In my original article Feminism and the Disney Princesses, I set out to address specific claims about how the canon of Disney fairy tale films represents its female protagonists. My approach was academic, engaging in a close viewing of the films to determine if these claims had any justifiable basis. While that article examined – and, I believe, ultimately refuted – claims that Disney's animated films present a negative image of women, the other side of the coin is whether they carry an otherwise patriarchal message.
Just as my previous analysis attempted to examine the films without intending to ignite a debate about feminism as a social construct, my discussion of male image in Disney is not intended to ignite debate about male advocacy and men's rights movements. I am a proponent of women's rights, freedoms, and social and economic justice, as well as unequivocally denouncing misogyny, violence towards and oppression of women, and thus am not throwing my fedora into the ring on any particular side. My goal is to employ academic analysis to answer the academic question of how male image is represented in Disney films. Do they reinforce a positive image of male domination and patriarchal power relationships? And more particularly, can the same lens of negative interpretation be brought to bear on them that is frequently brought to bear on Disney's representation of female characters?
In Disney films which do not feature an essentially all-male cast, men typically adhere to one of three tropes. The first is what I will call the Representative Male, who is not a character as such, but rather a generic representation of maleness... Not a man, but any given man. The second is the Sidekick, the physically imperfect male who supports the leads and usually offers comic relief. The third is the Domesticated Male, who is essentially depicted as a subhuman brute (and sometimes an actual animal) who is humanized and civilized by the female lead, usually as the price of assisting her in obtaining her freedom. There are a few exceptions to this pattern, which I will discuss towards the end of the article.
The Representative Male is typically the prince after whom the female protagonist quests. These characters are not even necessarily characters as such, since it is infrequent that they have a discernible personality. Sometimes, in the case of the Princes Charming of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, he does not even have a name and does not actually require one. What is significant about the Representative Male is not who he is as a person but what he represents to the film's princess. To Ariel, Eric represents the allure of the surface world. To Cinderella, Prince Charming represents freedom from her family situation. To Snow White and Aurora, their princes represent burgeoning sexual maturity. In each case, they are not an individual man with his own personality and ambitions, but rather represent maleness as it exists in relation to women.
To the purposes of each story in which he is found, the Representative Male is essentially a MacGuffin. Quoting the invaluable TV Tropes: “MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose.” Alfred Hitchcock, who introduced the term to the public, observed that the key feature of the MacGuffin is its interchangeability: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” In most films the MacGuffin is an object like the Maltese Falcon, Rosebud, or Marsellus Wallace's briefcase (which lampshades the trope by not identifying what is in the briefcase, because it doesn't matter). In Disney films, the MacGuffin is the prince, and that prince could be easily interchanged.
The closest a Representative Male comes being an actual character is Prince Philip in Sleeping Beauty, who does exhibit a personality. He has good humour and boyish charm, and he objects to his arranged marriage on the grounds that it is the 14th century and his father should get with the times. Nevertheless, Philip is totally ineffectual when it really counts. The only definitive thing he actually does in the entire movie is kiss Aurora, and he practically has the three good fairies holding his hand the entire way. Despite claiming that he must proceed alone from out the dungeon, the fairies protect his escape from the castle and later guide his sword to impale Maleficent.
The second and most populous role for men in Disney animated film is the Sidekick. These men exist purely as support for the lead characters, often act as comic relief, and are almost always physically imperfect in some respect. Usually they are short and overweight, though they can also be tall and lanky. Sleeping Beauty has both in the two kings, and coupled with the only other male character being a Representative Male, the film actually offers no meaningfully positive male model. They can be heroic, like the Seven Dwarfs, though they are never the protagonists. Occasionally the Sidekick rejects his place in the story and becomes the villain for doing so, as in The Princess and the Frog. Both Dr. Facilier and Lawrence are too ambitious to remain in their social subordination. The same is true of Edgar in The Aristocats, who objects to the fortune of his spinster mistress being inherited by her cats. I will note here that many female characters find themselves locked in the same trope. The three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty come to mind. However, even as exemplars of this trope, there are more positive portrayals offered to female characters within and outside it, and fewer positive portrayals for men within or outside it.
Disney's longest sustained look at the Sidekick is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though having title billing, Quasimodo is the story's Sidekick, who exists to help Esmeralda achieve her goal of winning Captain Phoebus. Beyond mere physical imperfection, Quasimodo is genuinely deformed and there is never any question of Esmeralda actually choosing him. Sidekicks for the most part are asexual, though Hunchback gives us a glimpse at a Sidekick with a libido who is nonetheless expected to accept asexuality due to his physical deformity. The only joy the Sidekick may aspire to is having assisted the attractive male and female leads to come together. Phoebus himself represents our third class of men, the Domesticated Male. Verging on the Representative Male, his vanity and womanizing signal that he the man in need of changing and whose change helps the female protagonist to achieve her goals.
