Hey Disney, why were your Female Villains so much more Emotive than your Heroines?

Let me say this right up front: I am not accusing Walt Disney Animation of being sexist in the present day, not with this article at least. Instead, let us look to that happy period of between 1937-1959. Here it was possible to do a story like Cinderella, a tale of a woman being abused and denied any real right to exist until she marries a man, and people’s only reaction was “that’s outrageous! Mice can’t talk!”

Thankfully times have changed.

This article is going to examine an interesting discrepancy I noticed when re-watching these films (namely Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty). All of these films feature female characters in multiple roles. Specifically, in each film there is a positive woman character and a negative one. I’m stretching a bit for Tinkerbell but there you go. Let’s look at the levels of animation involved bringing their expressions to life, shall we?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

The first, the very first animated film done by Walt Disney and company: way back in 1937. For this film, there was no precedent, no manner to be like “just animate it like we did the one before.” So, they experimented, using a technique called rotoscoping for some of the animation. For those out there who don’t know, rotoscoping is essentially tracing the animation over preexisting live action footage. Specifically animator Grim Natwick used this technique for certain scenes involving Snow White. That helps explain how images like this exist:

Rotoscoping was called painting on film. It certainly leaves that effect.
Rotoscoping was called painting on film. It certainly leaves that effect.

It is worth noting that Natwick made his claim to fame by animating Betty Boop. So really, anyone who looks back at Snow White being like, “hmmm she seems kinda doe-eyed”

You don't say?
You don’t say?

Anyway, it is worth noting that his style of animation was not used for every character. Art Babbit was the man placed in charge of animating the Evil Queen. (also known as Grimhilde). Let’s see how successful his animation was at bringing a character to life:

A simple animation but it proves a point. Grimhilde (in both her forms) offers much more in the way of emotion than does Snow White. This could be chalked up to the restrictive use of rotoscoping (a process that is only restrictive in price) but… let’s look elsewhere.


Fast-forward to 1950 and times have changed. Walt Disney Animation was no longer a brand new company new to the art of animation. No doubt the characters benefited greatly from this increased knowledge and experience. Let’s look at the titular character:

Okay this must be happy.
Okay this must be happy.

Cool, one emotion down, what else she got?

Good, surpise! What else?
Good, surpise! What else?

Surely there are many other forms of emotion she includes. After all, she is the main character of the movie. Surely those aren’t the two primary… oh they are?

The weird combo of the two.
The weird combo of the two.

Cinderella does not do much besides smile and look pretty in her film. It took two people (Marc Davis and Eric Larson) to animate and… yeah, she smiles or cries – really only crying in one scene. It is worth pointing out that Davis also was involved in animating Snow White, another character who… smiled and cried a lot. Well, okay Frank Thomas had Lady Tremaine (the evil stepmother), let’s see what he did:

Incredible smugness.
Incredible smugness.

Starting to see what I’m driving at? Disney had their villains showing off a lot wider range of emotions. Cinderella is the good guy, so she never looks mischievous. Why is it that Lady Tremaine gets to showcase more emotion? Let’s look at one more. I know I mentioned five movies in the beginning but the repetitiveness of this is getting to me. Plus it’s my blog so I can do what I want.

Sleeping Beauty

Nine years after Cinderella, and of course I have to mention this one. SPOILERS! Here is the face that Princess Aurora makes throughout most of the movie:

You thought I was going to show her sleeping, didn't you?
You thought I was going to show her sleeping, didn’t you?

Yes, when she isn’t in a magically induced coma, Aurora is wearing a smile across her lips. Literally, it is the first and only emotion she forms after waking up. Someone needed to tell Marc Davis (who else) that “good” women did occasionally make different expressions. They enjoy the same freedom as their “evil” counterparts.

Case in point.

Of course, what I’m ultimately trying to say is nothing new. I don’t think any of the animators I just mentioned were outright openly sexist, but this was the norm of the day. Again, thankfully times have changed. It is very interesting to note that Ariel was the first (grown) female protagonist in a Disney animated film to really break this mold. That is kinda sad for two reasons. One: that film was released in 1989. Two: have you really examined the plot and lessons that movie is teaching? Oh well, at least it was better from an animation standpoint. Since then, Disney hasn’t been doing many films that feature both a female protagonist and villain, so it is tough to say.

The most recent attempt at this was Frozen, and script changes stopped Elsa from being the bad guy. Instead audiences were treated to this.

Yay progress!

2 thoughts on “Hey Disney, why were your Female Villains so much more Emotive than your Heroines?

  1. My reading of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s The Illusion of Life is that this was an issue they struggled with. Les Clark and Ham Luske were assigned to do the female character in a 1934 film The Goddess of Spring but it was considered to be a real failure because her face looked like a porcelain mask.

    Luske tried to work out some of the issues to make Snow White more animated, but he had no formal art education and was mostly learning on the job. (His background was in Business). According to the book Luske did struggle with getting the drawing right but he had been hand picked by Disney as the person he wanted to do Snow White.

    I am sure this film was a great leap forward compared to the earlier film, but apparently Luske as an artist still had the same issues. Compared to earlier films, doing a human figure like this was big departure. The anatomy of early animation was often compared to a rubber hose and how to animate a figure was really still being worked out.


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