Brace Scholar Fiske Presents Study on Sexism in Classic Disney Movies

Disney movies are an important part of many childhoods; thus, people assume the films are “safe for children of all ages.” According to Brace Student Fellow Courtney Fiske ’07, however, these movies can sometimes influence children in troubling ways. This past Monday, Fiske presented her Brace Fellow lecture entitled “The Disney Spell: A Sexist Spin on Classic Fairytales.” Her speech highlighted the gender issues prominent in four popular Disney movies derived from classic fairytales: “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” The central figures in these movies, except for Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” are meek women, waiting for “Prince Charming” to rescue them. According to Fiske, this teaches young girls that “women should wait passively for dreams to be filled rather than do something about it themselves.” She continued to say that the main female characters neither have nor desire control over their own fates. Fiske proceeded to describe two situations where the female protagonists were subservient to the men. Snow White cleaned up after the dwarfs and taught them manners, while Cinderella did menial chores for her evil stepmother. She added that the lyrics from “Snow White” – “It’s off to work we go” – imply that Snow White’s work is not legitimate, although the dwarves’ labor is valid. A man rescues both Snow White and Cinderella, suggesting that a woman must be demure and submissive in order to have a chance to live “happily ever after,” or rather live ever after as a faithful wife. Fiske also discussed other female Disney characters, such as the female antagonists who try to thwart the dreams of the female protagonists. She observed that all the women in Disney movies are either submissive or evil, showing little girls that if women do not choose to be compliant, they will be “evil,” or not the ideal woman. Fiske added that Ursula, the villain of The Little Mermaid, does not even have her own power; she steals her power from the central male character, King Triton. Fiske noted that although Ariel, the protagonist, is initially a self-reliant and curious girl, she eventually “sacrifices her voice to win the love of a man.” This is demonstrative of Ariel’s acceptance of the “patriarchal order.” She continued to explain that in order to win the heart of Prince Eric, Ariel must rely on her physical beauty alone. Male characters, such as Prince Eric and King Triton, control Ariel’s ability to fulfill her dreams. Her father ultimately makes the decision to remove her fin, so she can marry Prince Eric. Belle, the protagonist in “Beauty and the Beast,” exercises greater influence than her Disney counterparts. Unlike the other Disney females, Belle is not dependent on the main male, the Beast. Instead they are equally dependent on each other. Also unlike other characters, Belle has a power of choice. She is able to choose between Gaston, who personifies male qualities and strength, and the Beast, who exhibits more “feminine qualities.” In the question and answer session following her lecture, Fiske explained that women did not have important roles in the creation of “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” On the other hand, a woman co-wrote “Beauty and the Beast,” which may explain Belle has more influence than in the other Disney movies. According to Fiske, the Disney Company has never formally addressed the apparent sexism in many of their movies, although Walt Disney himself was supposedly a firm believer in traditional gender roles. Fiske said that she does not “think these movies should be boycotted,” but that viewers should know that Disney’s portrayal of life is not realistic.