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Researchers have found a major problem with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and other Disney movies

To modern eyes, the classic trio of Disney princess films — released in 1937, 1950 and 1959 — can seem painfully retrograde. Why are characters so obsessed with Snow White’s looks? Why doesn’t Cinderella have any talents or hobbies? And why doesn’t Sleeping Beauty do anything besides get drugged and await rescue?

A generational gap divides Disney’s princess franchise. After 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” it took 30 years for the studio to produce another animated princess feature. The intervening decades saw dramatic change. Walt Disney died. Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington.

In 1989, when Disney finally released “The Little Mermaid,” critics praised this modern new heroine. Unlike her predecessors, “Ariel is fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously,” Roger Ebert wrote. The New York Times called her “a spunky daredevil.”

And yet, in one respect, “The Little Mermaid” represented a backward step in the princess genre. For a film centered on a young woman, there’s an awful lot of talking by men. In fact, this was the first Disney princess movie in which the men significantly outspoke the women.

And it started a trend. The plot of "The Little Mermaid," of course, involves Ariel literally losing her voice — but in the five Disney princess movies that followed, the women speak even less. On average in those films, men have three times as many lines as women.

The data come from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess franchise. Because so many young girls watch these movies — often on constant repeat — it’s worth examining what the films are teaching about gender roles.

“We don't believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” says Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

The Disney princess research is still in its preliminary stages, but a few weeks ago, Fought and Eisenhauer gave a preview during the nation’s largest conference of linguists. Their goal is to use data to shed light on how the male and female characters in these films talk differently. They started by counting how often the characters spoke. That’s when they hit upon a surprising irony.

In the classic three Disney princess films, women speak as much as, or more than the men. “Snow White” is about 50-50. “Cinderella” is 60-40. And in “Sleeping Beauty,” women deliver a whopping 71 percent of the dialogue. Though these were films created over 50 years ago, they give ample opportunity for women to have their voices heard.

By contrast, all of the princess movies from 1989-1999 — Disney’s “Renaissance” era — are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 68 percent of the time in “The Little Mermaid”; 71 percent of the time in “Beauty and the Beast”; 90 percent of the time in “Aladdin”; 76 percent of the time in “Pocahontas”; and 77 percent of the time in “Mulan” (Mulan herself was counted as a woman, even when she was impersonating a man).

Part of the problem is that these newer films are mostly populated by men. Aside from the heroine, the films offer few examples of women being powerful, respected, useful or comedic.

“There's one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things,” Fought says. “There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things. Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”

The older princess films had fewer speaking roles in total, and more gender balance. But “The Little Mermaid” pioneered a new style of Disney movie, modeled after Broadway musicals, with their large ensemble casts. As the number of characters grew, so did the gender inequality.

"My best guess is that it's carelessness, because we're so trained to think that male is the norm,” says Eisenhauer, a graduate student at North Carolina State. “So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that's just really ingrained in our culture.”

The chatty sidekick is another good example of a role that goes to men by default. This is a staple character in more recent Disney films, and he — yes, he — often gets some of the best lines. There’s Flounder, Sebastian, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Iago, Genie and Mushu. Why can’t any of them be women? Mrs. Potts, the teakettle from “Beauty and the Beast,” is the only example of a female sidekick, and she’s overshadowed by the other castle staff.

After “Mulan” (1998), Disney took a 10-year break before releasing its next series of princess films. These newer films are better at giving lines to men and women equally. In “Tangled,” women have 52 percent of the lines, and in “Brave,” a film about a mother-daughter relationship, they had 74 percent.

“Frozen” breaks with that trend, though. Despite being a story about two sister princesses, men claim 59 percent of the lines in that film.

It’s of course incomplete to judge a film just by the number of words that women say. What the characters say is equally important. So far, Fought and Eisenhauer’s analysis has focused on compliments. They have categorized every bit of praise in every Disney princess film to see how the way that women are talked about has changed over time.

Here is where the trend is positive. The classic Disney princess films were focused on looks. More than half of the compliments that women received — 55 percent — had to do with their appearance. Only 11 percent had to do with their skills or accomplishments. (People could also be complimented for other reasons, like their possessions or their personality.)

Some psychologists counsel parents not to compliment children, especially young girls, on their looks. Even positive comments may lead to body-image problems because they reinforce the idea that appearances are important. Furthermore, studies suggest that it's better to praise children for their efforts or accomplishments rather than their traits — better to say "you aced that test!" than "you are really smart!" — because children are more motivated when complimented on their efforts.

The “Renaissance”-era princess films, from the ’90s, have a better record in this regard. About 38 percent of the compliments given to women had to do with their looks, while nearly a quarter of the compliments had to do with their abilities or deeds.

In the latest batch of films — "The Princess and the Frog," "Tangled," "Brave," and "Frozen" — the pattern is finally reversed. For the first time, women are more likely to be praised for their skills or achievements than for their looks. On average in these films, 40 percent of compliments directed at women involve their abilities or accomplishments, while only 22 percent involve physical appearances.

Part of this may have to do with the people at the helm of these more recent movies. “Frozen” and “Brave” were both conceived, written and directed by women or a team that included women. Brenda Chapman, who created “Brave,” has said that she specifically wanted to smash the stereotype of the Disney princess movie. "Merida was created specifically to break that mold," Chapman told an online parenting website. "She was created to turn the regular Disney princess on its head."

“I think that Disney has responded very well to calls that, frankly, have been a long time coming,” says Dawn England, a PhD student at Arizona State who has published research on how men and women behave in Disney princess movies. She says there needs to be more studies on how children process these films, to understand how these portrayals of gender affect young minds — though that's hard to do because the images are so widespread.

The studio, at least, has been making visible efforts to inject feminism into its movies. “There’s a long way to go, but there’s been an undeniable shift toward these more androgynous princesses,” England says.

Belle, from 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" for instance, was designed as a feminist role model. Disney executives brought in Linda Woolverton, the first woman to write the script for an animated Disney film. Woolverton modeled Belle on Katharine Hepburn in "Little Women" — "both strong, active women who loved to read," she told the L.A. Times in 1992.

Disney is clearly proud of its efforts to modernize the princess movie genre, but it has a lot of work to do. "If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there's so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and always it's a feminist discourse in some way," Eisenhauer says. "They want her to be powerful. But the discourse never, ever, seems to have gone beyond the princess."

Fought and Eisenhauer's research reminds us that it's not just how the princesses are portrayed. It's also important to consider the kinds of worlds these princesses inhabit, who rules these worlds, who has the power — and even who gets to open their mouths. In a large number of cases, the princesses are outspoken by men in their own movies.

“The Renaissance-era movies starting with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ were talked about as being not your average frilly princess films," Fought says. "They have ‘active women who get things done.'"

"That’s fine, but are these movies really so great for little girls to watch? When you start to look at this stuff, you have to question that a little bit.”