Though not the first example of the Domesticated Male in Disney films (that honour ostensibly going to Pinocchio which has an almost all-male cast except for the end when the wooden puppet is made into a “real boy” by the female Blue Fairy), the archetypal example of the trope falls to Beauty and the Beast. Male characters in Beauty and the Beast are offered only two options: the Sidekick or the Domesticated Male. Every male character besides the two lead men are Sidekicks, including Lefou, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Belle's father Maurice, and the ensemble of "fanboys" who sing Gaston's praises in the village pub. The Beast (who does not have his own name) and Gaston both fall under the class of Domesticated Male, though in Gaston's case, it is his inability to become domesticated that identifies him as the Villain and dooms him in the story's narrative.
Gaston is a virile wildman, a hunter, who perceives women and animals alike as game. He is vain, cruel, egotistical, and illiterate, who puts his muddy boots on the table, for all intents and purposes rendering him uncivilized. His case is not as immediately acute as the Beast, who was punished for his own cruelty and vanity by being literally transformed into a savage animal. Gaston is able to masquerade as a civilized human, even attaining the admiration of the village's populace. Nevertheless, his inability to win over Belle progressively reveals his internal predatory savagery. By the time he plunges off the buttresses of the Beast's castle, Gaston is reduced to a feral monster in human skin.
In my first article, I briefly summarized the case of the Beast vis-á-vis Belle: “What got the Beast into his predicament to begin with was his cruelty and vanity, not unlike Gaston, and so the solution is to begin reflecting the kind of good character that would make him lovable. As a token of his esteem for her, the Beast offers Belle his library... An acknowledgement of her intellect and passion for literacy. This is in marked contrast to Gaston, who wonders why a pretty girl even wants to read. In the end, it is easily apparent that, all along, it was Belle who held the true power through the quality of her own character. It is Belle who transformed the Beast.”
Just as the Beast was literally turned into a savage animal, so too is he literally turned back into a human being by exhibiting the traits that would make him lovable to Belle. In exchange for humanizing, civilizing, and domesticating him, Belle acquires freedom from her provincial life and any further unwanted advances from men like Gaston.
After Pinocchio's “Faerie ex Machina,” the Domesticated Male pops up again in Lady and the Tramp. After a brief flirtation with the feral life, Lady eventually returns to domesticity, bringing the Tramp with her though he had previously eschewed such domestication. The Tramp has direct descendants in Thomas O'Malley (The Aristocats), Aladdin, Prince Naveen (The Princess and the Frog) and Flynn Rider (Tangled). One could even go so far as to argue that Aladdin is a straightforward remake of Lady and the Tramp. In it, Aladdin enjoys his time as a Tramp-like character who encounters the Lady-like Jasmine on the lamb. Eventually Jasmine returns to the palace and a renewed liberty therein, bringing Aladdin along with her as prince consort.
Aladdin gives us two other male figures of note: the Sultan and Jafar. The Sultan is pure Sidekick, while Jafar has the physical imperfection of a Sidekick yet shares the same refusal of domestication that makes him and Gaston villainous. Like Dr. Facilier, Lawrence, and Edgar, Jafar refuses to accept his position as Sidekick, though his refusal includes explicit sexuality. Both he and Gaston are feral subhuman brutes who are incapable of respecting women as persons and who seek to oppress the female protagonist, demonstrating the "toxic masculinity" that manifests as misogynist chauvinism. Though this is a critique of how male characters are portrayed in Disney films, there is no confusion over the fact that what Jafar and Gaston exhibit are vile personality traits.
In the uproarious “I've Got a Dream” sequence of Tangled, Flynn Rider reveals his ambition to have an island of his very own, which he gets to enjoy with nothing but himself and his fabulous wealth. Over the course of his adventure to liberate Rapunzel, he becomes civilized and domesticated, trading in that dream for life in the castle and trading in a name that was cool in the 1990's for the emasculated “Eugene.” However, he still inherits fabulous wealth as the husband of a princess. Aladdin also dreamt of a life of luxury in the palace, which he received by wedding Jasmine. One could most certainly point out that the ambitions of the Domesticated Males in their rogue state are disordered – desiring wealth, prestige, and other superficial and/or immoral aims – and that their “domestication” is not a “feminizing” of them, but rather, evolving them into more pro-social attitudes. I would also agree with that argument: as presented, these characters do have disordered ambitions. That is just the point, however. An implicit message in these films is that the male characters attain the ultimate fulfillment of their dreams in deference to the female protagonists and that chthonic, uninhibited male ambition is inherently disordered and must be harnessed and legitimized by identification with male domestication.
As I noted at the outset, there are exceptions to these patterns. For example, there is a great deal of debate in feminist circles as to whether Frozen may be considered a feminist film. The definition of feminism is mercurial and tends to shift according to the needs of person invoking the term. Depending on what definition of feminism is being employed, I would argue that Frozen is a feminist film in two significant respects: 1) Elsa is not motivated to action by her relationship with a man, and 2) the vilification of “nice guys” as represented by Hans.
