Contrary to Popular Belief, Disney Films Can Be Quite Feminist

Contrary to Popular Belief, Disney Films Can Be Quite Feminist

When Frozen came out in 2013, everybody raved about how it was the first feminist Disney movie.

They said this because the ultimate love story in the end was between two sisters, rather than a prince and a princess. It was a great movie with an important lesson about both female solidarity and love in a family, but it definitely was not the first Disney princess film with feminist themes. In this context, feminist means any sort of diverse representation of strong-willed women.

Older Disney films have faced a lot of criticism for actually being sexist, rather than feminist. A lot of them feature themes of a boy saving a girl, or a man having control over a woman. I’m not denying that these storylines are present, however to focus entirely on them takes away from all the strong female moments that did occur in the films.

After Frozen was praised for being the first feminist Disney movie, a majority of the backlash included arguments saying that this excluded Tiana, the protagonist of The Princess and the Frog. Tiana’s story is that she is an aspiring chef working multiple jobs in order to save enough money to open her own restaurant. A young girl with the drive to make her dream come true and a strong work ethic is definitely feminist!

Another feminist aspect of the film is the friendship between Tiana and her best friend Charlotte. They come from different worlds–Tiana is struggling to make money and Charlotte is a Southern belle born into money. Tiana is black and Charlotte is white. Regardless, they still have a supportive, loving friendship that beats any sort of class differences or prejudice. The way Charlotte is portrayed is perfect. She could be mocked for being slightly ditsy and far more girly than Tiana, yet she’s not. She and Tiana could be put against each other to compete for Prince Naveen’s attention, yet their friendship is stronger. Charlotte wants to marry a prince, while Tiana wants to own a business, yet neither of their dreams is belittled because ultimately feminism is about the choice to do what one wants with their life.

Oftentimes when judging if a Disney film is feminist, people only look at the main character, the princess. However, there are a lot of background female characters who deserve praise. I’m talking about the incredibly powerful and strong mothers in many of these stories. A lot of Disney films are criticized for killing off mothers, which Disney producer Don Hahn addressed in an interview with Glamour saying, “it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents.”

Regardless, the mothers who are still alive, such as Sleeping Beauty’s, Rapunzel’s, Tiana’s, and Mulan’s, show incredible strength as a parent. Imagine having a young daughter you love so much who you have to witness going through so much. In Tangled, Rapunzel’s mother lives every day as a fair ruler with the knowledge that her little girl is out there, without letting it destroy her. Motherhood is so downplayed in Disney films, yet they are a true backbone of strength in these situations.

The biggest argument against Disney films is the fact that even if a princess is the main character, a prince always comes along to save the day in the end. To that, I say it is unfair that we are socialized to see men in those roles to the point that those who watch these films are placing a bigger importance in these men that could be placed in the princesses.

One example is Cinderella, who spends years acting as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters before meeting a prince at a ball and being taken away by him to a new life. Sure, in the end the prince gives her the means to escape, but it’s Cinderella’s own kind personality that causes the prince to fall in love with her. In addition, she shows extreme resilience and strength by taking care of her stepfamily for years rather than giving up.

Ariel also plays into this. She is criticized because she needs Prince Eric to kiss her so she can speak, suggesting that she needs a man to give her a voice or personality. However, Ariel is a firm believer in following her dreams and creating her own destiny, rather than remaining somewhere without satisfaction. When placed into real life context, this is a message that many women need to see to give them the push to make their lives what they want. Let’s not forget that she also saves Prince Eric’s life first!

I would never say that Disney films avoid all sexism, because it’s there. Considering the time when many of them were made, it definitely reflects society’s views on women. This doesn’t mean that there still cannot be positive feminist themes. I think the one flaw is that the main characters are always just teenagers. They are placing such young girls in situations that even grown women would have trouble handling, and that is a problem because girls watching begin to think that that is the norm.


Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.