“Are these movies really so great for little girls to watch?”
That was the disturbing question posed by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer following the results of a study that will surely have ramifications for future Disney films.
The original trio of Disney Princess films were released in 1937, 1950, and 1959, respectively. Watching these retro films can lead many to ask questions such as "Why do these women need a man to save them?" "Why is the character's aesthetic always pivotal to the plot?" and "Why is Sleeping Beauty actually kind of rapey...?"
Of course, we can put many of these pondering down to mere differences in the time period. It took another 30 years until the studio produced another animated princess feature, and with so much happening in between, surely it was time for the Princesses to come into their own — or so we thought.
First up was the iconic The Little Mermaid. Many hailed the movie as a pivotal moment for the future of heroines, yet when Fought and Eisenhauer studied the film, they found one defining trait that would become a trend in the following years. For a movie centered around a young woman, there's a lot of talking down by the men. In fact, 68 percent of all movie lines were said by the male counterparts. Of course, this isn't all that surprising since Ariel does sell her voice to the evil Ursula and is therefore mute for a good chunk of the film.
However, what was even more staggering was that in the following five films, the women spoke even less. Although this may not present itself as much of a problem, we must remember the effect this could have based on the sheer amount of young girls who watch these films, and thus learn about these gender roles at such a young, impressionable age.
"We don't believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way. 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.”
Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College.
Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer discovered that male characters make up 76 percent of all dialogue in Pocahontas, 77 percent in Mulan, 71 percent in The Beauty and the Beast, and a colossal 90 percent in Aladdin.
Incredibly, as the data in the above graph shows, the early Disney films such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty had fewer speaking roles but spread them evenly between males and females. Sleeping Beauty even gave more pieces of dialogue to female characters. And yes, that is the film where our heroine is drugged and left waiting to be rescued by a charming prince.
Speaking to The Washington Post, Fought had some stern criticism to dish out when it came to The Beauty and the Beast:
"There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions or women inventing things.
Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male."
Fought believes that the shift between male and female pieces of dialogue is simply down to "carelessness," as it is ingrained in our society to believe that being male is the norm.
"When you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture."
There did seem to be some hope, with both the strong female led Tangled and Brave, having 52 percent, and 74 percent of lines going to female characters. But sadly, it came crashing back to reality with the 2013 mega hit Frozen, which although following the exploits of two sisters, gave 59 percent of lines to males.
However, there is a silver lining. Fought and Eisenhauer noted that the post-modern Disney films are more likely to praise female characters on the sum of their achievements, and not their looks. Nevertheless, to see such undeniable data that Disney Princesses are both out-spoken, and out-powered in films that they lead is quite a disappointing turn of events.