It’s been over a year since the family hit Frozen graced screens, although you wouldn’t know it considering how widespread its popularity has become. The popularity isn’t all that mysterious once you break it down; it has some seriously catchy tunes, and seems to be the flag-bearing standard for what Disney’s current line up is trying to accomplish, namely, producing stories about feisty, tougher princesses who don’t necessarily need a man (though that might be nice); stories about the relationships between women in all of their complexities.
But there’s a gaping hole in these newer films that will likely not be addressed in coming attractions. Can you guess what it is?
Where are all the periphery female characters in Tangled, Frozen, and Brave?
Look, we’ve got two main female characters in Tangled (Rapunzel and Mother Gothel), Brave (Merida and Elinor), and Frozen (Elsa and Anna). Tangled features brief, silent, and grave moments from Rapunzel’s true mother, and all of these films show the occasional peasant woman or palace worker. There are female rock trolls that look exactly like male rock trolls in Frozen, and the whole group basically function as a chorus anyhow. There’s a short cameo by a witch in Brave. And outside of these fleeting examples, every single character of note is male. All of them. Literally.
And yes, this is a problem in practically every movie we watch. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy round out their casts with the likes of Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly, parts that could just as easily have been played by women. (And before you mention Glenn Close and Karen Gillan, I feel the pressing need to point out that in the main heroic crew we have a 4-to-1 male to female ratio, so no, they’re not enough to even the playing field.) Even movies like Pacific Rim, which make more of an effort than usual to display racial diversity, still wind up with casts full of dudes. In dramas you might fair slightly better, but in comedies you generally don’t—unless they’re being directed by Paul Feig.
So the problem is chronic, but it’s more painful to see this trend in films that are targeted specifically at young girls. Or at least, ostensibly targeted that way. And perhaps that’s the real problem—that Disney doesn’t really care about films that cater to women unless they are still guaranteed a male audience. Disney, with their infamous line of princesses, an entertainment empire where girls are supposed to belong (provided that they’re thin and able-bodied and straight and primarily white, of course). Disney, with their new breed of princess films, ones that deconstruct earlier problem tropes from their vault, encouraging girls not to see True Love™ with a Handsome Prince™ as the primary goal of their lives. Movies that make it clear that falling in love takes more than a day—it can sometimes take a whole week! Movies that prove that the love you have for your family can sometimes hurt you… or it can save you when you are hurting.
This new era of films, represented by these three movies, are meant to bring young girls up with new ideas about what constitutes a fairy tale. But are they really doing the job when even the most basic concepts of equality—like having a truly gender-balanced cast of characters—remain undepicted?
Both Tangled and Brave had different titles (Rapunzel and The Bear and the Bow) when their production began. In the case of Tangled, Disney made it clear that the name change was due to the fact that the film wasn’t just about a princess—it was about both Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder as a duo. They felt that calling the story by the princess’s name when she wasn’t the sole central figure was misleading. (For some reason?) When The Bear and the Bow was changed to Brave, fans worried that perhaps a similar issue was at hand; while bears and bows are not considered “feminine” items, the original title sounded far more like a fairy tale, and perhaps Disney and Pixar were concerned that it wouldn’t sell to the usual Pixar audience—which we assume they believe includes a lot of little boys, judging from the change to Tangled‘s title.
So… how to counter these female leading ladies and make certain that boys will still find themselves represented into the tale? Surround them with bands of men, of course! When Rapunzel and Flynn leave her tower, they wind up at a tavern filed with a variety of surly guys who want to turn Flynn over to the crown and collect the reward on his head. Rapunzel sings them a song about following your dreams, and the haggard crew reveal that they all have softer sides. Later, they come to Flynn’s rescue so he can run back to his lady love. And the two accomplices to Flynn’s recent crime, stealing the lost princess’s tiara? Two burly twin brothers.
In Brave, Merida has a literal band of brothers, plus a few kingdom’s worth of kings and their sons who have all arrived to offer her suitors. None of these men has brought along a sister or a mother who Merida or Queen Elinor might have a chat with. Instead, they fight amongst themselves throughout the majority of the film. And just when it seems that Merida and her mother (who is now a bear) might go off together and have a real adventure that leads to some heartfelt understanding, they are required to rush back to the castle—inadvertently checking in on all the menfolk and their shenanigans. Oh, and the evil attack-bear who makes up the plot’s main antagonist is also a guy. I guess they were worried that boys would get bored watching a movie about a mom and daughter getting to have some fun for a change?
