Disney has delivered plenty of heroines for girls to look up to over the years: Pocahontas changed the course of history and created peace, Mulan fought for her country alongside all of the boys, Brave’s Merida killed it on the bow and arrow. But researchers have just discovered that many of our favorite Disney “princess” movies aren’t as pro-girl power as we once thought. According to an analysis done by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhaur, the male characters speak more than the females in Disney animated films made between 1989 and 1999.
That decade-long time period includes several Disney classics with plots driven by the female characters—but Fought and Eisenhaur found that the film’s focus didn’t necessarily translate to talking time. Men speak 68 percent of the time in The Little Mermaid, 71 percent in Beauty and the Beast, 90 percent in Aladdin, 76 percent in Pocahontas, and 77 percent in Mulan. The problem also extends beyond that time frame: The blockbuster hit Frozen had women speaking only 41 percent of the time, despite having two main female characters.
It wasn’t always this way, though. In the earliest Disney princess movies, the women spoke as much or more than the men. In 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the dialogue is split 50-50. In 1950’s Cinderella, women speak 60 percent of the time, and in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty that percentage jumps up to 71 percent.
So what happened in the ’80s and beyond? The researchers attribute the disparity to largely lopsided casts of characters: Besides the heroine, the Disney movies primarily feature men. “There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought told The Washington Post. “Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.” Another problem? The sidekicks are also practically always male. Besides Mrs. Potts, every other partner-in-crime in that time period is a dude: Flounder, Sebastian, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Iago, Genie, and Mushu.
It’s not all bad news, though. The researchers also looked at the quality—not just quantity—of what was being said in regards to the Disney ladies. By analyzing the compliments, they found a positive trend: In the classics (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), women were complimented more than half of the time (55 percent) on their appearance as opposed to their skills. By the ’80s and ’90s that percentage decreased to just 38 percent, while 25 percent of the compliments were directed at their skills or abilities. And in the most recent batch of films, the trend reversed: 40 percent of the time, the women are complimented on their talents or accomplishments (compared to just 22 percent involving their looks).
So, things are moving in the right direction—but there’s still more work to be done. Disney has two upcoming animated films with female leads (Zootopia and Moana), and the story lines look promising: Zootopia features a female bunny cop looking to prove herself to a male-dominated police force, and Moana tells the tale of a young girl embarking on a dangerous mission across the South Pacific that hasn’t been taken in over a thousand years. Each film still features a male sidekick, though—but we think they’ve got way more important things to talk about than looks.
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