Choice Feminism and Imagination: the representation of women in Disney – Beth O’Brien

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The concept of choice feminism operates under the principle that any decision made by a woman has the potential to be a feminist choice, so long as it was made with political consciousness.[1] However, the political and social theorist, Steven Lukes, argues that an individual’s actions are guided by what they can imagine to be possible.[2] This essay will begin by critiquing the concept of choice feminism, arguing that the decisions made available to women derive from a patriarchal context. Having outlined the critical framework and criticism of choice feminism, this essay will turn to examine the representations of women in the Walt Disney franchise that are hailed as feminist. In a journal on the study of education, teaching academics Joyce Olewiski Inman and Kelli Sellers highlight how Disney “not only creates stories but also edits children’s own life experiences, their personal narratives”.[3] Thus, predominantly focusing on Frozen and The Little Mermaid, I will discuss how female morality is bound up in appearance in a way that male morality is not. Representations streamline what choices are available for women to make, for the mainstream media implicitly codifies the consequence of transgressing such limits.

Choice feminism has been has been critiqued for its lack of political engagement and accountability as this “one-dimensional feminism” can abstain from any debate and criticism on the basis of individuality.[4] Moreover, there is no clear way to define what constitutes a politically conscious choice, nor what depth of thought is required for this to be attained. The feminist theorist, Ankica Čakardić, highlights the link between the rise of neoliberalism alongside choice feminism. She suggests that the neoliberal emphasis on individualism distracts from systemic oppression when she emphasises the need “to remember that in the capitalist mode of production one’s personal freedom often comes at the expense of another’s”.[5] Here, she indicates that individual freedom to the detriment of others is not an adequate justification for rendering any act as a feminist one. Nina Power confirms this danger by stating that if feminism is defined by the individual, “then what’s to stop it being pure egotism, pure naked greed?”[6] Rachel Thwaits, Nina Power, and Anikca Čakardić  all emphasise the fact that decision making takes place within the context of a given society and that society’s norms and values will inevitably influence an individuals’ choice – whether consciously or not. Power suggests that feminism cannot be merely a matter of choice for such rhetoric means that the “political imagination of contemporary feminism is at a standstill”. [7] The emphasis on political imagination is crucial to this essay, which will interrogate the relationship between choice and imagination.

Steven Lukes argues that an individual’s actions are guided by what they can imagine to be possible.[8] Thus, an individual is likely to make a decision based on what realistic options are available. Here, another failing of choice feminism comes to the fore, as the choices available to women, and people of all genders, may be heavily dependent on their social location.[9] The assumption that ‘feminism’ is universal and unifying is also complicated by the fact that there is no single definition of feminism. Rather, there are feminisms. Sarah Ahmed highlights that “Even if we are struggling for different things, even if we have different worlds we want to create, we might share what we come up against.”[10] Whilst the goals of different feminisms may differ, a unifying aim to escape the limits of patriarchal society may still stand. As the term feminism has come to encompass a wide range of definitions, the term patriarchy can be argued to have multiple meanings. For Ahmed, the patriarchal society is one that uses the figure of the feminist killjoy to shutdown an attempt to highlight sexism. She argues that women are blamed are diminishing the happiness of others “by exposing how happiness is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along.”[11] The emphasis on happiness to bound up with complicity, as Ahmed highlights that to appear happy in the face of sexism is a sign of oppression. Choice feminism, then, risks seeing a woman’s lifestyle as her choice, rather than acknowledging the choices she has to be limited by systemic oppression, such as sexism, racism, and ableism. This is not to say that the existence of different feminisms has a negative effect. Instead, it serves to reaffirm the importance that these differences act to affect change, rather than perpetuating the silencing of those who challenge sexism.  Audre Lorde argued that once the importance of difference is acknowledged and viewed as a source of strength, our capacity to envisage new ways of existing will increase. [12] Lorde places great emphasis on this difference galvanising change and progress. The focus is on action, creating and sustaining new challenges to the unjust system until such differences in feminisms are no longer hierarchically judged, but deemed equal. Lorde also highlights the ‘courage [..] to act in new ways’, reaffirming the idea that individuals find it easier to make their choices based on situations they can imagine, for this has the least amount of risk.[13]

What we can imagine is heavily influenced by the persistent, unconscious consumerism of varied representations of female choices .[14] The Walt Disney franchise has historically perpetuated stereotypical gender roles. For example, there has been a repeated reliance on the “damsel in distress” trope, which presents women as the weaker sex, without agency, simply waiting to be rescued by the figure of the “handsome prince”. However, more recent films have been praised for their adoption of feminist values.[15] The Princess and the Frog (2010), Brave (2012), Frozen (2013, 2019), Maleficent (2014) and Moana (2016) feature female leads with a strong character and  pronounced agency. However, despite being heralded as some of Disney’s most feminist films, representations of women and the choices they have are still drawn along patriarchal lines and right and wrong behaviours for women. In particular, Disney shows a reliance on the binary distinction between good and evil. In her chapter entitled, “Learning to Live as a Disney Villain”, Jessica L. Kirker states:

