04 September 2012

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 3

The characterization of witches, faeries, wicked stepmothers, and other negative roles for women play into all forms of commercially available art, especially film. Disney’s animated films could warrant a paper on misogynistic imagery in and of itself. For example, many of the Disney villains are actually villainesses. Lady Tremaine from Cinderella[1] is the ultimate evil stepmother: self-centered, tyrannical, power hungry, and a backstabber to boot. The Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs[2] is willing to have her stepdaughter murdered to feed her own ego. The tale combines imagery of witchcraft (the magic mirror on the wall) with allusions to women’s desire for preening and narcissism. Half-woman, half-octopus Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid[3] is a combination of similar misogynist stereotypes from tales of witchcraft and Biblical stories. Ursula is an evil sorceress who is arguably the least attractive of the villainesses, being half-octopus, overweight, and with a stereotypical lesbian short haircut and a big mole on her face. Her two cohorts are eels, or water serpents, mimicking the serpent of the Genesis myth. Cruella De Vil is a villainess so evil, she kills puppies. Like Ursula, she has short, grey (or white) hair, and has decidedly inhuman features. Cruella’s face is more demonic, or even witch-like, and her demeanor is quite psychotic. Like Lady Tremaine, Cruella’s only concern is for wealth and status, without concern for who gets hurt along the way[4]. The typical association of selfishness without regard to female characters is yet again linked to the tale of Eve’s selfishness in Genesis.

Perhaps the villainess who portrays evil in the most magnificent way is the stunning Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty[5]. She embodies the attributes of the aforementioned desperadas, while throwing in a few accoutrements at no extra cost. Maleficent damns a baby to exile and death, practices sorcery, and eventually turns into a giant serpent-like dragon in an attempt to distinguish the fair prince. She is drawn with typical Christian imagery influenced features normally associated with Lucifer (who is often considered to be the serpent of the Genesis myth, though there is no real link between the two in the original text), as she is tall, thin, and beautiful with horns and seen as leading little goblin-like demons. Revelation 12:9 describes both Satan as a dragon and the presence of his angels: “The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan… and his angels were thrown down with him.[6]” If the visuals were not enough, Maleficent even summons upon “all the powers of hell.” She immeasurably reflects the traditional Christian view of both Satan and the woman as an evil entity. In all cases mentioned, these womanly villains are obsessed with wickedness and their psychotic personas are reflected not only in their actions, but in their appearances as well.

The measure of a female character’s evilness is not the end of the measure of a film’s misogyny factor, however. The relatively recent saturation of “chick flicks” has solidified the American female stereotype of a dimwitted, appearance- and shoe-obsessed shopaholic. Female roles are so standardized in the Romantic Comedy genre, they might as well come with labels from major market brands or advertisement agencies, showing them to be exact replicas of each other, produced in bulk for the cinematic masses. Any given film starring the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock, or Matthew McConaughey, et al., is sure to have similar themes, similar visuals, similar dialogue, and similar characters: the sassy black friend; the self-absorbed blonde bimbo; the single, childless businesswoman; the sex-obsessed ethnic minority. By characterizing women in a way that says, “proper women must fit into these rigidly defined categories,” the film industry, and the “chick flick” subgenre in particular, are pulling out the stops, and spreading this misogyny thickly onto the female moviegoer, in a most ridiculous, non-romantically-comedic manner.

Returning to Disney’s animated classics, the positions of the central female characters, often princesses, though not evil, are very descriptive about gender roles and gender neutrality. Snow White and Cinderella, for example, are both women who work as slaves, but in two different capacities. Cinderella is quite literally a slave to her stepmother and stepsisters. She is treated not as a member of the family but instead as an insignificant worker bee who is unworthy to partake in their life of luxury, which is actually the result of her father’s fortune. Cinderella accepts her situation, but hopes that someday a prince will rescue her. Snow White, in a similar fashion, struggles with stepmother issues, only to a more serious extent. She, like Cinderella, accepts this fate, and in the meantime, takes over the household chores for a group of seven male strangers, while waiting around to be rescued from herself by a handsome and wealthy prince. Little girls grow up seeing these images of women, even as members of royalty, as slaves to household duties. And nearly all of the Disney classics enforce the notion that to live happily ever after, the woman needs to marry a man of wealth and status. A surprising converse would be the tale of Aladdin, wherein the wealthy princess, Jasmine, rejects the attempts of her father to have her marry into wealth, and instead falls in love with and marries a poor street kid [do not be mistaken, however, Aladdin is not without its faults. It may be one of the most racially controversial Disney films, as Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan are all seemingly white characters, not Arabic. The only dark skinned character is, of course, the evil character, Jafar][7].

The typical Disney princess, including both Cinderella and Snow White, as well as Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Belle (from Beauty and the Beast[8]), and Ariel (The Little Mermaid), have issues relating to their fathers. In some cases the father is dead or missing, and in others he is distant or easily disappointed. The only way for the princess to find genuine happiness is to find another man, similar to her father in status, to whisk her away to a magic life full of true love and animals with human traits. The princess will know true love as soon as Mr. Right arrives – there is no need to bother with dating, introductions to friends and family, and definitely no reason to ask any “get-to-know-you” questions. It is important for the princess to not waste any time with formalities, because she could end up single – then who would save her from herself when she begins her immoral metamorphosis into pure sin?
[1] Cinderella, dir. Clyde Geronimi, et al., perf. Ilene Woods, VHS, Disney, 1950.
[2] Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, writ. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, perf. Adriana Caselotti, VHS, Disney, 1937.
[3] The Little Mermaid, dir. Ron Clement and John Musker, perf. Jodi Benson and Pat Carroll, VHS, Disney, 1989.
[4] 101 Dalmatians, dir. Clyde Geronimi, et al., perf. Betty Lou Gerson, VHS, Disney, 1961.
[5] Sleeping Beauty, dir. Clyde Geronimi, perf. Eleanor Audley and Mary Costa, VHS, Disney, 1959.
[6] HarperCollins. Revelation 12:9
[7] Aladdin, dir. Ron Clements and John Musker, perf. Scott Weinger and Robin Williams, DVD, Disney, 1992.
[8] Beauty and the Beast, dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, perf. Robby Benson and Paige O’Hara, VHS, Disney, 1991.