Disney Heroines: Not just innocent cartoons, but also an erotic spectacle!

“The woman is the bearer of meaning, not the maker.”

Written in 1973 and published in 1975, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” studies Hollywood films by deriving from Lacanian psychoanalytical theories as the key to understanding how film creates such a space for female sexual objectification and exploitation through the combination of the patriarchal order of society, and ‘looking’ in itself as a pleasurable act of voyeurism, as “the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking.”  What it primarily says is that the woman on the screen is the signifier of the male other; it does no hold a meaning of her own. OR rather the difference in the sex is the result where the woman or the heroine represents the image of her own gender and sex, where she is a voiceless spectacle. Mulvey traces the Freudian theory of ‘phallocentrism’ and castration and advances to say that the woman can only exist in relation to the castration and cannot go beyond it.

An erotic spectacle!

An erotic spectacle!

The audience in turn, becomes a voyeur, the spectator for whom the entertainment on the screen is upheld. Several themes emerge from a study done by Towbin, Haddock, Zimmerman, Lund, and Tanner (2011), and three related emerged related to what it means to be a girl/woman: (a) A woman‘s appearance is valued more than her intellect; (b) Women are helpless and in need of protection; (c) Women are domestic and likely to marry. These characters cannot escape their domestic lives and even if they do its only when they meet a prince to offer them salvation, here though, ‘love’ (at first sight) is the only necessary element to further the cause. It’s as if to say that they are lucky enough to get rid of the domestic troubles and meet a guy! Who cares who he is as long as he is pretty and has wealth? Snow White is rescued by a prince and that becomes the whole reason for her to spend her whole life with him.  Even Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are domestic and show a desire for marriage. To the target audience as it really was for Disney i.e. the young girls, the message that is sent is the romantic dream that wealth and security are the only requirements of a happily ever after.

The pleasure in looking

Looking offers a source of pleasure; cinema offers us that. The idea circumvents around the Freudian idea of voyeuristic activities of children i.e. the desire to see and make sure of the private and the forbidden. Mulvey compares it further to perversion, that of a peeping tom deriving his pleasure from looking. Now cinema develops this idea of scopophilia into a narcissistic aspect. “The curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition”  Lacan has compared this to the mirror phase where looking at oneself in the mirror results in him/her identifying the mirror image to be more complete and more perfect than he/she experience his/her own body. The Disney films offer the same idea. The heroines are beautiful with perfect features and attributes. They are a treat to look at. The intention was to make the spectator imagine that they were perfect as they were. Somehow it backfired. Young girls and middle aged women want to do anything they need to in order to feel like ‘princesses’ as they used to. They have attached themselves to an abstract metaphor of beauty and they can’t seem to let go. No amount of surgeries and cosmetics can somehow make up for it.

“Fairy tales have been around for centuries, little girls have always liked pretty dresses, and even most of the Disney princesses should, if there were justice in the world, be using Botox by now, (Disney’s Snow White was a teen in the 1937 film, which would (now) put her well into her 80s). But once upon a time, the Disney princesses lived their separate lives, waiting innocuously for their princes to come. You could buy a “Cinderella” book or a “Little Mermaid” doll, but, when you did so, you were establishing an allegiance to a particular character’s story, not to an abstract “Princess Concept.” The princesses lived separately and were marketed separately.” – Rosa Brooks.

In ‘woman as image, man as the bearer of the look’ Mulvey speculates that the world’s pleasure has been divided into two parts in terms of sexual imbalance and the pleasure of looking has been split into the active/male and the passive/female. It’s the male gaze that determines the female’s character and nothing else. Her visual presence is a vital element in the normal narrative film yet; her presence tends to work against the development of the story line as it can freeze the flow of actions in moments of erotic contemplation. She also identifies three “looks” or perspectives that occur in film which serve to sexually objectify women. The first is the perspective of the male character on screen and how he perceives the female character. The second is the perspective of the spectator as they see the female character on screen. The third “look” joins the first two looks together: it is the male audience member’s perspective of the male character in the film. This third perspective allows the male audience to take the female character as his own personal sex object because he can relate himself, through looking, to the male character in the film. The Disney heroines have their own functions to perform in the movies. They stun the hero’s senses in the first look. The men seem to lose their senses in the presence of these heroines. In ‘Cinderella’ all men stop and stare in the middle of the ball as she enters, so much so that prince Charming can’t help but run after her. In Snow White and Sleeping Beauty the princes needed a glimpse to fall in love with them. The general theme is that a woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect. Cinderella needed a battalion of animal sidekicks and even the tap of the Fairy godmother’s wand to make a stunning dress. In Snow White, it’s her beauty which gets her into trouble and its her beauty itself which saves her in the end! In Sleeping Beauty the first gift given to the baby princess is Beauty. In Mermaid, Ariel wins the love of Prince Eric even after losing her voice to Ursula. So it can be assumed, that if these women were not attractive, were helpless and in need of a savior there would be no one to help them out! Cinderella would never be able to charm Prince Charming in the ball just like her other two ugly sisters, Snow white might as well have choked to death and No one would have bothered to wake up the ugly sleeping princess with a kiss of ‘true love’. So it’s not unnatural that the womenfolk are terrified of the idea of being unattractive! After all it’s the matter of finding a Prince (any prince! doesn’t even have to be the right one!) or they might not be able to achieve the happily ever after!

It’s not just this. Even the men in the films have an elaborate function to perform. It’s the general notion and element that all the princes in the film have to be handsome, good looking and physically strong and always have to be in the right place at the right time. They don’t usually have domestic jobs, are heroic and always go berserk when they see the beautiful heroines. Moreover the overweight men figures have either negative roles or secondary roles and are sloppy, unintelligent and are prone to eating and rejoicing a lot. Charming in ‘Cinderella’ literally has no work other than marrying a dame of his choosing. Beast saves Belle from the wild atrocity and gives her shelter in his own castle. Hence the man’s active role here as the one looking at the sexually viable and attractive woman is the only salvation of the passive female, also it provides a storyline where the ‘ideal’ princes and princesses provide the male and female spectator with a model to live up to in their psyche. Moreover, the woman has no identity of herself. Everything operated on what the heroines in these films provoke or what they represent. This heroine is the one who loves or inspires the hero to make him feel concern for her or make him act the way he does.

‘In herself the woman has not the slightest importance’ (Boetticher)


Simon Stephens Ghosh
An article by:
Simon Stephens Ghosh

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