As a huge, huge—no, really huge—fan of all things Disney, I'll admit when I saw an article in The Washington Post entitled "Researchers Have Found a Major Problem with 'The Little Mermaid' and Other Disney Movies," I scrunched up my nose in disbelief. What? Why? How rude!
Of course, as the article notesand I'll be the first to admit—the older princess movies like Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty do make it seem like girls are helpless and hopeless if they aren't pretty (or married). But not all princess movie storylines revolve around meeting a prince and living happily ever after. Consider Frozen, which defines an act of true love more broadly, as being committed by one sister, to save another's life.
But Jeff Guo, the author of this piece, still has a bone to pick with The Little Mermaid, and other movies that came afterwards. It seems researchers have actually taken the time to quantify that in these films, men speak far more than women. So although The Little Mermaid centers around Ariel, characters like Eric, her father Triton, and a crab named Sebastian have more to say. Um, okay. I guess I'm not horrified yet. I'm just impressed the linguists behind this study somehow made it their job to watch Disney movies. Bravo!
In fact, Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer have actually worked out that in the early princess movies such as Cinderella, male and female characters deliver approximately equal amounts of dialogue. But counterintuitively, in more recent films, men's voices are heard more frequently. For instance, men speak 68 percent of the time in The Little Mermaid and 71 percent of the time in Beauty and the Beast. According to the researchers, this sends a bad message to today's girls, as does the limited number of females who appear in Disney movie casts.
"There's one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things," says Fought. "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."
Um, what about Mrs. Potts? Who is running a household and being a mom to Chip and showing Belle extraordinary kindness? What about Ursula who used to control the sea?
I will ultimately agree that watching princess movies may not be the best way to teach my three daughters about being modern women. But it's also, on some level, just entertainment. Besides, as the researchers point out, more recent princess movies like Brave and Tangled have more balanced casts and speaking roles. And increasingly, the characters are becoming more well-rounded, as the creators focus on their talents and skills, instead of just their looks.
Clearly this is a reflection of what is happening in society and how women are perceived; consider that Snow White was made in 1937! And she did have a talent, anyway: singing!
In the end, I'm going to stand by my love of Disney movies, and I won't be bullied into overanalyzing every moment of every film our family treasures. I know my daughters have role models outside of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, like me! I work, raise a family, exercise, and here's the kicker: refuse to cook most nights! Ha! Take that, Snow White. Meanwhile, if my girls want to run around in dresses during imaginative playtime and pretend they are Snow White, needing a prince to rescue them, it's cool with me.
What's your take?
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.