- Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Women in Disney’s Feature Animation
The title of this book is somewhat misleading. It seems to indicate that Amy Davis will provide some kind of feminist reading of how women are portrayed in Walt Disney Studios animated films. On the contrary, her study, based on a PhD dissertation at the University of Ulster, is a polite and sober rationalization of the sexism in the Disney Studios’ use of women in its organization and for the manner in which the studio, now a major corporation, has consistently produced films that disregard the actual living conditions of women and that reinforce the patronizing manner in which females have been treated in Western societies. Indeed, Davis’s positivist study of the diverse ways that females have always been put into their “Disney prescribed” places, whether in film or in the corporation, rationalizes the Disney ideology and aesthetic to such an extent that the book’s real title should be How Good Girls and Wicked Witches Can Come to Terms with Poor Misunderstood Walt and His Boys.
The book is organized into six chapters that cover the film as cultural mirror; a brief history of animation; the early life of Walt Disney and the Disney Studio, 1901–1937; Disney films, 1937–1967, the “Classic Years”; Disney films, 1967–1988, the “Middle Era”; Disney films, 1989–2005, the “Eisner Era.” There are also four helpful appendixes: a list of Disney’s full-length animated feature films; synopses of selected Disney films; a bibliography; and a filmography. Davis’s major thesis is “to correct the perception of how women are represented in Disney’s animated features, and secondly, to begin a dialogue—based on this analysis—about how these representations function within American society and popular culture. Because this analysis of Disney’s animated feature films contradicts to some degree many popular conceptions of Disney films as a group, the findings it presents in its analysis will hopefully counteract the impressions that these films are so thoroughly sexist by offering a more balanced look at depictions of femininity in Disney films” (235). The difficulty, however, is that Davis’s “findings,” based mainly on descriptive and positivist analysis, only reconfirm that the images of women in almost all the films that she discusses tend to present stereotypical women.
Davis sets up standard binary categories of morality, physical beauty, and behavior to describe certain types of women and their actions, and she uses quantitative measures to discuss the values placed on the appearances of women and how they are depicted in the Disney films. Her early chapters that deal with animation and the history of the Disney Studios rely heavily on Steven Watt’s The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life and most of the conventional biographies and studies of Walt Disney’s life and work. Thus her work is repetitive of commonly known facts. She does not cite or discuss the more critical [End Page 188] and theoretical works of animation such as Alan Cholodenko’s The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation, Donald Crafton’s Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928, Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen. There is very little theoretical discussion of the problematic aspect of film adaptation and how technology is used to maximize a male gaze. The important period of 1923–1924 and the production of fairy-tale films are given short shrift. Nor does she analyze the very important fairy-tale and fable adaptations of Silly Symphonies in the early 1930s to grasp the evolution of gender portrayal in the Disney films: how Disney and his artists adapted fairy tales in regard to their sources, and why and how the films encompassed the gender roles into a general political ideology that tended to gloss over social contradictions and to celebrate elitist ruling groups and male power in almost all the animated features from the original Walt Disney productions through the Eisner period.