If you’ve ever been out searching for a gender-specific birthday present for a young girl, you’re no doubt aware of the impact Disney and its bevy of animated features have had on generations of young women. The “Disney Princess” archetype has endured for decades, from Snow White to Aladdin to Frozen, and it shows no signs of slowing down. However, recently a group of researchers decided to look a little closer at the Disney Princess oeuvre, specifically at the roles of women vs. men in the features.
First let’s take a look at the data. Per the Washington Post, linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer have been “working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise,” and their results find that in the original Disney Princess films—Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty—the amount of dialogue spoken by women and men was either 50-50 or skewed towards women. But in the movies from 1989-1999, however, men took the bevy of the dialogue.
In The Little Mermaid, men speak 68% of the time; in Beauty and the Beast, 71% of the time; in Aladdin, 90% of the time; in Pocahontas, 76% of the time; and in Mulan, 77% of the time with Mulan counting as a woman.
The trend changes with the modern era, as women have 52% of the lines in Tangled, 74% of the lines in Brave, and 59% of the lines in Frozen, but the researchers are suggested that after the initial trio of Disney Princess films, when the archetype was resurrected with Little Mermaid, Disney went male-skewing despite the lead characters being female.
But I’d argue that this data alone doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, men speak 77% of the time in Mulan, but Mulan is the story of a woman embedding herself with a group of male warriors and proving she’s just as good—if not better—than them. Of course men are going to have most of the dialogue in that film, because it’s the story of a woman invading a traditionally male-dominated space. In The Little Mermaid, the title character is speechless for a great deal of the film, and Brave is a mother-daughter relationship story in which the mother becomes a speechless bear.
Moreover, what the female characters say is sometimes more important than how much they speak. The impact of the ending to Frozen is gloriously feminist and empowering for young girls/female relationships, and that’s thanks to the dialogue, not how often Elsa is talking.
So while this data is interesting from a purely technical point of view, I’m not sure it actually reveals anything controversial about these classic Disney films that inspired generations of young girls in a multitude of ways.
The dialogue quantity is only one aspect of Fought and Eisenhauer’s research, which is also examining how female characters are addressed (ie. The older films focused on looks over personality, but this trend inverted in the 90s), so if you’d like a closer look at the research head over to the Washington Post.