Starting Young: Gender Roles in Children's Films

Walt Disney’s films from the 1930s to the 1950s experienced a golden age full of box office hits and high levels of popularity. The Disney company was considered to be very “in tune with postwar America” with its commitment to traditional values (Booker 178). Today, we see many of the company’s older films as showing inappropriate role models for young children in their passive female protagonists. In the 1950s, though, these films were met with little criticism, indicating its basic consistency with the "dominant gender codes of the time” (Booker 180). 

Disney’s first princess of the 1950s was Cinderella (1950). While forced to work like a servant in her own household, she does her chores, never complains, and waits patiently for something to change her situation. This change comes with her invitation to the ball, a helpful fairy godmother, and luck in catching the eye of the prince while at the ball. Cinderella’s simple tale has several lessons in gender roles to teach young girls. First, it teaches them that if they work hard and do what they are told, then their dreams will come true (Booker 180). The film also teaches children the economic benefits of marriage. Cinderella’s gown and carriage disappear at midnight, but she marries a man whose wealth and power can “resume the flow of fancy commodities begun by the fairy godmother” (Booker 181). 

“Your Mother and Mine”

Song performed in Disney's Peter Pan (1953) about the importance of mothers.

In Disney’s film Peter Pan (1953), the underlying theme is that “females do no belong in the adventure world of Neverland, because they are associated, in the discourse of the 1950s, with domesticity and orderliness” (Booker 184). Because of this, Wendy never fits into the world of Neverland like Peter Pan, the lost boys, and her younger brothers do. As soon as she gets there, she takes over the role of mother and caretaker towards the young boys. The glorification of motherhood is also a present theme in the film as Wendy sings about the wonder of mothers in “Your Mother and Mine,” which explains why they must leave Neverland to return to their mother’s love. Wendy, as with most Disney female protagonists during this time, must force the male characters into maturity, representing the traditional idea of women as the moral centers of society. This is also why most Disney protagonists were female in the 1940s and 1950s.  

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959)

The finale from Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959)

The Disney films Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) both present the dangers of women who ignore their domestic responsibilities. In Alice in Wonderland, Disney presents a clear contrast between Alice and the Queen of Hearts on how a woman should behave. Alice, the heroine, is demure, polite, and passive, in contrast to the Queen of Hearts who is threatening and power mad. The Queen of Hearts is meant to be an example of a woman who refused to accept her feminine roles (Booker 182).  When Alice returns from Wonderland, she has “learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of venturing out of the domestic sphere” (Booker 182).

In Sleeping Beauty, the Princess Aurora is only remarkable for her beauty and singing voice. Betrothed at birth, she has spent all her life preparing for her wedding day. Although she is the protagonist, Aurora has little active role in the film and spends most of it asleep in a tower. It is up to Prince Phillip to save Aurora and her kingdom and she waits patiently for him to do so. Maleficent, who cast the spell on Auroura, is another Disney example of a female villain whose character warns against strong independent women as her threatening countenance is the opposite of Aurora’s goodness and passivity. The same theme is present in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Alice in Wonderland, thoroughly reinforcing these gender norms on young children (Booker 187).

Starting Young: Gender Roles in Children's Films