Linguists Have Nailed The Exact Problem With Disney’s Princess Movies

We’ve all had a hunch for a while that Disney princesses don’t set a great example for girls, but have you ever wondered what precisely the problem is? A pair of linguists, Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, have set about analyzing Disney princess films to find out.

The first topic they studied was lines of dialogue attributed to men and women (or coded male and female characters like Flipper or Mrs. Potts). You’d think that classic films like Snow White and Cinderella might be less progressive than newer films, but it turns out that ever since Ariel went mute in The Little Mermaid, Disney princesses have had less dialogue in increasingly male environments

Think about it – Cinderella features an almost totally female cast, other than her animal helpers and the king and prince (also: women display power over their environments – the stepmother runs the house, the Fairy Godmother has magical powers, and Cinderella basically manages an animal shelter, whereas the king and prince are just kind of props that move the story along). Snow White and Sleeping Beauty feature a princess living among men and a princess whose narrative arc mainly involves her, well, sleeping, but they also feature two of the best-realized female villains in movie history in the Evil Queen and Maleficent. In Cinderella, women and men share dialogue roughly equally; in Snow White, women have 60 percent of the dialogue, and in Sleeping Beauty, women get 71 percent of the dialogue.

Whereas, on the other hand, movies that were produced later – in generations following the feminist revolution of the 60s and 70s – men absolutely dominated the films. In The Little Mermaid, men get 68 percent of the dialogue; in Beauty and the Beast, 71 percent; in Aladdin, 90 percent; in Pocahontas, 76 percent; and in Mulan, 77 percent, counting Mulan herself as a woman regardless of her presentation for most of the film. I assume that The Lion King wasn’t even worth counting, given that Nala is practically the only speaking female character in the film (and, technically, it’s not a princess movie anyway).

More recent films have made a lot of progress in this regard – although men still dominate in The Princess and the Frog and Frozen, Disney has reasserted female dialogue in Tangled and Brave.

Of course, it’s all well and good for Disney princes to take center stage once in a while – Aladdin’s titular character is a man, after all. It’s also valuable for these films to explore same-sex relationships – as in father/son, mother/daughter, and sister/sister relationships. But it would be nice to some more Disney films that more closely resemble a real world in which men and women exist in roughly equal numbers and are empowered to speak in roughly equal proportion.

You can see more data from Fought and Eisenhauer’s study at the Washington Post.


[Washington Post]
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