Disney as a Socialization Agent

After examining a great number of Disney films, it has become readily apparent that Disney is a vastly powerful socialization agent, not only in how negative and persistent its messages are, but also in how it operates within society.  Out of the movies that I analyzed, only five featured characters of color, but each of them were problematic in its own way. The representations of race within these Disney films are worth discussing because they shape how children view their world.   Disney plays such a huge role in the lives of children (especially in the lives of girls), that constant exposure to some of these racist and sexist sentiments socialize them to internalize some of these ideas.

The prevalence of Disney in children’s media is outstanding. Just in the few times that I’ve visited my parents, my baby siblings have been consuming either the Disney channel, a Disney movie, playing with Disney toys, or reading a Disney book.  Educating children about these racist and sexist ideas would be a logical way to counteract these messages, but children are exposed to these messages at such a young age that this socialization is almost an inevitability if exposure goes unmediated.

However, that doesn’t mean that education isn’t an answer for children that grow old enough to comprehend concepts like racism and sexism.  Considering how much television children consume on a daily basis, viewing media through an analytical lens, as well as through social justice lenses with respect to racism and sexism, is an absolute necessity and something that parents need to consider when exposing their children to any film or television show.

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Brave

Yet another Disney film that features a total of zero people of color.

The really awesome thing about Brave is that it is a movie that is dedicated to the growth of a mother-daughter relationship. At the end, I definitely felt like giving my ma a call and seeing how things were going. This intergenerational relationship is the center of the film, and it’s a nice deviation from finding a true love. The lack of romantic motivation is refreshing. 

Brave is really unique in a film in the sense that Merida is a princess that wants nothing to do with the realm of love. In an archery contest for her hand in marriage, Merida enters in disguise and then wins with triumph. But being a princess, her primary concerns were still princess-like (what to wear, feminine skill training, getting married, etc). Merida is a rebellious tomboy, which is a lot of fun, but she was shoved into the cookie-cutter role of a princess and it just isn’t a place that fits her. 

Merida is a warrior, like Mulan. She believes she is not burdened by gender roles nor should she have to adhere to them. Her mother, however, thought differently, and through a course of events, Merida’s mother, Elinor, is transformed into a bear. Instantly filled with regret, Merida discovers she must mend the tapestry of the family that she tore in a tantrum to break the spell before it comes permanent.

Now why would our brave (no pun intended) warrior have to save her people, herself, and her mother with a traditionally feminine skill? Was this just another part of being forced into the princess trope? Or did Merida overcome something that was difficult for her, as she was not that great at needlework to begin with (and the needlework completed by her is shabby anyway)?

Feminist rating: 10/10

Passes Bechdel Test

Fails Racial Bechdel Test

 

Mulan

Mulan, often hailed as the more feminist of the Disney princesses, certainly has some problems. While I primarily agree with the sentiment that Mulan is empowered and a bad ass, let’s not forget that the film opens with a number that places Mulan’s only value in her ability to find and keep a husband. “Girl” is regularly used as an insult in this film, and the song “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You,” while catchy, is certainly enforcing gender expectations. While gender norms are oppressive towards women, they are oppressive towards men as well. The need to be tough and physically fit can be quite the burden on our men.

Another cool thing about Mulan is she sheds all preconceived notions of a princess. She is articulate, loves being educated, strong willed, and disobedient. It’s refreshing after watching white disney princess films.

The representation of the Chinese race is problematic in this film and is manifested in a few characters. Chi Fu, the advisor sent with Shang and Mulan to defeat the Huns, is a nasty caricature of Chinese stereotypes. His accent is heavy, his animation is tacky, his voice actor is putting on airs, and his is highly sissified and used for comedic relief against the dark tones of the film. Another character that is problematic the is Emperor of China himself. While he is meant to be portrayed as a fair and trustworthy ruler, he spouts “words of wisdom” that you would see printed on placemats at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Lansing.

Chi Fu

My favorite part of the film, though, is during the number “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” and Mulan kicks the butt of every male soldier.

Feminist Rating: 7/10

Fails Bechdel Test

Passes Racial Bechdel Test

Cinderella

Starting this off with: THERE ARE A TOTAL OF 0 POC IN THIS WHOLE FILM. 0. 0 POC. 

Cinderella is a problematic princess from the moment the movie begins. Right off the bat, when her father remarries and she is tormented by her step-mother, step-sisters, and even the cat, we see Cinderella become the embodiment of the cult of woman. She is, essentially, the perfect woman. She does chores without complaining, does the cooking without complaining, all the while being sweet, nice, kind, thoughtful, and pleasant to be around. She is thin, blonde, blue eyed, and loving. Give me a break.

