Researcher Presents on Incompetency Elements of Disney Films

Jacob DeCarli '22, Managing Editor

Dr. Sophie Raynard presented her research on Disney princess movies made during the “Disney Renaissance Era,” and explained the sexism, racism and cultural incompetency elements often ignored by American audiences. 

Raynard is an associate professor in cultural studies and comparative literature at Stony Brook University. She specializes in early modern European fairytales and teaches classes related to her work. 

Disney princess films follow three distinct eras: 1939-1959, 1989-1999, and 2010 to present. Raynard discovered that Disney princesses (and other female characters) in movies from the first era spoke more than the princes and male character. These movies include Sleepy Beauty and Cinderella where the plot and dialogue centers around female characters. However, Raynard explained a shift during Disney’s Renaissance era from 1989-1999. During this time, female characters spoke between 20 and 40 percent of each movie while male characters dominated the dialogues. Raynard explained these issues in movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas. “The charming male sidekick…gets some of the best lines, why do they not get to be women?” said Raynard. 

A modern era of Disney princess films challenges traditional structures of the films. In addition to more dialogue given to female characters, Raynard said that conversations in the films revolve more around female characters’ accomplishments and talents rather than their physical appearances. “The creator of [the movie] Brave wanted to smash the stereotype of every Disney movie,” said Raynard. 

The lecture transitioned into Raynard’s case study analysis of The Little Mermaid and Mulan. She explained the construction of gender roles in the film and portrayals of women as either “damsels in distress” or “power-hungry.” Contrasts between the main protagonist, Ariel, and the main antagonist, Ursula, are based on stereotyped identities of women in Disney films. Raynard also explained the racial connotations of The Little Mermaid and other films. Disney designs villains, like Ursula or Scar in The Lion King, with darker skin complexions. Raynard said these elements of Disney films reinforce stereotypes of people of color as villainous. 

Raynard also discussed the role of ageism in Disney princess films. She used examples of older female characters Ursual who are portrayed as “evil” and “hideous.” Raynard attributed these stereotypes to second wave feminism in America, where a majority of issues focused on those of younger women. “We need to acknowledge the true beauty in older women…[and] avoid sexist views of aging,” she said. 

Raynard then discussed her case study analysis of Mulan and its cultural incompetence. Mulan is based off the famous ancient Chinese ballad, and Raynard explained Disney’s risk of producing a princess movie based off a culturally significant tale. She described the film as a “Westernization of a Chinese legend,” because of uses of stereotypical Chinese cultural elements. Raynard said Mulan is an example of “Disneyfication” that whitewashes and Westernizes stories of other cultures. 

Her work criticizes production of Disney princess films, but she said that she still appreciates the movies and believes they should not be censored. 

A question and answer session followed Raynard’s lecture, facilitated by Assistant Professor of French and Women’s, Geneder and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) Mireille Rebeiz.

There were approximately 70 students in attendance, many enrolled in WGSS courses. Emily Pineo ’23 said she enjoyed Raynard’s informational lecture. “It brought my attention to the cultural discrepancies in various movies, especially regarding Chinese culture depicted in Mulan,” she said. 

“What’s Wrong with Disney Princesses? A lecture with Dr. Sophie Raynard” took place on Thursday, March 4 at 5 p.m. in Althouse 106 and was co-sponsered by the departments of French & Francophone studies and WGSS.indispensable in our college, our nation and the world. We must all of us be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to do our part” said Ensign while describing the college closure measures, “I have every confidence that we will look back at this difficult time with pride in what we have done, how we have helped and how we have lived up to our ideals and principles.”