“I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat and restore the heart to Te Fiti.” Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Moana’ will know these lines. Moana, the young lady and main character in the movie utters these words assertively, positively, and wisely. She dreams of exploring the vast ocean and spends much of her time looking out at the blue sea before her singing the song of voyage. Finally comes the day when she sets forth out to sea sailing one of her ancestors’ canoes. Although Moana is a creation of Disney, she differs greatly from the past heroes Disney has created. SMT reporter looks at changes in Disney from 'Snow White (1937)' to ‘Beauty and the Beast (2017)’.
Genealogy of Disney Heroes
Hearing the words female heroes, do images of ladies in dresses come to mind? The Disney Princess Line is a franchise brand owned by the Walt Disney Company also known simply as ‘Disney’. Officially there are 11 princesses that the brand focuses on: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel and Merida. Contrary to general thought, not every female hero is included in the Disney Princess Line. For instance, Elsa and Anna, the princesses in ‘Frozen’, are not part of the Princess Line even though they retain the official status as royal princesses in the story. In order to join the Princess Line, a character must be crowned at an official coronation.
In the past, Disney princesses were stereotypical princesses who maintained passive attitudes and had extraordinary relationships with animals or imaginary friends. However, with changing attitudes and images of women today, princesses in films now reflect modern ideals of women. Disney is actively seeking fairy tales from around the world and launching a line of films based on those stories that have diverse female protagonists.
I’m Not What I Used to be.”
One of the most noticeable changes in Disney movies is the absence of romance. Traditionally, Disney persisted on a romantic story line between the male and female heroes; however, ‘Frozen (2013)’ saw a dramatic change. Instead of lifting the curse with a true love’s first kiss from a male, Disney showed audiences a stronger true love between sisters. A great soundtrack, beautiful graphics, and above all else, a modern attempt at an old theme all contributed to Frozen’s popularity. After the success of ‘Frozen’, Disney implemented additional changes. In the movie ‘Moana’, there is no big romance in the storyline, nor is there a prince. Instead, the story merely follows the hero’s narrative. In the process of self-examination, Moana is born again as a ‘hero’ who saves her village and its people. Disney shows audiences that heroes regardless of their sex can be charming, and there is no need for the female to wait for a prince. How has the world reacted to Disney’s new direction? Disney earned profits of 7 billion dollars in 2016, clearly showing that the world is keen on this fresh new perspective of princesses.1)
Disney princes are also on the wave of change. In the case of Maui from the movie Moana, he could be considered one of the movie’s protagonists. Unlike in the past when male characters appeared before female characters in times of peril, acted as saviors, and were handsome and noble, Maui breaks all of these stereotypical ideas. He is imperfect, fears abandonment despite his strong physique, and is clever and sensitive. After meeting Moana, he reaches his true potential in life by realizing the need to bond with others. The character of Maui is not alone. Today animated princes are being created to break down prejudices about manliness, especially the notion that men should always be strong and responsible. Disney is now showing how sensitivity is a trait of both sexes.
Female character heroes are also become more diversified. In the movie ‘Beauty and the Beast (2017)’, Belle is portrayed as an inventor. She creates a washing machine, teaches a little girl how to write, and helps her father as an assistant. Contrary to the accepted image of ‘Belle’ from 1991, Emma Watson’s Belle appears more realistic. According to research by The Korea Society for Children’s Media, a child identifies with an animation’s main character, and imitates the behavior of the character in real life. A child may even adopt the character’s behaviors and values. In this respect, it is obvious Disney characters play a role in the self-formation of children all around the world. In recent years, Disney has modernized its messages to ‘Princess Principle’, caring for others, living healthily, never judging a book by its cover, be a friend you’d trust, believe in yourself, right wrongs, do your best, be loyal, and never give up.
Nothing in This World is Perfect
Disney greatly influences children all over the world, so its changes and growth to reflect modern ideas and society means a lot to values prevailing in society. Nevertheless, Disney still has many mountains to climb such as the way it interprets the concept of ‘princess’. For instance, in ‘Moana’, Moana asks Maui, a legendary demigod who has accomplished numerous feats, to teach her how to sail. Maui responds to Moana sarcastically, “It’s called wayfinding, princess. And it’s not just sails and knots.” Moana, offended, replies with “Okay, first, I’m not a princess. I’m the daughter of the chief”, and therein lies the debate. Disney capitalizes on the idea that a princess is pretty and dull. Though it may appear as if Disney is leaving the old adage idea of a princess behind, Moana’s lines clearly show it still remains. In ‘Beauty and the Beast (2017)’, Belle also says, “Oh, I’m not a princess....” Disney is including these types of lines in its film, but denying the idea of being a princess is not the way to creating well-rounded female characters. Disney should not be denying the notion of ‘princess’, but positively modifying it.
In addition, female characters in Disney movies still show stereotypical ideals. According to research on Disney animated films at Brigham Young University, Disney princesses cause young girls to lose confidence in their appearance.2) Even though modern characters have altered seen changes in behavior and personality traits, they still maintain old ideas of what a princess’ physical appearance should look like. Typically female heroes are drawn with big eyes and straight-edged noses, and they are slim figured. Male heroes, on the other hand, vary in their looks. For example, Maui, one of the main characters in ‘Moana’ is bulky and sports a Nubian nose, and Beast in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is described by others as non-human looking. Despite being far from the ‘norm’ of beauty for men, they are charming due to their personalities, outstanding abilities, or cheerful jokes. Disney seems to have a handle on creating attractive male characters, but it has yet to apply that expertise to its female characters.
Disney’s exclusion of the LGBT community is also problematic. Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast (2017)’, introduces its first LGBT character, LeFou. LeFou is a supporting character in the movie but stands out for being officially recognized by Disney. Though Disney added a LGBT character to its film, it was blamed for its superficial showing of the first openly LGBT character. Despite the outstanding performance of Josh Gad, LeFou is used as means of adding humor to the film. Disney has a long history of queer coding. ‘Queer coding’ refers to the use of stereotypically negative queer traits to demonize characters.3) Disney will often use queer coding to portray its film villains. This type of coding is clear in characters such as Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Radcliffe (Phocahontas), and Jafar (Aladdin). These inappropriate approaches to the LGBT community has not brought about positive attitudes towards this minority group but instead expanded the prejudice towards it.
You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
According to records at the United States Social Security Administration, Elsa, the name of the main character in the Disney film ‘Frozen’, ranked 286th in popular U.S. baby names in 2015.4) No one can deny the power Disney has in society. Instead of taking a light humorous approach to an issue or stereotypical idea, Disney needs to get serious. This SMT reporter hopes Disney soon than later realizes its impact on society and works harder to create a real fairy tale for children. The message Disney should deliver is: “Children, you can be anything you aspire to be.”
1) Lee Sejin, “”Bob” Iger made ‘Unbeaten Disney’”, Herald Superich, April 3, 2017
2) Jon McBride, “Disney Princesses: Not Brave Enough”, BYU News, June 17, 2016
3) Samantha Allen, “What Disney Movies Taught Me About Being Gay”, Daily Dot, September 25, 2014
4) Andrew Pulver, “Frozen Effect: Elsa Breaks into Top 500 Baby Names”, The Guardian, July 3, 2015