Don't get me wrong--I am a huge Disney fan. There is nothing anyone will ever do or say to convince me to stop loving Disney, truly. It's such a part of who I am and integrated into so many of my childhood memories that it would just be impossible to divide from myself. I, like most kids, grew up never really questioning the way Disney movies go. Yeah, the princesses are physically flawless and often need saving from the macho, handsome prince, but so what? It's just a movie, right?
Over the past few years, there's been a lot of talk about how Disney has evolved, specifically in its portrayal of women. Now, no one's denying that the 1950's Cinderella is a long shout from 2013's Elsa. Sixty years of the feminist movement has definitely had its impact on Disney's production crew. Recent female characters are now more spunky, independent, and outspoken. They're dynamic, sassy, and often play a more active role in the plot.
But all this praise in Disney's favor really should be talked about some more. Is giving female characters a more outgoing personality really what we should be concerned with? How feminist has Disney become truly, and isn't it time we start examining that question a little deeper?
1. Meg from Hercules (1990)
My mom was obsessed with the movie Hercules when I was little. Growing up, I genuinely thought Hercules was one of the most well-known Disney films due to the number of times it was shown in my house. I really can't complain, though, because I loved it. Meg was my idol, with her sassy comments and tough-girl personality. I still quote some of her best lines today.
Meg is definitely an improvement from earlier Disney heroines who are much more one-dimensional. But there's no doubt some questionable aspects to her character that undermine the feminist persona she's representing.
Early on in the plot, we learn of Meg's heartbreaking backstory: she sold her soul to Hades, our relative villain, in order to save her lover's life, and in response her love left her for another woman. Trapped, she's forced to do Hades' evil biddings until freed. But even though she's under the forceful will of Hades, she never really seems to mind. She just kind of goes about her business, doing what he says and throwing out sassy comments every once in a while. It isn't until she falls in love with Hercules that she seems to even question fighting back against Hades. Her actions are really only ever incited by the men around her.
When she does finally stand up to Hades, it's on behalf of her love for Hercules, who, reminiscent of her past love, she sacrifices herself for, but this time to the point of death. Now even though this may seem pretty strong-willed, remember this isn't for herself or her own gain, it's for Hercules, her love interest.
So even though she's a lot more outspoken than past Disney heroines, Meg really isn't all that independent. Whenever she does act on her own accord, it's for the sake of love, for the sake of a man, not for herself. Her actions are completely dependent on those of the male characters with whom she is concerned, which isn't so feminist if you ask me.
2. Tiana from Princess and the Frog (2009)
Jump forward about two decades and we've got Tiana, Disney's first Black princess. Now, this was Disney's first big princess movie in about 10 years, so expectations were pretty high, and it seems like Disney understood that. Not only is Tiana hard-working and charismatic, but she's the first Disney heroine with her own job. Her life dream is to own her own restaurant, a dream first sparked by her father's love for cooking that she adopted herself. As a young woman, Tiana works multiple jobs in order to save up money to purchase the building that will hopefully one day be her very own restaurant. The main theme is that it's not enough to just wish for something, you've got to make it happen through your own actions.
So even though Tiana is financially independent and has ambition, there's still some concerns to be made over her feminist ability. For instance, all the emphasis on her independence and dreams completely go out the window when Naveen, the love interest, enters the plot. After both being turned into frogs, they slowly fall in love on their journey to find a way to become humans again. When visiting Mama Ody, the voodoo queen, Tiana's told to "dig a little deeper" to find what she needs, not what she wants. What the song is referring to is love, but Tiana takes it to mean that she needs to work even harder to get her restaurant.
It isn't until the end, when Tiana is cornered by the Shadow Man, does she understand what Mama Ody really meant. In discovering this, she casts aside the Shadow Man's temptations and chooses to remain a frog with Naveen, effectively sacrificing all her dreams and aspirations in the name of love. Despite her initial independence, Tiana, too, remains an example of a female heroine being influenced primarily by romance.