Feminism and female representation in animated movies
Female representation in media is important, especially in media targeted at younger viewers. The Bechdel test is one of the most well-known ways people have studied and compared female representation in movies, but even movies that pass the Bechdel test aren’t necessarily feminist. Historically, a lot of animated movies marketed towards young girls have been about Disney princesses finding their prince. In many of these films there are few positive relationships between the main character and other female characters. The lack of positive relationships between female characters only enhances the emphasis on the romantic plotline in many movies that revolves around the male character.
Even Mulan, a movie about female empowerment, falls under this trope. Mulan is often considered a feminist Disney princess icon, but even she doesn’t have a single significant relationship with another female character. I admit she has a mother and grandmother, who are significant family relations, but her relationship with them doesn’t develop on-screen or impact any of her choices. More recently, however, movies that focus on relationships between female characters are being released and gaining mass appeal. These movies show that female representation is about more than having a female main character; it’s about showing positive and impactful relationships between female characters on-screen.
Disney animated movies that portray positive relationships between female protagonists
Some of the most recent animated movies with strong female protagonists and feminist these are (in order of release): Frozen, Inside Out, Raya and the Last Dragon, Encanto, and Turning Red. Each of these movies centers around the story and struggles of a female protagonist, and incudes at least one close relationship with another female character that influences character development and plot. You can watch all these movies on Disney+.
Frozen and Frozen II
Frozen focuses on the relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna, and much of the action of the movie is influenced by their relationship. Arguably this movie is also about stigma, as Elsa’s fear of rejection causes her to run away, but it is Anna’s attempts to bring her sister back that drive the plot. In the end Elsa must face her fears in order to save her sister. The sister’s attempts to protect each other throughout the movie demonstrate their love for each other. This is the first ‘Disney princess’ movie that highlights a positive relationship between two female main characters that lasts the entire movie.
Frozen II continues to develop the sister’s relationship further, as Anna tries to help Elsa find the source of her powers. In this movie it is Anna who saves her Elsa in the end, and their relationship continues to be what drives the storyline forward.
Inside Out follows the emotions inside Riley’s head as she navigates moving across the country with her parents. Most of the movie takes place inside Riley’s head where we can see her emotions interact with each other. This is how we meet Joy (Riley’s driving emotion), Disgust, Anger, Anxiety, and Sadness. Due to several complications Joy and Sadness must work together to find their way back to Headquarters in Riley’s mind.
In this movie we see Joy and Sadness as they bond over trying to accomplish the same goal: help Riley. Joy learns to listen to Sadness along the way, and Sadness learns the importance of speaking up. The movie as a whole also demonstrates the importance of expressing yourself and your emotions, and listening to others. I think an added layer to this is the important lesson it teaches young girls: that it is ok to express your negative emotions. Often society expects women to express positive and happy emotions, and discourages negative emotional expression. If this movie were made inside the mind of a young boy I would expect the message to stay the same (that it is ok to express sadness and negative emotions) but switch out Joy for Anger.
Raya and the Last Dragon
This movie follows Raya as she searches for the last dragon, Sisu, in order to save her world from the evil spirits known as Druun. Raya and Sisu must work together together to collect all the pieces of the orb: their only hope to defeating the Druun. The one person standing in their way is Namaari, the princess of a tribe that betrayed Raya and her father.
One of the major feminist themes in this movie concerns the status of Raya and Namaari as warrior princesses. Both women were raised to be the future leaders of their tribe, and warriors, defying many gender stereotypes in traditional movies with female centered characters.
There is also the relationship between Sisu and Raya that leads to positive growth in both characters. We also see the transformation of Namaari and Raya’s relationship as they learn to trust each other again by the end of the movie; a positive portrayal of reconciliation between a female protagonist and female antagonist not previously seen in a ‘Disney princess’ movie. The relationship between Namaari and Raya is also sometimes interpreted as a queer relationship, making it the first Disney movie with a lesbian main character (although this is not officially confirmed by the studio).
Encanto follows Mirabel, the only member born into the magical Madrigal family without any special powers. When Mirabel discovers there is a threat to her family’s source of power she tries everything to stop it, but her grandmother, Alma, doesn’t believe Mirabel’s warnings.
This movie highlights a matriarchal family that follows the direction of Alma, the grandmother. A majority of the characters with special powers are also female (5 our of 7 family members). Although all the family members are important, the most prominent characters in the movie are female (Mirabel, Alma, Luisa, Isabela, Dolores), with the exception of Bruno. It is the conflict between Mirabel and her grandmother that causes a majority of the conflict, and with the resolution in the end their relationship is healed.
Turning Red follows Mei Lee, a teenage girl who helps her parents take care of the family temple. As Mei navigates the expectations her mother places on her with her own desires she begins to feel torn between the two. While Mei has a strong group of girl friends in the movie, the more interesting relationship is the one between Mei and her mother Ming. This movie is ultimately about the relationship between a mother and daughter. While originally Ming is villainized from her daughter’s perspective, as the plot develops Ming’s backstory fleshes out her character. Turning Red‘s focus on the mother-daughter relationship humanizes the role of mother more than any Disney film that has come before it.