The ruler of the kingdom decides his son must marry so that he can meet his grandchildren before he dies. He orchestrates a dramatic and over-compensating ball where the single women of the land must be on their best behavior, look the most attractive, and all around compete for one man’s attention. His name is literally Prince Charming. There’s nothing quite like promoting girl-on-girl competition, Disney, for girls to feel the need to replicate as they get older. And remember the ball was thrown specifically to find a wife for the prince to procreate with. In Cinderella, it seems, women are nothing more than breeding stock that must preen and parade themselves around men, vying for their attention.

The step sisters are animated quite different from Cinderella. With Cinderella as the embodiment of the cult of womanhood, it naturally spurns the audience from the sisters. They are loped in with the antagonist, Lady Tremaine, and are unladylike, unfeminine, and larger bodied.

Another issue I take with this film is that Prince Charming fell in love with Cinderella on sight. This encourages the already damaging social norm that women are only worth what they look like. Would Prince Charming have found her attractive in her maid garb? I’d like to hope so, but with the little attention he was giving the other women at the ball, would he have even given a servant-looking woman a thought? He was very kind to her at the end with the shoe search, but that was after he  was already “in love” with her.

Takeaways from Cinderella as a socialization agent: 
women are meant to clean
women are meant to cook 
women have to be thin
women have to be attractive
women have to be kind ALL THE TIME
women have to be gentle ALL THE TIME

and you will bag a man sans effort

Feminist rating: 0/10

Fails Bechdel Test

Fails Racial Bechdel Test

Pocahontas

Pocahontas, albeit an enjoyable movie (more for nostalgic reasons on my end, being a child of the 90’s), is a nasty blemish on Disney’s already-shabby-landscape of WoC characters. I’m pretty sure I could compile an entire dissertation on the cultural appropriation, racism, sexism, and ignorance (among other things) that run wild in this film. There are sources, upon sources, upon sources, debunking the protrayal of Native Americans and Pocahontas in this film. Some common discussions include the inaccuracy of the story; i.e., Pocahontas (or Matoaka, which was her real name) is a grown woman in the Disney depiction while she was between the ages of 10 and 12 in real life. Disney distorted Pocahontas’ story beyond recognition. As I watched the film, I kept a pro + con list of happenings/subliminal messages.

Biggest Gripes

  • The moment John Smith and Pocahontas met, all romantic/mystic-like with a fountain and such, Smith POINTS A GUN AND PREPARES TO SHOOT HER BUT ONLY STOPS BECAUSE HE FINDS HER ATTRACTIVE. LIKE, TALK ABOUT MAKING LIGHT OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND ATTITUDES/ACTIONS/THINGS THAT REAL WOMEN ENCOUNTER EVERYDAY– AND HOW ATTRACTIVE THEY ARE DOESN’T SAVE THEM.
  • The song “Savages” has issues from beginning to end. I really do believe Disney had good intentions when they wrote this song. HOWEVER it treats reverse racism as a real thing, which it is not. They try to level the playing field between the Native American people and the English settlers in terms of racism and violence. Let’s be real here, though. The playing field wasn’t level, it was never level, and it still is not level with our current state of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Cons

  • Throughout the film, the Native American race was portrayed as uni-racial with no respect  for the separate tribes and cultural diversity of First People.
  • The female faces in Pocahontas were smooth and youthful while the male faces were drawn in great detail, hinting at wisdom and age. An exception to this rule was Thomas, a settler, but he was highly feminized in the movie and perceived as less manly by other male characters.
  • Pocahontas, who claimed to want to be a free spirit and unattached to a man at the beginning of the film, ultimately fell for a white man instead of Kocoum. I have already explained why this is problematic in my post on Esmeralda.
  • Governor Ratcliffe was a sissified villain (see my post on Disney Villains).
  • The English settlers regularly referred to the Native Americans as “savages” and claimed the land as their own. The film did not discuss that this was a problematic attitude.
  • The film attempts to teach lessons about being a man: “A man is not a man if he cannot shoot.”
  • After Pocahontas and John Smith meet, there is what I call the “magical love wind” (which is supposedly Pocahontas’ mother’s spirit) and it broke the language barrier between Smith and Pocahontas. Which is cool, I guess, but I found the fact that Pocahontas defaulted to English, Smith’s language, instead of Smith learning hers, really upsetting. Why was it her language that had to be erased?
  • The Native American men were all drawn with the same body type, facial structures, and hairstyles while the white men were highly varied — this perpetuates stereotypes.
  • During a conversation, Smith refers to Pocahontas and her people as “savages” and, as she grew understandably upset at that description, proceeded to tell her how she should feel about it instead of listening to her as a PoC voice.

Pros

  • In the beginning Pocahontas is strong and dreams big for herself and is not in the market for a man.
  • “Colors of the Wind” is a really awesome song. I think we can learn some lessons from it, all of us.
  • Pocahontas is the one that saves John Smith, instead of Smith saving her as would be expected considering Disney’s track record.
  • The movie does teach some good lessons on how to be courageous in the face of adversity and promotes understanding (although the promotion is  not perfect).

 

Feminist rating: 5/10

Passes Bechdel Test

Passes Racial Bechdel Test