Men Matter: Changes in How Male Love Interests are Portrayed in Disney Films // Abigail Walsh
Disney movies have been, and still are in many ways, the pinnacle of children’s media. These movies display certain themes to young boys and girls. Children learn about themselves and others, as well as the rules of the world through popular media (Lee, 2008). The information gathered from these films may contribute to children’s understanding of gender, particularly surrounding gender roles and gender traits – what is and isn’t okay for boys and girls to be, to do, and how to act. We can define gender roles as, “the patterns of behavior that are culturally expected of “normal” men and women” (Miller & Perlman, 2009). These norms provide a comparison against which one can judge others to see how well they fit into society. Traditional gender roles often reflect men in roles outside of the home, while female gender roles traditionally reflect a woman’s duty inside of the home. Men are expected to be strong and brave and women are expected to be feminine and docile.
A lot has been written about how women are portrayed in Disney films, particularly Disney princesses. In general, these women are portrayed in very stereotypical and traditional gender roles, and have very predictable paths in the films. Some of the most common examples of stereotypical representations come from Disney classics, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Cottrell, W., Hand, D., Jackson, W., & Morey, L., 1937) and Cinderella (Geronimi, Jackson, & Luske, 1950).
With so much focus on Disney princesses, it is important to recognize that princesses are not the only ones being shown repetitive stereotypical role models in Disney films. The male characters in the Disney princess films all engage in traditional gender roles. They are saviors, protectors, and physical. They like to hunt. They are aggressive. They take control and maintain control throughout much of the movies. Sometimes they are jokesters, but even these male characters show some sort of traditional roles. And in the end the man always figures it out and saves the day. More often than not, this can be seen in some sort of display of physical action. There is often a fighting scene where the man literally fights to “win” the princess (because she is a possession that can be “won”). This can be seen in characters like Gaston, Aladdin, Prince Charming, the Beast, Eric from the little Mermaid, and the list goes on and on.
Recently Disney has teamed up with Pixar studios to present male lead characters in a softer light. In movies like Cars, Toy Story, and The Incredibles, men are portrayed in a new model of masculinity. In this “New Man” model, all the characters are alpha males that face some sort of emasculating failure. They then have some sort of goal, usually involving winning over affection from a female character, but sometimes for platonic male friendship. In the end these characters come to some realization and become a kinder and gentler representation of what it means to be a man (Gilliam & Wooden, 2008).
This move is in line with a larger cultural movement of revolutionizing male gender roles (Gilliam & Wooden, 2008). And this move towards a new man should be applauded. Boys also need different kinds of role models to encourage growth and development in a modern world. However, the move in this direction really needs to be credited to Pixar. Toy Story was the first of these movies to move in this direction in 1995. While that seems like a great stride, without the influence of Pixar studios, Disney did not release a newer model of masculinity to the masses on their own until 2010. This is 15 years later, and it should be noted that it seems to have taken Disney much longer to conform to this revolution.
In 2010, Tangled was released. This is the first film that portrays a desirable male character in a non-traditional light. Flynn is a humorous character. He is a thief, but not a very good one. He is not a good fighter. He runs away at the face of danger instead of confronting it. He is not in control and really doesn’t have it together. However, he is still portrayed in an amicable light. It all works out in the end for him and he still “wins” the girl (Greno & Howard, 2010). This is the first successful male role model Disney puts forth who is likeable, but non-traditional. This character tells boys that it is okay not to have all of the answers. It is okay to figure things out as you go. And most importantly, it is okay not to be a controlling, aggressive alpha-male. Flynn provides boys with a much-needed boost away from a traditional macho man model of masculinity.
This trend of non-traditional male characters/love interests for Disney princesses has continued in one of Disney’s most recent films, Frozen (Buck & Lee, 2013). In this film, Kristoff plays the love interest to princess Anna. He challenges her ideas without demeaning her and is fully comfortable following her lead. Kristoff tells boys that strong women are attractive and interesting and worthy of love. He signals that women can be strong leaders, and that men need not be threatened by following independent women.
We often talk about the progression of female characters, of Disney princesses, without acknowledging the progression of male characters, princes, and love interests. It is important to recognize that love interests in Disney films teach boys what kind of men they are supposed to be and teach girls what kind of men are desirable as friends and partners. The change in gender representations for male characters in Disney films represents an important diversification of what a man can and should be.
Buck, C., & Lee, J. (Directors). (2013). Frozen [Motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney Studios.
Cottrell, W., Hand, D., Jackson, W., Morey, L., Pearce, P., & Sharpsteen, B. (Directors). (1937). Snow white and the seven dwarfs [Motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney Studios.
Geronimi, C., Jackson, W., Luske, H. (Directors). (1950). Cinderella [Motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney Studios.
Gilliam, K., & Wooden, S. R. (2008). Post-princess models of gender: The new man in Disney/Pixar. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 36(1), 2-8.
Greno, N., & Howard, B. (Directors). (2010). Tangled [Motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney Studios.
Lee, L. (2008). Understanding gender through Disney’s marriages: A study of young Korean immigrant girls. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(1), 11-18.
Miller, R. S., & Perlman, D. (2009). Intimate relationships (5th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.