A Chat With The Mind Behind “Feminist Disney”

If you know your way around the Internet, happen to love Disney and are a self-declared feminist, chances are you’ve come across the addicting Feminist Disney Tumblr. The FD blog is a place to critique feminism and other social issues in the Disney films through Q&A and pictures. With more than 33,500 followers, there is a lot of critiquing going on. Let me tell you—once you’ve had your first dosage of FD, it’s hard to not critique every facet of Disney.

Because I’ve been a fan of FD for awhile, I decided to get in touch and chat with the magic behind the blog: Mari, the FD blogger. We got right down to business to discuss her favorite Disney movies, what makes “Lilo and Stitch” awesome, and to touch on how mutual romantic feelings doesn’t equal consent.

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Mari grew up as many millennials did, with Disney movies a presence, or as Mari puts it, “always in the background of your life.” From imitating Pocahontas while wearing fringed shirts to thinking it was cool for a woman to faint (as the Disney heroines so often do), Disney certainly had an impact on Mari. It wasn’t until middle school that Mari started to become conscious of Disney’s influence on her and her peers. Mari tells me, “I think media as a whole… you start to feel like there are approved roles for men and women.” When movies “Mulan” and “Hercules” came out, they woke the inner feminist within Mari. “’Mulan’ didn’t follow certain roles [and] made the contrast more stark—like the fact that ‘Mulan’ was different was one of those films that help[ed] people realize there’s something being perceived as inherently ‘normal’ when it comes to gender roles.”

After college in the summer of 2011, Mari was looking for a way to keep up to date and connected to people, pop culture, and feminism. Mari began blogging feminist Disney images, and pretty soon people started commenting and asking questions. Mari says, “the more questions I got the more I realized that there was no one place for answers on the web… I wanted to try and aggregate a lot of resources and peoples’ thoughts on issues relating to media, especially media aimed at children.” Thus Feminist Disney was born.

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Many people would say that Disney has become much more progressive in recent years—which it certainly has, and Mari agrees that they define normal in a new way. Mari goes on to say that “Disney has been making progress when you view their library of work as a whole, if not necessarily movie-by-movie. The characters today get a type of development they didn’t used to.” But it isn’t all blue skies and peachy roses quite yet, as Mari points out that “there has been a slight overall shift in how they present gender roles, though it might not be as pronounced as people tend to believe it is.”

As lover of the insanely popular “Frozen,” I needed to hear Mari’s take on it. While the movie is progressive in some senses, Mari argues “there are a lot of things I think weren’t that progressive about romance in the movie. Anna really doesn’t get a true choice in who she loves; she’s convinced she’s in love with Hans and expecting her ‘true love kiss’ from him up until the point he tries to kill her. Then Kristoff helps save her/get her to Elsa, so at that point she considers him [as a choice].” Disney strips Anna from assertive decision-making by not even giving her the option to choose, as “it’s the plot that pushes her forward.”

Mari also contends that Disney is still falling prey to certain gender roles. “Tangled,” “The Princess and The Frog,” and, of course, “Frozen” all fall prey to the bad-boy-meets-good-girl scenario. Mari concedes that Flynn Rider, Prince Naveen and Kristoff are all more developed than other male protagonists (what’s the name of Cinderella’s Prince again? Is it really Charming?), but Mari says that “they still fall into a lot of the same tropes. Especially with ‘Tangled,’ she [Rapunzel] is very innocent and naive, and he is a bad boy, a worldly person, who is basically changed by her feminine love which is a trope that has played out so many times in media over the past few decades. It reinforces this idea that a woman’s love can—and perhaps even should—be used to do this.” Obviously, Kristoff isn’t the baddest of boys, but he is titled as a fixer-upper, while Tiana’s work ethic and, as Mari says her “goodness tames [Naveen’s inherent] badness.”

