Disney isn't exactly known for its most diverse range of characters. With a grand total of 24 non-white main characters in its major feature films, not including animals of which there were 61 and 59 white main characters. Of the 144 characters I counted, 16% were non-white. With a total of 4 main characters with mental illnesses, no main characters with a physical disability, you start to wonder are Disney changing or sticking to their formula of Blonde blue eyed girl gets saved by the man?
Disney certainly started off in the Male saving the Female formula, with the 5 of the first 6 being a man saving the woman, with the exception of Beauty and the Beast; Technically Belle saves Adam by loving him but he trapped her and whatnot, not the best female empowerment. Their lives appeared to revolve around some sort of suffering they did nothing to change about and then get out of the suffering by finding and marrying a man of some sort. But after these 6, we have Pocahontas and Mulan. These Women are interesting for two reasons. Both are People of Colour and women who save their 'man'. Pocahontas, released in 1995, follows Pocahontas who was going to have to marry Kocoum from her Native American tribe but then falls in love with the Englishman John Smith. Kocoum gets mad and gets killed which starts a war between the Natives and the English, and Pocahontas saves John Smith from execution. It's a shame that Pocahontas is underrated as a Disney film, she decides she doesn't want to marry this man, falls in love of her own accord and then saves her love. Not only is she strong and independent, she is smart and teaches John Smith about the important things in life. She goes against her Father and her tribe to love this English man, who the Native Americans hate. It was a great stepping stone for reversing gender roles in children's media.
Skip forward 3 years, and we have the iconic Mulan. Plot of Mulan, Mulan gets sent to matchmakers, messes up matchmaking, and brings dishonour on family. Father gets called to imperial army to fight against Huns, he's too old. She takes his place in the dead of night, joins the army. After a period of failing at being a solider, she figures it out with her own intelligence. She almost single-handedly defeats the Hun army but is discovered as a girl and is left in the mountains in disgrace. Goes to capital and defeats Huns again and saves the whole of China. And after all that the general follows her home to apologise and gets invited for dinner. There is no kiss, not a hug, but a simple invitation to dinner. She doesn’t gain a husband, captured a suitor by being herself, a woman who doesn’t take no passes, a woman who fought for her country and family’s honour and a woman who broke a patriarchal law to save her elderly father. Mulan is the Woman who didn’t have the attitude to fit into the perfect bride formula, the soldier that didn’t have the body shape to fit the perfect soldier formula. So she created her own criteria for herself. A person with the body of a female, the attitude of a man and the aspirations of a human being. She broke the female gender role in a society where superstition and discrimination occurred against women every single day of their lives. Their role was to bear sons. This film came out in 1998, the turn of the century, things were getting better for Women, but this film was a little late to the party, with the equal pay act starting in the early 70s. But this was one of the first great representations of strong women in the media and is still an amazing representation of women, especially with the recent win for the sexual discrimination of women in china.
Lilo and stitch was a strange film in the Disney formula with the idea of a dog like alien coming to earth learning the power of family love it certainly wasn’t the princess romance film they had shown before then. But Lilo and Stitch showed something different, it showed that a young female with an older female as a parental figure could carry a whole film without a male human main character to accompany them along their journey. The whole film was about the bonds of family, with a slight side of romance from Nani and David, but the whole film wasn’t centred on them. It was centred on little Lilo. The girl who fed peanut butter sandwiches to a fish that control the weather, when the weather killed her parents, the little girl who was called a freak, but she remains strong throughout thanks to Stitch. He helps her as she helps him. She teaches him the rules of living on earth while he doesn’t want to know about it, he wants to get away from this island to go destroy cities. But Lilo with her quirky attitude and strange insight into life sees the good in him and helps him adjust to life on the island with her. She doesn’t change to suit him; she changes him to suit her, making him a better being than he was before.
Another example of the woman changing the man to make him better, although this man isn’t the blank slate stitch is. Tiana is a strong and hard working woman, who gives up all her time to get her restaurant and what is she met by racism and sexism when she clearly can achieve what she strives to. And she holds strong in the face of that racism, she doesn’t hate the racists, the people who said she couldn’t, she just bounces back with 10 times the force and strive so they can’t deny her offer for the restaurant, which does coincidentally involve an alligator but that’s here nor there. She knows what she wants and sacrifices everything to get it. While Prince Naveen is a spoilt, pampered who doesn’t know how to keep it in his pants. She doesn’t simply compromise with his nasty attitude and love him nonetheless, she falls in love with him, because he is what she isn’t and he is willing to fix his flaws to get her and keep her. He was willing to get a job to help her. He can do nothing while she does absolutely everything. He starts to do more for her, like he should, and he learns. He is in the passive royalty position in this relationship, while she has the male centred drive and determination in the relationship, while still being herself the beautiful confident Tiana. The princess and the frog have the gender roles from earlier films completely reversed and that especially for their first African American princess, it was the perfect time to completely flip the roles.
Disney has certainly improved throughout the year, with their Princess growing from weak passive women of royalty to a diverse range of active strong women of all classes. They’ve taken a big leap over the years and it shows. With Frozen, the latest set of Disney princesses and Queen, the strength of these two women really shows, with Women and Men identifying more and more with these women than with Snow white or Cinderella whose lives seemed to revolve around getting married or just finding a man. So in this sense, Disney has really diversified its range of gender roles for both women and men.