Volume IX, Number 2, Fall 2013

"The Representation of Women in Walt Disney's Productions in the Studio Era" by Emma Bálint

Emma Bálint is an MA student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Email:


In this essay I will discuss a number of the Walt Disney Productions’ animated cartoons made during the studio era between 1922 and 1948, especially in terms of their portrayal of female characters. I approach these cartoons intended for audiences of all ages mostly through the perspective of feminist film studies asserting that the central women characters are actually reinforced stereotypes, who fulfill petty roles. By examining the early development of the Disney women characters, I am going to shed light on the images that were and still are disturbing for the young audiences since they present less acceptable role models. For my analysis, I will use relevant cartoons with episodes from the Silly Symphonies series (1929-1939), which were the earliest notable venture of the Disney studio and will scrutinize four feature films produced during the above-mentioned period: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). None of these stories seem to be authentic representation of women; they rather depict issues of male domination and images of male heroism characteristic of the given period. As a result, even the strong women characters in the animations created by Disney during the studio era fall back into the category of the stereotyped ones with the figures accepting their passive, submissive roles, all nested in the heteronormative, male-dominated milieu of the era.

The Cinema Industry and the Studio Era

Walter Elias Disney had been engaged in the animated motion picture business for years before he opened the Disney Brothers Studio with his older brother, Roy Oliver Disney, on October 16, 1923 (Barrier 42). “[F]or a long time, Disney did not give credit to the artists and technicians who worked on his films,” even though he merely coordinated their work (Zipes 197); and in 1926, the studio’s name was changed to Walt Disney Productions, as a means to show officially as well that Disney alone was in charge (Barrier 50). Even though “[Disney] did not invent the medium, […] he defined it,” (Maltin 29) and thanks to him, the Disney productions have become one of the most influential products ever created in the animated realm. Along with the Hollywood dream factory, in times darkened by war and economic crisis, Disney soothed his audiences by presenting them a safe, enchanted place. Film, however, not only reflected “social changes,” but it also shaped “cultural attitudes” (Thornham 10). According to Jack Zipes, although Disney did not redeem the world, he actually managed through his films to fill a crucial role in the visual education of children and adults (193).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, fairy tales “reinforced the patriarchal symbolical order based on rigid notions of sexuality and gender” (Zipes 194); so did then all of Disney’s productions. This can be observed in the company’s earliest works, the so-called Newman Laugh-O-Grams, in which Disney simply adapted well-known fairy tales that he replaced into a modern setting. One of such fairy tales was Cinderella (1922), where a flapper princess paradoxically and passively waits for her Prince Charming. Since Disney’s primary goal was to sell his products, he needed to flatter not only children, but their parents, as well (Booker xxi), so he and his crew often chose to adapt the mainstream societal rules in their films. However, he also scattered his productions “with delightful images, humorous figures, and erotic signs” (Zipes 200) which helped him commercialize the final product. Ultimately, as Zipes wrote, Disney gave in completely to the social constraints, managing ‘to domesticate’ stories and fairy tales up to the point that they lost their subversive character (193). In other words, he invented and put into motion a commercial scheme that he and his successors could reuse in their cartoons for years to come.

Disney’s most innovative animated films were made between the 1930s and 1940s (Barrier X), during the golden age of film studios which was the zenith of the cinema industry (Cristian and Dragon 17). During this period the studio system was at its peak of development with eight film studios dominating the whole American motion picture industry, including the distributors of Disney’s cartoons as well (Belton 69). At this time, through the practice of vertical integration, studios controlled “the modes of production, distribution and exhibition” as well (Hayward 363). At the end of the 1940s, the financial difficulties and the Hollywood Antitrust Case (1948) put an end to the studio era (Belton 84). During the studio era another restrictive step was taken, the scope of which outlasted the studio system itself. The Production Code Administration (PCA), established in 1922, created the Motion Picture Production Code (Shurlock 140), which had a strict “list of ‘don’ts’ and ‘be carefuls’” concerning film productions and filmmakers alike (Cristian and Dragon 73). The Production Code, first drafted in 1930, represented moral principles and “ideals of the highest type” (Shurlock 141), which were brought into practice “with the aim to ban indecent and immoral films” (Cristian and Dragon 73), and thus ‘clean’ motion pictures from inappropriate contents. Accepted movies were issued the Seal of Approval upon their completion, which had to be exhibited in the film’s credit title (Shurlock 142-143). The provisions of the code bound the activity of all member studios, including the Walt Disney Productions. To comply with the moral rules of the PCA, during the making of Fantasia (1940), for example, Disney’s animators were asked to add brassieres to the originally half-naked centaurette figures in the sequence titled The Pastoral Symphony (Maltin 61). Sadly, as M. Keith Booker observed, “the makers of children’s films have all too often assumed that the innocence of their audiences will somehow protect them from any potentially harmful readings of the films;” and in many cases, Disney artists as well were ignorant to the fact that certain images may carry racist or sexist implications (30-32). Nevertheless, the restrictions of the PCA had a significant role in shaping all kinds of films, including the Disney animations.

Disney’s Educational and Propaganda Short Films

The Disney strike of 1941, which severely shattered the unity of the studio’s workforce (Barrier 170), was a light blow that hit the company ― compared to the mounting war which was in vogue that year in Europe and throughout the world. As a result, the European film markets had almost been “wiped out” (Barrier 176). Although Disney, at first, was not entirely keen on making educational and war-related technical movies, he could not afford to decline the requests (Barrier 189) that reached him because these types of films did not only allow Disney to show his patriotic support for the United States in the midst of a world-wide war, but were also a good source of income; they were created upon request and amply paid for, primarily by the U.S. and Canadian governments, but also by private companies (Griffin 30-31).

