Written by Jenny Shelton


Chattily ever after

Apparently Disney princesses speak less than they used to. How about we look at what they’re actually saying, asks steadfast Disney fan Jenny Shelton.

The Little Mermaid's Ariel: not just bubbles coming out of her mouth. All images: Disney.

The Little Mermaid’s Ariel: not just bubbles coming out of her mouth. All images: Disney.

In January, the Washington Post publicised a study by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer that rocked the Disney-loving world. They revealed that female characters in more ‘modern’ Disney princess movies speak much less than the men. It seems unlikely (I don’t recall Snow White being much of a chatterbox), but those are the stats. I hate stats. But I do love Disney.

I grew up, like a lot of you, I suspect, in that golden era of Disney films; the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’ which started in 1989 with The Little Mermaid and continued through the 90s, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and the oft-overlooked but blisteringly brilliant Mulan (a one-woman drag show set in Imperial China – what’s not to like?).

But if the women had a lesser share of the dialogue, then I never noticed. They were the lead characters; it was their passions and opinions we cared about and they never seemed to hold back on voicing them, either by chatting to old women in trees or singing to a collection of junk in a sea-cave (we’ve all been there).

By Walt Disney - Original Trailer (1950), Public DomainThe Renaissance movies came a whole 30 years after the original Disney Princess trio of Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Ariel, Jasmine and Pocahontas are the rebellious offspring of Walt’s original droopy dreamers who seem solely preoccupied with finding a prince. (The rest of them do hook up with a handsome hero, granted, but for the later Disney ladies, finding love happens quite by accident – it’s never part of their original life plan.)

If the facts say that Snowy, Cinders and Aurora Borealis have more share of the dialogue than the fellas, then so be it; but what they do say is a load of sappy old guff.

Fought and Eisenhauer argue that females having less dialogue represents women badly to young girls watching. But in focusing on the numbers they’re missing the point. The messages are quite clearly more pro-active and pro-feminist in The Little Mermaid than in Snow White: the latter warbles “Someday my prince will come”, whereas Ariel, a hot-headed rebel who enjoys being chased by sharks, sings a protest song about “Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand”.

Ariel craves knowledge, experience and to find her own way in the world. OK, OK, she does literally lose her voice (it’s the story!), and her daddy makes everything better in the end – I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement. And yes, Belle is prized for her beauty, but she doesn’t give a shit about that: she likes reading and longs to get out of her boring (actually quite pretty) little town.

“The Prince Charmings in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are silent, wooden, one-dimensional plot devices, just there to plant a kiss and look good on a horse.”

Equally, I’m sure seeing Pocahontas fearlessly dive off that waterfall teaches kids more courage and empowerment than listening to a submissive gold-digger (we’re lookin’ at you, Cinders) prattle on about dreams and wishes to birds.

The finger is also pointed at the ensemble cast for not having enough speaking parts for female characters. It’s true, the sidekicks – from court-composer crab Sebastian, to saucy French candlestick Lumière – are usually male. I’d agree that we need more funny females in supporting roles, like the wonderful Lady Cluck in Robin Hood or goofy Dory in Finding Nemo. But they do exist. And how boring is Flounder, anyway? Just because he speaks doesn’t mean he’s cool.

Finally, and probably the main reason the women get most of the dialogue in the earlier films is that the men say next to nothing. The Prince Charmings in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are silent, wooden, one-dimensional plot devices, just there to plant a kiss and look good on a horse. We don’t find out anything about them. I don’t think we even get their names (Snow White’s prince is called Ferdinand, apparently). What this suggests is that, not only are the female characters getting more fully fleshed-out by the 90s, so are the blokes – and quite rightly so. We shouldn’t teach girls that men are just brainless eye-candy who’ll solve all their problems with cash.

Elsa_anna-Frozen DisneyAs a now grown(ish) woman with a four-year-old niece, I do wonder about the gender representations that kids are exposed to. But in Disney I see nothing but improvement. After three years of hearing the damn song, I finally watched Frozen this Christmas – and loved it. Especially when Anna, after letting her heart run away with her too hastily (get to know each other first, people!), wasn’t saved by a bloke, but her sister.

I might have grown up surrounded by princess movies, but the messages I drew – or chose to draw – from them were positive. Disney didn’t teach me to hold my tongue; it taught me to challenge the status quo, find adventure, take risks and learn from my mistakes. And sing, of course, whenever possible.


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Written by Jenny Shelton

Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.