‘Sexism, Strength & Dominance: Images of Masculinity in Disney Films’ – A Response

CHARLEY MEAKIN

In 2007, filmmaker Sanjay Newton graced YouTube with this video, offering to explore what message Disney films give to boys, “about how real men interact with, and think about women”. A friend alerted me to this video last week, and although my first response was fairly non-committal, upon second viewing I felt the uncontrollable need to point out the ostensible plot holes in Newton’s argument.

[A half-hearted disclaimer: I am a big Disney fan. I grew up during the ‘Disney Decade’ in the late 80s and early 90s, and I consider The Lion King to be one of my favourite films. However, I am also an academic, and the opinions that follow are those of an unsatisfied film student, and not (just) a Disney nerd.]

Newton’s video opens with a clip from Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004), in which wannabe-superhero-turned-villain Syndrome declares, “Now you respect me, because I’m a threat” to his one-time idol Mr Incredible, and Newton bases most of the argument which follows on this idea- that Disney promote dominance and hostile behavior to their male audience. This clip got my attention. The Incredibles does indeed address the problems that can arise from celebrity culture, and while it does present two sides to the story, Syndrome is clearly presented as the villain. I thought perhaps Newton was about to offer an alternative perspective, but unfortunately not. Instead, what follows is six and a half minutes of carefully selected clips, sticky-taped together out of context, with half-formed remarks clumsily attempting to connect them.

The first of these remarks is that “often, the message to boys both implicitly and explicitly is that men should view women as objects of pleasure, or as servants to please them”. This is ‘evidenced’ in a clip of Gaston from Beauty & the Beast (1991) being complimented by his sidekick who claims “no beast alive stands a chance against you, and no girl for that matter!” The clip ends here – were it to carry on, we would see said girl (Belle) refuse Gaston’s hand in marriage and kick him into a muddy puddle, publicly humiliating him and scoring one for the women. It’s difficult to see how Newton believes that Disney wants its male audiences to wish they too could end up like Gaston, and so should objectify women in this way. The second piece of evidence offered is a clip from 1998’s Mulan in which the soldiers sing about a girl worth fighting for / she’ll marvel at my strength / adore my battle scars / I couldn’t care less what she looks like / it all depends on what she cooks like, which admittedly doesn’t give the best impression. But yet again, this song is taken completely out of context and its meaning becomes warped. The dramatic irony of this song in the context of the film is that this unattainable ‘ideal woman’ the men are yearning for is actually hidden among them, fighting alongside them, and most importantly has been accepted as one of them – and the audience joins Mulan in the satisfaction of her secret. The soldiers appear more naive and foolish, than they do sexist.

Newton’s second point is that “Disney movies glorify one particular body type above all others: chiselled abs, a barrelled chest, and massive arms”. This point is arguably the weakest of the three and yet is actually the most interesting, in my opinion. Newton identifies that other body types in Disney movies are “generally outcasts, or weak and subservient”, but fails then to explore the roles of characters such as the Sultan from Aladdin (1992) or Maurice from Beauty & the Beast who support this argument, or Jafar’s role in Aladdin and Dr. Facilier’s in 2010’s The Princess & the Frog, both of whom very definitely don’t. A great deal has been written on the aesthetics of Disney heroes and villains (I would recommend Lee Artz’s essay, ‘The Righteousness of Self-Centred Royals’) and how these visual motifs can allow young audience members to connect characters to their role in the narrative – Newton could have made an interesting case study in comparing characters’ physicality from a singular text. Instead, we are treated to a lengthy clip of the song ‘Gaston’ from Beauty & the Beast, which includes lyrics such as there’s no man in town half as manly / perfect, a pure paragon! and nobody’s got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston, and my personal favourite: now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs / so I’m roughly the size of a barge. The sheer hyperbole of these lyrics makes the song unmistakably sardonic, and ‘Gaston’ is arguably a precursor to more recent Disney films and Pixar films’ mutli-layered humour, offering audience members different points of entry as they develop intellectually, from children into adults. The irony of the fact that Gaston is presented as all brawn and no brains and that that’s the reason Belle rejects him is ignored entirely by Newton. In Disney’s view (represented here through Belle), Gaston is anything but “perfect”.