The primary aim of these educational and propaganda animations and live-action productions was to promote political issues; later, these were joined by shorts related to health and hygiene, too. Since these were all instructional films, they aimed to depict the then typical society, the nuclear family with its prescribed heteronormative roles: therefore, the women in the educational productions were primarily expected to learn how to clean the house ― as in Cleanliness Brings Health (1944) ―, how to cook for the family ― as in Planning for Good Eating (1945) ― and how to attend to their children ― as in The Story of Menstruation (1946). Cleanliness Brings Health and Planning for Good Eating are actual episodes of the Health for the Americas theatrical cartoon series, created upon request for The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. The shorts (among them How Disease Travels, The Unseen Enemy, Insects as Carriers of Disease, The Human Body, Infant Care, Tuberculosis, Hookworm, Environmental Sanitation) were intended primarily the for audiences of South America with the aim of teaching them the North American standard of living (Griffin 35). The drawings of these cartoons are not elaborate, but they are illustrative, so that even those who do not speak English may get the message Disney is communicating. A negative attitude towards the natives’ traditions pervades many shorts, for instance by the use of foreigner language. In Cleanliness Brings Health, the Clean family is compared to the Careless family, while in Planning for Good Eating, the Careless family is instructed how to live a better life. In both cases the Clean family is happy, healthy, and lives in a colorful, nice home, while the Careless family is sick, sad, and lives in poor conditions. The Clean mother in Planning for Good Eating wears make-up, ear-rings, a shirt with a big cleavage, and even her hair bun is tighter, as opposed to her poorly dressed, malnourished counterpart in the Careless family; moreover, the Clean mother in Cleanliness Brings Health keeps the food clean, often sweeps the house, bathes her son, and washes clothes with soap, indicating that these are the activities a South American mother should spend her days with, too. However, the comparison is unjust in both cases, because in the former the financial stability and economic prosperity allows the Clean family to eat healthily, while the meager backgrounds of the Carelesses show an obvious poverty that does not allow such daily luxuries. What is more, the Clean women in both animations are virtually degraded to the level of a cook or a maid, a domestic stereotype serving “to reinforce and/or create the prejudices of their male audiences, and to damage the self-perceptions and limit the social aspirations of women” (Thornham 10).

Additionally, The Story of Menstruation, tackles a taboo topic that has not really been present on screen before. The short was made for a private company, the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, who produced women’s hygiene products. Being an educational animation, it contravenes some of the rules of the Production Code, which prohibit the portrayal of sexual contents, including “sex hygiene.” In the context of the moral atmosphere of the time, this cartoon is a symptom of Disney’s unwillingness to openly claim certain productions; on purpose, he omits the name of the director and even of the animators from the title scene or from publicly available sources. Moreover, the subject in the short is explained in a sterile and mystifying manner: the flow of menstruation itself is visually tabooed (turns completely white), while impregnation is vaguely described as a tautology of “which happens when a woman is going to have a child.” The Story of Menstruation is most likely the first occasion when the word ‘vagina’ was used on screen; yet, the female sex organ itself is misrepresented (a long white tube without an end) so it appears more of a fiction itself. During the first half of the movie, there is a lot of attention paid to differences between the looks of women; but in the second half, hastily drawn female characters with oversized heads, curvy figures, lots of make-up, and with virtually no feet demonstrate how young girls can survive ‘that’ specific time of the month. These women, who look very much alike, shower, ride a horse and bicycle without feet, and even lift a couch while doing housework, all demonstrating that girls can do whatever they want (or, what was expected of them to do generally) during their period. By masquerading the women characters in an overtly sexualized femininity, the short loses track of its original purpose: sex instruction for young girls. Moreover, women are simply defined as reproductive objects. The anonymous narrator (female voice) plainly concludes, that “there’s nothing strange, nor mysterious about menstruation,” yet she makes no reference to sexual activities in her didactic monologue, even when describing the process of conception. This short is among the first of Disney’s implications into a utopian, fairytale-like life, suggesting that from the stage of a babies, girls grow into toddlers (naturally, dressed in pink from head to toe), then directly into young women smartly experiencing menstruation, only to then get married, and have similar daughters of their own, who will then take their place in an endless stereotyped cycle.

Between 1942 and 1945, when the U.S. was involved in the Second World War, the Disney studio was involved in making a number of short and feature-length war propaganda films. Such were Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi (1943) and Reason and Emotion (1943), both produced in 1943, in the same year with the notorious Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943). Interestingly, the first two cartoons were immediately approved by the PCA, despite their problematic portrayal of women and other nations. During these years, the war propaganda prevailed over the strict rules of the PCA, which prescribed that “[t]he history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.” Education for Death, in this context, is unsurprisingly openly offensive to Germans. In its narrative, Sleeping Beauty seduces her Prince Charming (aka Hitler) by showing him her breasts, proving that sexuality can be openly exhibited on screen if it is designed for the right purpose. Reason and Emotion is on the human mind, consisting of constantly warring representations of reason and emotion, works, and on how the German nation could be hypnotized and controlled by Hitler.

As the educational and propaganda films above show, the discussion of Disney’s representation of gender cannot be separated from the issues of race, class, and nation; even though most feminist film theories tend to overlook the latter two, and put all emphasis only on issues of gender (Doane 9). In the context of the studio era, which was also defined by an increased national sentiment, especially during the Second World War, the connection between the three paradigms of identity becomes even more crucial, especially in the realm of the Disney films produced in this period. As Booker pointed out, “Disney’s treatment of gender […] has been problematic over the years” (3). The objectification of the female existence observable in Disney’s educational and propaganda productions is also present in the studio’s feature-length films (analyzed in the next chapters). As Zipes explains, “[n]o matter what they do, women [in fairy tales] cannot chart their own lives without male manipulation and intervention” (204). Even more, Disney’s female characters are generally simply thrust into a strict and seemingly unchangeable patriarchal realm, where the notions of meritocracy (for men) and fate (for women) are of utmost importance, a celluloid world where women, even as main characters of the filmic narrative, are mere exhibitionists without distinctive personalities and goals of their own.

