The ’90s run of Disney movies has often been hailed as great for female heroines — Disney princesses like Ariel, Belle, and Pocahontas showed off much more agency and independence than their predecessors, cementing them as new sorts of role models for young girls. That’s not untrue, but some leading Disney scholars have discovered a different sort of problem with those ’90s films — that males still had way more speaking parts.
According to research from Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, a pair of linguists, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, and The Little Mermaid all have far more lines spoken by the male characters — 71 percent, 76 percent, and 68 percent, respectively. Aladdin can, perhaps, be excused because Aladdin really was the central character, although the 90-10 split in male to female lines is too large a gap to be totally ignored. The numbers end up being even worse than the older Disney films like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, which were closer to a 50-50 split.
So, what gives? Were our ’90s Disney heroines not as awesome as we thought they were? As it turns out, the numbers don’t really reflect much on the princesses themselves — their roles are robust and they speak their piece. The issue appears to be with supporting roles — specifically, that they’re almost always men. This probably ends up skewing the numbers significantly because those supporting roles usually get an outsize number of lines thanks to Disney’s chatty sidekick trope. Mushu, Timon and Pumbaa, Flounder and Sebastian, the Genie, and Lumière are all male sidekick figures that have a massive number of lines, partly because their roles are so important — they usually end up providing the emotional support and comedic relief that have come to define Disney animated movies.
The older films did have more roles for women, with the Fairy Godmother getting a fair share. Female villains also seemed to be the norm, with Cinderella’s stepmother, the Evil Queen, and Maleficent all getting significant roles and speaking parts. So, to some extent, the gender disparity in speaking parts can be chalked up to differences in individual stories. Still, it looks like the issue hasn’t escaped Disney’s attention — in the new run of Disney movies, including Tangled, Brave, and Frozen, the ratio has moved closer to 50-50 (The Princess and the Frog was closer to the ’90s movies in this respect). Brave unsurprisingly gave far more lines to female characters, with the plot for the most part revolving around Merida’s relationship with her mother.
Even still, there does seem to be a lack of female sidekicks. Odds are that that will change in the near future, as Disney seems keenly aware of how its movies are perceived in today’s pop culture landscape.