Why Do Disney Films Have So Few Women in Them?

"And then the prince traveled the land with the glass ceiling trying it on every woman in the kingdom."
"And then the prince traveled the land with the glass ceiling trying it on every woman in the kingdom."
Cinderella on Sofia the First

There's no argument to be had that women are in fact underrepresented in Hollywood. Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, the executive director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, compiled a report of the characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2011. Despite women being 51 percent of the population, they only represented 33 percent of the speaking roles in movies, up 5 percent from 2002. Worse than that, only one out of ten films featured a clear female lead protagonist. We won't even go into how embarrassing it is that neither Marvel or DC has launched a solo female superhero at a time when The Hunger Games is breaking box office records and even a terrible film like Lucy can rake in almost $500 million.

I got into a discussion about this online when someone spoke up about Disney as a counter argument. He said he couldn't even remember a male lead in a Disney film besides The Jungle Book. It's become a pretty silly and sad talking point of the Men's Rights "movement" that Disney has descended into this hot bed of radical feminism bent of emasculating men. "Where are teh menz?" they ask of this den of she wolves where men are barely present.

Which is a little weird because women are nearly as poorly represented in animated Disney films as they are in other films.

Wait, what? Yes it's absolutely true. The Disney Princess marketing juggernaut may seem like a massive wave of pink, non-dude pop culture, but if you sit down and look at the actual statistics on Disney films you see that 68 percent of them clearly feature male protagonists. Here, I made a chart...in MS Word. Don't judge me.

I just realized I accidentally typed "Prince and the Frog" instead of "Princess and the Frog", but I didn't change it because for most of the movie it's actually a more accurate description.
I just realized I accidentally typed "Prince and the Frog" instead of "Princess and the Frog", but I didn't change it because for most of the movie it's actually a more accurate description.

There are currently 99 official films in the Disney theatrical animated library. Admittedly these do include movies that I'm sure a lot of people might scratch their heads and debate. Should Pixar, Touchstone and the Studio Ghibli films that Disney distributes count the same as the more core products? What in the blue hell was Roadside Romeo? Doug should be Nick Toons, not Disney, and the Jim Carrey Christmas Carol isn't really a cartoon, and...

I don't know what to tell you. These are the flicks Disney puts their name on, so they count.

Looking at the chart you can see that the animated movies released by Disney have featured men in the most starring roles going all the way back to the beginning. Though Snow White was both the first feature and the first Disney Princess, she actually shares top billing with seven other named males characters, six of whom have speaking parts. The same goes for Belle and Tianna. The marketing department may have more or less excluded Naveen and Beast from the merchandising dolls department, but Princess and the Frog is as much Naveen's story as Tianna, and Beauty and the Beast is almost entirely about the changes Beast goes through, not Belle.

Even one of the princesses, Jasmine, is not the protagonist of her movie. Aladdin is.

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"Why does no one remember I exist!?"
"Why does no one remember I exist!?"
The Black Cauldron

You could quibble over some of my designations, sure. It's arguable that Wendy Darling or Tinkerbell should count as a co-lead in Peter Pan, or that poor, always overlooked Princess Princess Eilonwy should be co-lead with Taran in The Black Cauldron. Those are valid arguments, but they really only highlight the disparity further. If you count Wendy, then don't John and Michael count as well? Same with Eilonwy, making her the sole girl in a band of otherwise male adventurers.

Even when women are the lead protagonists they still make up less than half the cast in Disney films.

Take Frozen, which is held up as a game-changer due to its two female heroes and the lack of a romance being the core of the plot. There are 11 main speaking roles in total in the movie. Of them, only four are women, and if you count Sven the reindeer as a character that means that even in Frozen two-thirds of the characters are male. That's actually worse than the regular Hollywood average. Brave, Tangled, The Little Mermaid, Mulan, Pocahontas...aside from a few mother figures and witches they are all the sole representative of their gender in their films.

"I had the weirdest dream. In it, my entire role in life was replaced with the briefcase from Pulp Fiction and as long as it could sing absolutely no one noticed."
"I had the weirdest dream. In it, my entire role in life was replaced with the briefcase from Pulp Fiction and as long as it could sing absolutely no one noticed."
Sleeping Beauty

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In the films that make up the official Disney Princess line only two have more or less gender equal casts, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. That's nice, but there's the sad fact that both movies have protagonists with virtually no agency at all. Aurora is comatose and needs Action Man to fight and smooch his way to her to even wake up, and Cinderella is saved through the power of fashion magic.

One place where Disney does a pretty bang up job in featuring a wide assortment of female characters is in the Tinkerbell movies. Though they're not big theatrical releases -- I actually didn't know any of them had been in theaters, let alone three -- they're still quality films with solid messages and diverse casts. Oddly enough, of the 16 Disney films with clear female leads one-quarter of them are Studio Ghibli, and that number would be even higher if we included films that were released theatrically in Japan but only on DVD in America.

My numbers may be off depending on how you determine who counts as a lead or not. However, no matter how you slice it or how you add a percentage point here or there the amount of male Disney characters in both starring and side roles utterly dwarfs the number of women. The overall trend is inarguable. Even in Disney, that supposed bastion of femininity, film is nearly completely a man's world.

And it always has been.

Jef has a new story, a tale of mad robot nurses and a man of miracles called "Sleepers, Wake!" available now. You can also connect with him on Facebook.


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