Disney Movies From The 1990s Had One Glaring Problem, According To New Research

Linguistic researchers Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer have uncovered a little problem with the Disney movies that came out during the 1990s. In each of Disney’s princess movies that came out during that decade, the female characters had significantly fewer lines than the male characters.

In one particular 1990s Disney princess film, a full 90 percent of the lines were delivered by men.

According to The Washington Post, this information came to light as a result of a project undertaken by linguistic researchers Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer to catalog and analyze every line of dialog spoken in each of Disney’s princess movies, from 1937’s Snow White to the runaway hit Frozen.

Although the research project is not yet complete, attendees at a recent linguistics conference received a preview in which Fought and Eisenhauer offered some preliminary findings that shone an interesting light on the five princess movies that Disney released during the 1990s.

Disney’s very first animated feature, Snow White, was also its first princess movie, and two more, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, followed in 1950 and 1959. These three original Disney princess movies have been criticized for a number of reasons, looking back at them through a modern lens, particularly in terms of the lack of agency exercised by the titular characters.

When Disney movies finally returned to the princess genre during the 1990s after a decades-long drought, they were largely praised for creating female characters that were more independent, and fully realized, than the original trio of Snow White, Cindarella, and Sleeping Beauty.

However, Fought and Eisenhauer’s research uncovered a strange trend.

disney movies princess dialog
Disney movies in the 1990s trended away from women speaking much dialog, but the trend reversed in later movies. [Data source: Fought and Eisenhauer / Graph by Jeremy Laukkonen]
In each of the original three Disney princess movies, the ratio of lines spoken by men to lines spoken by women was actually fairly close to even. Snow White featured men and women speaking more or less on par, while Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty actually gave more lines to women than men.

In The Little Mermaid, that trend reversed. Possibly due to the fact that Ariel lost her voice early in the movie, and her spunky sidekick was played by a man, men delivered about 68 percent of the lines in the film.

Beauty and The Beast continued the trend, with men delivering some 71 percent of the lines, and women only spoke a bare 10 percent of the lines in Aladdin.

The final two Disney princess movies from the 1990s, Pocahontas and Mulan, have men delivering 76 and 77 percent of the dialog, respectively.

In their examination of the films, Fought and Eisenhauer found two main reasons for the disparity. The first issue is that, like Ariel with Sebastian, each of the other four princess movies from the decade also feature male sidekicks. Since the main character in Aladdin is male, the sidekicks are male, and the antagonist is male, it’s easy to see how female characters only received about 10 percent of the dialog.

According to Faust and Eisenhauer, the problem goes deeper than that. The other reason that so many lines of dialog went to men in these movies, according to their research, is that so many of the bit characters default to male.

“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,” Faust told The Washington Post, describing the issue in terms of Beauty and the Beast. “Everybody who’s doing anything else, other than finding a husband in the movie, pretty much, is a male.”

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For a movie about two sisters, men speak a whole lot in Disney’s Frozen, reversing the recent trend to give women more lines. [Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com]
Since the Disney princess movies from the 1990s moved towards music numbers sung by huge ensembles, Faust and Eisenhauer suggest that the tendency to default to male characters for small roles further inflated the number of lines that were delivered by men in these movies.

The trend began to reverse when Disney returned to making princess movies with Princess and the Frog, which represented a slight increase in female dialog over Mulan. Then Tangled tipped the scales in the other direction, with women speaking a little more often than men, and Brave featured women speaking nearly 75 percent of the lines.

Frozen reversed course, with women speaking less than 50 percent of the dialog, but women still had more lines than in any Disney princess movie from the 1990s.

Do you think this disparity actually represents a problem with Disney movies from the 1990s?

[Photo by enchanted_fairy / Shutterstock.com]

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