Over the past ten years Disney has begun to integrate more progressive views into their films and thus are creating more forward-looking mindsets in younger generations. Disney has especially done this by breaking down outdated gender roles and storylines in a variety of different ways. This most notably started with Princess and the Frog in 2010 and can continue to be seen up to this year in films like Onward.
Princess and the Frog (2010)
Probably the most obvious way in which Disney has made their films more progressive is through the stories which told tales of female empowerment and achievement. The Princess and the Frog was one of the first movies to do this, as it told the story of Tiana, a woman of colour in 1920s America who worked tirelessly and overcame adversity in order to achieve her dreams. This was the first Disney Princess to have a real job and rely on her own strengths to get what she wanted. This not only taught young girls to be independent and dream big but it also, through the character of Naveen, showed young boys that a strong and independent woman is still beautiful and of value.
In 2012 Brave was released, which gave the message that girls do not need a man at all to be fulfilled, and that women can lead just as well as men. Merida is a young woman who is being forced into an arranged marriage, even though she knows that she is the rightful Queen of the clans. One of her most notable lines is “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” where she shoots an arrow for herself during a ceremony in which the man who shoots an arrow with the most accuracy wins her hand in marriage and becomes King. This was the first film where a princess did not end up with a man. She was supported by the other clan leaders as they knew she was most fit to lead them. This was one of the first Disney films which highlighted female leadership and inspired many young girls, including myself. It taught them that being confident and strong are not just qualities solely for boys.
Frozen (2013) and Frozen 2 (2019)
Both Frozen and Frozen 2 have furthered the idea that women can lead on their own as well. The main way in which they have been the pioneer in changing views is how they emphasised the importance of family bonds rather than romantic motivations. For centuries when speaking of true love as a solution only romantic relationships were considered, however Frozen showed that family is the truest form of love. Familial love transcends and supersedes all other relationships, because your family are the people that love you unconditionally. This was further shown in Frozen 2 as Anna, despite being in a long term relationship with Kristoff, always put her sister first – no matter what. A similar theme is shown through male representation in Disney’s new film Onward which shows the importance of love between two siblings, and how that can help you through the toughest of times. These films really changed the tide in terms of storytelling and showed that there is a different narrative for princess movies other than “boy and girl fall in love and live happily ever after.” It showed that romantic love is not the only form of empowerment and strength.
Moana is unique in that this film makes apparent how far we have come in terms of women’s roles in films, as there was never a male condition on her leadership. She is next in line to lead their tribe and she is fit to lead it on her own. There is not even a mention of having to get married or find a husband in order to lead. This is different to Brave as, in that film, we need the character to go through a life changing event and long story arc in order to prove that she is able to lead. This film is also another exceptional example of a girl who is sticking to her guns and knows what she wants and has to do, no matter what anyone else says. Moana is brave, smart, and strong while still being compassionate and emotional at times. She embodies the perfect balance between strong leadership and empathy.
Big Hero Six (2015) and Onward (2020)
While many of the films in the past ten years have been focused more on women empowerment and changing the gender norms applied to women, Disney has begun to shift their attention to breaking down gender roles amongst boys as well. This can be seen in both Big Hero Six as well as Onward. Big Hero Six showed the journey of a young boy grieving his brother. We see him work through those feelings; while he is closed off and emotionless at first, he begins to open up and rely on those around him in order to get through. The normalising of visible emotion amongst boys is something that will create a more nurturing and empathetic gender in years to come. Whereas in the past boys have been told to hide their emotion, they are now being shown that it is okay not to be okay all the time. The similar theme of grief is seen in Onward as it tells a tale of two brothers who are looking to be reunited with their late father. Hopefully in time we will see the normalisation of boys and men showing emotion outside of grief, similarly to how we saw the transition of women in power no longer needing justification.
This is just one area in which Disney is introducing more modern views and ideals in their films. They have also begun to be more representative of the LGBTQ+ community and challenge stigmas that older generations have passed down. However, while Disney has come far in some ares, it can still be more progressive on other fronts – this will hopefully be seen in the future.