Wednesday, November 9, 2011

This is Disney, Man.

Since beginning this blog I've received a lot of Disney-related articles and random tidbits from friends. I wish I could comment and respond to all of them here but I simply don't have enough time. I will try to post the things I find funny, entertaining or thought-provoking. Let's start with a video essay on the portrayal of masculinity in Disney films, sent to me by Glenn. It isn't a new video but resurfaced on a blog that he reads.

I thought this essay was particularly interesting because we see plenty of critique on the messages Disney communicates to young girls. The 'princess thing' has become a both popular as well as controversial (seems like those words are basically synonyms these days). But it's fairly rare that anyone talks about what messages are being sent to boys. The essayist raises some legitimate issues, but I have to say I don't quite agree with everything he says.

Watch it here first before reading my analysis:

The essay begins with this quote:
"Images [in media] shape what we know & understand about the world."
I believe this has truth to it - but as a follower of Jesus, I know that what ultimately shapes my knowledge of the world is what God reveals through His Word. Images in film or other media may influence us, but as Christians we need to figure out when we're being lied to (it's pretty often). We need to hold these images against what we know is true in Scripture.

Mr. Newton has 3 main points in his essay, regarding sexism, strength and dominance. I'd like to look at each one briefly. I'll comment on the examples he gives as well as give some of my own. He seems to use mainly Renaissance films as examples, so I will too.

Sexism - Women as objects
"Often, the message to boys, both implicitly and explicitly, is that men should view women as objects of pleasure, or as servants to please them."
Gaston's attitude toward women is definitely seen as barbaric. While he appears to be physically ideal and manly, his arrogance and selfishness makes him unattractive. I doubt that Gaston would be seen by boys as someone to look up to - he is clearly the villain. It is his very barbaric way of thinking that drives him to madness, jealousy and rage.

"A Girl Worth Fighting For", Mulan
It's true that some of the lyrics in this song can come across as quite chauvinistic: "I couldn't care less what she wears or what she looks like / it all depends on what she cooks like: beef, pork, chicken, mmmm."

On the other hand,when Mulan suggests, "How 'bout a girl who's got a brain / who always speaks her mind?" their unison response, "Nahhh!" is clearly ironic. Including this line in the song communicates that this old-fashioned view of women (which, I must point out, has existed in Chinese culture for many centuries, way before Mulan was released) is just that - old-fashioned. A smart audience will catch onto that and not take the song too seriously.

In Aladdin, there is another example where Disney men are talking about women as objects. The Sultan, Jafar and Aladdin are found discussing Jasmine's future without her (known) presence. She storms in and angrily exclaims, "I am not a prize to be won!" In this moment we see all of them respond sheepishly. Aladdin is especially ashamed, and learns that he must pursue Jasmine not as a prize but as a person.

So, I'd like to argue that while there are male characters who may view women in this way, they are the very characters that are seen negatively or need to undergo a change of heart. Therefore, the message here is not that men should view women as objects or servants, but that men who do are either villains, or need to change how they think.

Strength - Physical prowess 
Body image is definitely a topic which I hope to cover in future posts. After all, cartoon drawings provide an opportunity to say a lot with shape and size, to stretch beyond physical reality and create images that could not exist in real life. How they depict human figures provide a strong message about ideal body image.

Again, I don't really think Gaston is the best example that Mr. Newton could have used. Although he is unquestionably physically built, his character is never seen as exemplary and therefore even his outer physique is unattractive.

Hercules' muscular physique and good looks does garner definite praise in that film ("Honey, you mean HUNK-ules!" "When he smiled the girls went wild with oohs and aahs!"). As the story progresses, though, he realizes that all of the hard work he puts in to becoming physically strong doesn't qualify him to become a "real hero." He only achieves that goal when he learns the meaning of self sacrifice, giving up his own immortality for the woman that he loves. I think that the message here is: physical strength may be nice, but true courage comes when you've learned to be selfless. This has much more to do with inner character than outer beauty.

One of my favorite heroes of Disney movies is a male character who is not physically attractive - Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What we see in his character is that even someone cast out from society due to his physical deformities has worth. Through his courage, he brings justice to a corrupt city. It's true, he doesn't get the girl at the end (the more good-looking Phoebus does). But what he does get is restoration to the community, which I think is a far more powerful end to the story.

Dominance & Violence
Mr. Newton argues that Disney films support the masculinity of dominance and violence, both in being "man enough" to fight, and in the climactic scenes featuring male characters fighting each other.

Gaston vs. Beast
I really wish Mr. Newton didn't keep using Gaston as an example. I'm beginning to sound repetitive here. Yes, Gaston ridicules the Beast for not wanting to fight back. But during this scene, the audience is sympathetic towards Beast. He has just lost Belle (or he thinks he has) and therefore he doesn't engage in a fight because he doesn't think he has anything left to live for. No one is going to be thinking, "Yeah that Beast, what a wimp." Instead I'm thinking, "Stupid Gaston. Why are you trying to prove yourself? Belle is never going to love you!"

Simba vs. Scar
The battle between Simba and his uncle is not merely about dominance. Simba had run away from his past for years. He had been afraid to step into his role as king. Returning to Pride Rock to challenge Scar meant that he was choosing to own up to his responsibilities, and that although he feels guilty about his past, he knows that something is more important. It should also be noted that Simba does not actually initiate a physical fight. When given the chance to kill Scar, he actually tells Scar to leave Pride Rock. He tries to end the conflict without violence. Scar, the villain, is the one who attacks. Engaging in violence is seen as something only a villain would do.

Tarzan vs. Clayton
I don't actually think most Disney films end with a battle between two men. There are many films that feature a female villain, for example. And in Mulan, well, we all know she totally kicks butt all on her own. But, using an example along the lines of this argument, let's talk about the battle scene in Tarzan. Tarzan returns to his gorilla family when he realizes that Clayton means to capture and kill them. I think the message here is much more about protecting and caring for your family than it is about engaging in violence. What this says to us about manliness is that a man protects the vulnerable.

Another example is Jafar. He is one of the most power-hungry characters in these films. But it is that very thirst for power than becomes his downfall. Aladdin uses Jafar's ambition against him when he tricks him into becoming a genie. The lesson learned? Power isn't the answer.

Concluding thoughts
Maybe these messages are less overt than the ones this guy is talking about, but they're still there. There is definitely stuff on the surface that could lead one to make conclusions like Mr. Newton. But on a deeper level, Disney films have more to say. At least when it comes to the newer films (the one he uses in his video), I don't think the message to boys is about treating women poorly, having physical strength, or dominating power over others at all costs. In these examples, valuing women is encouraged, strength beyond just the physical is praised, and power can be used to protect, love and care for others. Moreover, characters who treat women as objects, pride themselves in their physique, or hunger for too much power, are the same ones who are unquestionably villainous or foolish.

I expect that how male characters are portrayed in older films such as The Jungle Book, Robin Hood or Peter Pan, will provide some interesting insights into how Disney has evolved. The question is, was Disney merely responding to cultural shifts or are they the ones setting the standard?

As always, your thoughts are welcome! I'd especially like to hear from the men out there - how have Disney movies influenced you and your view of masculinity?

1 comment:

  1. Maybe this is just me, but pre-2000s (before the Disney princess collection), I don't think the "theme" of Disney was really about princesses. Especially looking back at some of the older movies with you. I watched Aladdin the other day and was struck by how much of the movie is about honesty to yourself and to others. Although his romance with Jasmine was a big part, the story was more about honesty than love.