From the Silly Symphonies to Dumbo

In the early years of the Walt Disney Productions, Disney saw animation merely as “a caricature of life” (Barrier 128). As a result, women came to life as exaggeratedly insignificant and stereotypical, both in their roles and appearances. This tendency can be observed in the Silly Symphonies’ episodes, as well as in the four feature-length films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi.

According to Doane, a “character is first and foremost a textual mark, a trace, or more accurately, a bundle of such marks onto which the reader or spectator projects a personality, a psychology” (Doane 251). Consequently, it can be seen either as psychoanalytically “analyzable”, based on the theory of psychobiography, or as incapable of possessing a personality, based on fantasy theory (Doane 253). Disney’s female characters in general fall under the latter category. The fact that there is “no character development because the characters are stereotypes, arranged according to a credo of domestication of the imagination” (Zipes 207), contrasts with the claim that “[o]ne of Walt’s most important pursuits was the development of personality in cartoons” (Maltin 40). In the case of female characters, in particular, Disney’s initial ambition was soon prevailed by the generation of the three classic types of Disney women:

The teenaged heroine [is] at the idealized height of puberty’s graceful promenade […]. Female Wickedness […] is rendered as middle-aged beauty at its peak of sexuality and authority. Feminine sacrifice and nurturing is drawn in pear-shaped, old women past menopause, spry and comical […] (Bell 108).

The most significant young heroine of the studio era, a “helpless [ornament] in need of protection”, who “when it comes to the action of the film, [is] omitted”, was Snow White; the most wicked woman was her stepmother, who is “not only […] evil but also [represents] erotic and subversive forces” (Zipes 205); and the most remarkable well-wisher was the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio (1940).

Johnston argues that “[w]ithin a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man” (Thornham 33). Similarly, according to Gledhill, women on screen “do not represent women at all, but are figures cut to the measure of the patriarchal Unconscious” (Thornham 167). This is especially true for Disney’s early films, as these were animated solely by men (Barrier 130). Mulvey went one step further, and coined the term “to-be-looked-at-ness”, which refers to women in films being “exhibitionistic erotic objects on display, providing visual pleasure for the heterosexual, male, voyeuristic spectator” (Cristian and Dragon 90).

The women in the above-mentioned animated films of Disney are similarly passive characters, who seldom enhance the development of the story, and their most distinguishable goal is finding a good, i.e. dominant and rich, husband. Smith claims that “[t]he role of a woman in a film almost always revolves around her physical attraction and the mating games she plays with the male characters” (Thornham 14), and although this motive is rarely explicit in cartoons, the conventional happy endings and happily ever afters make its presence indubitable.

Silly Symphonies (1929-1939)

Since the production of the groundbreaking Steamboat Willie (1928), synchronizing music to animated images became a trademark of the Disney studio (Barrier 70). A series of 75 cartoons based on music were created in the interwar period, all devised by Carl Stalling, the studio’s musical director at the time (Barrier 68). The Silly Symphonies were actually a sketchpad for the studio’s artists to experiment on music and sound. The shorts “evoked settings, seasons, and events” and were full of “anthropomorphism and personification” (Maltin 40), because Disney believed that animated films “should deal mostly with personalities” (Barrier 106). Paradoxically, female characters seldom have distinctive characteristics in these shorts. The silhouettes of women and anthropomorphized feminine flowers or other similar ‘objects’ usually depicted as faithful copies of one another were often portrayed dancing, serving mainly as dynamic mise-en-scène. Elizabeth Bell gives a rather striking explanation for dancing in Disney’s films: “the ‘natural’ expression of love – the seamless quality of the dance at once representing and replacing the sexual act” (Bell 113). This idea is especially provoking, given the context of the time, when the Production Code clearly prohibited the portrayal of sexual references, particularly in the form of dance.

The Silly Symphonies are “[f]reed from the burdens of time and responsibility, events are open-ended, reversible, episodic without obvious point,” writes Zipes (200). According to Maltin’s introduction to the Walt Disney Treasures’ More Silly Symphonies edition, “they are fresh, spontaneous, and fun to watch.” The Sillies were especially successful among the young audiences, since “strategically inserted musical numbers help to hold the attention of young viewers” (Booker 2). The emphasis was, as the title suggests, obviously on melodies, on rhythm, and on the movements of the characters. The majority of Silly’s shorts are simplified fairy tales filled up with gags and numerous other technical novelties alongside sound; such was as the use of Technicolor for the first time in Flowers and Trees (1932) (Maltin 39), or the use of the multiplane camera in The Old Mill (1937) (Maltin 51). Although the cartoons were originally created as purely visual performances with no story world, they gradually developed into short stories with narratives (Griffin 16); yet few of them present its characters with strongly identifiable personality traits. The Silly Symphonies are simple love stories with certain types of figures: The China Plate (1931) and The Cookie Carnival (1935) contain, for example, three types of women with very few powerful female characters ― such a character is the fly in Woodland Café (1937), who manages to courageously escape alone from the net of a lethal spider. Nevertheless, there are several feisty mothers protecting their children in Birds of a Feather (1931) and in Farmyard Symphony (1938) but truly caring mothers rarely appeared in Disney productions then or even today. The majority of the Silly shorts, however, portray women as helpless damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by brave, handsome gentlemen. This is the case in Cock O’ the Walk (1935), Music Land (1935) and Bugs in Love (1932).

