Yesterday and Today

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Disney Heroines and America:

Yesterday and Today

Haley Hayes

English 311c

Section 02
Movies reflect current American values. Symbols and signs of these shifting values creep into every aspect of the American people’s lives. The entertainment industry provides an example by depicting the powerful influence animated heroines have on cultural trends. In animation, the heroine archetype has come to mean the “ideal person”: a symbol of the qualities, attitudes, popular trends, and those socially acceptable norms which are the most desirable. Has the public brought this upon themselves by buying into the movie-madness scheme, which dictates how one should think, feel, and, in part, be? This introduces another interesting question: Does the shift in societal values affect the nature and content of animation, or do the values portrayed in animation and public’s willingness to be overpowered create these changes in American beliefs? Regardless of which comes first, analyzing a character is synonymous with analyzing the culture from which the character is spawned. These symbols in animation, unfortunately, don’t always depict America’s best values and more often than not are targeted at children. Truly, the influential impact of animation on children is most perfectly depicted in the famed Walt Disney Heroines. These Disney girls have come to reflect America’s ever-changing values and the evolution of its popular culture.

Despite the public’s initial skepticism, Walt Disney chose to create the world’s first feature-length animated film on December 21, 1937. Snow White hit theaters, ironically grossing 80 million dollars in the U.S. alone! Snow White not only pioneered a great new entertainment field, it was a significant screen innovation in which millions of families would increasingly identify with the characters projected on their television screens. The Disney Company commenced with consistent releases of full-length animated films-driven by Disney’s vision of growth. Illustrating his vision, it was revealed to the public that the pictures weren’t made just to make money, but that the money was made to enable more pictures. Even with Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the vision conceived by the company continued to permeate American culture. His primary aim was to entertain, yet Disney hoped that the public would derive lessons from his animations as well. This aspiration predicted in impact the “lessons” (whether good or bad) would have on every child’s (and adult’s) unconscious mind.

These shifting ideas in America previous to the 1930’s and early 1940’s altered entertainment, specifically in regards to women and their place and role in society. With the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1020, which granted women the right to vote, came a decline and eventually the disappearance of women’s movements. A period of relative inactivity followed. With suffrage finally granted, most women assumed that the need for women’s movements were groundless. During World War II (1939-1945), several million American women took factory production jobs to aid the war effort. But after the war ended, these women were urged to leave the work force to make room for the returning servicemen. Society encouraged women to become full-time housewives. Devotion to home and family and the rejection of a career emerged as the ideal image for women (World Book Encyclopedia 388). This view of womanhood all but replaced and organization struggle for women’s rights until the 1960’s (Friedan 157).

Emerging from this era came the popular models of family life depicted in Andy Griffith’s and the Cleaver’s homes. Aunt Bea and Mrs. Cleaver were displayed as cheerful, nurturing homemakers who were conservative in thier dress and hairstyles. They accepted the roles of wives and mothers with an innocent (if somewhat naive) demeanor. Though these model examples may depict and “idealist” family, the women of this era did seem content to let the men win the bread for the family and themselves bake it.

This “homemaker-role” stereotype of women clearly was the culturally acceptable norm for the times and was reiterated by Snow White in 1937. As a soft-spoken, kind-hearted, gentle girl, Snow White willingly submits to her vain and selfish step-mother’s cruel demands. Making no attempts to free herself, she is eventually forced to flee for her life. Upon finding the seven dwarfs’ home, she immediately responds to her instincts of cooking and cleaning. When the seven dwarfs discover the princess, she pleads with them to let her stay by appealing to their needs. “If you let me stay,” she promises, “I will keep house for you! I’ll wash and sew and sweep and cook-.” Once Show White guarantees them plum pudding and gooseberry pie they decide she is staying! Immediately Snow White begins mothering, insisting the dwarfs wash before summer, and she uses her influence to eventually win over Grumpy’s love in the end. Yet, accompanying Snow White’s goodness lies weakness and vulnerability, which is evident as her naivety and aver-acceptance of other puts her in harms way. As the dwarfs go off to the “workplace” they feel Snow White’s vulnerability and their responsibility to protect her. Before Leaving, they each leave words of caution and instruct her to let no one into the house. This portrayal of women as weak and exploitable was an issue that rekindled the fires of women’s movements in the 1960’s. Yet, in mirrored the times. And as millions of children identified with as assessed Snow White, their convections of the messages sent were established. Perceiving Snow White as a role model, children tried to interpret what it was they were being taught about women. Surely, Snow White did reflect and influence the 30’s and 40’s.

