When thinking back into our fondest childhood memories we often remember how great it felt to watch our favorite Disney films, and for a lot of us these feelings remain the same to date. However, for a while now people have been analyzing Disney films and the way that they portray race, gender, sexuality, and other intersectionalities and without looking very deeply it is easy to tell that Disney has had the same racial bias that the rest of American society has. In the beginning of Walt Disney’s work he tried to include people of color in a few films and cartoons with racists undertones that clearly showed his racist side, but my main focus is on the way that Disney films approached “girl power”.
The representation of women in Disney films is one of the most repetitive display of the docile woman. The woman as the damsel in distress does not fail to appear in almost every Disney fairytale, and this is because of the way that society taught us that women should be; weak, dumb, and dependent on men. But let’s be honest, men are not the ones we should be depending on.
Usually when Disney films try to make a difference in the way that they portray minorities, they do so by making the characters as appealing to white Americans as possible. (This is briefly discussed when talking about Disney’s new film, Moana — here). These characters are made to seem different, and as Joan W. Scott writes, being different means that there is a binary, and if the already set binary states that white Americans are the good people, then the other is the one we should not strive to be like. This is also very evident when we talk about characters like Ariel and Mulan, who are seen as more progressive and independent characters. However, when Disney adapts stories or folktales they tend to set the character back and strip them away from any feminist standpoint that they held.
To begin with, Ariel from The Little Mermaid is adapted from an original story that is completely different than the one we all grew up watching. In the original story Ariel is not striving to be a human in order to depend on a man, but instead to search for her soul. Originally, Ariel is also not forced to chose between her father and a lover, which implies that she must be dependent on one or the other. This and many other changes Disney made were Westernized and stripped of Ariel’s autonomy.
In addition to this concept, Mulan is another story that was adapted from an original folktale and terribly rewritten. Growing up I always chose Mulan as my favorite Disney film, and although as a child I did not know why, as a very queer adult I can definitely see why I would make this choice. We are constantly told how badass Mulan is and how strong and independent she is for a Disney character (which is such a sad thing to say), but when critically analyzing the original story to Disney’s it is really disappointing. Disney’s remake of Mulan’s story misinterprets so much of the Chinese culture because it tries to relate Mulan’s character to a white woman’s struggle. When Mulan is Westernized she is made into a woman who dresses like a man in order to help a man and ends up falling in love with a man. None of which are original story plots. Disney’s attempts to show Mulan as equal to a man is a perfect depiction of why equality is not what we strive for. As Luisa Muraro explains, striving for equality to men suggest that men are above women and our main goal is to be just like them because “they’ve got it all figured out”. Not.
Disney films set us back every time they create a “progressive” film by butchering cultures, and making our girls believe that they’re only badass if they act like men. Talk about erasing femme power. We need to create characters that are proud to be who they are by being themselves, and not striving to be equal to someone “above them”. We need stories of femme princesses of color who do have love interests but are not focused solely on their partner. We need queer princes who are also femme and in love and still badass. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as striving for “equality” anymore, and fortunately, it is time to start empowering people based on their intersecting identities.