What Disney tells us about working women

From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen, here are five things we can learn from Disney about the portrayal of women.

by Mark Learmonth
Last Updated: 08 Nov 2016

'Life imitates art far more than art imitates life', Oscar Wilde voiced in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying. And he was right.

Disney’s female characters have shaped the perceptions of generations of women and young girls. The representation of women in their animations has reflected changing perceptions in society – but also its flaws.

Since 1937, images have evolved from a housemaid to seven dwarfs (Snow White) to a queen ruling a country (Elsa in Frozen). So what can we learn from Disney’s portrayal of women over the last century?

1. Strength rather than weakness is now desirable

The prince saved Snow White from eternal slumber. Cinderella was rescued by Prince Charming from a life of abuse. The Little Mermaid’s only dream in life was to marry Prince Eric. From the late 1930s to well into the 1980s, women in Disney movies were apparently just damsels in distress whose life was only fulfilled upon marrying a prince.

Thankfully, art and society have moved on since then. In recent movies, female passivity has been replaced by active girls and women, from Mulan to Tiana or Elsa and Anna, who take their destiny into their own hands and conquer their dreams. Strength rather than weakness has become desirable. Disney movies now show us that girls cannot be women if they are not visible and active in organisations.  

2. You can be corporate and entrepreneurial

In early Disney animations, femininity was concerned not only with beauty but with being passive, nurturing and belonging in the home. Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora spent most of the film she led asleep.

Decades of feminism have influenced Disney. Recent movies showcase leading female characters that are determined, entrepreneurial and ambitious. Take Tiana from The Princess and the Frog: her dream of opening a restaurant and being her own boss are encouraged throughout the film and achieving this is what allows her to actually find happiness.    

3. Being capable is not enough (you still have to look the part)

Elsa and Anna rule a kingdom together in Frozen: they uncover treacherous princes and fight to make sure their people’s interests are defended when dealing with other economies. They are strong and courageous women. But that doesn't quite cut it. Although Elsa learns to control her powers and becomes a strong leader for her people, she is also transformed into a beautiful, seductive woman: she may be freed from her fears, but she is not freed from the imposition of rules about how a woman should look. Women are encouraged to take the lead, but to this day they still need to observe the norms that govern gender.

4. Women shouldn’t compete among themselves

Cruella de Vil, the Queen of Hearts, the female elephants in Dumbo… these are just three examples of how earlier Disney movies presented powerful older working women as deceptive, manipulative and aggressive towards younger females. Recent Disney films have stopped portraying female villains and are opting instead for a wise mother-figure who mentors the younger female, thus emphasising the benefits of female co-operation. Maleficent is the paramount of this 'revisionist fairy tale slate': far from being an evil witch, in the 2014 film we discover someone who is scarred from a brutally traumatic rape (Stefan 'rapes' her of her ability to fly). Maleficent and Aurora join forces and together stop the male tyranny, proving that females working together can accomplish even the most difficult of tasks.  

5. A woman’s place is not secure

Disney’s most recent movies show independent and ambitious women – but the fight for true gender equality is far from won. Disney released Zootopia this year – its 55th animated classic. Set in an anthropomorphic city of animals, a young female rabbit secures a position as a rookie police officer (graduating top of her class) but is told by her new (angry male) boss she cannot do anything else apart from traffic monitoring. The film takes us on an insightful and humorous journey of the difficulties she faces in her working life trying to find acceptance and equality. Securing senior and valued roles within organisations is still far from easy.

Mark Learmonth is professor of organisation studies and deputy dean of research at Durham University Business School.

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