Almost unique in the canon of Disney animated films, Elsa's journey of self-actualization is not motivated by a male figure, neither the Representative Male like the Princes Charming, Eric, and Philip nor the Domesticated Male like the Beast, Aladdin, and Flynn. From beginning to end, her pursuits are quite her own and it is sororal love that ultimately redeems her. This in spite of the fact that she was provided with a perfectly good subhuman brute, being Kristoff, who according to hints dropped throughout the entire movie she should have ended up with. Despite both being introverts and his admiration for Elsa's cryomancy, Frozen matches Kristoff up with Anna because they are a male and a female who share the screen at the same time.
Anna's initial affections were with Hans, who from the outset displays admirable virtues: nobility, compassion, honour, leadership, intelligence, integrity, ability to dress himself, and so on. This telegraphs him as a “nice guy” and therefore the film turns him into the villain. “Nice Guy Syndrome” or the Nice Guy Construct is a view in gender-political theory that men who exhibit outwardly virtuous traits are secretly harbouring anti-social, misogynistic thoughts, particularly a sense of entitlement towards female sexuality. The phrase “nice guy” originated in the pro-social practice of politely and compassionately letting down someone – male or female – when they express an unreciprocated romantic interest (i.e.: “You're such a nice guy/girl, but...”). The pattern of people letting down someone who they call “nice” while choosing to date someone they persistently criticize became a common theme in comedy and drama, both in respects to men turning down women and women turning down men. In feminist gender-political theory, the “nice girl” is commonly interpreted as a victim of disordered male sexual desire (e.g.: a victim of "body-shaming") while the “nice guy” is commonly interpreted as a perpetrator of disordered male sexual desire.
Most feminists assent to a distinction between the Nice Guy Construct and legitimately decent, kind men. In particularly acute cases of radical feminism, for whom masculinity itself is considered a “toxic” disorder, the Nice Guy Construct is essentially identical with the Villain... The male who does not accept his role as the device by which a woman achieves her own self-actualization (in most cases of the Nice Guy Construct, it is a male with his own romantic ambitions and sexual desires). Hans would appear for the first two thirds of the film to be a particularly ennobling example of the Representative Male. He comes into the story established as a virtuous, likeable, and handsome, male figure who capably handles the responsibilities thrust upon him by Anna, and who, for Anna, represents freedom and human attachment denied her in childhood. However, Hans is a “nice guy” so there must be something wrong with him, which everyone in the film points out any time his name comes up in conversation. Disappointingly, he becomes one more male character whose ambitions are anti-social and disordered, and he joins Jafar and Gaston as a Villain.
A fourth trope skirted by Hans is the Autonomous Male: a male character who is able to achieve his own self-actualization without being domesticated and civilized by a female protagonist, but is nonetheless capable of carrying on a positive relationship with that female protagonist. A positive representation of the (nearly) Autonomous Male is Tarzan. After his parents are killed by Sabor the Leopard and young Tarzan is adopted by a tribe of gorillas, he is well on his way to fulfilling the trope of the Domesticated Male. He meets Jane and begins his process of personal transformation, up to being willing to abandon life in the jungle to return to England with her. However, at the last moment, the trope is subverted and Tarzan offers Jane freedom by renouncing her own domestication. She chooses to embrace his way of life as a subhuman brute.
Around the same time as Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire subverted both the Domesticated Male and the Sidekick tropes by making the linguist Milo Thatch discover his virility thanks to the influence of Princess Kida. He, in certain key respects, renounces his domestication and physical imperfections to become prince consort to an exotic, subterranean society. Where one finds Autonomous Male characters more consistently is in Pixar films, which tend to hold strong male relationships at their emotional core: Woody and Buzz, Nemo and Marlin, Carl and Russell, Lightening McQueen and Mater, and so on. Perhaps this is also why young boys tend to gravitate more strongly to these films than to Disney's classic fairy tales. One might argue that they are better able to identify with these relationships in subconsciously seeking models for shaping their own male identity than they can identify with male characters defined by their relationship to women. I do think it is telling that one of the most popular Disney films of all time, the live-action Pirates of the Caribbean, successfully had both a strong male-female relationship in Will and Elizabeth as well as a strong male-male relationship in Will and Jack.
Given these few exceptions of the Autonomous Male, I don't think there is justification for the view that Disney's animated films present a completely positive male image or promulgation of patriarchal values. Male characters are almost universally subordinate to female ones, either as a vacant representation of generic men who act as a MacGuffin for the princesses, as physically imperfect sidekicks who act as narrative support and comic relief, or as subhuman, animalistic brutes who require the princess to humanize them, and the insubordination of male characters almost always begets villainous behaviour. Whether or not this reflects a chivalrous ethos, wherein men defer to women by “placing them on a pedestal” while still retaining all apparent forms of political power, is a much more involved debate (as is the debate over how and by whom non-political forms of power may be wielded). It would be a debate worth having, but from this point it would seem apparent that Disney films offer neither an incontestably negative image of women nor incontestably positive image of men.