As the American people’s hearts embraced the growing Walt Disney Giant, identifying with and interpreting the verbal and nonverbal expressions of animation indeed created shifts in beliefs and behavior. While attempting to make sense of the Disney message and ins influences, the Journal of Popular Film and Television addressed the allegations that Bambi (1942) contributed to an anti-hunting sentiment that infiltrated the United States in the early 40’s (Jackson 122). Walt Disney characters do send messages tot eh American subconscious and cause fluctuations in emotions. So which comes first: The messages and trends of animation? In the example mentioned, it is obvious that Bambi’s silent message of hunting came first, causing a reevaluation of American values. The opposite it true in Snow White, as 10 years previous her same feminine qualities were widely identifiable across America.

Following Bambi came Disney’s 6th animated film Cinderella (1950), which closely resembled Snow White in many respects. It’s the story of a beautiful girl who obediently submits to her cruel stepmother and stepsisters’ demands and who diligently mends, cleans, and cooks for them. Her source of joy was found in her mothering of the little mice and bird friends who kept her company in an isolated room at the top of the house. She took pride in sewing little outfits for the boys and miniature dresses for the girls in her spare time. Lacing the courage and motivation to defy the authority of her stepmother (unlike her fellow protagonists), Cinderella made no attempt to withdraw from her situation. By depicting Cinderella’s dependence on someone more powerful than herself to liberate her, animation reemphasized to America what Snow White had previously illustrated concerning beliefs about women.

Along with Cinderella, the release of Alice In Wounderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) verified these values. Both women characters Alice and Wendy, thought the idea of adventure sounded exciting! Wendy, being a bit resistant on account of her love for her mother, was eventually won over when Peter Pan declared that she could be the lost boys’ mother. Alice and Wendy ventured into the unknown, but soon found themselves homesick for their traditional life in the home, which discouraged future exploration. The powerful impact of these animated films is swaying beliefs and emotion is nowhere depicted so well as in Wendy’s lullaby song to John, Michael, and the lost boys one the eve of their voyage home:

“I’ll tell you what a mother is…” Wendy then sings,

“She’s the angel voice that bids you goodnight, kisses

your cheek, and whispers sleep tight…The helping hand

that guides you along…What makes mothers all that they are?

Might as well ask..what makes a star?”

Yearning for their safe and secure lives back, Wendy and Alice return home. Children (specifically females) asserted from these two films that too much adventure and independence was associated with distress.

The “traditional home middle-class mother” and “housewife-role” contribute to the second wave feminist movements which had virtually been at a standstill for 35 years. In 1960 cultural attitudes toward women dramatically began evolving as women’s groups changed views about male and female roles. Although more independent, today most women are inhibited by traditional ideas about gender and love, a view which feminism sought to eliminate in the 60’s (Letelier 13). Consequently in the 60’s, romance took a back seat to the idea that women could succeed without being dependant on a man. Thus, any female/male issue became a highly sensitive topic and one in which many “people pleasers” attempted to avoid. During the 60’s and 70’s era from 101 Dalmatians (1961), Sword in the Stone (1965), The Jungle Book (1967), Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), to The Rescuers (1977), only a slight shift in trends is observed. This is a result of Disney’s Producers’ attempts to evade potential conflicts by limiting romance as a significant player in their storylines, and making the traditional role of mother and wife minimal or non-existent.

The female character of Miss Bianca, from The Rescuers (1977), was perhaps the first expression of female dominance in a business-world setting. The female and male roles are flipped as Bernard plays the part of a meek and timid janitor. Miss Bianca on the other hand, although stereotyped with her dainty appeal and makeup care, is a confident, spirited, enthusiastic, optimistic, determined, courageous, dauntless, adventurous, independent, and elusive business women; Traits never before associated with leading female characters. As children admired Miss Bianca, they internalized her and Bernard’s nonverbal messages about men and women.

Before these messages were detected in Disney Animation, feminist ideas were permeating America. The evolving culture reveals the percentage of employed women rose from 28 percent in 1940 (Snow White) to 57 percent in 1989 (The Little Mermaid). The proportion of married women with children under 18 and a job rose dramatically, from 18 percent in 1950 (Cinderella) to 66 percent in 1988 (389). With the creation of The Little Mermaid in 1989 came a new trend in America combining the anti-feminist view of romance and to pro-feminist view of independence. The Little Mermaid began an era in which the vulnerability of children to this epidemic of imitating and identifying with star Disney characters became unmistakable. This is in-part explained by the sudden outpouring of extensive promotional tie-ins, such as clothing and toys (Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia). With the Disney Company’s success, toy producers discovered that by creating products which correlated with Disney animation, they could more efficiently and readily entice the already swindled child. Under these new circumstances, the influences of Disney releases during the post-feminist are continue to swell as production in the toy industry intensifies.

