In the words of Cruella Deville: “We lose more women to marriage than war, famine, and disease”. Not to bash on the whole concept of marriage, but there is something unsettling about the idea that women give up their autonomy to essentially become their man’s property. A recurring theme in most classic Disney princess movies is the damsel in distress being rescued by a handsome prince, which later results in their ‘happily ever after’ moment. But in today’s modern society women no longer wait to be rescued; they take matters into their own hands. Does that make the independent, goal-driven, and outspoken female villains in Disney, such as Cruella DeVille, a more accurate description of what it is like being an independent woman?
Damsel in Distress Complex
Independence is not necessarily a trait associated with being a woman in classic Disney movies. Most classic Disney princesses have what I like to call a ‘damsel in distress’ complex, meaning that in the face of adversity, someone always conveniently interferes to help. Take, for example, Sleeping Beauty who waits for the prince to wake her up, or Cinderella who only makes it to the ball with the help of her fairy godmother, and then waits for the prince to find her based on her shoe size. They never fight their own battles.
Whereas the female villains don’t conform to the damsel in distress role, they are not after the idea of suburban bliss, they have their own stories and goals for which they strive. They are after power. They are independent, outspoken, hard-working, and driven. They contain more of the attributes of the independent women, a woman “who pays her own bills, buys her own things, and does not allow a man to affect her stability or self-confidence”, than any of the Disney princesses. Take for example Cruella DeVille who builds her fashion empire by working hard towards her goals or The Evil Queen who is outspoken about what she wants.
It’s no secret that the media has an impact on the way someone views gender roles. Research suggests that men and women in the media are portrayed in a stereotypical way that sustains socially endorsed views of gender. The image of a “good woman” is that of one that is focused on home and family and cares for others. They are usually cast as a victim. Disney princesses follow these clear stereotypical gender roles. Even in more recent movies like the live-action Cinderella (2015) and Tangled (2010), the princesses are seen – joyfully – doing stereotypically female activities, such as housework. Meanwhile, the media typically represents a woman that is ambitious and independent as lonely, bitter spinsters that play counterparts to these “good” women. But a closer look at these villains tells a different story.
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This creates a stigmatized standard that a woman who possesses masculine traits is associated with evil
Many of the female villains differ from the gender stereotypes, as many of them are given stereotypical masculine traits. Firstly, in how they look. They tend to have masculine body shapes, like angular faces, taller bodies, muscular physiques and broad shoulders. They lack long flowing hair, which is associated with femininity in Western culture. Take for example Cruella DeVille who has short hair, or the Evil Witch from Snow White who hides her hair. This way the female villains are set apart from their dainty female counterparts. So, when Disney does decide to break the stereotypical gender roles by de-feminizing these villains, they mark these qualities as only apparent in evil characters. This creates a stigmatized standard that a woman who possesses masculine traits is associated with evil.
Second, we have the aspect of power. None of the princesses are ever able to defeat the villain on their own. Not only that but the power differences are also created between the characters through height, size, and skillsets. This teaches us that being a strong, powerful woman is not desirable. Having individual power as a woman is seen as dishonest. In contrast, the main goal of the villain is to gain power, which again, is apparently bad.
With Disney teaching us that the socially accepted norm is upheld by the heroes, thus by the princesses and that the villains represent their evil counterparts, they are keeping these stereotypes alive. They teach us that having more ‘male’ traits is wrong but, according to my analysis, the female villains are actually hard-working, outspoken, and goal-driven women, focused on their career and power. They do not need to be rescued or cater to men. They take control of their lives.
The impact of this portrayal of women can be detrimental to a young child. It communicates to young girls that in order to get what they desire a man or someone else needs to be there to help them. It doesn’t teach them that they can be independent women striving to accomplish their own goals. It reinforces the idea that being traditionally “feminine” is being good, being like a true princess. This can create a system where strong independent girls are seen as less valuable or important in comparison with those that need help from others. It’s no wonder that a female political candidate is more trusted when they are good mothers and nice versus when they are harsh or cold in a debate.
More Modern Times
Luckily, times are changing and Disney is updating their standard character arcs. In more modern Disney princess movies we see less of a focus on the duality between the villain and the princess. The line between villain and hero is fading. For example in Maleficent (2014) and Moana (2016), the villains turn out to be less evil towards the end. They become complex characters with redeeming possibilities. And the princesses? They are finally able to recover from their ‘damsel in distress’ complex and become strong independent women that don’t need men to succeed. In the words of live-action Cruella DeVille: “How does the saying go? I am woman. Hear me roar.”
Cover by: Brian McGowan
Edited by: Rita Alves