The Women of Disney

[Books & Culture, March-April, 1996]

In the middle of my life’s journey I came to myself alone in a dark plastic poncho at the Haircuttery. It was a few days after my 43rd birthday, and I had not received a Cinderella watch packaged in a tiny clear-plastic glass slipper. For awhile there I received one every birthday, because I kept losing them. That was some years ago. At that time I intended to be a grownup lady one day, and wear a crown and a long fancy dress. Everything about me would get bigger, except my feet; these would get smaller and smaller until they were the same size as Cinderella’s, and I could wear her tiny shoes. I think I kept losing the watches in secret hope of collecting two shoes and making a pair. However, I kept losing the shoes too, so my plans were dashed. In the middle of my life’s journey I see in the big black-framed mirror a grownup lady getting an E-Z Kare haircut, wearing E-Z Kare clothes, which conceal an E-Z Kare figure. I had forgotten my plan to be Cinderella about now, and at this point it’s probably too much trouble.

Like an army of other little girls over several generations, my idea of female loveliness was shaped by the women of Disney. I imagine that cohort resembling the star-stables maintained by the big movie studios of the 30’s: glamorous women lunching ostentatiously together, sipping champagne, flipping cigarette ashes in each other’s feather boas.

The Disney women, ageless, still meet covertly in a private club overlooking the Pacific. The waves crash on the rocks below, and they lift toasts in their little three-fingered hands. To us. We taught a million little girls what womanhood is like. Too bad none of them could make it. Then they snicker.

With these thoughts in mind I sat down with my teenaged daughter, Megan, to review the oeuvre produced by these women over the years. The first full-length Disney animation film was Snow White, released in 1937. Such an extended stretch of animation, a particularly labor-exhaustive form of film-making, had never been contemplated before. A thank-you note from Walt to his crew is inserted in the opening credits.

Snow White concerns a princess compelled to dress in rags and scrub the floor by a jealous, wicked stepmother. If you’re taking notes, it might be a good idea to jot that down, because when the motif pops up again you can check it off. She is, to all appearances, killed by her nemesis, but comes to life again at “Love’s First Kiss.” Make a note of that, too.

But though the story gets recycled, the ladies change dramatically. Snow White is a plump little thing with a tiny, trilling voice that makes you want to swat at mosquitos. Her lips are red as a rose, hair black as ebony, and skin white as snow; says so right here. She has a round chubby face with wide-set eyes, no jaw line, no nose—just dots for nostrils. Her eyes may not be bigger than her stomach, but they’re bigger than her mouth, which is the minute red embouchure of Betty Boop. In fact, 1937 is late for this standard of beauty; she’s a 1920’s babydoll, showing plenty of chest but no decolletage, giggling and shooing critters with her plump little arms. Give her a few drinks and she’d turn into an IT girl to rival Clara Bow.

I checked with Megan for lessons learned about ideal womanhood from Snow White. “I always wished animals would follow me around,” she said, “but I wasn’t pretty enough.”

This is a scary movie, I mean a really scary movie. These early feature-length animations weren’t intended primarily as children’s films. When the wicked queen chortles that Snow White will be “Buried alive!” and kicks a water jug crashing into a prisoner’s skeleton, it seems small comfort that she couldn’t even change her clothes without using a magic potion.

The next in our series is Cinderella (1950), which concerns a princess compelled to dress in rags and scrub floors by a jealous, wicked stepmother (did you check it off?). But what a difference in girls. “That’s a grownup voice!” said Megan, and indeed it is; Cinderella may not be all-the-way grownup, but she’s the sturdy, blooming ideal of postwar womanhood just the same. She has a nose, a normal-sized mouth, and wavy honey-colored hair just past her shoulders. She’s got the simple goodness of the young Donna Reed, till she gets wrapped in that fabulous white ball gown and, with upswept hair, turns into Grace Kelly.

Cinderella offers a plus for the clinical observer: a chance to see what ugly princesses would look like. Drusilla and Anastasia have jug ears, thin lips, and strange noses that combine a ski-slope top with a bulbous undercarriage. Avoid looking like this, is the subliminal message. You can also compare older women. The wicked stepmother has maintained a taut wasp-waisted figure, magnificent posture, and a grand rise of gray hair striped with a blaze of white. The fairy godmother has a kindly smile, multiple chins, white hair, and the figure of an old pillow. She’s tremendously appealing, and sings a great song, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”

A mere nine years later production quality had slid steeply downhill. Sleeping Beauty (1959) opens with a parade sequence in which flattened figures seem to be sliding past each other on parallel tracks. Even the lyrics of the parade-scene song consist of little more than “All hail the Princess Aurora,” over and over; I imagine the lyricist was at deadline and panicking. Aurora is doomed to prick her finger and sleep until “True Love’s Kiss” awakens her (check it off).