El Terrible Torreador (1929) was the first Silly Symphony featuring an explicit woman character. The very first picture frame shows a waitress’s backside, covered by a very short skirt, swinging away from the screen as she carries around a mug of beer. She eagerly opens up her cleavage for tips, but starts to behave when the soldier tries to kiss her. The waitress, Carmen, named after the background music, is stereotyping a temperamental, independent Spanish woman, who is, at the same time, treated as a trophy of macho men. In Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935), Cock Robin is shot by Cupid’s arrow caused by the sight of an even more feminine woman ― actually a caricature of the notoriously sexually confident Mae West (Griffin 71). This character is a vivid example of the feminine masquerade, “an overdoing [of] the gestures of feminine flirtation,” or in other words, a “decorative layer which conceals” the “non-identity” (Doane 25) of the woman. This character, consequently, presents “[w]omanliness [as] a mask which can be worn or removed” (25) and Disney’s beauty, Jenny Wren, wears it. Jenny reappears in Toby Tortoise Returns (1936) as Toby’s girlfriend, demonstrating that the love between her and Cock Robin did not last, thus adding a rather immoral reputation to her already luscious looks. The hyperbolization of gender subordination in certain movies lead to quite controversial, even bizarre results: in The Tortoise and the Hare (1935), four little bunnies catch the attention of the hare and its consequent lust causes him to lose ground. It strikes the eye of the viewer, however, that the girl rabbits he talks to look like toddlers, while he is a fully mature rabbit―bringing the danger of pedophilia into the picture.

There are many other examples of sexist imagery in Disney’s early productions: among them is the Frolicking Fish (1932), where a fish playfully yet condescendingly taps a harp-playing mermaid statue’s backside. Another example of problematic portrayal of women is in King Neptune (1932), especially in the episode that depicts topless mermaids (Griffin 15). The topless daughters of Neptune sing and dance, or rather swim, at the bottom of the sea, like aimless ghosts, posing confidently as they brush their hair and play the harp on a tall rock in the middle of the sea. In the first scene in which they appear, these girls are shown as the King Neptune’s property, in an environment reminiscent of the harem but this time placed in a clam. Their faces ― obvious markers of simple, shallow identity ― are less elaborate: two spots for eyes, and a short line for the mouth. However, their curvy, feminine figures are very telling: they all look alike, except for a red-haired mermaid among her black-haired sisters, but none of them has distinct personality. Pirates kidnap the red-haired one and the whole sea population rushes to her rescue. She is not capable of moving (in the realm of men, that is, on the surface of the ship) and thus cannot escape without help from others. In the end, after Neptune, the savior, had taken revenge on the pirates and liberated the red-haired beauty, they swim around contently playing with pearls as if nothing had happened.

The two versions of The Ugly Duckling in the Silly Symphonies portray women characters as mothers. The first short, The Ugly Duckling, was made in black and white in 1931; at its end the ugly little bird is finally taken in by his mother, only because he proved to be brave and unselfish by saving other ducklings. In this version the moral is that looks do not matter; only actions do. The other short entitled Ugly Duckling (1939), shot in Technicolor, was more faithful to the original Andersen tale. As soon as the little bird’s parents notice the problem with his ugly looks, the father accuses the mother duck of adultery. In the end, both parents abandon the unusual duckling. At the end, he meets other similarly ‘ugly’ ducklings, which turn out to be swans, and the mother happily welcomes him. Both films deal openly with a mother leaving her children (Brode 89), a serious subject, but with the animal characters this makes children oblivious to its seriousness. Out of the three mothers, no one is willing to accept a different type of child, and in this sense, they are definitely bad mothering figures. Apart from these types, the mother in Father Noah’s Ark (1933) is a definitely more modern character, declaring that she “wears the pants” in the house. But Mother Noah is rather a phallic character despite her outlooks reminding one of the Venus of Willendorf, while the other women, the wives of Father Noah’s sons, are submissive figures, the usual Disney women, who happily sing while carrying out Father Noah’s orders. Alongside these figures, Disney’s good fairies are usually wise and helpful mother-like characters. The Flying Mouse (1934), a short that tells the story of a fine young mouse that wants to fly, features such a figure. The fairy, who grants the mouse his wish, is a tall, blond woman with big, dreamy eyes and red lips, wearing a blue dress; she is beautiful, yet “stiff and unappealing,” because the animators had difficulty drawing realistic human characters (Maltin 42) for cartoon figures. The fairy looks like her counterpart in Pinocchio (1940), and just like the Blue Fairy she also yields to the then fashionable Hollywood ideal of women (Chahine 12). Although she has a good moral sense and is very helpful and sympathetic, she has no will or aims of her own. Besides, the goddess Persephone in The Goddess of Spring (1934) is a similar character in the sense that her goal in life is to make others happy, regardless of her contentment. Persephone, in Disney’s adaptation, is completely under the god Pluto’s control; she and the other women characters above were the models setting the road for women’s representation before Snow White and other famous Disney princesses.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

After years of producing short films, Disney decided to start making feature-length animated films. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was based on “one of the best-known fairy tales” (Bettelheim, Chapter 27, first paragraph), and, as the first feature-length animated film ever created, brought the Disney’s studio its worldwide fame, signaling also a great step in the history of animation (Booker 5). This film evoked a “variety of emotions” (Maltin 57) and resembled the woman’s film of the 1940s, that is, the “weepie” (Cristian and Dragon 87), which is one of the major areas of research for feminist film theories. Frank S. Nugent praised the cartoon in 1938 for being “sheer fantasy, delightful, gay, and altogether captivating,” and expressed a special respect for this Disney production, as did virtually all the critics of The Times in that year. One of the main attractions of the film is the dwarfs’ “wholly individual personalities, each with physical characteristics all his own and a point of view to match” (Maltin 53). This was Disney’s trick to make the story more comic, practically shifting “the weight of the story away from the lethal rivalry between Snow White and the queen” (Barrier 102). According to Bruno Bettelheim, they are “but foils to set off the important developments taking place in Snow White,” embodying a controversial aspect in a story about maturation and growth, as they “have no parents, nor do they marry or have children” (Chapter 27, first paragraph). Their function in Snow White’s life is equally confusing, as they constantly switch between being children in need of a nurturing mother, and little men desiring sexual interaction. But the dwarfs respect Snow White, not only because she is a woman, but rather because she has a royal title. All seven of them, even Grumpy, “the woman-hater,” are visibly in love with her (in a twisted Oedipal scenario). However, as soon as the adult male prince shows up, the dwarfs sink back into their infantile roles.

