Although they’ve been criticized for reinforcing conventional gender roles, Disney’s princess line is nevertheless the most high-profile female-led franchise of all time. And while Disney has gotten praise for creating more progressive princesses starting in the ’90s, a new study complicates the idea of Disney’s evolution: In almost every Disney princess film since 1989, the study finds, male characters get significantly more speaking time than female ones. The data comes from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who previewed their ongoing study at recent conference. The Washington Post has a detailed breakdown of their findings.
Even in a film like 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which features a female lead and a female villain, women get only 32 percent of the lines (which, in this case, is probably because its heroine is mute for half the film). The other princesses of the “Disney Renaissance” era fare even worse: Mulan’s story of a gender-bending Chinese warrior allows women to speak only 23 percent of the dialogue, Beauty & The Beast celebrates female intelligence while letting women speak 29 percent of the time, and Pocahontas gives its independent leading ladies only 24 percent of its dialogue. In the male-centric Aladdin, the female characters—basically just Princess Jasmine—speak a measly 10 percent of the film’s lines.
What’s even more surprising is that this imbalance wasn’t always the case. 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarves has women speak 50 percent of the time, 1950’s Cinderella gives women 60 percent of the lines, and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty gives ladies a whopping 70 percent of its dialogue:
But of the nine princess films released since 1959, only two give women more lines than men. 2010’s Tangled just surpasses gender parity by letting women speak 52 percent of the time, while 2012’s Brave gives women a large chunk (74 percent) of dialogue. Yet 2013’s Frozen—hailed by many as a feminist turning point for Disney—took a step back from Brave’s progress. Despite centering on two princesses, women speak only 41 percent of Frozen’s dialogue.
That’s because Disney princess films feature casts that are overwhelmingly male (Anna and Elsa are basically the only women in Frozen, for example). In fact, Fought and Eisenhauer found that no Disney princess film has ever featured a cast in which women outnumber men. Cinderella is the only film in the canon to even achieve gender parity:
As Fought explains, “There’s one isolated princess trying to get someone to marry her, but there are no women doing any other things. 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.”
Meanwhile, Eisenhauer speculates the gender imbalance isn’t intentional, “My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm. 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.” So while it once seemed ironic when Ursula advised Ariel, “Yes on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word / It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man,” maybe that’s just an insight into Disney’s belief system.