Quick note: this can apply to plenty of adult fiction as well.
Last night, I had the pleasure of having a discussion with a couple of my fellow authors from Pen Name Publishing. For about a half an hour, we talked about the role of women in young adult (YA) literature, paying particular attention to the question: why are so many female protagonists always in love triangles? Basically: why are so many female protagonists defined by their quest to find love? Why is this such a common thread in young adult writing?
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:
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”
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:
Cool, one emotion down, what else she got?
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Fiction does not exist. By definition, it is fancy; material created by human beings to tell stories, offer escapes, entertain, or teach lessons. It can be argued that the best of fiction does all these things, with only the great examples providing insight to how to approach real life. It is in this spirit that I turn again to Avatar: the Last Airbender, a cartoon that was so much more than (I think) anyone expected. I have already written an article on the real world wisdom to be learned from the character of Iroh. Now let’s examine another character, one who provided drastically different lessons. In the Avatar universe, no villain was more complete, more fully human, and therefore more relatable than Azula.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Azula is a princess of the Fire Nation (the bad guy). She is royalty, born and raised. She is also intelligent, a perfectionist, cunning, and fiercely determined. None of these traits are innately evil, but Azula suffers from being “out of balance,” a condition that all the villains in the Avatar universe share. What this means is that Azula pursues these traits too far, and at the sacrifice of others. This makes her cruel, selfish, and extremely controlling/manipulative. It also makes her incredibly successful, at least to herself. However, in a way that is incredibly relatable to our own non-bending world, Azula’s lifestyle leads to unhappiness, first for others and then herself.
Azula’s biggest vice is her control. Everyone is a little controlling, it reflects a natural desire to feel at peace in the world around you. Some control offers security and a feeling of well-being. Azula drives it negative by turning it to manipulation. She is a character who cannot trust, and therefore cannot understand when people do. She has “friends,” but only so far as people she feels she can keep under her thumb.
The show does depict a closer friendship between Azula and Ty Lee. In the episode, “The Beach,” Azula does a rare break in character. She admits feeling jealously towards Ty Lee, namely the male attention her friend is receiving. Yet Azula cannot fully admit a flaw, as it would break from her image of herself as the perfect princess (perfectionist pushed too far). For the most part, Mai and Ty Lee are not treated as equals, but rather as lackeys. Azula does not value their opinion or often listen to their advice.
This might be evil if it weren’t so sad. Through her actions, Azula is isolating herself from other people. She is consumed by her image and perceived identity as “the princess.” She relishes in power over others, even at the expense of feeling genuine connections. These she does not trust and perceives as weakness. Rather than admit a flaw, she lashes out at all of those around her. This ultimately drives her “friends” to turn on her, leading Azula to grow incredibly paranoid and depressed rather than admit she made a mistake.
Another tragedy of Azula is her lack of growth. She is a cautionary tale of life spent too long in “the comfort zone.” Unlike her brother, Zuko, Azula never struggled with anything in her life until the betrayal of Mai and Ty Lee. Everything came easy to her. While this earned Azula respect and gained her responsibility, it meant that she was never challenged either, and never was able to grow as a person. Everyone is able to excel in conditions where they don’t feel threatened. Most don’t find out who they really are until they are challenged or broken. They will either grow, learning a new and deeper understanding of themselves (as Avatar Korra did) or they will be consumed by their own mind. Azula met this tragic fate.
Azula is the cautionary tale of someone who follows too far in the vein of who she was born to be rather than ever becoming the person she is. Every problem in her life was laid in infancy, from her non-existent relationship with her mother to an abusive father who taught her that manipulation was a way of life and trust was the path of foolishness. Azula grew in this world of propaganda (the Fire Nation being fully justified in the war) and isolation. It only really showed at one point in the show, but it was enough to show the audience just how unsuited Azula was to anything that didn’t revolve around the war.
Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate the lesson than in the perspective of Zuko. In the beginning of the series, Zuko is clearly jealous of his sister, and the favoritism she receives. By series’ end however, he regards his banishment as “the greatest thing [that could have been] done for [his] life.” A pity that Azula never was banished. A pity that she could never escape.