This is an extremely interesting video about masculinity in Disney films.

Essentially, the video argues that masculinity in Disney movies has three primary elements:

  • Viewing women as objects of pleasure or servants to please them;
  • Possessing a muscled body and physical prowess;
  • Being willing to fight to maintain dominance.

I think the video suffers from one fatal flaw: it does not adequately distinguish between “good guy masculinity” and “bad guy masculinity.” For instance, the video is right that pacifism rarely comes off well in Disney. However, good guys in Disney films rarely choose to fight; they are driven by the villain’s evil to fight. In fact, Disney Villain Death exists just so the heroes don’t have to have blood on their hands. Good guys, according to the Disney idea of masculinity, are classic “I didn’t start the fight, but I’m sure as hell gonna end it” people.

The objectification section is particularly problematic. Gaston is, very clearly, not a hero and his view of Belle as an object to be possessed because she’s beautiful is a foil to Belle learning to love the Beast for what he is on the inside. A Girl Worth Fighting For from Mulan is supposed to be sexist. That’s literally the whole joke of the song. See the bit where Mulan was all “how ’bout a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind” and everyone else was like “nah”? That is because they have sexist views of what women are good for, which proves exactly how badass Mulan is by defying her gender roles to kick ass and take names.

Which is not to say that good-guy masculinity in Disney movies isn’t objectifying; it is just not “women as objects for pleasure” objectifying. Instead, good-guy masculinity is pedestalizing. Good men in Disney movies treat women like, well, princesses. They see that they’re beautiful and then are willing to suffer any pain, endure any torment, do any deed, in order to earn her love.

But pedestalization is not magically unsexist. For one thing, it denies women agency: why can’t they go about earning men’s love? Besides, women– even beautiful women– are often assholes who don’t deserve to have someone go through the Twelve Labors of Hercules to earn their love; pedestalization denies women the agency to be less than perfect. It also creates a toxic view of love. Love is not something you earn. You do not deserve love because you buy flowers or pay for dinners or write poems or give compliments or open car doors or treat women like (revealing phrase!) princesses.

Love is a relationship, not a reward. People of all genders get love when they find someone whose company they enjoy, whose presence makes their stomachs flip over, who makes them a better person, who shares their values, whom they want to share a life with. You don’t have to be Prince Charming to find love; you just have to be a person. And Disney movies don’t really depict that kind of love. Maybe it makes bad movies.

Despite my disagreements with the video, I do think it’s vitally important that we continue to examine the gender politics of Disney movies from all sides, masculinity as well as femininity. Childhood popular culture is an important source of ideas about how the world works that continue to influence us for the rest of our lives– and, in terms of gender and relationships, those ideas can fuck us up pretty damn bad.

Disney movies are especially important as sources of childhood socialization, because of how popular they are. Nearly everyone saw at least one Disney movie as a child; most of us have seen most of the Disney oeuvre. As a college student, I regularly participate in spontaneous The Lion King or Mulan singalongs. Disney is a tremendously important part of our collective culture, so we can’t ignore the places where it fucks up.

Therefore, it’s important for us social justice types to criticize Disney movies when they fail. They depict thin characters as attractive and heroic and fat characters as jokes at best and nonexistent at worst. They are astonishingly heteronormative: my sociology professor, out of sheer irritation with people saying Heather Has Two Mommies was inappropriately putting sexuality in children’s media, once wrote a paper analyzing every reference to heterosexuality in a Disney movie. There are a lot. And Disney presents unrealistic and stereotyped ideas of femininity and masculinity, reinforcing inaccurate ideas of the Prince Charming and the Beautiful Princess.

I don’t want to say that Disney has never been progressive. Mulan could not be more feminist if it dropped an anvil on the viewer’s head with WOMEN CAN DO ANYTHING MEN CAN DO written on it; the movie also has Harvey Fierstein in it and seems to be arguing that crossdressing can solve every problem ever, both of which as a queer feminist I must appreciate. The Princess and the Frog has some very interesting class and race commentary: in fact, in parts, it almost seems to be a critique of the American Dream. Both Prince Naveen and Tiana are refreshingly non-stereotypical. Progress has been made, in part because people keep calling them out on their shit. Let’s keep up the good work.