How can they tell if I am male or female? Gender stereotypes in Disney movies

Term Paper, 2015

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Sarah Vogel (Author)



1 Introduction

2 Gender Roles

3 Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company
3.1 Disney Princesses
3.1.1 Snow White
3.1.2 Cinderella
3.2 Appearance and Intelligence
3.3 Helplessness and Need of Protection
3.4 Domestication

4 Change of Disney stereotypes?

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Being born in 1991, I grew up on Disney Movies. Never before had I thought of gender stereotypes in those movies. But blatantly, “Disney has a gender problem”[1]. Feminist scholars and activists have used Disney princesses to show what is wrong with the representation of women in mainstream media. Unfortunately, the criticism of Disney’s gender problem addresses only femininity. Nevertheless, Walt Disney has made a huge impact, not only on my live, but also on the lives of children of various generations. Therefore, I decided to focus on gender stereotypes of Disney movies, more precisely: on female gender stereotypes.

If we look behind the “sparkling stars” and “memorizing magic” that is Disney, we might see that these Disney princesses are not the best role models for children. Therefore, this research paper aims at showing these role models in Disney movies and give an awareness of problems they bring with them.

“How can they tell if I am male or female?” [2]

This last line of The Ballad of Mulan shows that the gender question was already raised in the 6th century. This research aims at analyzing the representation of females in Walt Disney movies:the appearance and intelligence, helplessness and the need of protection and domestication. Before doing so, there has to be a definition what gender role is, in general, but also in Disney movies.

2 Gender Roles

According to the Oxford Dictionary gender is “[ t]he state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones): traditional concepts of gender […]”. Obviously, gender divides human into the categories ofmale and female.

Gender roles are a “perceived set of behavioral norms usually associated with males and females in a given social group or system” (Thompson). Individuals refer to certain attitudes and behaviors that class a person’s stereotypical identity. Gender roles vary among different societies and cultures and also change over time. Actually, society defines what it means to be male or female. To this “Stereotypes are preconceived or oversimplified generalizations usually, but not always, involving negative beliefs about a particular group”.

Through the Walt Disney Production films there is a conflict of the ideals they show though their female protagonists. Walt Disney has set standards for young girls (and also young women) how to grow up to a proper woman in order to find their prince. Supposedly, women need to be beautiful, skinny, and perform all the duties of a housewife. Furthermore, they do not have a job and obey the orders they get. Disney incorporated many gender stereotypes into their movies over the last centuries and Gunter claims that

“women are seen as domestic, focused mainly on family and personal relationships; they are considered highly emotional individuals, less competent and dependent on their male counterparts for emotional and financial support” (Gunter 15-16).

Whether this assertion is true or not will be clarified in the next paragraph, when it comes to the analysis of Disney princesses.

Feminists claim that women need to have more independence in these movies.There is a debate between the Walt Disney Corporation and feminists since the first Disney princess movie in 1937. This will get more obvious in the following paragraphs, too.

3 Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company

Walt Disney started the Walt Disney Company in 1923 and it is one of the largest media companies in the world. Its first princess movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was made in 1937. All of Disney’s princess movies are turned into a musical with a princess having a beautiful sing along voice and cute animals, which are always around to help. Another important content of the movies is the young romance that helps fulfilling the ideal of a “Happily Ever After” life.

“Disney animated films contain strong messages about the importance of family relationships. Family members were often shown making sacrifice for one another, and putting their families’ well-being before their own” (Tanner, 367).

The importance of family and good friends is also a content of the Disney movies. The princess is supported by her friends and her family and they help her to overcome the troubles. Even though, there is always someone that is evil against the princess. It is assumed that Walt Disney shaped the Disney movies and their representations of women due to his personal feelings about family. It is widely known that Walt Disney’s attitude mirrored the patriarchal cultural beliefs of the 1940s about the roles of women in society (e.g. O’Brien). Several scientific studies examine nine Disney Princess movies in three groupings: the earlier movies (1937-1959), middle movies and the most current films, such as The Princess and the Frog (2009). Each Disney Princess movie features a central female character and a male character who is romantically linked to the princess.

The following paragraph will deal with two specific Disney movies and analyze the Disney princesses in a feminist way.

3.1 Disney Princesses

When the first Disney Princess movies were produced, gender expectations were less complex. Only with the rise of feminism in the 1970s they have become more complex (e.g. Ferree et al. 2007).