As a young girl, I found that Disney movies provided me with a salient image of the woman I wanted to be: a thin, big-busted beauty, brushing my flowing hair while blinking my wide, dreamy eyes, and donning a glittery gown as I waited for my prince charming to sweep me off to my beautiful palace wedding and happily ever after.[16]

This account of the Disney woman is one that embodies beauty and passivity as qualities that are rewarded. It also emphasises that in her youth, Kirker viewed her aspiration to possess these qualities to be her choice. However, Kirker highlights that with “critical considerations of mainstream media agents such as Disney” came the realisation that her “critical, feminist, troublemaking self would squarely construct [her] as a villain”. Within the two character frameworks that Kirker compares, she highlights the interrelation between villainy and agency. It is both her ability to think critically, and willingness to behave in a way that contradicts the social norms that Disney itself instils that forms the distinction between the passive princess and the rebellious villain. In many ways, Kirker exemplifies the ideals of choice feminism, making a politically conscious decision that contradicts the patriarchal values she was raised on. However, by rejecting the princess aesthetic and claiming the flip side to be feminist, she suggests that those who do want to wait around to be swept off their feet are making a less feminist choice. This tension has become a point of criticism for choice feminism on the grounds that it cannot be a feminist act for a woman to choose to act in a way that minimises her agency and foregrounds the importance of male agency. Thwaits states that “not all decisions can be supported if they act to further inequality and the patriarchal status quo”.[18] Yet, even with the political consciousness that Kirker employs, she rejects one female trope (the Disney princess) by way of adopting another (the Disney villain), highlighting how our feminist choices derive from the options we believe are available.

Kirker’s notion of what kind of woman she wanted to be relied wholly on appearance. In a comparison of Disney female villains with their “good” counterparts, it becomes apparent that aesthetic difference is the dividing line between assertive ruler and supervillain. This not only codifies a notion of beauty but codifies beauty with goodness. Joyce Olewiski Inman and Killi M Sellers argues that ‘A corporate, mouse-eared lens shapes the way children understand significant moments of their lives and make sense of the world around them.’[19] As a child, Kirker had absorbed the beauty standards and life expectations of the Disney princess. Despite Frozen being one of Disney’s most feminist films the physical representation of Elsa and Anna do not vastly differ from Kirker’s description. Sara Leo draws attention to the dimensional differences in male and female Disney characters. She points to Anna’s hands being half the size of her romantic partner’s, while her eyes are double the size.[20] Moreover, Anna’s eye dimension is larger than her own wrist.[21] This highlights how Disney shows the difference between men and women through differing body sizes. Thus, not only are the women unattainably thin, but they also sport features which minimise them in comparison to men, forming a relationship between smallness, beauty and femininity.

The aesthetic associations with good and evil are further codified into Disney narratives when we compare the image of the princess, to that of the female villain. Sara Leo states that through the  “constant repetition of Princess and other images across their vast media landscape, Disney has the power to teach us how to have a body”.[22] In the making of Frozen – a retelling of The Snow Queen – Elsa’s character was originally storyboarded as the villain. This is in keeping with Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, which tells the story of the villainess Snow Queen who entraps a young boy with her enchantments until he is rescued by his childhood playmate, whose love and friendship thaws the Snow Queen’s spell and sets him free. The story reveals the power of friendship, and crucially, deviates from the damsel in distress trope, for the boy is saved by his female friend, Gerda. However, in the early development of Frozen, it was decided that Elsa would be cast as a protagonist, instead of the antagonist featured in The Snow Queen. The change in Elsa’s character led to a redesigning of her character’s appearance. The Business Insider featured early sketches of Elsa’s original, villain appearance – one with ‘light blue skin and short, spikey blue hair.’[23] The contrast to her long blonde hair, white skin, plus the replacing of a weasel coat with an elegant blue dress, is loaded with so many gendered expectations about what being a “good” woman means. An article on the same topic from The Telegraph led with the headline, “Frozen’s original ending revealed, and it isn’t pretty for Elsa”.[24] The collocation of good and beautiful in Disney is so inherent that, even in one of its most progressively feminist films, the notion that they can be only either ugly and evil, or beautiful and good is still demonstrated.

