Male Supporting Characters in Recent Disney Princess Films Dominate the Dialogue

The silly click-baity headline in the Washington Post says “Researchers have found a major problem” with Disney princesses films. I almost didn’t click on it — learned behavior after being burned by too many silly, low-value listicles (split up into 15 different pages). But the article is actually an interesting read.

imageStarting with The Little Mermaid, Disney took greater care to make their princesses more active, but they still do their princessing in masculine worlds, where male characters make plans (nefarious or benevolent), invent things, discuss politics, plan rescues, etc. Of course Ariel and Pocahontas and Mulan required a patriarchal society against which to rebel (or, in the case of Ariel in her human form, in which to be a fish-out-of-water). And of course Frozen features a sister-sister relationship, and Brave features a mother-daugher relationship. Nevertheless, the sidekicks and authority figures and random citizens that fill out the casts skew male — a fact reflected in the percentage of dialogue spoken by female characters.

Disney has incredible power over the social construction of girlhood, so I find this level of analysis welcome and instructive. Here’s an excerpt:

In the classic three Disney princess films, women speak as much as, or more than the men. “Snow White” is about 50-50. “Cinderella” is 60-40. And in “Sleeping Beauty,” women deliver a whopping 71 percent of the dialogue. Though these were films created over 50 years ago, they give ample opportunity for women to have their voices heard. | By contrast, all of the princess movies from 1989-1999 — Disney’s “Renaissance” era — are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 68 percent of the time in “The Little Mermaid”; 71 percent of the time in “Beauty and the Beast”; 90 percent of the time in “Aladdin”; 76 percent of the time in “Pocahontas”; and 77 percent of the time in “Mulan” (Mulan herself was counted as a woman, even when she was impersonating a man). —Researchers have found a major problem with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and other Disney movies

3 thoughts on “Male Supporting Characters in Recent Disney Princess Films Dominate the Dialogue

  1. I suppose some of those characters have elements of gender, especially in the case of the ones who become human at the end. That said, they’re not gendered to the same degree that human characters are. If one was asked to describe Cogsworth, for example, the defining characteristic is “talking clock,” though I’d concede that one might say “HE is a talking clock.” He might be gendered, but not in a particularly significant way (much in the same way that inanimate objects are gendered in many languages). I guess it’s not accurate to say it removes gender, but rather that it makes it less significant.

    I think that the Pixar titles you mention also did that to some degree (I didn’t see Cars, so I’m assuming based on Wall-E). While in practice we give personified objects/animals some sort of gender (because we consider it demeaning to refer to a person as “it”), they don’t seem as bound within gender roles and stereotypes as human characters might be.

    A lot of this seems to be coming down to the use of pronouns. How significant is the presence of gendered pronouns in this case? I wonder if cartoon characters in languages that don’t have a gendered third-person pronoun are considered male or female. I remember seeing some Turkish cartoon on a train, and I don’t think that the animal characters had any particular gender (in Turkish the third-person pronoun, “o,” is used for objects and both genders). I’ll have to check out some Chinese cartoons, since I think in Mandarin the third-person pronoun, “ta,” is only different for genders when written (or maybe the tone is different, too? Tone’s are the worst part of Chinese).

    Also, I don’t think that the gender of the voice actor matters at all. Walt Disney was the first person to do the voice of Minnie Mouse.

  2. You male good points. Haha, look what Autocorrect did to my sloppy typing. You *make* good points. Though she is not the title character, Jasmine is marketed as a Disney Princess. Lumiere the candlestick is definitely gendered, as the character turns human at the end of the story, and pursues a female-gendered feather duster while in his enchanted form. Cogsworth the clock has a mustache, and Mrs. Potts has the title Mrs and mothers her little Chip who calls her Mama”, and is voiced by a female actress. In The Little Mermaid, Sebastian the crab is a stand-in for the king, and Scuttle the seagull mansplains the human artifacts. Both characters are clearly voiced by male actors. Would you say Cars removed gender, or Wall-e? (Pixar, so a different set of statistics, but still…)

  3. That is interesting, but I also feel like it’s a bit of a stretch to call Aladdin a “princess” movie. The 90% male dialogue makes sense from pretty much every possible standpoint. The title character is a dude and Jasmine is a supporting character, hence he talks more. It’s also based loosely on a traditional story, which cuts out some of the options to throw in female characters. Culturally, it takes place in a fictionalized version of an ancient culture that was incredibly male-dominated. From a cinematic standpoint the genie talks A LOT and rapidly. If you’re counting based on the number of words in the dialogue, the genie alone has a pretty high percentage; from a commercial standpoint, that’s how you want it. They paid a lot for Robin Williams to do that voice, so it’s understandable that they had him talk a lot.

    Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid skewed slightly male-dominated, but to what degree can you really count a talking candlestick as having gender? In both of those films a high percentage of supporting characters are non-humanoid, which for me pretty much removes gender. Thus the gendered characters in the Little Mermaid are Ariel, her dad, the prince and Ursula. That’s pretty heavily female dominated in terms of dialogue (it’s also pretty telling, as far as their roles within the film, which characters have names that I remember).

    Percentage of dialogue also isn’t really a significant statistic for cinema. The role of the character within the story, and the things they say matter more to creating a strong female lead. One could write the most sexist script ever and still have female characters speak 99% of the time (granted they’d be saying stuff like “rescue me, I’m helpless” all the time.) And actions matter. In Tangled, for example, one well-placed frying-pan attack (rather than running away and being helpless) is more significant than any amount of dialogue.

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