The Princess Aurora, a.k.a. Briar Rose, a.k.a. Sleeping Beaut y, seems even older than Cinderella, although the action is supposed to take place on the eve of her 16th birthday. “She could be thirty!” Megan says. She could be Barbie, too, that other paragon of loveliness who made her debut in 1959. Like Barbie, Aurora has a tiny waist and a large bosom; unlike the ‘59 Barbie she has an avalanche of curling yellow hair that tumbles to her waist. Barbie did not achieve such a mane until her accurately-named incarnation of the mid-80’s, “Totally Hair Barbie.”

There’s a subtle change in Aurora’s personality, compared with previous princesses. She’s more assertive, more intense; in some shots she looks almost fierce. Presenting women who are strong but not smart-alecky is a continuing problem for Disney from here on. On the other hand, an earlier problem is resolved: when the Handsome Prince showed up, everything would get boring. Both the previous films ended within minutes of the rescue. Sleeping Beauty has a fuller plot, better characterizations, and a role for the Handsome Prince that makes him more than a Ken doll—more than Ken himself, likewise making his wooden debut in 1959, could say.

There is, inexplicably, a 30-year gap before the princesses return. Disney feature animation during this time covered mostly boy and adventure themes (The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone); I am at a loss to explain why. The closest to a Disney woman during this time would be Maid Marian, co-star of Robin Hood (1973). She’s a fox, I mean a vixen—no, really, the four-legged kind. Robin Hood demonstrated an early embrace of diversity by featuring an all-animal cast.

Marian is a princess in a way, a niece of the Crown, but in rebellion against the Establishment. This may be a bow to the hippie ethic of the time. Her foxy-red pelt is more than skin deep; with her paramour, Robin, she is involved in a scheme for the forcible redistribution of wealth. Other than that she’s benign enough, with an English accent and a faintly superior quality. She’s giddy in love with Robin, and keeps clasping her hands under her chin and exposing four pointy, flesh-shredding teeth. It startled me every time.

Suddenly, at the end of the eighties, we run into a cluster of Disney babes: Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle in Beauty and the Beast(1991), Jasmine in Aladdin (1992), and Pocahontas in the eponymous epic of 1995.

These movies are generally very good. Animation, while not as rounded and shadowed as the early sort, is superior to the flatness of the 60’s. In some sequences an astonishing monumentality has been achieved; traveling shots that fly through the mermaid’s undersea kingdom or Aladdin’s cave are breathtaking to the point of being disorienting. The color is exuberant and supersaturated. The same characters keep recurring, but they’re meaty characters; in contrast to the simple lines of the first films, there are lots of subplots and running jokes to keep things bouncing along. The opening sequence of Beauty and the Beast is as complex and elaborate as the opening number of Broadway’s Les Miserables.

That doesn’t mean the princesses are more attractive, however. Megan and I disagree as to which is more annoying, Ariel or Belle. Ariel is a feisty little redhead who defies her daddy, hoards shiny trinkets, and smirks. While the other princesses were elaborately draped, Ariel runs around in little more than a clamshell bra and fishtail, looking like jailbait. If she had legs, they’d be in stretch toreador pants. Her belly button is always visible, leading to inconclusive ruminations on just how mer-reproduction is accomplished.

Ariel, at least, looks her age (which she shouts at her daddy: “I’m sixteen!”) Aurora’s voice at sixteen was mezzo if not alto; she had a knowing quality. Ariel is excitable, headstrong, still a child, and her voice is a clean soprano (not reaching the nosebleed heights of Snow White’s, however.) She wears a massive burden of red hair. “Her head is too big for her body, and her eyes are too big for her head,” says Megan.

I think I dislike this Little Mermaid so much because it makes a travesty of the original story. Hans Christian Anderson’s mermaid was at the center of a complex drama, sacrificing her life for her beloved even though he marries someone else. The story’s refusal to make that innocent bride a villainess is part of what gives it its power; tragedy and nobility meet in exquisite resolution. But Disney’s Ariel sabotages the evil false-bride and grabs the prince for herself. It’s a story, all right, but it’s not the right story.

Megan prefers to loathe Belle. In the opening of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is taunted by the village people who call her “strange but special” because she reads books. Why her bookishness makes her odd is unclear; the purpose seems to be to convince you that the villagers are dolts. Belle is slim and straight, with normal-size chestnut hair in a low ponytail. She’s more mature than Ariel, with a more confident manner and lower voice. Belle is the least glamorous of the Disney women.

