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Friday, February 26, 2010

Masculinity portrayed in Disney Cartoons





Modern masculinity “shows men trying to find their place in the modern world, seeking help regarding how to behave in relationships, and advice on how to earn the attention, love and respect of women, and the friendship of other men” (p. 189).  In the typical Disney cartoon masculinity is represented in its male characters in what Mills (2001) defines as the four types of masculinity. 
            The first category, “hegemonic masculinity is the most valued form of masculinity in a patriarchal culture and is “constructed in relation to and against femininity and subordinated forms of masculinity.  The dominant masculine form is characterized by heterosexuality, power, authority, aggression and technical competence” (Mills, 2001, p.12). The Disney film Beauty and the Beast holds a character not unlike many others in Disney films with the “ideal” physical body and authoritative demeanor named Gaston.  Gaston sings lyrics about how strong he is, how “every last inch of [him] is covered with hair” (an over-manifestation of heterosexuality).  He sings about how everyone in the town idealizes him and as such is deserving of “the best.”  When making passes at the female protagonist Belle he explains to a friend that “she’s the prettiest and therefore she’s the best.”  Therefore in this way he not only is showing that as the typical muscular man he deserves the best, but also that beauty in a female is all that is required to be of any value to the ideal man.  Also in this film anyone without the ideal body type is not idealized but an outcast as seen in the character Lefou who is acting not as a sidekick but almost as Gaston’s slave who beckons at his every authoritative word.   In the conclusion of the film, Beast doesn’t fight back and therefore Gaston proclaims that he is “too kind and gentle to fight,” qualities that are not apparently typical to a man. Another example of this type of masculinity is represented in the film Mulan by the army of men that the female character Mulan is attempting to join. The army sings that they want “a girl worth fighting for.”   In this statement they make it clear that in order to get what you desire, especially in a woman, you have to prove your physical strength.  Also amongst this lyric are the misogynist ways that they describe their ideal woman being based either on looks or one soldier saying “it doesn’t matter what she looks like…only what she cooks like.”  Through actions and words such as these, Mulan learns quickly that to join the army and prove she is “a man,” she must first prove that she possesses the qualities that would prove her as such, physical prowess, strength.  In the film The Incredibles the villain in the film is seen as a weak pushover who finds no way to gain respect amongst his peers.  The villain grows up and becomes an evil super hero by acquiring abilities that represent “power, authority, aggression and technical competence” (Mills, 2001, p.12).  He is then quoted as saying later in the film to the one who’s respect he had been aiming for that “now [he] respect[s] [him] because [he’s] a threat!”  This physical alpha-male who gains automatic respect is repeated over and over again in Disney’s characters such as Hercules and Tarzan.  
The second form, “complicit masculinity…[deals with] men who do little to challenge the patriarchal order, thereby enjoying its many rewards.  Many boys and men experience this form of masculinity, for they do not act out the extremes of hegemonic masculinity, but they do very little to challenge the existing order and thereby reinforce it” (Mills, 2001, p.72).  Prince Charming in Sleeping Beauty among other male figures of royalty in Disney films are born into their roles as masculine authority figures.  They are not always the typical power-hungry alpha male, but at the same time they sit back and enjoy the rewards that come with being a prince or a male symbol of authority.  Another example is King Triton in The Little Mermaid loves his daughters very much, yet he expects them to obey him with no mention in the film of a mother or matriarchal figure in the daughter’s lives.  Woody from Toy Story does not possess the typical masculine physical structure but he is put in charge of all the other toys.  Once finding that everyone listens to him, he never does anything to challenge it, never putting a female in charge or letting up authority at all in that matter.  In fact, when the typical physically masculine male becomes part of the group (Buzz Lightyear) he finds it difficult to sacrifice his masculinity, refusing to share power or popularity with someone perhaps more masculine that he.  In the film The Emporer’s New Groove where Emperor Kuscko (also possessing not the typical physical stereotype) is a sexist royalty figure born into his role of authority who dismisses “ugly” girls by saying “let me guess you have a good personality” as if that’s all that someone unattractive can have of value.  Perhaps most importantly this form is taken on by Disney itself, the male owners of the company fully aware of the order of things, yet doing nothing to challenge its presence.   
