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Why Is Disney Still Making Female Characters With Such Cartoon-ish Bodies?

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Answer by Monika Kothari, law student

When I was little, I used to draw all the time. I especially liked drawing people, kids my own age. But while I drew boys normally, whenever I drew girls (including myself), I gave them hourglass figures with hips and breasts. This was while I was six or seven years old. At the time, it didn't occur to me that it was odd, although some of my classmates criticized my drawing style. Since then, I've realized that as a child, I internalized a lot assumptions about female body image from the media I consumed, and Disney films in particular.

The interesting thing about Disney princesses is that no matter how diverse they supposedly are, they almost all have the same very thin body type with doe eyes and tiny hands and feet. Even with the expansion of the Disney oeuvre to include multicultural heroines (Jasmine, Mulan, Tiana), there's otherwise been no movement towards more realistic body types.

I think that the controversial comments of Lino DiSalvo, head of animation for Frozen, while not directly responsive to the question, are relevant here:

Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they're very sensitive to -- you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they're echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.


While there has already been much discussion of this statement, I think the basic point is: we don't know how to create female characters of diverse and realistic facial and body types, because we're preoccupied with keeping them "pretty." On the other hand, we have no problem animating male characters, who are allowed to have different body types -- compare Aladdin and Kristoff, for example. Okay, there still isn't a ton of diversity in the realm of Disney princes, and there's work to be done there too, but you still get a lot of interesting-looking male secondary characters in films like Aladdin, Mulan, and Pocahontas. Moreover, the male leads' bodies are in general at least somewhat proportionate (even if secondary characters are more cartoonish), while almost all female bodies are wildly misshapen.

Take a look at Anna and Kristoff:

Yes, Kristoff is a big guy. But he's also an ice harvester that spends much of his time lugging heavy blocks of ice around. But look at his face -- it's pretty distinctive. He has normal-sized eyes and a large nose and chin, features that you would almost never find in a Disney princess. Anna has huge eyes, a tiny nose, and an abnormally slender neck -- which is fairly typical of almost all Disney princesses. Male characters, including heroes/princes, are allowed more variation than female characters, and they are also more realistic.

(Does something seem strange about the image. Er ... like the fact that Elsa and Rapunzel have basically the same face and body?)

Sociological Images occasionally has posts discussing gender dimorphism in animated films, especially Disney. One of the films they looked at recently was Frozen. Check this out:



Yes, Anna's eyeball is actually wider than her wrist! Which is kind of crazy, given that the characters of Frozen are meant to be at least somewhat realistic, and not completely cartoonish like the Simpsons. Here's a link to the aptly titled Sociological Images post: "Help, My Eyeball is Bigger than My Wrist!": Gender Dimorphism in Frozen. The author of that article posted a follow-up discussing exaggeration of male and female size in animation: Do Cartoons Have to Exaggerate Gender Difference? He notes that there are successful counterexamples to the Disney trend, which feature proportionally similar male and female characters:

Kiki's Delivery Service

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves - yes, Disney!

I can also think of other examples. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra come to mind:

These films/shows and others indicate that men and women don't need to have exaggerated body size difference, that it's not that hard for popular media to depict realistic women, and that the absurd skinniness is actually a more recent stylistic choice. Snow White is the fairest in the land, but in a way, her beauty is the most relatable to young girls. She doesn't have a impossibly small waist, or enormous eyes that occupy half her face, as modern Disney princesses generally do. The same goes for Kiki, who basically looks like an average girl, and Korra, who is strong and well-muscled -- more than many of the men in her show. Moreover, they are all proportionate to their male counterparts in terms of the size of their eyes, hands, wrists, waists, feet, etc.

Do I think it's damaging to depict women as stock bodies with exchangeable heads? Well, yeah, kind of. I think it teaches girls that there's only one type of "princess," and some children easily internalize that message, like I did. It doesn't help that most Disney women that don't fit the princess model are villains. There's an underlying message that to be desirable, to win over the prince, women have to look a certain, unattainable way. Even though Disney princesses are obviously fictional and illustrations (not real actors), and even though animation is by definition somewhat unrealistic, the constant reinforcement of these depictions of women (in other mediums too -- Barbie, Photoshopped magazine covers, etc.) can still have negative effects. It would be one thing if Disney princesses existed in isolation, but they don't -- they exist in a broader cultural context that tells women and girls that they need to be skinny in order to be beautiful, and that beauty is important to their life chances. I don't have evidence to support these views beyond my own experiences (indeed, there are conflicting studies out there), but I know I'm not alone in thinking this.More questions on Disney: