Linguistic researchers have logged hours upon hours of dialogue from Disney movies, and found that in the most recent ones, male characters speak three times as often than female characters:
And yet, in one respect, “The Little Mermaid” represented a backward step in the princess genre… The plot of “The Little Mermaid,” of course, involves Ariel literally losing her voice — but in the five Disney princess movies that followed, the women speak even less. On average in those films, men have three times as many lines as women.
The data come from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise. Because so many young girls watch these movies — often on constant repeat — it’s worth examining what the films are teaching about gender roles.
Dangerous right? Let your dughters watch Disney movies at their peril. The researchers divide the Disney princesses into two “eras”; Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are classics, and the modern era is from The Little Mermaid on. In the classic era, female characters speak as much or more than males; outside of Tangled and Brave, no Disney princess movie from the past half-century has more than about 40% of its dialogue spoken by women.
At Acculturated, Carrie Lukas notes that many of the loquacious gents in these movies are side characters (“the modern-day Jiminy Crickets such as Sebastian inThe Little Mermaid or Olaf in Frozen”) who aren’t even human, and whose gender may not be super clear in the traditional sense.
But there’s something else afoot. Ask yourself, Who are the bad guys in these movies?
Snow White had her Evil Queen. Cinderella had her wicked stepmother and two moronic stepsisters. Aurora, which is apparently Sleeping Beauty’s given name, had Maleficent. Sure, Ariel had Ursula, but Ariel also didn’t have a voice for much of the movie. Since then, most of Disney’s big bads have been boys. After Ursula, the next major bad gal was Rapunzel’s stepmother in Tangled. And surprise: That would be the next movie where female dialogue eclipsed males. (The “bad guy” in Brave was a bear, I think, so it’s a different case.)
(Sidebar: though Jafar serves to underscore this theory, I’m throwing Aladdin out as a “princess movie.” Though Jasmine is marketed heavily as part of the pantheon of “Disney Princesses,” Aladdin is not a princess movie. You can tell because it is named after the male protagonist. This is a hint. You might as well kvetch about Nala not getting enough lines as the “princess” in The Lion King. Also, how much of the 90% of the male dialogue in Aladdin came from Robin Williams?)
Many of the non-protagonist male characters that hog the script serve as either the evil-doers or as buffoonish comic relief. Neither is a particularly favorable image. Would Frozen have been a better movie for women if the slow-witted Snowman had been voiced by Melissa McCarthy? (By the way that could have been hilarious.) That is the answer to the “problems” these researchers have found, and it isn’t clear that it improves the messages these movies send to young girls.
What is clear is that someone got paid to watch an awful lot of Disney movies.