For Frozen’s count, practically every advisor and guest who speaks during Elsa’s festivities is male. I’d barely count the trolls as having genders since, outside of the grandfather, they register largely as a single unit. And while it’s nice that Disney seems to have slipped in their first (secret) onscreen gay couple in the form of the shopkeeper Oaken and his husband and four kids, they’re still two more guys. The soldiers are men, the guards are men, Olaf is male-seeming (if snowmen really have gender as we account for it), even the FREAKING REINDEER IS A GUY. (So is Rapunzel’s chameleon buddy Pascal in Tangled, since we’re keeping track.) In fact, I could go into a whole side rant about how every prominent animal sidekick in a Disney film is a dude for some reason. Let’s try and find one who isn’t—I guess Cleo from Pinocchio? Pretty sure that’s it.
It’s difficult to satisfactorily explain the gender imbalance when these three movies all take place in magical made-up kingdoms. Even Brave, which went a little farther down the road of historical accuracy, could have handled this imbalance differently. For example, what if Merida had triplet sisters? They would have been young enough to keep out of the fight between their older sis and Queen Elinor, but it also would have meant that the people Merida felt closest to in her family weren’t all male. She could have had a strong relationship with her young sisters, which actually would have helped to soothe the entirely gendered aspects of the argument she and her mother are having throughout the film. What Queen Elinor really wants is for Merida to accept some responsibility in her life—but when the entire fight gets codified using terms like “ladylike” and “graceful,” Elinor seems like a parent who is disappointed at her daughter for not fitting into the stereotypical gender boxes. It weakens the whole narrative.
Why Olaf or Sven couldn’t have been female is beyond me, where Frozen is concerned. At the very least, some of the dignitaries who stay behind with Prince Hans once Elsa runs away could have been ladies. And in a kingdom like Arendelle—where none of the subjects seem to balk even slightly at the idea of accepting a female monarch without a husband—it would have been equally compelling to see some women in their army. Both Elsa and Anna are forces to be reckoned with; we should know that the rest of the women in their kingdom are too. Otherwise the message boils down to princesses are special! Only princesses. So you better want to be a princess.
For Tangled’s part, it would have been pretty adorable if Pascal—or Maximus the war horse!—had been lady animals. Or even better, that band of gruff ruffians at the tavern? Women. Just, the whole lot of them. Why not? Or if Flynn had been pulling his heist with twin sisters. And I’m sure someone is saying “But if they were ladies, he would have flirted with them!” But you know, he could have just… not. He doesn’t have to be interested in every age-appropriate female with a pulse just because he’s a scamp.
All three of these films feature specific and wonderfully complicated relationships between women. From the misunderstandings and mutual hurt between Merida and Elinor to the emotional manipulation and continual backhanding that Mother Gothel inflicts on Rapunzel to the deep abiding bond and need that exists between Anna and Elsa—these are all relationships that we should find on screen. Not just for young girls, for all children. But when you omit other women from these worlds, you rob the entire story of its credibility. Other stories have reason built in; Mulan goes off to war to fight in place of her father, so she was never going to be training amidst an army of women. In Mulan, the reason for making that critical choice is a logical one that is explained within the context of the narrative. But Tangled, Brave, and Frozen have no narrative reasons for the absence of women. What’s Arendelle’s excuse?
It is wonderful to put the focus on interpersonal relationships between women, but every single one of these examples is a familial one. Mothers and daughters and sisters. Without the presence of periphery characters, the films prevent young girls from gleaning a true sense of familiarity and never challenge lame stereotypes. Girls are friends with other girls. Girls and boys form strong friendships and bonds as well. Women can be found in taverns (doing something other than serving the ale) and armies and political spheres and heists. Women are everywhere. And they matter, even when they’re not royalty.
Is it telling that the few Disney princess films that do feature periphery female relationships also contain protagonists of color? Remember Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma? Remember Lottie trying to help Tiana get the money she needed to open her restaurant? Multiple examples in a single work are still hard to come by, but these characters are not difficult to conceive of. If the new generation of animated Disney films are attempting to do better, they cannot afford to shy away from a more realistic balance in their narratives. They should know that two female central characters who only speak to men when they are not speaking to each other are not good enough.
Disney may be attempting to restructure its mythos but until they get over the really meaningful hurdles these movies will always feel a tad disingenuous. If they want to bring their princess line into the modern world, they can do better and more. They have enough money and power to burn on getting it right. Until then, it’s the same old story—with a slightly more conscientious sheen.
Emily Asher-Perrin had a fit as an adult when she realized that Jasmine’s tiger, Rajah, was not a girl. She’s still mad about it, really. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr. Read more of her work here and elsewhere.