Frozen producer Peter Del Vecho revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that Elsa as “pure evil” did not work because “It wasn’t satisfying. We had no emotional connection to Elsa — we didn’t care about her because she had spent the whole movie being the villain. We weren’t drawn in. The characters weren’t relatable”.[25] Film blogger site Screen Rant commented that the change to Elsa’s character from villain to heroin marked a decision to go down “the girl power route”.[26] Within this description of the change, it is implied that Elsa could either embody good “girl power” or not. It was implausible for audiences to imagine she could be a villain and empathetic, despite other Disney films (such as Beauty and the Beast) presenting the redemption of a male character we are able to care about.

Sarah Ahmed highlights how female bodies deemed ‘wrong’ are debilitating. She writes:

The body “going the wrong way” is the one that is experienced as “in the way” of the will that is acquired as momentum. For some bodies’ mere persistence, “to continue steadfastly,” requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as insistence on going against the flow.[27]

Ahmed uses the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ distinction to show the conformity flows, whereas difference is met with resistance. Thwaits highlights that these distinctions of right and wrong come from external social pressures, as “Choices remain limited by the past, by resources, by the society in which a person lives, including the influences of the gender order and the ethical and moral standard of the day”.[28] Elsa’s villain body is “wrong” when her character arc is changed, yet what this does is reinforce the options of female appearance that the traditional Disney movies represent, as described by Kirker.

Contrastingly, the male villain in Frozen, Hans, is still physically depicted as the ‘handsome prince’ ideal. Likewise, the villain of Beauty and the Beast, Gaston, is an embodiment of heteronormative masculinity – white, tall, muscular, and handsome. Contrast this with female villains – Maleficent, Evil Queen and Ursula – whose features transgress the aesthetically coded notion of ‘good’ femininity.  The Little Mermaid’s Ursula is the starkest contradiction to Kirker’s description of a Disney woman. Sometimes referred to as the sea-witch, Ursula is a powerful, ambitious, pragmatic, plus sized woman, confident in her body and her own femininity. Her grey hair, purple skin and red lipstick sets her apart from the other women in the film – all of whom are young, white and skinny. In Charley Barnes’ article “On Feminist Icons: Let’s Start With Disney’s Ursula”, Barnes unpacks the multifaceted character of Ursula, citing her body confidence, entrepreneurship, talent, and understanding of patriarchal constructs as exemplifying her status as a feminist icon.[29]

In many ways, the character of Ursula can be seen to embody the figure of the feminist killjoy that Ahmed describes. The figure is one deemed immediately threatening;  in not reflecting the “right” image back at the world, “You become the cause of a distortion”.[30] Ahmed writes, “We can consider the relationship between the negativity of the figure of the feminist killjoy and how certain bodies are “encountered” as being negative”.[31] Ursula’s body already sets her apart from the rest of the cast, yet her understanding of the patriarchal world she inhabits highlights her obstinance to resist the “right body narrative” unless it is for her own personal gain, rather than for male approval. In Ursula’s song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” she sings:

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
Yes on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
[..]
It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man[32]

Her awareness of patriarchal beauty standards and societal expectations of women allow Ursula to embark on a plan to gain control of the seas before she endeavours to control the kingdom on land through affecting a heteronormative marriage to Prince Eric.

Ursula’s evil plan can be directly compared to that of Frozen’s Prince Hans, who plans to “stage a little accident for Elsa” and thereby marry his way onto the throne through Princess Anna. While Hans gets punched in the face and sent back home, Ursula – the great sea witch – is jabbed in the stomach by the broken mast of the ship, steered by Eric, and meets her death. The only plus-sized mermaid getting stabbed in her stomach highlights her body as the site of transgression. Despite Ursula’s and Hans’ similar crimes, their punishments are not remotely proportionate to each other’s. One difference in their villainy is that Hans’ appearance adheres to the Prince Charming trope, rather than that of the Disney villain. This is not to say that all male Disney villains look like the stereotypical Prince Charming, nor do I ignore that Hans’ evil streak would not be considered a plot twist if he were more obviously cast as a villain. Yet, when Ursula is attempting to marry Prince Eric, she transforms herself into a young, skinny, white woman. Thus, the issue is Hans’ ability, within one body, to depict both good and evil, for this is a choice Disney denies to Elsa and Ursula.

In conclusion, choice feminism is flawed in the way it validates any decision made by a woman, even if it is one that allows for the perpetuation of patriarchal norms. Moreover, the range of feminist choices available are highly dependent on what one can imagine to be possible. Disney films are just one strand of the mainstream media that influences how many interpret the world, yet it is one that has historically adhered to strict gendered roles of male and female, and good and evil. By interrogating these categorisations and their associated aesthetic attributions, this essay has demonstrated how these representations can limit the options women believe they can have. For Kirker, if she could not be a beautiful princess, then she’d have to be a troublesome villain. Either way, Kirker still based her choice around the representations of the two types of women Disney allowed her to be, thereby exemplifying the importance of feminist choices take the individual beyond the limited choices the media presents.

