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After examining films like “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid,” linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer found female characters spoke less than their male counterparts in modern animated Disney princess films, as reported Monday by The Washington Post.
According to the study, women speak as much as or more than the men in Disney’s earliest princess films: “Snow White” (1937), “Cinderella” (1950) and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). In contrast, men speak 68 percent of the time in “The Little Mermaid” (1989), 71 percent of the time in “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), 90 percent of the time in “Aladdin” (1992), 76 percent of the time in “Pocahontas” (1995) and 77 percent of the time in “Mulan” (1998); despite the majority of those films having female lead characters.
This is due in part to the fact the newer films include more male characters. “There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought explained. “There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”
“My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm,” Eisenhauer added. “So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.”
Newer Disney princess films have made progress towards breaking that trend: The female characters in “Tangled” have 52 percent of the lines, while in Pixar’s “Brave” they had 74 percent. 2013 megahit “Frozen,” however, gave 59 percent of its lines to men.
On the other hand, while the earliest princess films gave women more lines, many of those lines were focused on looks. 55 percent of the compliments towards the protagonists praised her looks; only 11 percent praised skills, and the rest were for things like personality or possessions. In modern films, about 38 percent of the compliments given to the women in the modern films had to do with their looks, and 23 percent involved their abilities or deeds. In “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), “Tangled,” “Brave” and “Frozen,” an average of 40 percent of compliments directed at women involve abilities or accomplishments, while only 22 percent regard physical appearances. It’s also worth noting “Frozen” and “Brave” were both written and directed by teams including women.
“If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there’s so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and always it’s a feminist discourse in some way,” Eisenhauer said. “They want her to be powerful. But the discourse never, ever, seems to have gone beyond the princess.”
As to why this research is important, Fought said, “We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way. They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”