I consider myself a feminist, and an avid fan of all things Disney (if we choose to ignore Walt Disney’s personal political stance) but sometimes feminism and Disney seem mutually exclusive. Can we consider heroines such as Belle or Ariel to be feminist, or are they an appropriation of patriarchal ideals of women? Is it perhaps more important that Disney and other entertainment companies aimed at children enforce ideals of equality rather than perpetuating gender stereotypes?
Characters within the now ‘classic’ Disney films seem to fall quite neatly into gender roles – the delicate female and the bold and brave hero, but a closer look suggests there is more to Snow White and her cohorts than we perhaps first thought. It is often said that the most terrifying villain of the Disney films is Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston. He is vicious, manipulative, abuses his strength and seeks to dominate women, and what makes him most terrifying is that he exists. There is no supernatural force at work with Gaston, he is a mere mortal, we all have encountered a Gaston in our lives and we all probably will. So therefore, can we argue that Disney are in fact showing us, through the caricature of Gaston, where society has huge flaws.
In his appearance, Gaston is large, muscular and intimidating. His physique is meant to emphasise his masculinity and therefore suggest he has power and dominance over less masculine characters, whether male or female. By creating a sidekick to Gaston so small and ridiculous as Le Fou, Gaston is further seen as this huge immovable force, not to be questioned. Therefore, when we consider Belle’s behaviour toward him, she becomes more feminist than we initially thought. Her refusal of Gaston’s proposal, her daring trip through the forest and her willingness to accept The Beast (I’m aware of how ridiculous this blog is starting to sound) all suggest the positive attributes of women – both in embracing things seen as “feminine” and in their ability to adapt to more “masculine” traits. Belle is both a brave, feisty character (masculine) and an empathetic care giver (feminine). Therefore Belle supports the notion that the idea of masculine and feminine traits is constructed, rather than innate. We all fall on a spectrum, neither end of which is truly weak or strong.
In the end, we must have faith in individuals being able to see their potential, and not letting gender stereotypes, seen in Disney and many other childhood staples, get in their way. Only now are we seeing Barbie exploring careers, but still certain toys are aimed exclusively at boys and others at girls. Culturally, equality seems a long way off.