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Seen but not heard: how our favourite Disney princesses lost their lines to men

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These days, we might watch the older Disney princess films – the Sleeping Beauties and the Snow Whites – for a dose of nostalgia, but in terms of strong role models for the small female relatives in our lives, it's fair to say we'd probably look elsewhere.

And while in recent years the likes of Brave and Frozen have managed to present independent female characters and focus on relationships between women, an ongoing study is looking at how the princess-centred films of the nineties compare when it comes to representating gender roles, and in particular, how language plays its part.

It turns out that despite the decade seeing the emergence of central female characters in Disney with more agency and ambition than the passive Aurora, there's a huge disparity in how much they actually get to speak in comparison to male characters.

the Little Mermaid Disney

Disney's Ariel swapped her voice for a man (and feet) in The Little Mermaid

Even when the women have their name in lights, in films such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1999), Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998), on average, men had three times more lines.

Linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer presented their preliminary findings during the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, and as The Washington Post reports, their analysis shows that The Little Mermaid was the first princess film in which men had significantly more to say – speaking 68 per cent of the time.

Beauty and the Beast was a 71 per cent majority, Pocahontas 76 per cent, Mulan 77 per cent (Mulan was counted as a woman when impersonating a man) and Aladdin (1992) saw men dominate 90 per cent of the speech.

The more recent films fared better, with women having 52 per cent in 2010's Tangled and rising to 74 per cent in 2012's Brave (2013's Frozen swings back to the men, with 59 per cent).

sleeping beauty

“Oh thanks love, I had literally nothing else to do with my life, so yeah, let's have at it.”

The overall character is as important as the number of lines of course: Mulan may have less lines than Aurora (1959's Sleeping Beauty saw women take 71 per pent of the speech) but we'd rather sit our daughters and nieces in front of a kick-ass woman with determination than a dozing damsel.

So in addition to how much they actually speak, the study has also been analysing content; specifically, what type of compliments female characters receive.

The older Disney princess films unsurprisingly rated their heroines in terms of appearance, with 55 per cent of compliments focusing on looks and 11 per cent on skills and accomplishments. In the middle batch of films, Mermaid et al, the numbers were better but appearance still won out over abilities, while of late, Disney has apparently realised that women can sell a film on more than being pretty.

The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled, Brave and Frozen had, on average, 40 per cent accomplishment/skills compliments and only 22 per cent on appearance.

Mulan

Disney's Mulan is a stronger role model than Sleeping Beauty's Aurora

The gender balance of the films was also recorded, and even those with big casts and female leads had them surrounded by male characters. The next biggest parts, sidekicks such as Flounder and Mushu, tended to be male.

Fought said: “There's one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things.

“There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”

These are only the initial findings concerning what these popular films teach young audiences about gender at impressionable ages, but previous studies have shown that animated films help children form their gender identities, and as Fought said, girls are “not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Eisenhauer offers that it's simply a reflection of culture, saying: “My best guess is that it's carelessness, because we're so trained to think that male is the norm. So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that's just really ingrained in our culture.”

Here's to more Meridas.

Images: Disney / Rex Features

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