The emphasis on the amusing dwarfs, however, is only one of the many changes Disney made to the original Grimms’ fairy tale. With this story, Disney wanted an entertaining story for both children and adults, but the Grimms’ version of Snow White was, as Michael Barrier wrote, “a serious fable about a girl — and about youth and age, and sexual maturity, and life and death” (121). Zipes lists seven aspects that Disney changed in the original Grimm’s story: the role of the prince, the Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s suitor and the way Snow White is brought back to life, among others (203-204). Snow White’s role as a servant in the castle, for example, was borrowed from Cinderella, and her awakening with a kiss was inspired by Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty (Barrier 121). Nevertheless, Zipes continues, “Disney retained key ideological features of the Grimms’ fairy tale that reinforce nineteenth-century patriarchal notions, which Disney,” hence obviously, “shared with the Grimms” (204). Indeed, “the image of males in films is often stereotyped as well as that of women but in most cases this is the cliché of the virile and virulent macho male, which, though potentially destructive, is at least a symbol of power and authority” (Thornham 15). It is exactly for this reason that the prince is most often associated with Walt Disney himself (Zipes 205) because the prince is “the only one who can save Snow White” (206), proving Laura Mulvey’s claim that “[i]t is the film’s [male] hero who advances the story, controlling events, the woman, and the erotic gaze” (quoted in Thornham 54). As a matter of fact, “it is the look of the central male character which is privileged, so that we see events largely through his eyes and identify with his gaze” (54). Snow White’s point of view is hardly ever taken up by the camera. She is constantly in the center as a spectacle, and she waits quite passively, until she can finally fulfill her role “as a formal closure to the narrative structure” (125), at the end of the prince’s journey.

In many Disney films “even when a woman is the central character she is generally shown as confused or helpless and in danger, or passive, or as a purely sexual being” (Thornham 14-15). Snow White, too, is looking for her place in the fairy tale world: after taking up a (rather false) motherly role, she finally fulfills her ‘proper’ function as woman and princess, to marry the right man/prince. These carefully mixed roles are part of Snow White’s masquerade, covering her lack of a strong personality. Snow White has fair skin with a bit of healthy blush on her cheeks, white teeth, bright red lips and her make-up is to emphasize health and liveliness (Chahine 99); she has a slim, sand clock figure (84) and a Garçon-hairstyle (89) representing the female ideal of the first and second decade of the twentieth century.

The scenes of this film were first photographed in 1935 live action and were directed by Ham Luske. These were then retraced with the rotoscope technique, in order to make them more life-like (Barrier 120). Snow White’s looks were based on the photographs of Marjorie Belcher (Marge Champion), a renowned dancer of the 1940s (Barrier 110) and on Grim Natwick’s feminine animated characters (118-119). Natwick insisted that Snow White should be “mature and knowing,” while Luske wanted her to “be presented as a sweet child” (Barrier 120). Ultimately, the compromise of the two animators’ opinions created this rather ambiguous woman character, submissive and dominant at the same time. When she sees the dirty house of the dwarfs, she immediately starts cleaning. Zipes claims that one of the main focuses of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the “domestication of women” (204) a realm in which Snow White can exploit her most distinctive qualities. But Snow White is also “a take-charge woman” (Brode 179), by the way she gives orders further to her animal friends and to the unruly dwarfs. She even gets the boiling cauldron to quiet down when she wants to taste the soup. At the same time, Snow White’s character is particularly naïve. First of all, she is unaware of the queen’s hatred towards her, until the Huntsman clearly tells her. The first time she enters the dwarfs’ house, she exclaims that it is dark inside, but feels no danger at all: she simply fixes her hair, and upon realizing that no one is home, goes right in. Towards the end of the film, “under the guidance of the dwarfs [Snow White] grows from a child helpless to deal with the difficulties of the world into a girl who learns to work well, and to enjoy it” (Bettelheim Chapter 27, 32nd paragraph). This time that she spends with the dwarfs is her period of maturation, and her “reawakening or rebirth symbolizes the reaching of a higher stage of maturity and understanding” (Chapter 27, 53rd paragraph).

Her stepmother, the Evil Queen, is an independent woman and in Disney’s version, there is hardly any mention of her husband. The only male figure around her is the Huntsman, “a male who can be viewed as an unconscious representation of the father” (Bettelheim Chapter 27, 19th paragraph), who “neither does his duty to the queen, nor meets his moral obligation to Snow White to make her safe and secure” (Chapter 27, 23rd paragraph). Disney claimed that “[c]hildren must be protected from any hint of sexuality, up to and including the virtual elimination of parents from the lives of the characters” (Booker 2), which is exactly the case in Snow White. The Queen’s reversed Electra-complex, expressed in her jealousy of her stepdaughter is explained by Bettelheim through her narcissistic drives which rule all her actions (Chapter 27, 12th paragraph). The Evil Queen has green eyes (the color of envy), black hair, dark clothes, and wears a grim expression on her face. She perfectly fits Mary Ann Doane’s description of the femme fatale (2): she is a powerful woman defined by her egoism and sexuality, representing “a symptom of male fears about feminism” (2-3). Ironically, she makes herself ugly not only by drinking the aging potion, but also by being an ill-willed villain in order to achieve absolute beauty (Brode 180). In the disguise of the peddler, she has big green eyes framed by thick eyebrows, grey hair, and even a wart on her crooked nose; however, in the end she remains with this ugly mask forever because she dies in her disguise. Her character was made quite scary for the younger audience and her deeds (to bury Snow White alive in a cruel act of murder) are also rather disturbing. In fact, even “Disney expressed a certain wry satisfaction in censors’ occasional classification of Snow White as too intense for younger children” (in Barrier 131), admitting that he “didn’t make the picture for children” but rather “for adults — for the child that exists in all adults” (131).

