One thing that struck me in my recent viewing of Disney animated films was the role of female characters. Even though most of these movies are targeted toward a female audience and many of the main characters are female, there actually aren’t a lot of girls or women in these movies.
Most of the female roles come down to three categories, the heroine (or love interest, if the main character is male), the mother figure, and the villain. Very few of the female characters have female friends. For the heroines, the only women in their lives are either mother figures or villains. These movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test. This is a very low-bar test for female representation in movies that merely requires that there are two female characters who have names and who talk to each other about something other than a man.
For the fairy tale movies, some of this is baked into the stories, especially before they started going beyond the basics of the tales and fleshing them out with characters and details. The only female characters in Snow White are the evil queen and Snow White, and I guess there’s not a lot of room to add female characters unless some of the dwarfs are women. This one might even sort of pass the Bechdel Test, given that Snow White and the queen in disguise have a conversation about the apple, but the queen doesn’t get an onscreen name, so I’m giving it a fail.
In Cinderella, we have female villains and the mother figure of the fairy godmother. Cinderella sort of has conversations with her stepfamily, so I guess it passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s interesting that her animal friends who get names are all male. The female mice are more in the background and don’t interact directly with Cinderella. If they were going to make up characters to add to the story, it seems like it would have made more sense for her confidants to be female.
Sleeping Beauty still has the heroine/mother figures/villain triad, and about the only conversation Aurora/Briar Rose has with the fairies is about the prince, though this is one of the few of the fairy tale movies that is full of active female characters.
Jumping ahead to more modern Disney princesses, all of Ariel’s fishy friends are male, as are most of the enchanted objects Belle interacts with, with the exception of Mrs. Potts (mother figure) and the Wardrobe. But all their conversations are about the Beast. All of Rapunzel’s friends are male. We finally get an actual female friendship with Tiana and Charlotte in The Princess and the Frog, but Charlotte spends most of the movie offscreen, and most of the other characters are male. Frozen has dual female heroines, but the only other female character is a female-coded troll (the sequel does a bit better).
Maybe the secondary characters in the female-led movies are male to balance it out. Except the male-led movies are also male-dominated. The Lion King has the mother, who’s offscreen most of the movie, Nala, and a secondary villain. So, about the same number of women as the female-led movies, only less screen time. In Peter Pan, Wendy, her mother, and the mermaids are the only women who get any dialogue. Tinkerbell just chimes, while Tiger Lily never speaks. The mermaids only talk about Peter. We get two mother figures in The Jungle Book, the wolf at the beginning and the elephant. Then the girl shows up at the end and sings her song but otherwise doesn’t talk. At least Lady Cluck and Marian are friends in Robin Hood, though I think they mostly talk about Robin, and then there’s a female bunny child and a couple of mothers among the villagers. Cluck is a rare character who doesn’t fit the heroine/love interest, villain, or mother figure mold. In Aladdin, Jasmine is the only female character (unless there’s a cameo moment I forgot). We don’t even have a mother figure or female villain there.
I could go on because almost all of them are like this. But this isn’t unique to Disney. When I was helping with the church youth musicals, we ran up against this in trying to find a show. The audience for musical theater is predominantly female. Most of the people interested in participating in musical theater are female. And yet most of the roles in most shows are male. I suppose they don’t have a hard time casting male roles for pro productions in New York (though I’d bet they have a smaller pool to choose from than they do for female roles), but for amateur productions, especially those for teens, it’s nearly impossible to fill all the male roles while there are dozens of girls trying out for each female part. For our musicals, they ended up gender flipping every role that didn’t absolutely have to be male and bringing in adult men to fill some of the male roles, so that they only needed maybe three or four teen guys, and even then there might be two who were actual theater kids (often the ones from the performing arts high school in another city who couldn’t get lead roles in school productions and wanted to beef up their resumes) and a couple who could manage to walk on stage and say a line or two. Meanwhile, the chorus would be packed with girls who had voice and dance training (in these shows, everyone who tried out got some kind of role). The lead female actress would be Broadway-caliber. About the only “girly” show that actually has mostly female roles is the Broadway version of Cinderella.
Or look at the Star Wars saga (other than the TV series, which are a lot more balanced). Even when the main character is female, they keep the girl and two guys combination for the main trio. Rogue One had a female lead, but only two women with speaking parts.
I guess I can partially thank this tendency for my writing career because the fact that just about every work of popular culture when I was a kid, aside from Charlie’s Angels, had only one female character meant that I had to make up my own characters to play when we were playing whatever TV show or movie as we ran around the neighborhood. I had to make up another nurse or doctor when we played M*A*S*H, another Enterprise crew member when we played Star Trek, a female cop when we played CHiPS, a female X-wing pilot when we played Star Wars, etc., if I didn’t win the argument about who got to play the one female character in the show or movie.
By the way, the post title is a reference to a Beach Boys song later also recorded by the Captain & Tennille (which is how I know it), though I think it was more about the live-action movies Disney did in the 50s and their TV shows (like the Mickey Mouse Club) than about the animated princesses.