Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Changing Representations of Women in Disney's Feature Animation, 1937-2001

Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Changing Representations of Women in Disney's Feature Animation, 1937-2001

by Amy M. Davis


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In Good Girls and Wicked Witches, Amy M. Davis re-examines the notion that Disney heroines are rewarded for passivity. Davis proceeds from the assumption that, in their representations of femininity, Disney films both reflected and helped shape the attitudes of the wider society, both at the time of their first release and subsequently. Analyzing the construction of (mainly human) female characters in the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio between 1937 and 2001, she attempts to establish the extent to which these characterizations were shaped by wider popular stereotypes. Davis argues that it is within the most constructed of all moving images of the female form—the heroine of the animated film—that the most telling aspects of Woman as the subject of Hollywood iconography and cultural ideas of American womanhood are to be found.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861966738
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2006
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

Amy M. Davis is a lecturer in the School of Media and Performing Arts and a course director for Film Studies at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. She is author of several articles on the subject of Disney feature animation.

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Good Girls and Wicked Witches

Women in Disney's Feature Animation

By Amy M. Davis

John Libbey Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2006 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86196-673-8


Film as a Cultural Mirror

In Hollywood, both in the past and in the present, what decides whether or not a film will be made, ultimately, is whether or not it is believed that the film will make money. If a film is to make money, it must appeal to a mass audience. If it is to do this, it must contain ideas, themes, characters, stories, and perceptions to which it can relate. It must, in other words, be relevant to the audience's world view if it is to be successful. Why does a film like Thelma and Louise (1991), ostensibly a road movie about two redneck women trying to escape to Mexico, strike such a chord – and stir up such controversy – amongst audiences around the world? The simple answer to this is that Thelma and Louise touches upon certain issues – mainly women's roles, rights and positions in what is still very much a male-dominated society – which are relevant not only to the lives of women of the same basic background as the title characters, but also to women as a whole, nearly all of whom have experienced some form of gender-related harassment and/or discrimination. More recently, the phenomenon of the success of the film Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), as well as the attendant criticism of the way it depicts thirty-somethings at the turn of the twenty-first century, has enjoyed great success. This far-reaching popularity comes from the fact that, like it or not, Bridget Jones's Diary mirrors back to a great many women the conflicting roles they are expected to fill, and their confusion as to how to navigate the difficulties and contradictions to be found within the era's complex and evolving understanding of the ways in which marriage, career, and family are/should be prioritised amongst middle-class Western women.

Likewise, there are within Disney's films certain ideas, perceptions, themes and stereotypes which are relevant to the daily lives of those who made these films successful, namely the audiences, who paid to see these films in the cinema, bought the related merchandise, went to the theme parks and rented or purchased the videos and DVDs. Had these films not "spoken" in some way to contemporary audiences, or at least if the studio had not believed that these films had this potential, then the films themselves would never have been made. Or, if they had been made regardless (which, owing to the expense of their production, is doubtful), then they would – like the many films which have failed to gain a favourable reception with audiences – have disappeared not long after their release. Likewise, had the films been successful in their day, but the ideas and themes they contain ceased to resonate with the public (or, in extreme cases, jarred hatefully with modern values), they would have become rare, controversial cinematic relics along the lines of films such as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915): watched out of scholarly curiosity, at best saluted for their technical innovations, but used – ultimately – as a measure of how far social attitudes and values had progressed since such films' releases. Granted, there is within the continuing popularity of the Disney canon a certain element of parents wanting to share with their children those films they enjoyed during their own childhoods. However, if elements within these films had become so outdated that parents re-evaluated their fondness for these films and changed their minds about sharing them with offspring, or, if the children had found nothing within them to which they could relate, then the films would have faded from popularity, lingering in popular memory only because of their nostalgic value, not because of their importance as cultural icons. But the significance of Disney's animated films is that, by and large, they did not disappear. While some were more popular than others, and while some have either increased or declined in mainstream popularity since their initial releases, most of Disney's films are still highly popular, highly successful, and even decades (in some cases) after their initial releases, still highly profitable for their studio. As they continue to find new audiences in each up-coming generation, it seems reasonable to assume that these films have more than simply a nostalgic appeal: they must, in someway, still hold relevance for modern audiences.

Molly Haskell, in the introduction to the classic text From Reverence to Rape, noted that "Most of the popular novels, plays, short stories of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties have all but disappeared, but the films based on them have survived to tell us more vividly than any new or old journalism what it was like, or what our dream life was like, and how we saw ourselves in the women of those times". This is especially true of the films of Walt Disney. If people are asked to describe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they are very likely to start talking about Sleepy, Dopey, and the rest of the dwarfs. If informed that, in the Grimms' version of the tale, the dwarfs did not have individual names, many are generally (and genuinely) surprised. Those who consider themselves to be "well-read" may not like to admit it, but, so far as many such traditional stories are concerned, we are usually content to let "Uncle Walt" tell us "his" versions of the stories and trust that they have been told fairly and faithfully.