Snow White is especially significant in Disney’s world of women, since it served as “the prototype for all subsequent fairy-tale films” (Booker 4). However, by concentrating on its characters adapted to screen, Disney stripped this highly symbolical and meaningful fairy tale from its moral message (Bettelheim Chapter 27, 56th paragraph). As Zipes wrote, “[F]or Disney, the Grimms’ tale is […] a vehicle to spread his message about proper sex roles, behavior, manners, and customs” (206), following “the classic sexist narrative about the framing of women’s lives through a male discourse” (204), which was prevalent during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Snow White is constructed as a submissive woman, masquerading in then fashionable make-up and hair style that covered her lack of true personality.

Pinocchio (1940)

The production of Pinocchio (1940) started as early as 1937, the year when Snow White was released (Barrier 136). As John Canemaker tells in the audio commentary of Snow White, the problem with Pinocchio was that it did not feature any dwarfs. According to Barrier “[Disney] had in effect called a halt to artistic growth in the animated films released under his name, locking in place a limited, and limiting, conception of what character animation was capable of” (7). In other words, he started repeating the schemes that had previously proven to be financially and commercially successful.

Although there are no dwarfs in Pinocchio, there are two characters who fulfill the roles of previous dwarfs: Figaro, the tomcat and Cleo, the goldfish. Cleo is a lady, and she is aware of it. Her large blue eyes and see-through tail, which she uses as a veil to cover her face when she feels embarrassed, lend her an overtly feminine, even oriental look. She makes this sex appeal masquerade quite apparent. Surrounded by male characters, Cleo is the damsel in distress in Pinocchio, who is unable to save herself or to do anything of (narrative) significance. She is a childish yet sexualized woman figure, who has no other function than to look pretty on the screen, and is a fitting example of what Mulvey defines as “to-be-looked-at-ness” (qtd. in Cristian and Dragon 90). The other woman figure is the Blue Fairy, who, despite being a crucial figure in the story, is not shown much in the film. She is literally a star, and represents the Hollywood ideal of a woman: tall and slim with the fashionable hairstyle of the 1940’s and with shoulder-length, curly, blonde hair (Chahine 141). She was also created by rotoscoping, and her figure was based on Marge Champion, the dancer model for Snow White (Brode 119). The Blue Fairy wears a lot of make-up and is dressed in an almost see-through, sparkling blue dress with a deep cleavage. As Maltin put it, she is “a beautiful woman, yet ethereal and not a ‘glamour girl’” (58). At the end of the film she is substituted by a blue dove, a symbol of equal grace and purity. Similar to Snow White, she is also lost between being an object of sexual desire for Jiminy Cricket (and also for the audience), and a possible mother figure for Pinocchio, the protagonist of the movie. This is because both her feminine looks and overly compassionate personality are displayed as masquerade (Thornham 138), in an attempt to distance her from a traditional feminine role that would otherwise be attached to her. The Blue Fairy seems to evade these roles nicely: for example, she replaces the practice of giving birth with a swish of her wand. By turning Pinocchio into a real boy, she is “fulfilling the dream of [Pinocchio’s] loving creator Gepetto to have a son (without, apparently, the inconvenience of having to deal with the child’s mother)” (Booker 12). The Blue Fairy does become the mother in the end, albeit a covert one. With the Blue Fairy’s character, Disney aimed to do away with the superstition that women can be “either attractive or serious” (Brode 119). Despite all the subtle subversions she performs, this figure remains as submissive as any other female character in the early Disney oeuvre.

Pinocchio is also one of the best examples of a Disney film concerned directly with the issue of masculinity. Pinocchio has to become brave, truthful and unselfish in order to become a real human being. In fact these are the terms he has to meet in order to be good enough to be adopted by Gepetto, and even more, as Zipes wrote, “to be accepted into a so-called civilized society” (208). Until the end of the film, Pinocchio, much like the typical female character, is rather passive because similar to the stereotypical role of women, children also fulfill a submissive role in Disney’s films, regardless of their gender. Apart from the protagonist, Jiminy Cricket is a controversial character, embodying Pinocchio’s strictly guiding conscience and, in the same time, flirting with everything around him.

Pinocchio does not do away with the original moral of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio simply for the benefit of humor and sympathy, as did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This may be the reason why Disney was not fully content with what his studio made of the original story of Pinocchio (Barrier 143). Since the emphasis is on masculinity, and the male figure’s struggle to become accepted in a family (and society as well), all the female characters are made submissive and less relevant. Ultimately, both the Blue Fairy and Cleo, the two notable female characters conceal their objectification and insignificance in a masquerade of overt femininity.

Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941) may have been one of the simplest (Maltin 65) and cheapest (Booker 15) cartoons made by Disney, but turned out to be a remarkable production for its technical innovation and emotional richness (Barrier 190). As opposed to the original tale, which expressed “universal human truths in animal guise” (Maltin 66), Disney’s adaptation turned out to be more of a simple means to portray cute characters and generate sympathy fused with American patriotism. Dumbo also presented one of the best examples of the studio’s most clichéd attempts “to efface the sexual realities of reproduction” (Booker 15) with the usual stereotypical portrayal of women. This clichéd attempt is materialized in the reinterpretation of the well-known anecdote according to which storks bring babies. In Disney’s version, however, the birds simply drop the newborns into the animals’ circus cages with the help of parachutes thus alienating from the beginning all newborns from their mothers, who, except for the tigers and giraffes, are single mothers. The viewers never see Dumbo’s father, despite the fact that the offspring is named Jumbo Junior after him. The father is finally excluded when the other elephants, who presume that his unusual looks cover a certain disability, nickname him Dumbo. Moreover, the relationship between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo is a special one, culminating in “[t]he mother’s excessive and covertly erotic attachment to her [son]” (Thornham 28).