Newton’s third argument is that Disney films promote violence and dominance, and that “an unwillingness to fight or prove dominance is often shown as pitiful”, which he backs up initially with a clip of the Beast refusing to engage in physical combat with Gaston, and follows this with Simba from The Lion King (1994) attempting to overpower his uncle Scar, using his authority rather than his sheer strength. True, the Beast does look fairly pitiful in this clip, but that’s not so much because he is afraid to fight Gaston, and more much to do with the fact that the character has lost the woman that he loves – his only real friend – and sees Gaston’s attempted murder as a way to selflessly release Belle from any feelings for him, as well as ending his own immense pain and heartbreak. As an audience, by this point in the film we are rooting for the Beast, and Gaston’s primal behaviour serves only to strengthen our hatred for him. Disney are trying to demonstrate that it is personality, and not physicality, which really matter. In the scene from The Lion King, malicious Scar attacks Simba when he is most vulnerable, and shortly afterward gets his comeuppance by being attacked himself by his once-allies. Simba – thanks to his authoritative, restrained nature – emerges as the stronger character, as the hero of the story. Even Newton’s example of Aladdin and Jafar’s final stand-off is a bad one, as at the end of the film, Aladdin outwits evil Jafar and tricks him into an eternity trapped inside a magic lamp. Violence and dominance play no part in any of these three characters’ overcoming their foes.

After making these three clear but unproven arguments, Newton asks, “where do we go from here? What does it mean, when sexism, strength and dominance are the primary portrayals of masculinity?” – Sure, from the clips Newton has mashed together, it would be possible to read these messages in the few select examples offered in this six minute video. But Newton fails to even acknowledge that Disney as a brand historically – and infamously – promotes conservative, Western family values, where children are raised to have faith, imagination, and self-belief. Films are fantasies – most films are made with the primary objective of being escapist – and while feminists can (and regularly do) argue that Disney do not promote prominent female roles as much as they do heterosexual male roles in the family unit, they are by no means the only film studios guilty of doing so.

My intention is not to negate Newton’s actual argument – I personally wish the male gaze was considered more in academic analysis of Disney texts – but more to highlight the selectivity of his ‘evidence’. If it were a longer video, perhaps he would have had more time to discuss Jake & the Never Land Pirates, or perhaps the relationship between Mickey and Minnie Mouse in their various Disney shorts. Or indeed any of the male characters in recent Disney/Pixar films like the Toy Story franchise, or Finding Nemo – all of which promote teamwork and trust, not sexism, violence or dominance in any way. Interestingly, in 2001’s Monsters Inc., the ‘outcast’ Ros (identifiable by her grotesque physicality, true to Newton’s observations) turns out to be the Chief of the Child Detection Agency, and actually manages to manipulate the male characters around her to her own needs. Women in power is a fairly new breakthrough in cinema in general, even more so in animation, and Disney/Pixar are pushing to update their brand to promote modern family values. As society adapts, so does their message.

Of course – the Disney Princess brand falls into an entirely different category. But that’s another blog for another day.

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2 thoughts on “‘Sexism, Strength & Dominance: Images of Masculinity in Disney Films’ – A Response

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your last point. A problem I find with much Disney scholarship is a selective approach to what material is incorporated into arguments and what is omitted. Yes, the Disney canon is huge and unwieldy, but a simply acknowledgement of this fact isn’t enough to excuse what are often spurious claims.

    On a semi-related note – here’s a Disney analysis video I do have time for.
    http://chezapocalypse.com/episodes/nostalgia-chick-rantasmo-disney-needs-more-gay/

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