One might contend that the lessons viewers garner from Disney films are ambiguous and today depict a troubled arena of postfeminism (Henke and Umble and Smith 229). The role of father figures offers support for this claim by fluctuating between playing fools (Jasmine's father) and respected men (Pocahontas's father). Due to their obscure nature, one could argue that messages expressed by animation during the post-feminist era are inconsistent with evolving society. Yet their influence is no less significant, multiplying variations in viewpoints and trends. In Disney's The Lion King (1994), a distinct contrast to its preceding and post-ceding counterparts Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas (1995) conveys some inconsistency when comparing their content. Surrounded by human heroines Jasmine and Pocahontas, The Lion King features all animals and a male Lion hero. Attempts to locate shifting trends in society which caused this variation are unsuccessful. Yet, though shifting trends may not have created this abrupt change in the content of animation, the influence that The Lion King has had on Americans is obvious. Americans learned that all living creatures play an essential part in the circle of life. Children internalized these lessons, understanding their responsibility to respect the world around them.

Accordingly, one might argue that the connection between Disney's influence and the public's values are highly over-rated. In Disney's Sleeping Beauty of 1959 it is clear that the evil Maleficent is no less powerful, headstrong, independent, and aggressive than any female character in the post-feminist era. However, it is not the "bad guy" who parents find their children imitating. I would conclude that children are less influenced by Maleficent's behavior and more willing to accept Mulan' s -not because they are so very different in their independence, but because one is an evil enemy and the other a heroine.

Consequently, by stepping back and comparing trends in animation and America, one can conclude that Walt Disneyfilms such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, and Mulan portray the evolution of the female characters. Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas, and Mulan are more assertive of their rights than Cinderella and heroines of the previous films. The earlier films portray women as weak and helpless. Gradually the Disney heroine finds her voice and strength (Henke and Umble and Smith 229).

Compare Disney's female character Audrey from Atlantis (2001) to Sleeping Beauty as she comments sarcastically, "Yeah, yeah, thank you very much. Shut up." Sleeping Beauty would no sooner say something so rude as Snow White would, yet it perfectly illustrates the shift in expectations for women. Children's demeanors today are reflected in quotes from three 90's role models in Disney animation. Ariel defiantly says to her father when he attempts to restrict her, "I'm 16 years old! I'm not a child anymore!" She then sings the popular Part of Your World song displaying her curiosity and discontentment with her world. Ariel, unlike heroines of the 40's and SOlS, detemlines to achieve her dream no matter how perilous. Similarly, Belle sings want adventure in the great wide somewhere... There must be more than this provincial life!” Lastly, Mulan (who is the ultimate symbol of one who defies all traditional roles and values), when describing her idea of an ideal women, exclaims, "How about a girl whose got a brain! A girl who always uses her mind...!" Not only do these characters not display the genteel manner characteristic of traditional motherhood, but increasingly more commonplace is the complete absence of any mother figure. Ariel's, Jasmine's, Pocahontas's, Jane's (Tarzan 1999), a Belle's mothers are not only missing, but in most cases they are not even eluded to. It is no wonder children today are so different from those of the early 20th century.

Differing symbols with similar associations also contribute to Disney's reflection of society. Consider Barbie's influence along with the other "promotional tie-ins" previously mentioned. These symbols, along with animation, signify the shifting terrain of American culture and belief (Cross 710). Barbie, in feminist terms, is definitely her own person. With her condo and fashion plazas, Barbie is a liberated woman of the sixties (Prager 708). Mothers recognized that Barbie was a break from the traditional nurturing of play and that girls clearly welcomed it (Cross 711). But, Barbie never taught girls to shed female stereotypes. Like Ariel and Belle, she merely prompted them to associate the freedom ofbeing an adult with carefree consumption (Cross 711). Where once 9 and 10 year-old girls wore pig-tails and played with baby dolls, they now resemble a miniature Barbie and Belle. By compounding the worlds of Disney Heroines and Barbie, toy and entertainment producers have created a standard in which children, especially girls, have become symbols themselves of popular trends and evolving culture.

Looking into the future, two trends which are likely to have a profound influence in the animation industry are the significant increase in production and exhibition opportunities, and the growing importance of new technologies. By analyzing these trends, trends of the past, society's steady movement towards liberalism, increased popularity of Disney animation, and the capricious tendency of Americans to change their beliefs, America's uncertain future extends into the unknown. Only by stepping back and bringing these symbols and messages to the surface, can America free itself from entertainment's hypnotic grasp and the powerful overtaking of animation.

Works Cited

“Animation,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001

Cross, Gary. “Barbie, G.I. Joe, and Play in the 1960’s.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 3rd ed. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Crown, 1963.

Henky, Jill B,. Diane Z. Umble, and Nancy J. Smith. “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Heroine.” Women’s Studies in Communication 192 (1996): 229.

Walt Disney: Its Persuasive Products and Cultural Contexts.” Journal of Television 24:2 (1996): 122.

To Feminist Library Theory and Criticism.” Home Journal Apr.

“Ourselves.” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 3rd ed. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

“Women’s Movements.” World Book Encyclopedia 1: 388. World Book, Inc. Scott Fetzer Company.

“Women’s Movements.” World Book Encyclopedia 1: 389. World Book, Inc. Scott Fetzer Company.
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