Dumbo is one of the few films in the Disney oeuvre without a conventional love story. The protagonist is an infant, who cannot yet talk, and whose character was based on the animator’s own two-year-old boy (Barrier 178-179). He is obviously still in the pre-Oedipal phase of his development and, therefore, does not have yet a distinct personality. Mrs. Jumbo is a simple mother, who is “ever-understanding, ever-tolerant of the weaknesses and foibles of others” but also one who is quite passive (Thornham 152) and uneducated (demonstrated by her inability to sign her name). She is oppressed and misunderstood by all other characters, being also segregated as “a rogue elephant” upon trying to “protect her son from a thuggish, red-haired, freckled youth who looks like a refugee from Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island” (Booker 17-18) ― her only active deed throughout the film. Her main narrative function is to leave her son an orphan, and thus enhance the advancement of the plot. Furthermore, the other elephants, who are without exception all females, are spiteful, judging spinsters. They act as if they were superior to Mrs. Jumbo despite the fact that the latter are just as underprivileged as the former. Although the animals in the circus are visibly exploited they cooperate obediently with their owners. The abuse is made explicit when the clown attempts to earn a salary raise by risking Dumbo’s life and exclaims that “elephants have no feelings.” Since the portrayal of animal abuse was prohibited by the PCA, the abuse itself cannot appear in Dumbo but it is indirectly hinted at. In the scene when the circus arrives to their base camp, the elephants and the black workers are setting up tents in the midst of a rainstorm with no difference perceptible between them. Moreover, the film shows a crow named Jim Crow, a clear reference to the Jim Crow laws (mandating racial segregation between Americans up until the sixties).

Dumbo allegorically presents a child’s emotional need for his mother and the ability to succeed without her. This orphan’s quest objectifies Mrs. Jumbo’s role and reduces her narrative function in the film. The animation has primarily been criticized for its racist portrayal of characters but considering notions of feminist film theory on black women, Mrs. Jumbo is not simply passive and submissive, as most of Disney’s women, she is a feminine figure under double oppression: gender and racial alike.

Bambi (1942)

Bambi (1942), one of the first environmentally aware films, is undoubtedly a spectacular “visual poem extolling the glory of nature, as seen in the cycle of seasons, and the unchanging pattern of life for the forest animals, from birth to maturity” (Maltin 66). Disney and his animators create this highly realistic environment, which has been renowned as one of the wonders of animation ever since (Bell 138), primarily because of its highly anthropomorphized characters. This special focus on portrayal led to the virtual absence of action scenes, especially in the first half of the film. Dynamism, however, is overtaken by the centrality of character sketches: this sometimes exaggerated idyllic scenery and the evasively charming characters skillfully conceal the hierarchy of the powerful patriarchal family structure.

In most animal families in this motion picture, mothers affectionately raise their offspring while the fathers are away. Feminist theory sees this kind of domination in the family a result of the division between the roles of the male and female, father and mother (Thornham 295). This division becomes more and more apparent among the animals in Bambi; the purpose with this was to teach the young audience the ways in which the heteronormative, mainstream culture of the era worked. Similar to most of Disney’s female characters, the mothers in Bambi do not have distinctive personality traits; they are portrayed stereotypically as caring mothers. As opposed to bucks, does in Bambi have no authoritative power. The same goes for all animals. Thumper’s rabbit mom, for example, disciplines her children only according to her husband’s credo, even in his absence: “Thumper! What did your father tell you?” Claire Johnston argues that “woman functions within film as a sign within a patriarchal discourse, not as a reflection of reality” (qtd. in Thornham 53); and, apparently, this stands for cartoons as well. Female characters in Bambi fulfill the roles of toddlers, young maidens ready to procreate, or loving and feeble mothers.

The focus in Bambi, similarly to the previously discussed productions, is once again on the younger generation; adults are only rarely shown and they do not even have proper names. As opposed to the adult figures, among children the girl figures seem to be more dominant than the boy figures. Even as a toddler, Bambi is “kind of bashful,” while Feline is brave and mischievous. The film ends with little Thumpers, Flower’s son Bambi, and the rest of the forest animals rushing to see the babies of Bambi and Feline, who look exactly like their parents. At this point, Bambi is given the hereditary title of the Great Prince of the Forest, and the circle of life and proper socialization among forest beings goes on as the new prince watches the new mother and their fawns from afar, rendering their passionate love slightly irrelevant. Besides the human-nature conflict in Bambi – rendered with the hunter as active, masculine and the forest as passive, feminine –, the film depicts also the tension between the genders of the forest animals. Although the Disney studio shrewdly tried to conceal its obvious sexism behind the emphasis on the realism of the background and the cuddlesome, pretty characters, the simplified stereotypical representations play a significant role in the story of this mainstream classical Hollywood narrative. The most basic incentive behind the narrative of Bambi is thus the dichotomic conflict between feminine and masculine, let them be embodied as two fawns of different genders, a doe versus a buck or nature against a group of hunters. The peak of Disney’s sexism, however, is marked by the fact that the female character always loses ground in the battle: nature remains subjected to humans, Bambi’s mother is killed by the hunters, and Feline is left alone by Bambi.