The third category is that of “marginalized masculinities…Men of color and men with disabilities, the most traditionally marginalized masculinities” (Meyer, 2007, p. 458). In Beauty and the Beast Belle’s dad Maurice is seen as a “crazy old man” just because his truth is disagreeable to the hegemonic male’s (Gaston) beliefs.  As a result, Maurice’s masculinity is literally locked up and cast away to the side.  In this way representing that minority beliefs and religions are marginalized if not represented by the hegemonic male.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame perhaps exemplifies this form of masculinity best as the character Quasimodo marginalizes himself in a bell tower away from society, being oppressed and eventually picked on by the alpha-male in the film (hegemonic masculinity) who’s only explanation for the hunchback not being like him is that he must be “possessed.”  The hegemonic male is so fixated on his own image and authority that he commonly can’t explain a male being different than himself other than to explain it with an insult or not crediting this type as men at all, as seen in the next category.
The final type or category of masculinity is at the bottom end “of the hierarchy of masculinities are those identities deemed subordinate.  Subordinate masculinities include those that are perceived as antithetical to masculinity: effeminate and gay men.  Anti-gay and sexist language is often used to prove a man’s masculinity.  Men use power over other men to enforce this system and often act with violence toward individuals who are viewed as “traitors to masculinity.”  (Meyer, 2007, p. 458).   Disney films provide viewers with no openly gay characters in their films.  In this way they are reinforcing the hegemonic forms of men and suppressing any option of relation for young male viewers, even limiting relation for female viewers for that matter. 
This hierarchy of masculinity leaves boys feeling physically inadequate and emotionally detached causing what one theorist, Dan Kiley (1983) calls “Peter Pan syndrome.”  Disney’s Peter Pan is perhaps the most real and adequate representation of the unfortunate state of the male today.  “Studies show that society holds basic generalities about young boys. Boys receive tools, bats, fishing rods, trucks and cars. They are cuddled less, and taught to repress their vulnerable feelings. Boys are encouraged to express aggression and expected to succeed in a profession, never admitting to any need for dependence” (Dickstein, 1988).  Disney films are reinforcing this syndrome in that when a boy watches a film he is either seen as a blundering idiot (Lefou) or the ultimate and unattainable symbol of heterosexuality.  With these absolute polarized options being the typical representations in media and film to turn to, boys cannot help but feel a fear of growing up as either way, they are destined to fail.
            These four types of masculinity and how they are represented, or misrepresented in Disney cartoons provide to be a useful guide for “understanding how hegemonic masculinity is reinforced through reiteration of this hierarchy” (Meyer, 2007, p. 459).  It is through these depictions of masculinity that one can provide insight into the various effects such depictions can have on boys who eventually become men and are forced to reconcile their actions according to how they were raised.  Unfortunately Disney films play an important part in many boys’ youth as they grow-up attempting to define themselves as men.  It is unfortunate because their definition of masculinity can only come from what they are told represents a man and what Disney has more than proven is that, similar to Peter Pan it is no wonder why boys should fear the stereotypes of growing up.

6 comments:

Claudia said...

Hello,
I am curious from what book or any other source did you take the four types of masculinity? If you only can, pleeaaase, answer as fast as possible
This is very important for me :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Just wondered which books you used for this great piece...If you could post that would be excellent

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to know the full bibliography you used. Particularly Mills.

knaveofhearts said...

I fourth that.

Steven Dashiell said...

Just in case anyone else reads this and wonders where the four types comes from, it isn't Mills (I have NO idea who Mills is, so I can only wonder where the author got that name). These four types of masculinity are from Raewyn Connell in her piece "Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept", which was written by her and James Messerschmidt in 2005. You can find free copies all over the internet- the article is now pretty much public domain.

Anonymous said...

What are the characteristics of female Disney character's?