Classic Disney animations Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White might seem a little dated, but linguists have discovered that they were more forward thinking than some more modern movies…
American professors Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer have analysed all the dialogue from Disney’s back catalogue of princess movies to discover what the films are teaching young viewers about gender roles. Their goal was to use data to shed light on how the male and female characters in these films talk differently, but they started by counting how often the characters spoke and discovered something surprising.
The original trio of princess movies might have been criticised for their two-dimensional female characters but in the films women speak as much as, or more than the men – Snow White is about 50-50, Cinderella 60-40, and in Sleeping Beauty women deliver 71% of the dialogue. Yet films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan and Pocahontas, which were released in the late 1980s and 90s, see the princesses outspoken by men in their own movies.
Men get 68% of the dialogue in The Little Mermaid, 71% in Beauty and the Beast; 76% in Pocahontas and 77% in Mulan.
Some of Disney’s newer films are better at giving lines to men and women equally. Women have 52% of the lines in Tangled, while in Brave they had 74%. But international phenomenon Frozen, the highest grossing animated film of all time, breaks with that trend. Despite being a story about the relationship between two sister princesses which was praised for its feminist themes, men claim over half (59%) of the lines in that film.
It’s not all bad news, though. Fought and Eisenhauer also analysed compliments female characters received and found, unsurprisingly, the classic Disney princess films were focused primarily on looks (55%) with just 11% having to do with their skills or accomplishments. But that’s all changed.
In Disney’s most recent films – The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen – 40% percent of compliments directed at women involve their abilities or accomplishments, while only 22% involve physical appearances.
“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” says Fought. “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.”