During the studio era, Walt Disney’s productions included among their charmingly entertaining visual imagery some quite disturbing images (which the studio adapted mostly from fairy tales), including animal abuse, discrimination based on various differences, racist stereotypes, nudity and explicit scenes of seduction, cold-blooded acts of murder, and even a necrophilic act of love. Despite Disney’s obvious focus on masculinity and the predomination of male heroes, female characters are always present in the narrative’s significant parts, signaling their important role, a role that had been denied in most part in the society and in its allegorical worlds present in the Silly Symphonies, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in Pinocchio, in Dumbo and in Bambi. Disney’s female characters created during the studio era were created according to specific stereotypes defined and interpreted in a strict patriarchal hierarchy (Thornham 54). These stereotypes were, based on Bell’s classification (108), the following: young girls, who are innocent, beautiful and so submissive that they lose their significance in the narratives; the fairies and well-wishers, who, in the process of helping others, lose sight of personal goals or aims; and evil stepmothers and jealous spinsters, who are capable of carrying out crimes as typical femme fatales because they are independent, sexually charged and revengeful (Doane 2). Even though Disney’s female characters are often masquerading in overt femininity, in order to conceal the lack of their personality traits (Thornham 138), they are not primarily defined by sexuality in their appearance but rather by the passivity of their roles irrefutably accepted (23). As Molly Haskell wrote, women in the studio era in the moving pictures were “exiled […] back into patriarchal stereotypes” (qtd. in Cristian and Dragon 87). A more extensive research and analysis could shed more light on how these women characters were transformed into more independent figures half a century later in the early 1990s.

The above-analyzed cartoons were primarily driven by a struggle for commercial and financial success. In an era when terrible disasters (the Great Depression and the Second World War) struck one after the other, Disney needed his productions to appeal to adults and children alike in order to be a profitable entertainment and a proper educational tool. To obtain a successful cinematic production, the producer had to mix the level of the messages to audiences of all ages, relying on the notion that children would not notice the disturbing images, because they are innocent (Booker 30-31). Thus, “[i]n their desire to make the plot clear and get the message across, writers and directors often use shorthand expressions of characterization” (Smith in Thornham 15), resulting in simple but easily communicable, one-dimensional characters. Furthermore, Disney as a successful businessman gained considerable influence and was able to produce cartoons the way he found it most convenient.


Films Cited

  • Armstrong, Samuel et al. dir. Fantasia. Written by Joe Grant et al. Walt Disney Productions, 1940.
  • Cutting, Jack dir. The Ugly Duckling. Adapted by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1939.
  • Disney, Walt dir. El Terrible Torreador. Written by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1929.
  • Disney, Walt dir. Cleanliness Brings Health. Written by n.a. Walt Disney Productions, The U. S. Office of Inter-American Affairs, 1944.
  • Gillett, Burt et al. dir. Walt Disney Treasures. Silly Symphonies. The Historic Musical Animated Classics. Written by Pinto Colvig et al. Walt Disney Home Video, [1929-1939], 2001.
  • Geronimi, Clyde dir. Education for Death. Adapted by Joe Grant. Walt Disney Productions, 1943.
  • Geronimi, Clyde dir. Planning for Good Eating Written by n.a. Walt Disney Productions, The U. S. Office of Inter-American Affairs, 1945.
  • Geronimi, Clyde et al. dir. Walt Disney Treasures. On the Front Lines. The War Years. Written by Joe Grant et al. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, [1941-1946], 2004.
  • Gillett, Burt dir. King Neptune. Written by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1932.
  • Gillett, Burt et al. dir. Walt Disney Treasures. More Silly Symphonies. 1929-1938. Written by Pinto Colvig et al. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, [1929-1938], 2006.
  • n. a. dir. Disney ’46 The Story of Menstruation. Written by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1946. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l9qhlHFXuM Access: 7 October 2011.
  • Hand, David dir. The Flying Mouse. Written by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1934.
  • Hand, David dir. Who Killed Cock Robin? Adapted by William Cottrell et al. Walt Disney Productions, 1935.
  • Hand, David et al. dir. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adapted by Dorothy Ann Blank et al. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, [1937], 2009.
  • Jackson, Wilfred dir. The Ugly Duckling. Adapted by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1931.
  • Jackson, Wilfred dir. Father Noah’s Ark. Written by n. a. Walt Disney Productions, 1933.
  • Luske, Hamilton S. et al. dir. Pinocchio. Adapted by Aurelius Battaglia et al. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, [1940], 2009.
  • Roberts, Bill dir. Reason and Emotion. Written by Joe Grant et al. Walt Disney Productions, 1943.
  • Sharpsteen, Ben et al. dir. Dumbo. Adapted by Joe Grant et al. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, [1941], 2007.
  • Hand, David et al. dir. Bambi. Adapted by Perce Pearce et al. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, [1942], 2007.


Works Cited

  • Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man. A Life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Belton, John. American Cinema, American Culture. New York: McGraw-hill, 2004.
  • Bell, Elizabeth et al. ed. From Mouse to Mermaid. The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, Kindle Edition, 2010.
  • Booker, M. Keith. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010.
  • Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse. Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
  • Chahine, Nathalie et al. ed. A női szépség története. Budapest: Glória Kiadó, 2000.
  • Cristian, Réka M. and Zoltán Dragon. Encounters of the Filmic Kind. Szeged: JATEPress, 2008.
  • Doane, Mary Ann. Femme Fatales. Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Griffin, Sean. Tinker Belles and Evil Queens. The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies. The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • IMDB. Internet Movie Database. Available: http://www.imdb.com. Access: 11 December 2011.
  • Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic. A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.
  • Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code), The. Available: http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html. Access: 23 February 2012.
  • Nugent, Frank S. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The New York Times (1938). Available: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173FE070BC4C 52DFB7668383629EDE. Access: 22 November 2011.
  • Shurlock, Geoffrey. “The Motion Picture Production Code.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 254, The Motion Picture Industry (1947). Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1026152?origin=JSTOR-pdf. Access: 4 October 2011.
  • Thornham, Sue. Feminist Film Theory. A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
  • Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. New York: Routledge, 2006.