Mari adds that “it’s nice that “Frozen” ends the movie with a move  toward the beginning of a relationship than with a big giant marriage celebration.” This ending is indeed in almost complete contrast to “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” which all end in either marriage or else riding off into the distance to the presumed wedding. Is this “happily-ever-after” narrative dangerous? Mari is staunch that it is. While the viewer knows that “there is no such point in life where the story just ends and there’s nothing more to say, you can look at really a huge, huge number of stories in which we’re encouraged to kind of think that this point exists—and that happily ever after is inherently tied to man/woman (heterosexual) pairings.”

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Luckily for us and the millions of kids that have watched “Frozen,” Disney has moved away from that ending. That ending in “Sleeping Beauty” may have contributed to Mari ranking it as one of Disney’s worst films for feminist films. That, and of course the total lack of consent, which Mari notes is, “romanticized and the story is plotted out with disregard to its importance. It’s nice that [Kristoff] asks [Anna’s] permission to kiss—so unlike in other movies—consent isn’t assumed just because they’re falling in love.”

We know that “Sleeping Beauty” ranks low on Mari’s list for Disney films for feminism, so I asked her what she thinks are the best for feminism? And what about her personal faves? Mari first declares that “it’s not as if I can quiz them on their gay rights stance, etc., so it’s only rating for certain aspects, per se.” But she then names “Lilo and Stitch”  and “Mulan” as the best, with “Pocahontas” accompanying “Sleeping Beauty” at the bottom. Mari included “Pocahontas largely because of the racial issues seen in the film. With little to no media representation of Native Americans, ‘Pocahontas’ has somewhat become the go-to reference for all things Native American.” The film totes “the stereotype… of the magical nature native which, while seemingly not ‘harmful’ still contributes to a method of deciding what people are for them, rather than actually listening to what they have to say.” Plus, Mari adds that “Pocahontas” literally re-wrote the history of England’s expansion into the U.S. and portrayed it as a situation where everyone could get along if only both sides weren’t fighting—which, of course, is not reality.

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But what about her personal faves? Mari names “Aladdin,” “Enchanted,” and of course the beloved “Lilo and Stitch.”

So what is it about “Lilo and Stitch” that Mari loves? Mari mentions the realistic physical portrayal of both Nani and Lilo, and the strength of the relationship between them. Nani is a woman with thighs, and Lilo a happily plump kid. “The film is subtle in some ways: the main protagonist is female, the leader of the entire galaxy is female, generic background people are female, the person the protagonist interacts with the most: female. This isn’t to say that the ideal film is ‘all women,’ but it’s in contrast to a lot of films where you might have two female protagonists but all the background characters and big-wigs are dudes.”

I, of course, had to ask Mari about that one-eyed alien, Pleakley and his cross-dressing, possibly transgender traits. As “Lilo and Stitch” doesn’t draw any negative or awkward attention to him, and instead accepts him dressing as a woman without question, I had to know what Mari thought of one of my favorite Disney characters. Mari says, “I think it’s cool to have a character that really isn’t defined in that way; that a variety of kids can probably identify with; and it’s cool that the movie didn’t make that part a struggle for him. Like it’s how he’s characterized, but he’s never made fun of it or made to feel less than just because he doesn’t fit the viewer’s expectation of what a perceived male alien should act or look like.”

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As for “Mulan,” Mari points to the love story as a strong positive message. Someone falls in love with Mulan not because of her looks but for “her mind—her strength and her determination.” But for Mari, the highlight of “Mulan” is how “the movie reinforces that gender is more conceptual and socially encouraged than what a lot of people like to believe. Gender roles are huge in making us believe that there are inherent biological differences.”

So what are the future plans for the FD blog? Well, Mari has been busy elsewhere, and many others have joined her in covering this topic, which Mari says is great. But never fear, feminists and Disney-lovers alike, as Mari says she doesn’t have any end point for FD.

Want more FD and Mari? Head on over to the main FD blog, to read up on more of Mari’s opinions, find reviews of movies and books, and links to scholarly articles, essays, and books on Disney.

Kristin U.

Kristin is a Florida native and she loves going to the beach, traveling, practicing yoga, reading good books (especially Harry Potter), and thinking pretty things. She's also kinda obsessed with her black labrador.
Kristin U.
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