Beth O’Brien is an English Literature student at the University of Birmingham. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Light Perception, was published by Wild Pressed Books in November 2019. She is the Editor of Mad Hatter Reviews, a site that reviews books, e-books, theatre, music, and even the odd podcast. She is also a reviewer for Riggwelter, and has quite happily picked up a range of jobs that require her to write, whether that be travel articles, student blogs, or website content. She has had her poetry (and the odd short story) published in Foxglove JournalNine Muses PoetryDear ReaderMused – the BellaOnline Literary ReviewEunoia ReviewPulp Poets Press, Peculiars Press, Picaroon Poetry, and Bonnie’s Crew.

Notes

[1] Rachel Thwaites, ‘Making a Choice Or Taking a Stand? Choice Feminism, Political Engagement and the Contemporary Feminist Movement’, Feminist Theory, 18 (2017), 55-68, p.55. <https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700116683657>, [accessed 19th December 2019].

[2] Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View, (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 113.

[3]  Joyce Olewiski Inman and Killi M Sellers, ‘The Disney Princess Dilemma: Constructing, Composing and Combatting Gendered Narratives’ Counterpoints 477 (2016): 39-50, p.40, <www.jstor.org/stable/45157185>, [accessed 29th December 2019].

[4] Nina Power, The One Dimensional Woman, (Winchester, 0 Books, 2009)

[5]  Ankica Čakardić, ‘Down the Neoliberal Path: The Rise of Free Choice Feminism’, AM Journal of Art and Media Studies, 14 (2017) 33-44. p..34, < doi: 10.25038/am.v0i14.215>, [Accessed 4th January 2020].

[6] Power, p. 35.

[7] Power, p. 69.

[8] Lukes, p. 113.

[9] Patricia Hill Collins and Valerie Chepp, ‘Intersectionality’, The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013).

[10] Sara Ahmed, ‘Feminist Killjoys and Other Wilful Subjects’, S & F Online, 8: 3 (2010), par 10, <http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm (>, [accessed, 15th December 2019].

[11] Ahmed, par 4.

[12] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” (1984). in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007).

[13] Lorde, “The Master’s Tools”..

[14] Inman and Sellers, p.39.

[15] Sean Randall, ‘Feminisney: When Disney Meets Feminism’, Huffington Post, (2017), < https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-randall/feminisney-when-disney-me_b_10634040.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004 via @HuffPostEnt, [accessed 4th January 2019].

[16] Jessica L. Kirker, ‘CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Learning to Live as a Disney Villain’, Counterpoints, 477 (2016), 207-218, p.207, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/45157197> [accessed 18th December 2019].

[17] Kirker, p.207.

[18] Thwaits, p.56.

[19] Inman and Sellers, p.39.

[20] Sara Leo, ‘Online Fan Activism and the Disruption of Disney’s Problematic Body Pedagogies’, Counterpoints, 477 (2016), 193-205, p.200, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/45157196>, [accessed 30th December 2019].

[21] Leo, p.200.

[22] Leo, p.195.

[23] Kirsten Acuna, ‘One Huge Change In The ‘Frozen’ Storyline Helped Make It A Billion-Dollar Movie’, Business Insider, (2014) par 6, <https://www.businessinsider.com/frozen-elsa-originally-villain-2014-9?r=US&IR=T>, [accessed 2nd January 2020].

[24] Alice Vincent, Frozen’s original ending revealed, and it isn’t pretty for Else’, The Telegraph, (2017) <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/news/frozens-original-ending-revealed-isnt-pretty-elsa/>, [accessed 2nd January 2020].

[25] Peter Del Vecho quoted by James Hibberd in ‘Frozen original ending revealed for the first time’, Entertainment Weekly, (2017), par 6,  < https://ew.com/movies/2017/03/29/frozen-original-ending/>, [accessed 2nd January 2020].

[26] Screen Rant, ‘10 Disney Characters That Were Supposed To Look Totally Different’, YouTube, (2019), 00:01:13, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWVyRBzyRDo&feature=emb_title>, [accessed 3rd January 2020].

[27] Ahmed, par.28.

[28] Thwaites, p.63.

[29] Charley Barnes, ‘On Feminist Icons; Let’s Start With Disney’s Ursula’, Mookychick, (2019), https://www.mookychick.co.uk/opinion/creative-non-fiction/on-feminist-icons-lets-start-with-disneys-ursula.php [accessed 2nd January 2020].

[30] Ahmed, par.4.

[31] Ahmed, par.13.

[32] The Little Mermaid, Dir Ron Clements. Pat Carroll, Disney, (1989).

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