Last week, The Independent posted an article that highlighted research into the ‘dialogue equality’ of Disney movies. This research found that the string of successful 90s ‘Disney Princess’ movies contained dialogue that was predominately spoken by men, with the most surprising ‘offenders’ being those films named after the princess in question. Mulan saw 77% of the dialogue being spoken by male characters, Pocahontas sitting at 76% male dialogue and The Little Mermaid rounding out the top three with 68%.
But isn’t this exactly the point of these movies?
Mulan, Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid all focus on the concept of a female character trying to make a difference in a male-dominated environment while overcoming obstacles imposed by gender. This conflict is highlighted by the male dominance in line delivery, as every film is set in a culture where women are perceived to be inferior to men.
But let’s break this down further. Mulan is the story of a young Chinese girl who takes her father’s place in a conscription order after a call to arms is made to protect China from an approaching Hun army. Mulan rejects the gender roles she is expected to fulfil and, over time, proves that she is a capable and innovative warrior. She is mocked and hindered by her male peers, who believe her to be a weak and clumsy male. The best part about Mulan’s character is that she is not perfect- she has flaws, making her an overall relatable character. Furthermore, instead of the typical Disney ending of ‘the princess saves the day single-handedly and ascends to essentially godly levels of power’, the Huns are defeated at the end of movie by a group of rag-tag individuals, led by Mulan. So yeah, 77% of Mulan’s dialogue is spoken by male characters but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mulan herself saves China.
Pocahontas also finds herself in a similar situation. Not only is she ‘inferior’ within her community, the British who come to trade with her people see her as doubly inferior as a) she isn’t white and b) she’s a woman. Once again, we see a female character taking control of her own life and, in this case, choosing the man she wants to be with, as she feels her pre-determined husband is too serious. After your typical ‘clash of two worlds’ story, Pocahontas stops a conflict between the British and her tribe AND THEN declines to go back to England with her lover. And despite this empowering story of female independence, this study the Independent’s article is based on still uses it as evidence in its case for the male dominance of female-led Disney movies.
Finally, and I can’t believe I have to say this, ARIEL HAS NO VOICE FOR, LIKE, 80% OF THE LITTLE MERMAID. Furthermore, where would you put more female characters into The Little Mermaid? I’ve seen it, I don’t care about Ariel’s sisters and so they don’t need more screen time. Do you want more Ursula to be shoe-horned into the movie? I mean, granted, it would be interesting to see how people reacted if Ariel’s mother was the crazed tyrant who appears to rule over just the entire ocean. The Little Mermaid is once again about a girl in a male-dominated environment, King Triton doesn’t believe a woman is fit to be his heir and Prince Eric’s kingdom is your typical 15th Century (??) patriarchy, as was seen across most of Europe in that time period. Of the three mentioned, The Little Mermaid is probably the weakest. It’s a great movie but it’s about a 16 year old falling in love with the first non-mermaid she sees and then just marrying him. Plus, you know that coastal kingdom is totally reliant on fishing as their primary trade and that’s just going to end badly, especially with the chef who loves preparing fish just a little too much.
The article, and the report it is based on, end by asking the question “Are these movies really so great for little girls to watch?” and the answer is still a resounding yes. These films teach their primary demographic that you don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to be the typical princess to succeed in life. All it takes is hard work and for you to take control of your life. Furthermore, it took me about ten minutes last night to construct a coherent argument as to why these films have such male-dominated dialogue soooo…yeah. Sure, these films might not be perfect but if you take the time to read into them, you see that their male:female dialogue ratio isn’t due to ‘carelessness’ or ‘masculinity being the norm’.
What do you think? Is there a Disney movie that fits in here as well?