How growing up Disney shapes gender roles

If your favorite childhood movie revolved around a Disney princess and her prince, you may have grown up with some very unrealistic expectations of how relationships work.

June 7, 2013

If you are currently between the ages of 18-29, then you were raised during the Disney Renaissance. This golden era of musical films—beginning in the late 1980s and ending around 2000—not only saved Disney from creative and financial ruin, but also renewed interest in the Disney brand as a critical and commerical goldmine.

And if you were a pre-adolescent girl during this time, chances are good that you had a favorite Disney princess (mine was Ariel, the plucky and impossibly beautiful heroine of The Little Mermaid) whose love affair with a handsome prince may have been your first model of what a grownup boyfriend/girlfriend relationship should be.
 
Unfortunately, the fairytale romances in films like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) actually set very poor examples for young girls to follow. Ariel and Belle are smart and refreshingly independent female protagonists; that is, until they enter into relationships with their male lovers, fall head-over-heels into stereotypically submissive gender roles and lose themselves along the way. 
 
While Ariel does have some feminist qualities (she wants to explore, rebel and experience a life beyond the confines of her underwater world), she ultimately succumbs to a subservient role by giving up everything for her man.
 
Ariel trades her means of communicating and expressing personality—her voice— for the eroticism of human legs, turning her into a purely visual object of desire. Think about it: she literally gives up her voice to be with Prince Eric, even though she's only known him for about five minutes, to become the perfect mute for the male gaze
 
Furthermore, the idea of Eric growing some gills and becoming a merman himself is never even mentioned. Because he is the dominant male, Ariel is expected to change her life for him—not the other way around. She transitions from being directly under the control of her father to being Eric's wife; so, despite longing for freedom throughout the course of the film, she is never truly independent. 
 
The female protaganist of Beauty and the Beast also ends up conforming to patriarchal gender strereotypes in her "happily ever after," although she does not begin her story that way. At first glance, Belle is the ideal feminist. She has a passion for books, longs to escape the confines of her provincial town and makes it clear to the lecherous lothario Gaston that she has zero interest in marrying him.
 
However, Belle still represents the sexist role of submissive female in relation to her dominant male counterpart. A pretty girl with no money falls for a rich, abusive monster. Belle submits herself to the Beast as the self-sacrifyicing daughter, and then yields to his every command without even trying to escape. This portrayal suggests that women are repsonsible for controlling male anger and violence, even if that means completely disregarding their own sense of safety and well-being. 
 
Belle's character further presents a damaging role model for young girls in showing that a woman is obligated to stay loyal to the abusive male in her life. She learns how to tame his outbursts and "fix" him to become sweet again: a dangerous error that many women make when struggling to leave a home of domestic violence. 
 
Also, the overly-sexualized, anorexic Barbie doll image of Disney princesses like Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and even Tiana from The Princess and the Frog is another problem of gender conformity (the most beautiful and desirable women have perfectly delicate features, tiny waists, huge busoms, etc.) that Disney continues to perpetuate today.
 
For example, while Pixar made great progress in writing the female protagonist of Brave as a courageous and self-actualized heroine whose journey doesn't revolve around a man (how refreshing!), the controversial decision to "glamorize" Merida's body type for promotional purposes still proves that sexist ideology is alive and well at the Disney corporation. 
 
What kind of role models should children be looking up to in Disney movies and beyond? 
 
Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.