A factor which is just as important, however, in any evaluation of Disney's role as cultural mirror is an examination of the individual characterisations within the stories themselves, as well as the types of stories which were selected to be made into films. The early films – the stories for which were chosen (and all of which were given final approval) predominately by Walt himself – are simple in their plotlines, with easily-defined concepts of good and evil. This preference for more straightforward narratives seems to have been influenced, in large part, by the fact that such narratives seemed easier (both to Walt and to his staff) to adapt into animated feature films. This was particularly true in the earlier history of animation, when technological and artistic innovations were just beginning to find ways to allow for more complex animation such as would support more complex storylines and plots. It is certainly the case that, mostly, they are tales in which highly archetypal, even stereotypical portrayals of women are likely to be found. Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora/Briar Rose – all are good, simple, kind; they are what Virginia Woolf once dubbed "the angel in the house". Many of the female characters from this period are counterbalanced within each one's story by some evil, obsessive, and (most likely) sexually-unfulfilled older woman: the evil queen, the wicked step-mother, Maleficent the evil fairy, and Cruella deVil. It should be noted, however, that there are a couple of exceptions in this period. In the later periods of Disney's films, only Penny (in The Rescuers, 1977) and Ariel (in The Little Mermaid, 1989) are directly threatened by an older, vindictive woman. By the time Atlantis was released in 2001 (twelve years later), the female villain, Helga, was depicted as a young, attractive, alluring woman at her peak, and is a far cry (both in looks and in complexity of motivation) from her villainous predecessors.

As feminist critics have noted, Hollywood has traditionally reinforced the patriarchal, largely Victorian value system which has dominated Western culture throughout the history of cinema. "As the propaganda arm of the American Dream machine", declared Molly Haskell,

Hollywood promoted a romantic fantasy of marital roles and conjugal euphoria and chronically ignored the facts and fears arising from an awareness of The End – the winding down of love, change, divorce, depression, mutation, death itself. ... The very unwillingness of the narrative to pursue love into marriage (except in the 'woman's film', where the degree of rationalization needed to justify the disappointments of marriage made its own subversive comment) betrayed a certain scepticism. Not only did the unconscious elements obtrude in the films, but they were part of the very nature of the industry itself.

In 1978, Brandon French noted that, particularly within women's roles (both in film and television) of the 1950s, there was a substantial degree of subversion of the notion that women were happiest in these traditional roles. This subversion, however, in combination with the more traditional representations of women finding fulfilment in marriage, still reflects the mood of their era: it is just that they reflect an era of change, albeit change which was still in its earlier stages of development.

In Disney's films – in particular, those made during what is referred to in this book as "The Classic Period" (films made during Disney's lifetime, between 1937 and 1966) – this traditional interpretation of the roles of love and marriage is without question the most prevalent. Heroes and heroines meet, fall in love, go through a separation and hardship (which no doubt serves in some sense as a test of their devotion and pureness of heart), are reunited, marry, and live happily ever after. What exactly that "happily ever after" entails is a mystery, and we as spectators are led to believe that it will be simply a continuation of their love and happiness – of their exact emotions – at the time of their marriage. For many individuals within both child and adult audiences, such a future seems not only bright and lovely but possible. There is nothing in most films (Disney or otherwise) to indicate that love, even when it lasts, can change, or lose its intensity without losing its strength. Some recent writers and pundits have criticised this tendency to focus on the "happily ever after" as one of the roots of marital instability in the late twentieth century. As one such writer, working in the increasingly popular so-called "self-help" genre, would complain, "Because romantic tales usually end at the wedding (whole years eclipsed by the lying words: 'and they lived happily ever after') and because there has been scant attention paid to the question of how to live together in the increasingly complex state of marriage or long-term cohabitation, most people are naive about what it entails". However, given that, in the case of Disney films, most of these stories were decades or centuries old by the time they were put on film, and that the narrative structures they rely upon have been the framework for countless stories both past and present, when accounting for the increase in failed marriages and difficult or failed long-term relationships in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, it seems peculiar to think that so much of the blame can be laid at the feet of fairy tales and the movies.

