Two linguists have found a problem with Disney princess movies, but surprisingly, it’s not that princess roles are outdated, classist and sexist. Rather, it seems that from Snow White to Frozen’s Elsa, Disney’s female-gendered characters speak much less often than they ever have before, and that’s surprising considering how headstrong and independent Disney’s princesses seem on paper.
Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer presented their preliminary findings at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference. Fought is a professor at Pitzer College, located just an hour away from Walt Disney Studios. She and Eisenhauer, a graduate student at North Carolina State University, analyzed every line of dialogue in Disney’s 12 princess films. Turns out that the princesses just don’t have all that much to say.
Fought and Eisenhauer divide the princesses into three categories: the classics (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), the renaissance (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan), and the current batch of princesses from The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen.
In the three “classic era” films, Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, women have at least half of the lines of dialogue. In Sleeping Beauty, female-gendered characters have 71 percent of the lines. Princess Aurora’s kind of a wet noodle, but the film is dominated by an evil witch and three benevolent fairies.
After Sleeping Beauty, Disney didn’t make a princess film for thirty years, but the so-called “renaissance era” featured five princesses in a decade. These characters are stronger and more independent, but live in male-dominated worlds where men do all the talking. In Aladdin, for instance, men speak 90 percent of the time, and in Mulan, men speak 77 percent of the time (Mulan was counted as female throughout the film, even though she spends part of it disguised as a man). Overall, in this period, men have three times as many lines as women do!
“There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” says Fought. “There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”
It doesn’t help that Disney characters generally have dead mothers, but Fought and Eisenhauer bring up the fact that the chatty sidekick characters are male by default. Ariel had Flounder and Sebastian, but why didn’t she have any female friends? Pocahontas had Grandmother Willow, but why were her raccoon and her hummingbird both voiced by men?
In this era, the researchers only found one female sidekick, Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast. But even she was just one helpful teapot surrounded by the male clock and the candlestick and her son, a chipped teacup.
As for the third wave of princess movies, men are still doing most of the talking, with one exception. Frozen is about two sister princesses, but in that movie female characters have a piddly 41 percent of the lines. The one exception is Brave, the mother-daughter movie in which women speak more than in any Disney princess film since Sleeping Beauty. Merida, the princess in the 2012 film, was designed specifically to break the mold of the Disney stereotype. And her mother wasn’t dead.
But Fought and Eisenhauer aren’t just looking at who’s talking. They’re also looking at what people are saying. To that end, they’ve focused specifically on compliments, counting every single compliment given to a princess in every Disney film. Some psychologists believe that young girls should never be complimented on their looks, because it reinforces the idea that body image trumps everything else.
In the classic films, princesses were complimented on their looks five times as often as they were complimented on their abilities. That changed once Ariel came swimming along. The string of Disney princesses from 1989 to 1998 (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan) were complimented on their looks around 38 percent of the time, and only about 25 percent of compliments were about their abilities or accomplishments. Now, in films like Brave and Frozen, women are complimented on their abilities and their accomplishments far more than on their looks.
Disney princesses have become strong, motivated characters, but they still live in worlds where men dominate the conversation. The women are powerful individually, but they still live in a very masculine world. “That’s fine,” says Fought, “but are these movies really so great for little girls to watch? When you start to look at this stuff, you have to question that a little bit.”
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