Linguists Try to Figure Out How Harmful Disney Princesses Are to Kids

Illustration for article titled Linguists Try to Figure Out How Harmful Disney Princesses Are to Kids

The Washington Post has a fascinating article on the work of linguists who are looking at every line of dialogue from Disney princess movies and analyzing them for their representations of women. The results are mixed, to say the least.


You can read the whole thing at the Washington Post (and you should, there’s a lot of data), but here are a few highlights:

Linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer are interested in where the idea of how girls should act is transmitted through language in media. Their research is in the preliminary stages, but they’ve already presented some findings to America’s largest linguist conference.

First, they measured how often female characters speak compared to the male ones. The early films are much more equal, with Snow White at about 50 percent each, Cinderella at 60 percent in favor of the women, and Sleeping Beauty at 71 percent. Ironically, the ‘90s films tilt in favor of the male characters, with even Mulan giving male characters 77 percent of the dialogue—given that Mulan is the only female on screen for the majority of the film, it makes some sense, especially since Eddie Murphy’s Mushu delivers dialogue by the page. But she’s still the title character.

The reason, points out Fought, is exactly that. Outside of the characters who end up as official “Disney princesses,” there are no other female characters. Added Eisenhauer, “My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm.” So every minor character added is defaulted to male.

Second, the two researchers looked at how the female characters are talked about. Compliments to female characters in the earliest films were 55 percent about their looks, 38 percent were looks-based in the ‘90s films, and only 22 percent in the most recent batch.

All of which suggests improvement, and is definitely a conscious choice on Disney’s behalf. Which is nice to see, but doesn’t help the mixed emotions that come with knowing that Frozen is still dominated by male speaking roles.


Image: Official Disney Princesses via Disney Princess Wiki

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I was just saying this over on the Star Wars thread. They did a really good job of having women be not just the main characters, but background ones as well. There were female storm troopers, female pilots, female radio/glowboard operators! It was pretty excellent.