For some spectators, these depictions of love and marriage – stereotypical and essentially Victorian in sensibility though many of them are – served as a valued and valuable form of escapism. This notion becomes particularly heightened when one remembers that the films with which this study is concerned, animated Disney feature films based mostly upon traditional fairy tales, are films which can be seen as doubly escapist due to their source material (fairy stories, with which many within the audience would have been familiar since childhood) and their medium (animation being a format which allows for amazing and otherwise impossible characters and depictions of fantasy and mythology). As Norman Klein notes:

Much has been made of the psychological advantages of function in fairy tales; it presumably enables the listener to externalize deeply felt anxiety. It reifies forgotten moments in a person's intimate development (stages in childhood; family crises; sexual fears), or the social meanings of taboos in a community (like kin or incest). Function penetrates forgotten fears.

What is it in these tales the Disney studio tells which carries out this "function" in fairy tales? When strong, sexually-mature women are portrayed as frustrated, maniacal, bloodthirsty demons and witches, what are these portrayals saying about perceptions on the part of the film-makers of women's sexuality? Most of all, perhaps, how large a role do these portrayals play in perpetuating or, in some cases, challenging certain sub-consciously held attitudes within society? Such questions as these are best answered not only through looking at Disney films as a genre in and of themselves, but also through looking at Disney in relation to the horror genre.

Disney and horror

The horror genre possesses many attributes in common with Disney's animated films, thanks no doubt to the fact that Disney's major source of stories has been fairy tales (which share major story elements and themes with classic horror films). Disney films featuring human leading characters, in particular, have many of the major elements of the horror film: the heroine/victim, the monstrous Other, the victorious hero who defeats the monster and re-establishes order. It is important to clarify that not all of the films within this study can be classed as horror. Indeed, some of the films have either few or none of the elements of the horror genre. Nonetheless, most of these films do have, to varying degrees, examinations of the notion of "good versus evil", and often, as is traditional when following the Classic Paradigm narrative structure (as most Hollywood films do), the plot is structured so as to depict an on-going contest of protagonist against antagonist. This is most easily seen in the following table (facing page).

Of all the films in this study, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" segment of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, in fact, is one of the straightest treatments of horror to be found amongst Disney's animated features. The plot of the film demonstrates the classic horror film pattern. In essence, this pattern is comprised of the following elements: showing the normal order of the society in which the story is set; beginning the build-up of tension by the telling the background of the society's "threat" from within (in this case, the ghost of the headless horseman); the actual direct threat to Ichabod Crane as the Horseman tries to murder him; the allusion at the end of the film that the story has been only temporarily resolved, but that the threat in fact remains, awaiting another time and another victim. Though not all Disney films can be discussed in terms of horror (even if only partially), many do contain elements of horror and fantasy, albeit to a lesser extent than films like not only Ichabod, but also such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Alice in Wonderland has an evil Other in the form of the Queen of Hearts, but this is only for a section of the film. Mostly, Alice in Wonderland is just a bizarre dream full of nonsense, and is more akin to fantasy than true horror. In Mulan, even though there is in a sense the presence of what could technically be seen as a monstrous Other which threatens the order of Mulan's society, the outside threat is the Golden Horde, with whom China is at war, and though they are a threat to Mulan while she is a soldier, they are not targeting her personally and so, in this sense, are not a threat in the same way that the wicked witches, evil step-mothers, vindictive pirates, and other malevolent characters are in the other stories. The "Pecos Bill" segment of Melody Time, together with The Fox and the Hound, although they do present antagonism, do not really deal with "good versus evil" in their stories. Mulan, however, represents a rather different case. Indeed, in the pantheon of Disney animated films, Mulan presents the historian and film analyst with a special case in terms of its story and subject matter, and, therefore, will be given special attention in a later chapter.

Horror and Disney deal with notions about what are (and what are not) appropriate gender roles, and it is true that Disney films and horror films tend to deal again and again, at least on an underlying level, with such themes as what is proper/improper behaviour for women, what is/is not the "natural order", issues of coming of age and sexuality, and other gender-based concepts. Who rescues and who is rescued (not to mention who is rescue-able), what behavioural traits make a character "good" or "bad", and whether a "bad" character can or cannot be reformed or redeemed are themes which Disney and horror films share, and the parallels between the ways in which these themes are played out within these two types of films are numerous.


Excerpted from Good Girls and Wicked Witches by Amy M. Davis. Copyright © 2006 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1, Film as a Cultural Mirror
Chapter 2, A Brief History of Animation
Chapter 3, The Early Life of Walt Disney and the Beginnings of the Disney Studio, 1901–1937
Chapter 4, Disney Films 1937–1967: The "Classic" Years
Chapter 5, Disney Films 1967–1988: The "Middle" Era
Chapter 6, Disney Films 1989–2005: The "Eisner" Era
Appendix 1, Disney’s full-length animated feature films
Appendix 2, Disney films analysed in this study, with plot summaries
Appendix 3, Bibliography
Appendix 4, Filmography

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