains acting in a traditionally masculine way. What's more, these traditional masculine qualities are usually part of the villainous qualities of these characters. For example, in The Incredibles and Beauty and Beast, for example -- the latter being one of the documentary's primary sources of evidence -- the aggressive individualism expressed by these characters is what makes them villains.

This doesn't mean I think Disney films are totally progressive. The documentarians are right in the broad strokes, and some particular claims -- that the climax of a Disney film is often a physical confrontation between hero and villain over who will possess a woman is dead-on accurate, even if it's completely untrue for Pixar films. But the evidence is insufficient to prove their primary thesis.

Via Feminist allies


MosBen said...

Being at work I can't see the video right now, but I was wondering how far back they pull from in their movies. Obviously movies from the 50s are going to be a bit lacking in some areas, but I imagine at least some of their more recent movies have improved on this a bit. Hmm, I wonder if going forward you'll see a divergence between the gender/racial politics of the CGI features and the traditionally animated features. There's certainly a schism between Pixar's films and the main company's features, but I wonder if the distinction extends to non-Pixar CGI Disney films like "Meet the Robinsons".

Noumena said...

While it was still a legally separate company, Pixar enjoyed almost complete autonomy from Disney. The difference is quite relevant here -- the major roles are still straight white males, but there are some great female characters who aren't just accessories or prizes for men (Dorie, Helen Parr) and the climax isn't usually an epic fight over a woman-prize (Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo).

Part of the merger agreement between Disney and Pixar is that Pixar retains this autonomy to a large extent. I didn't see Cars, so I can't comment on that. I didn't think Ratatouille was a particularly strong film, so that could be a bad sign. I suppose we'll just have to see what happens with the next three films.

Goddess Cassandra said...

Yeah, but in the Incredibles, Helen Parr is still the traditonal mother. Their powers even come down straight gender roles (not to mention weird things like Helen not being the breadwinner...why didn't Mr. Parr just quit his job and Helen be a pilot?). In Toy Story, aside from some gender ambiguous toy freaks of Sid's, there is one female toy, (Bo Peep) and she's just the love interest.

Pixar might be mildly better than Disney, but both suck pretty hard core when it comes to gender roles.

MosBen said...

But wasn't at least part of the Mr. Parr's emotional arc that he needed to trust his wife as a partner and an individual? His secret heroing and eventual assertion that he needed to protect Ms. Parr struck me as a pretty standard male role that he needed to and did overcome. Ms. Parr was also a successful superhero before she was married. She may have chosen to stay at home, but she's hardly a stereotype.

Noumena said...

I don't see how the powers in The Incredibles come down to straight gender roles. Yes, Bob is super-strong and probably nigh-invulnerable. But, at least as far as I can see, there's nothing gendered about elasticity, invisibility, force fields, super speed, or cold powers.

I didn't mean to imply that Pixar is some bastion of progressive politics within the mainstream animation industry, that their films pass the Mo Movie Measure, or anything along those lines. They're just qualify for the very, very weak praise of being better than Disney, is all. Generally speaking, Pixar films have richer, more complex characters and plots. than Disney releases. That last includes the fact that many or most Pixar films do not revolve around the male hero fighting with the male villain for (the heart and sex organs of) the female trophy.