Mar 21, 2009


One thing I am surprised that Richard Schickel did not pick on in THE DISNEY VERSION: THE LIFE, TIMES, ART AND COMMERCE OF WALT DISNEY is the gender specific nature of the Disney animated features. Mind you, this trend seems to be a lot more apparent now thanks to Disney’s new branding of the Princess and Fairy collections, as well as the additions of the new animated features thanks to the Eisner/Katzenberg (and beyond) regimes.

When one thinks of Disney films, the first ones that come to mind are always the animated features. Sure there are classic live-action titles such as TREASURE ISLAND (1950), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) or MARY POPPINS (1964), but in all the live-action catalog does not stand up against almost any of the other Hollywood studios. That changed a lot in the 1980s and 1990s when Disney adapted the newer, more adult Touchstone and (now defunct) Hollywood Pictures brands, and then of course brought the Weinsteins and the Miramax label into the fold (before parting ways with the Weinsteins but retaining the Miramax name). The Walt Disney Company’s true contribution to the history of motion pictures are the animated features where the company, led by Walt, started it all with 1937’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, setting the bar very high right off the bat.

Looking at Disney’s animated catalog, it is hard not to notice a very definite trend of separation of the genders amongst the titles. Sure, kids of all types can enjoy pretty much any of the features – and this argument is not the case with all the titles as some of them do not fall into either category – but there is a noticeable difference between many of the more female friendly ones and what I like to call the boy adventures.

Disney lately has created a unique branding structure, particularly among the female driven titles. There are the Princess tales (there is even a parade of the Princesses at Disneyland) and they now have added a new Fairy line starting with last year’s direct-to-DVD TINKER BELL.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, CINDERELLA (1950), SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959), THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991) all fall into the "Princess" category (Disney also likes to include the character of Jasmine from ALADDIN (1992) as well, but I still classify ALADDIN as a boy’s adventure overall). All these titles have one theme in common; seemingly strong female characters who must overcome adversity to – of all things – find happiness with their true love. CINDERELLA is the strongest of these, and the most female skewed of the bunch.

Most of the earlier titles feature a prince that will ultimately fall in love with our heroine, but usually he has very little character development outside of that idea, and usually shows up in the end just to sweep her off her feet whether it be via the glass slipper in CINDERELLA or the kiss that brings them back to life as in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and SLEEPING BEAUTY (mind you, the SLEEPING BEAUTY prince gets to fight a dragon, giving him a little more to do than the others). Granted later on in the 1990s, Jasmine breaks this mold as being a very strong-willed almost feminist who is not easily swept away by the charms of Aladdin, and he has to really work at it to win her over unlike the other princes who just have to show up, look handsome and deliver that all-powerful kiss of true love.

POCAHONTAS (1995), which I am not sure if it officially fits under the “Princess” mantle (although it should) on the other hand gives the hero “John Smith” a lot more to do, probably thanks to the fact that Mel Gibson provides the voice. Not the strongest of the Disney animated features, it has one of my all-time favorite songs in COLORS OF THE WIND which transcends the film itself.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951) is also a female-centric movie, but is also not one of the most popular. Disney himself used to complain that the characters in it were too weird and eccentric for audiences to grasp on to and the lack of a love story or a strong male character at all also hinders it. Not to mention that unlike the characters of Snow White or Cinderella, Alice begins the story as an ordinary girl, and finishes it in the same way whereas the others are swept off their feet by their fairy tale prince and get to live a happily-ever-after-ending.

Then there is MULAN (1998), the perfect segue into the male driven adventures for Mulan is a female character that in order to save her father from certain death, must disguise herself as a male. Of course in the end, she must reveal her true gender identity and only then does she truly accomplish her goals – and saves the country in the process. Mulan is a woman who must become a man but then must embrace her womanhood, breaking gender barriers in order to get things done.

I guess males do not need such pointed “Princess” or “Fairy” branding to get them interested because Disney has not had to come up with a specific “boys” brand. I tend to think of PINOCCHIO (1940), PETER PAN (1953), THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963), THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), ROBIN HOOD (1973), THE FOX AND THE HOUND (1981), ALADDIN (1992), THE LION KING (1994), HERCULES (1997) and TARZAN (1999) as the primary Disney boy adventures. Most of them feature boys growing up and learning responsibility – most of them parent-less like Peter Pan, Tarzan, Mowgli (from THE JUNGLE BOOK) and Aladdin (THE LION KING’s Simba starts off with parents, but loses them).

Like the Princess stories, each film has a primary female love interest for the protagonist, but unlike tem, there is never quite that moment of them running off for that happily-ever-after moment because for the males, there is often more at stake like a crown (THE LION KING), freeing a nation from tyranny (ROBIN HOOD) or saving close ones from imprisonment or death (the apes in TARZAN). THE JUNGLE BOOK is probably the closest to the idea of boy meets girl in the end. The moment Mowgli enters “the man village” and sees the beautiful maiden drawing water, he is instantly entranced and almost instantaneously forgets his childhood friends of Bagheera and Baloo who are only few feet away, essentially experiencing puberty and beginning his true journey to manhood in that very telling moment.

Granted the boy-centric tales have a little more appeal for females than the girl-centric ones do for boys. PETER PAN has Wendy, ROBIN HOOD has Maid Marian and THE LION KING has Nala inserting some sort of romantic emphasis into the plots. However, although Snow White has the Seven Dwarfs and SLEEPING BEAUTY the battle with the dragon at the end, it is hard to see many young males getting too excited by the animals helping Cinderella put together her dress for the ball or hoping that the Prince’s shoe fits.

Granted not all of them fall into either of these categories. There are very gender non-specific Disney animated movies such as FANTASIA (1940), DUMBO (1941), 101 DALMATIANS (1961), THE ARISTOCATS (1970), THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH (1977), THE RESCUERS (1977) and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996).

Then there are examples such as LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) and BAMBI (1942) that are split down the middle. The beginning of BAMBI has the birth of Bambi and the rollicking with Thumper and the skunk Flower that would make most boys grow restless, but ends with danger, a fire and ultimately death that would bring them around. LADY AND THE TRAMP gives us a very free spirited male character in Tramp that does guy things, but then there is Lady whose goal is to ultimately domesticate him (which she succeeds in doing).

Of course this argument can be made for a great number of films. Movies are tailored for the genders constantly (CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC (2009) is for women whereas TRANSFORMERS (2007) is more for males). Neither is this practice at all troubling because let’s face it, when it comes to the sexes women truly are from Venus, and men from Mars.

With Schickel’s belief of Disney as a driving force of our culture, it becomes even more apparent that Disney films have always subscribed (successfully) to popular notions of what mentally boys & men, girls & women want to see and emulate and surprisingly he didn't pick on it (unlike what he does with the TRUE LIFE ADVENTURE SERIES which he skewers mercilessly).

More to come.