In a twist, the evil character here is not an older woman but the Ken-doll male lead. Poor Gaston is loaded up with every despicable non-P.C. vice available. In case the little girls aren’t getting it, after he talks about hunting (shriek!) and marriage (gasp!) he admonishes Belle, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking.” Gaston is such a straw man he isn’t even any fun to hate. Meanwhile, Belle is pouting her impatience with her hometown in song: “There must be more than this provincial life!”

“Both Gaston and Belle think they’re better than everyone else,” says Megan. “But Belle is smug about it.”

Jasmine made her debut in Aladdin, a fabulously entertaining movie mostly due to the performance of Robin Williams as the Genie. She’s a princess, allright, but something has gone terribly, tragically wrong. Her waist is narrow as a thumb, but her hair is a blooming vast cloud of black, the size of a horse. If this little person were to stand up in real life, the weight of that hair would snap her in the middle like a toothpick. Which would be a completely different kind of movie, one Stephen King might like.

Also, her eyes are too big. Someone told the animators that big eyes make a character appealing, but that’s advice to be used judiciously, like “Perfume makes you smell good.” The black oval disks in Jasmine’s face are the size of turkey platters. They slip past appealing into disturbing, suggesting the fevered dreams of a fetishist.

Mention should be made in passing of Nala, the queen-to-be in The Lion King (1994). Nala is a lioness, but the animators were able to prevent what could have been a repeat of the Maid Marian problem by concealing her teeth. One of the refreshing things about Nala is that she’s not particularly pretty; she looks good, like a lioness should, without being feminized. Her lips are black and her round ears are right on top of her head, like Mickey’s. Belle’s edgy feminism is present, but not oppressive: everytime Nala wrestles Simba, she pins him.

I was not able to view the most daunting heroine of all, Pocahontas; her video won’t be out till spring. Megan, however, has seen her. One day last summer she badgered her two younger brothers until they agreed to accompany her to the theater for what she promised would be family-fun time. She came home and stood in my office, grumpy.

“This is Pocahontas,” she said. ” ‘Ooooo! Trees are smart! Wind has colors! Rocks love you!’ “

“This is me,” she went on. ” ‘Buh-bye.’ “

“This is Pocahontas: ‘Ooooo! You wouldn’t understand! You’re only an evil whiteskin! You like to kill bunnies!’ “

“This is me: ‘BUH. BYE.’”

I have seen her Poca-highness in trailers, though. She has the lantern jaw of a 30’s swashbuckler, and the resonant power-voice of a Broadway musical star. Her eyes are unnaturally wide-set, and she has no nose, just little dots for nostrils. It’s an odd homage: Snow White had the same attributes. But Snow White ran screaming through the night forest in terror. “Pocahontas wouldn’t be running away,” Megan observed. “The forest is her friend. She would be lecturing Snow White.” In fact, that’s the problem with these latest princesses, Megan says. You always have the feeling they’re lecturing you.

Although Pocahontas wears a revealing buckskin frock with a gravity-defying bodice (it’s entertaining to imagine what would really happen when it got wet), she’s more aggressive, more masculine than any previous princess. Maybe she’s another Disney breakthrough: the first cartoon transvestite.

Though I missed the film, Pocahontas is part of my daily life. Megan found a sticker with her image in a box of cereal and, still irritated, placed it over the “Start” button on the microwave. Now, whenever we heat anything, we punch Pocahontas in the nose. It does yield a quiet satisfaction.

Of all these heroines it is still Cinderella who, for me, holds the most appeal. She was unaffected and kind, strong of character without slipping into the annoying smugness of the later Disney women. But it’s time to admit that there’s little chance I’m going to be able to look like Cinderella. That chance has passed me by, as it passes most little girls.

It’s not so hard to let go of a dream when there’s another one handy. Though it’s probably too late for me to look like Cinderella, I think I can gradually come to look like the fairy godmother. Give me another twenty years. Fluffy, jolly, forgetful, saying things like “mysticaboola”—that should come in handy, since I write for religion magazines a lot. Her voluminous soft lavender robe with no waistline looks a lot more comfortable than Cinderella’s party dress. I bet it goes right in the washer-dryer. I picture that lady in the black-framed mirror, and I’ve got to admit it: finally, the shoe fits.


Handy Clip n’ Save Reference Card

That woman across the room, so compelling, so strangely familiar. Doesn’t she look a little, well, animated to you? Could it be one of the Women of Disney, traveling incognito? Before you ask for an autograph and make a fool of yourself, check this handy guide.

If she has…       It could be…

Big Eyes…           Jasmine
Big Hair…            Jasmine
Big Ears…           Nala
Closed Eyes…     Aurora
An Attitude…      Ariel
Coupla Extra Pounds…     Snow White
Pointy Teeth…     Maid Marian
Mice…         Cinderella
Books…      Belle
5:00 Shadow…    Pocahontas

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.