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Growing Up With Disney and Marvel: Feminism in popular film

By @Phoenix4157

Feminism in Disney and Marvel

During childhood, we acquire knowledge from what we hear and see. We learn from watching our parents as models to follow and from the movies we watch when kids. Girls usually look at the female side (like mother figures, grandma, nana, etc.), while boys do the same with the male role models. That’s why it’s no surprise that most girls grew up with Disney princesses as role models while boys watched superheroes. Watching Disney’s princesses (especially the classics), girls were taught to be submissive and docile because that’s how the characters were portrayed. All they had to do was “sit still, look pretty” (song by Daya) until the prince came to the rescue, and married her. They were expected to be good wives who tend to the king’s/princes needs. Boys were taught they had to be strong, both physically and emotionally, because that’s what society sees in a man. Movies such as Marvel films develop the idea of men being powerful, combative, and aggressive. They were the machos in control. They saved the world and the “damsel in distress”. 

The problem with Disney’s portrayal of women in the classic movies is that they are unrealistic and do not show girls how to be strong individuals. They do not have a say in their future. They don’t fight for adversity or for what they want as independent girls. 

Disney’s princesses according to McKenzie Barber (Indian State University), can be divided into three eras. This helps to better understand the evolution of feminism in films such as these. These three eras include:

The Domestic Era: In this era, we can find the classic princesses. Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. They are submissive and conventional. Meaning they are not fully developed individuals since their dream is to marry a prince.

The Renaissance Era: This era features princesses like Ariel, Mulan, Pocahontas and Rapunzel. They are rather rebellious and follow their dreams. Yet are still looked down upon by their authoritative figures. It is worth mentioning that only at this point had there begun racial diversity in the movies. This first started with Aladdin (1992), the first princess of color.

The New Era: This new era was the most improved. It has Brave and Frozen. They represent a free-spirited generation. Were they have strong individuality and portray strong women. They also bring the theme of love and define it in other ways. Meaning the love was not only towards men. They give meaning to mother/daughter relationships and true love in sisterhood.

These eras are good ways to show how feminism in Disney has evolved for the better. But of course, it’s not perfect. The princesses are portrayed with unrealistic features. Long neck, tiny waists, small wrists, and usually white flawless skin. Growing up watching them be so “perfect” makes girls feel bad about themselves and girls in minorities feel like they can’t be princesses because of their skin color. But they have tried to change over time.

Marvel is behind in women’s representation. Boys watch superheroes who represent powerful men. There is minimal to almost no interaction with women because in the end, what matters in the movie is who is the most powerful. There is a test called the Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel presenting the little representation of women in film. It started as a joke, but the underrepresentation has come to an extent where they started taking it seriously. The test only requires three basic steps in a film; at least two named women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. It’s crazy how most movies can’t even pass this test. The test is not a measure of how good or ‘feminist’ a film is but it highlights just how male-dominated cinema is. It may not be the most accurate way of measurement, but the idea is to bring out the fact that women are not represented the way they should be. They are underrated and are not shown as powerful figures.

 But can’t they teach girls that they are strong too? MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) started in 2008 with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. These are popular figures that depict very strong men. It was not until 20 movies and 11 years later that Marvel finally released Captain Marvel (2019). She was the first MCU superheroine with her movie, finally depicting a woman whose role did not depend on a man’s. Since then, WandaVision, Black Panther (2017), and Black Widow (2021) have shown empowering female characters. But it is still not enough, and it is sad to see how long it took Marvel to make such movies.

Both franchises have to work on their sexist views and have to bring out feminism. Feminism is a movement for all, and its goal is to end sexism. How is it going to end if it is everywhere? It’s in movies, shows, and even music. It does not mean we should stop watching these movies. It just means we have to be aware of the situation and create conscience so that we don’t follow the sexist mindset. I hope that Marvel and Disney both improve their representation of women, so that young generations of girls can feel strong and empowered, and that doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful and unique princesses.

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