Disney princessesDisney

Is Disney sexist?

Craig McLean

I know all about princesses. With two characterful daughters (and an equally characterful wife, not to mention a young son who’s no shrinking violet), I should do.

“I don’t want the crusts on this sandwich.” “I can’t sleep on this mattress – too lumpy!” “I’m not wearing that to the party.”

But enough about my diva-like behaviour. As a family, we’ve grown up with the definitive guide to Princess Representation & Embodiment: the works of the Walt Disney Company.

What makes a princess? According to Disney, the ingredients are a pert nose, thick hair, a graceful manner and some lovely frockery. And, frankly, a rather drippy existence.

One of their first princesses, the 'beautiful young' Snow White has been around for an impressive 80 years, as of 21st December 2017. But is that a good thing?

The Washington Post lamented in an article last year: “Why are characters so obsessed with Snow White’s looks? Why doesn’t Cinderella have any talents or hobbies? And why doesn’t Sleeping Beauty do anything besides get drugged and await rescue?”

Recently, one mum - Sarah Hall from Tyneside - called for Sleeping Beauty to be removed from her child's school due to the "inappropriate sexual message" where a prince kisses the unconscious Sleeping Beauty to wake her from a curse.

Sleeping beautyDisney

Not that my daughters, in their younger years, viewed these cartoon heroines that way. To pre-adolescent girls, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella et al were just as the Disney-god intended: super-pretty idols to root for as they tangled with ugly sisters, wicked stepmothers and handsome princes.

This template – the pretty, good girl fighting ugly evil – has proved remarkably resilient. Take Cinderella, as most recently embodied by then-25-year-old Lily James in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action remake.

“I see [this film] very much lit up by Lily James,” Stellan Skarsgård told me when I visited the Pinewood Studios set in summer 2014. He was playing a scheming courtier, out to bamboozle Richard Madden’s dashing prince. “If you’re going to make a film about a good person, a really good person, then you better prove that goodness exists. And when you see Lily you definitely know her goodness exists. And her innocence. It is,” the veteran Swedish actor concluded, “pretty beautiful.”

Lilly JamesDisney

Later that day, James was ushered into my presence. To sit down, she had to lower herself gingerly onto a stool concealed by the billowing folds of her cornflower-blue extravaganza of gown. The tightness of the corsetry left her almost speechless. The fondant-fancy Disney-ness of it goaded my gag reflex.

Still, Skarsgård was onto something. Several studies have shown that beauty and goodness are linked in Disney movies – as well as a lot of other films, books and TV shows.

A recent study by the linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer analysed dialogue in Disney movies. According to The Washington Post, they discovered that, “all of the princess movies from 1989-1999 — Disney’s ‘Renaissance’ era — are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 71% of the time in Beauty and the Beast (1991); 90% of the time in Aladdin (1992) 76% of the time in Pocahontas (1995).”

Graph of men and women speaking roles in Disney filmsCarmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer

Disney did a better job with Tangled (2010) which had female characters speak 52% of the lines and Brave, where men only had 26% of the dialogue. But Frozen (2013) let the side down: 59% of the speaking in that film was by men.

Disney is far from an outlier. A rigorous study of Hollywood screenplays by The Pudding found that, “Across thousands of films, it was hard to find a subset that didn’t over-index male. Even romantic comedies have dialogue that is, on average, 58% male.”

Graph of percent of words spoken by males and females in Disney filmsCarmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer

Say hi-ho-hosanna, then, for the new, live action Beauty and the Beast, which stars Emma Watson and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. Like Frozen and Brave, it is busting boundaries.

The movie features not one but two, mixed-race couples (albeit in the form of animated inanimate objects), a much-written-about " gay moment", and, most unusual of all, a princess who is very much her own woman.

The new Belle is an inventor – the role ascribed to her father in the original Beauty and the Beast animation. Watson has said, "I was like, 'Well, there was never very much information as to why Belle didn’t fit in, other than she liked books. Also, what is she doing with her time?’ So, we created a backstory for her, which was that she had invented a kind of washing machine, so that, instead of doing laundry, she could sit and use that time to read. So, we made Belle an inventor."


I contacted Disney to talk about the more modern messages in Beauty and the Beast. No one was available, but I was pointed in the direction of this recent quote from Sean Bailey, who’s in charge of Disney’s live action features: "Inclusivity is not only a priority but an imperative for us, and it's top of my mind on every single project.”

That doesn’t wholly speak to the sexism point, so I decided to ask a nearby authority. “Who’s my favourite Disney princess?” pondered my 15-year-old with a wrinkle of her nose. “They’re all kind of wimpy. Oh, I like Esmeralda in Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I guess she’s not really a princess…. Frozen was great: ‘sisters forever!’” she exclaimed, quoting the legend emblazoned on her now discarded Frozen lunchbox.

“But!” she added, excitedly managing to lift her gaze from her iPhone screen, “I am looking forward to seeing Beauty and the Beast. Emma Watson just looks so serene.”

Emma WatsonDisney

“Serene”, adjective: “calm, untroubled, composed, collected, cool, self-possessed,” said Google’s dictionary.

Yeah, those seem like sound values for my daughters.

Pointedly, pleasingly, two days before general release, Disney hosted a London preview of Beauty and the Beast as part of the UN’s HeForShe women's film festival, an initiative for which Watson is a global ambassador.

These are baby steps, for sure. But with the weight of almost 90 years of storytelling history, and a bazillion-dollar bottom line to think about, Disney isn’t about to throw the ultra-cute baby out with the talking bathwater.

One day, though, maybe Dan Stevens will be the Beauty and a 'prostheticised' Emma Watson will be the Beast. Now that would be a gender earthquake. The sexual revolution might not be televised, but it could be (part-)animated.

Originally published on 20 March 2017