I loved watching Disney movies as a child and still do. Full of catchy songs and colorful characters, the films were just long enough to keep me out of my mom’s hair for a while, but short enough to hold my attention. Generally speaking, I think Disney films are a lot of fun. But their unrealistic, overly simplistic, primarily heterosexist worldview can potentially shape young minds in a lot of negative ways. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but I learned a lot from Disney about how men and women relate to one another, how love works, and most importantly, what it means to “be a man” or “be a woman.”
When we talk about Disney films as adults, the conversation centers around how these films affect young women — and not without reason. The ridiculously proportioned princesses have contributed to our societal standards of beauty, and gendered tropes have set up impossible expectations for generations of women1. But we don’t spend nearly as much time discussing how these fairy tales affect young boys growing up. Make no mistake, Disney movies have plenty to teach young men about masculinity, and not all of the lessons are good.
Over time, Disney’s princesses have progressively become more developed and independent, breaking away from the original damsel in distress trope2. The classic Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), who is asleep for the majority of the film and is only saved by her Prince Philip, seems more like a supporting character and plot device in her film3; a more recent character, Moana from Moana (2016), saves her tribe and encourages them to become more adventurous while never depending on a man4. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, most of Disney’s princes have remained the same “heroes-to-the-rescue,” from Li Shang to Aladdin to John Smith. Despite having their fair share of more gentle and romantic moments, such as Aladdin’s talk with Genie about his crush on Jasmine5 or John Smith being taught by Pocahontas about the wonders of nature6, these characters ultimately remain the macho men7.
The problem with this two-dimensionality in male characters is that many boys feel that the only suitable role they can fit is the dependable buff guy who has a weak girl depending on him. For example, in one of the songs from Mulan (1998), “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” the soldiers sing about their ideal women8. When Mulan says she would prefer women to be smart and outspoken, she is rejected by the other men, who sing about beautiful girls who would admire them for their strength. This influences younger audiences into believing that the only girls worth loving are the beautiful ones, and the only way to attract them is by showing off sheer dominance and masculinity—the exact opposite message Disney is trying to teach.
In addition, those few male characters with passive personalities or more effeminate appearances tend to be minor comical characters or villains, such as Merida’s boisterous father from Brave9 or the tall and slender Jafar from Aladdin10. As a result, boys are not taught that it is okay to be themselves if they are just kind-hearted or fun-loving, but rather, to be stoic men whose worth are defined by muscle size. They are only taught to suppress their emotions, to make women depend on them, and to “man up.”
The origins of gender stereotypes stem from commonly defined gender roles in which men are expected to be the dominant, assertive voice and head of the household, whereas women are expected to be more submissive and simply do housework. For instance, in certain conservative sects of Christianity, women are still expected not to work, be obedient to their husbands, and are prohibited from serving as priests, popes, etc. Although the gender division in modern society has recently been blurred, men and women are still not equal11.
Fortunately, some of the most recent Disney princes have strayed from the stereotypical “tough guy” image. Take Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog12. While he is still an average, handsome romantic, he also depicts less masculine traits, such as naivete and clumsiness, causing his female counterpart Tiana to be the more dominant character of the two. And despite not technically being considered a “Disney prince,” Kristoff from Frozen also demonstrates his kind-hearted, sensitive nature, and he ultimately does not play the “hero-to-the-rescue” as many of his predecessors have13. Most recently, Maui from Moana plays the role of Moana’s friend and sidekick rather than Moana’s savior throughout the film14. As a result, young boys who watch future Disney movies will hopefully have a larger variety of role models who may inspire them to be less macho and more caring.
Jessica “Jessi” Dickerson is a freshman at Wake Forest University. She is interested in studying engineering and Spanish and plans on being an Imagineer at Disney one day. Jessi is a huge fan of the Disney Parks. She visits Disney World at least once a year and spends her free time watching Disney vlogs on YouTube. Also, she is a member of the Disney Dreamers Academy class of 2018.