YA Books · YA Films/TV/Books

The Portrayal of Female vs. Male Protagonists in Disney Films

In the course of Disney films, there has been a clear contrast between goals and actions of both female and male protagonists. Snow White (1937) was the first Disney princess, she is the main character of her story, but can she really be considered a heroine? She may tidy the dwarves’ home and sing with animals but aside from that, the hero of the day is the Prince who comes to save her by kissing her lips. Snow White is a very passive character. Of course, Snow White (Disney) was an adaptation of a German fairy tale, so we can’t place the entire blame on Disney – it’s not their fault, that’s just how the story goes. However, when we start to look at other Disney adaptations in which females are the main characters: Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), there seems to be a relatively passive character underlying all of these protagonists.

In the story of Cinderella, all she wants is to get to the ball and instantly she falls in love with the prince from dancing with him, ONCE. Who saves her from the tyranny of her step-mother? The prince does, when her foot fits into the glass slipper. For Ariel, the princess of the sea, all she wanted was to be accepted and loved by human Prince Eric, and who saves her from the evil sea witch? The prince. And just one more time, when Aurora was sent into a sleeping coma, who saves her? The prince.

You get the picture. The helpless female protagonist who only cares about love, and waits around to be saved by her one true love feeds straight into the patriarchal society that has been around for a long time. Even in stories where the female has a more active role, her Heroine’s journey is nothing compared to that of the Hero’s journey. Take Alice in Wonderland for example, even though she gets to go on an amazing adventure, her goal ultimately is to return home. The Hero’s journey however, involves defeating the villain and saving the world.

If we now take a look at the Disney adaptations or productions with male protagonists, we’ll see that the character’s goals and actions are in stark contrast to early Disney female productions. The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), Hercules (1997) – all examples of proactive heroes who weren’t waiting around to be saved. They were the ones that defeated the villain, and for Hercules, getting the girl was a reward, not his sole aim. In fact during the Disney Renaisssance era (1989-1999) there was only one heroine who did otherwise, Mulan. Instead taking what could be seen as a stereotypically male role, she saved China and her relationship with Shang wasn’t a focus, for the first time in Disney history the romance for the female character didn’t take the centre stage.

Only recently have female characters in Disney started to fight for themselves. Merida from Brave rejects all romance, Frozen focuses on sisterly love instead of romance (and simultaneously criticises the love at first sight trope). Even Rapunzel had her own action in standing up to her villain whereas many of the earlier Disney princess were passive in this. In the Princess and the Frog (a Disney film often forgotten about), Tiana actively works hard, but in contrast to protagonists like Cinderellla, Tiana is working for herself to achieve her own dreams. While romance is the plot and the end game, it isn’t what Tiana spends the movie working towards. It’s important that instead of seeing a heroine pining over the Prince, we see one working for herself, and she learns that while she shouldn’t solely seek romance it’s still something she deserves.Rapunzel seeks seeing the world, not spending her time with Flynn. 

Historically there is a huge divide between male and female protagonists in Disney. With the males acting as a saviour and the females as the Princess waiting to be rescued. However in the earlier days of Disney they were a closer (but happier/ more child friendly) adaptation of their fairytale counterparts. Since then, they have diverted strongly, with a prominent villain and a more active role for the heroine. Not only do they focus on the romance, but family is an important focus. Tangled features Rapunzel struggling with the psychological abuse that Mother Gothel inflicts, something she doesn’t need someone to save her from but something she has to stand-up to herself. Enchanted shows a reversal, while Giselle starts off as the typical Disney Princess, complete with love at first sight and evil stepmothers, her entering our world causes her to question everything she’s known. Whether you should get to know someone before you fall in love and whether the Princess should be the one to saves the Prince instead. When we compare all Disney films across time we can easily see the inherent sexism, but when we look at those from the modern era, after the revival, we see things in a different light. Disney films are a representation of their times as much as anything else, so it’s no surprise that it wasn’t until the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999) that heroines started to be more than just damsels in distress. The Little Mermaid wanted to explore the human world and rebelled against her father’s wishes, love came with her choices; similarly Belle was very headstrong, while admired for her beauty she kept her focus on books and rejected the advances of a man who was seen as the most attractive man in town.

Ultimately, there has been progress in breaking away from sexism and stereotypes, and we hope to see this progress continue – providing interesting roles for all genders, creating inspiring and exciting stories for all to love.


– Elizabeth & Nadia


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