Rape Culture and Disney Princesses: Gender Roles


After reading about consent and victim-blaming, you may see overlap between the two and how they perpetuate one another. Someone initiates sex without asking because they were invited into the bedroom alone (consent myth) and when things take a bad turn they become angry about getting mixed signals (victim-blaming myth). Well, if consent is the ice cream and victim-blaming is the hot fudge, then gender roles are the cherry on top of the sundae. I think one of the driving forces of rape culture in America is the view that sexual trauma is a “women’s issue.” This assumption is rooted in ideas surrounding gender roles. Men are viewed as pursuers of sex, while women are viewed as avoiding sex (unless they can be convinced otherwise). This leads to women being objectified and viewed as sexual objects rather than people. Women are also viewed as needing to be convinced or coerced into having sex. These dynamics create environments in which women are more likely to be mistreated and assaulted.

Gender role myths do not work out well for men either. For one, gender myths can lead to all men being viewed as sexual predators. Furthermore, if we take the assumption that men are constantly pursuing sex a step further, then we arrive at the conclusion that men cannot be sexually assaulted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Men can be raped by men. Men can be raped by women. Inevitably when discussing this topic, a question surfaces around the idea of men being raped: If a man is erect, how can it be rape? While erections are typically associated with sexual arousal, they are not completely voluntary physiological reactions. There are numerous times in men’s lives when they experience erections in the absence of arousal or sexual desire. Similarly, it is not unusual for women or men to experience orgasm while being sexually assaulted. This too is an involuntary physiological reaction and cannot be confused with consent, desire, or enjoyment.

We also cannot talk about gender roles without talking about sex; not sex the verb, sex the noun. People constantly confuse sex and gender. A common example occurs when a pregnant couple is asked if they know the gender of their baby. I honestly think this mistake occurs because people are simply uncomfortable saying the word “sex.” Sex is physiological and categorical. Gender is social and lies along a continuum. Sex categories include male, female, and intersex. However, it is important to remember that there can be overlap and ambiguity between these categories. The continuum of gender ranges from more masculine to more feminine. Sex typically (but not always) is present at birth. Gender develops and changes over time. So, it’s actually impossible to know someone’s gender before they are born. Furthermore, when we have rigid views about what it means to be a man or a woman, it is not only harmful to cisgender men and women, it is also harmful to a large percentage of the population who are gender nonconforming or non-binary.

Now that we have a grasp on how harmful rigid gender roles can be, let’s take a look at how they show up in the lives of our beloved animated characters. There are hundreds of individual examples of gender rigidity throughout the Disney Princess genre. However, there is one recurring theme that I find most troubling. This message has two components that exacerbate one another: 1) the idea that a woman’s physical beauty determines her worth and 2) holding an extremely narrow, unattainable view of beauty.

The most obvious examples of rigid gender roles occur in the characters’ appearances. The majority of the princesses are white, thin, and young. When comparing the princesses at times it can seem like the same woman with a different dress and different hairstyle. This leaves so little room to appreciate the many sizes, shapes, colors, abilities, ages, sexes, and genders where beauty can be found. Furthermore, I can find evidence of only two Disney Princesses who ever wear pants: Jasmine and Mulan. I also find it ironic that one of those characters was posing as a man. Snow White and Cinderella are, not surprisingly, two of the most extreme examples of rigid gender roles. Both characters have hyperfeminine dress and body types. The skills they demonstrate in the movie center around homemaking. Both are rescued by men from bleak circumstances. In both films the princes are hypermasculine, flat characters. In fact, the princes are not even named in these two films.

It can be frustrating to unpack rape culture. There are parts of our lives (like animated films) that we want to view as safe and free from corruption. Sometimes, when we take a hard look at these areas, we can observe things that make us feel uncomfortable or helpless. Therefore, in the final post on this series, I would like to focus on practical implications and hopes for the future. I do think there is evidence that some components of rape culture have improved over time. I also think there are practical strategies we can use to find the balance between approaching and avoiding the topic of rape culture.

References and Resources:

England, D. E., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. A. (2011). Gender role portrayal and the Disney princesses. Sex roles, 64(7-8), 555-567.

R.A.I.N.N. (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network)  http://www.rainn.org/statistics

Zwiebel, J., Chirico, K., Epstein, L. (2014). We Did an In-Depth Analysis of 21 Disney Female Leads. https://www.buzzfeed.com/justinezwiebel/we-did-a-census-of-all-the-disney-female-animated-characters?utm_term=.vkVppdg7nB#.fiGWWQ41Na

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