First of all, it is crucial to define what is actually meant by a Disney Princess. To identify a Disney princess, there are some themes that need to be fulfilled. From a study done by Towbin, Haddock, Zimmermann, Lund and Tanner (2011) four themes emerged, with three themes related to what it means to be a girl:

1. A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect
2. Women are helpless and in need of protection
3. Women are domestic and likely to marry

Finally, there exist eleven Disney princesses that fulfill the themes and who are officially seen as the “stereotypical Disney Princesses”: Jasmin, Elsa, Snow White, Mulan, Aurora, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Tiana, Belle, Arielle and Merida.[3]

These four themes will be analyzed in comparison to the Disney Princess movies Cinderella and Snow White and the Dwarves in the following paragraph. This research paper will thereby focus on two specific Disney princesses: Snow White and Cinderella. Before analyzing these princesses, there will be a short introduction to these characters.

3.1.1 Snow White

Snow White is the main character and protagonist of Disney's first animated feature-length film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She is the first and youngest official Disney Princess and provided the basis for later heroines such as Cinderella and Aurora. Snow White is just a young princess with red lips, black hair, white skin, skinny body, and a beautiful face.[4] Even the mirror on the wall describes her as the girl with “lips red as the rose, hair black as ebony, skin white as snow” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937).The Walt Disney Company always uses the same type of characters and even the same scenario. According to Maio (1998) “Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), set a standard for full-length animation and established a pattern for later Disney heroines to follow.”

3.1.2 Cinderella

Cinderella, you're as lovely as your name Cinderella, you're a sunset in a frame Though you're dressed in rags,you wear an air of queenly grace Anyone can see a throne would be your proper place.( Lyrics to the film's opening song)

Cinderella is the protagonist of Walt Disney’s animated feature film of the same name (1950). She is the second official Disney Princess; after Snow White. She is of average height, well-proportioned and has a softly-shaped kind face. Just as Snow White, she has a curvy and hourglass figure. Additionally, her lips are pink and her eyes are twinkling blue.

3.2 Appearance and Intelligence

1. A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect

Snow White appears as a young princess with red lips, black hair, white skin, skinny body and a beautiful face. Even the mirror on the wall describes her as extremely beautiful. “In Dwarfs, the Queen’s motivation to kill Snow White derives from the Queen’s jealousy that Snow White is the fairest in the land” (Towbin et. Al, 2011). It seems as Snow White is only waiting for her prince and all she knows is how to look pretty and sing.

Another important fact about Snow White is her very soft voice. Disney movies tend to make a musical out of the film and Snow White is always singing, no matter in what sentiment she is. If one takes a closer look at the lyrics of her songs, it becomes clear that they are always about her waiting for her prince to come so they can live happily ever after (see: 4.3).

Additionally, it seems like Snow White has no talent and is just there to be beautiful, to clean up, and, of course, waiting for her prince to live happily ever after.

Officially, Cinderella is described as being kind to everyone, especially to her mice friends, Jaq and Gus. She has the faith that if you keep on believing, your wish will become true. Mostly, she was seen in her maid’s dress with her hair softly tied back into a low ponytail. In most of her appearances, she was seen in a maid's outfit which consisted of a dark brown bodice with aquamarine long sleeves, and a brown, knee-length skirt. Her hair was softly tied back into a low ponytail with an aqua ribbon. She also wore a white apron and a pair of black ballet flats. On her occasional tasks, she wore a white apron and a scarf in her hair. Her second dress and most commonly seen as Princess outfit: a sparkling silvery-blue ball gown with a low-cut neckline, lighter peplum, capped sleeves, a white petticoat and glass slippers topped with sparkly hearts (see Disney description).

Cinderella is also free of any talents. It does not seem like she is very intelligent or has any more characteristic features than being pretty and cleaning up. Concluding this paragraph, it can be said that these two Disney Princesses are extremely beautiful, and that is it. There is nothing more to say about their characters. Finally, appearance is more valuable than intelligence.

3.3 Helplessness and Need of Protection

2. Women are helpless and in need of protection

There are hypothesizes that rescuing actions would vary by the gender of the character. There were 56 instances of rescuing behavior recorded, whereas the princess characters were rescued 17 times and performed only 13 rescues. In early Disney films the princess was shown through a traditional fairy tale, the damsel-in-distress theme. The princess needs to be rescued by the prince; this is exactly meeting the standard of the early 20th century American ideal.


[1] See:

[2] Lau, J.: Ode to Mulan;; as of March 28, 2007



Excerpt out of 14 pages


How can they tell if I am male or female? Gender stereotypes in Disney movies
LMU Munich
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gender, disney
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Sarah Vogel (Author), 2015, How can they tell if I am male or female? Gender stereotypes in Disney movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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