Beware The Patriarchy! How Disney Villains Changed In The Age of Feminism

When Hans — the handsome prince from Disney’s 2013 blockbuster Frozen — turned out to be an evil psycho killer I’ll admit I was pretty shocked. In my defense, basically everyone else who saw the movie for the first time was pretty shocked too. Gina Dalfonzo, writing in The Atlantic, said Hans’ big reveal — that his whirlwind romance with Anna was a ruse to claim the throne of Arundel — felt “so abrupt that it seems more like a poor writing choice than like a clever concealment of the truth.” I agree it was abrupt. But it was more than just bad writing. It had been a long time coming.

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Hans joined a long line of male villains in Disney princess films. In fact, with the exception of Tangled, every Disney princess film after Beauty and the Beast (which came out in 1991) had a male villain. But before that, they were all female. And there was a reason for that. The traditional fairytale princess narrative depicts a girl’s journey to womanhood via a conflict with some kind of jealous older woman — usually, but not always, a mother figure. It’s a conflict that arises because the older woman — who used to be beautiful and sexually desirable — is unwilling to be usurped by the innocent, unknowing girl who is just beginning to emerge into womanhood. (Snow White’s stepmother, the Evil Queen, is the most obvious example of this, staring into her mirror obsessed with who is the “fairest.”)

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The princess’ journey, in this kind of story, is a personal and internal one. The princess isn’t fighting injustice or oppression, she’s fighting against the pull of childhood. Snow White, for example, must escape the Evil Queen’s plot to keep her a child forever in the “sleeping death.” Cinderella must get out from under the Wicked Stepmother’s thumb and assert her independence by going to the ball. The princess must break free of these jealous crones, and throw off the bonds of childhood, in order to emerge a full and independent woman. 

The early Disney princess movies depicted exactly this. They told the story of a girl growing into her womanhood. They were female-driven narratives, (the princes were often almost extraneous) pitting woman against woman, in a fight for autonomy. 

Disney princess villains switched from female to male at the exact moment that Disney filmmakers began talking overtly about feminism. “Belle is a feminist,” explained Beauty and the Beast screenwriter, Linda Woolverton. And Gaston — the first male villain in a Disney princess film — is pretty much “Mr. Toxic Masculinity.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Beauty and the Beast — the juxtaposition of the Beast and Gaston works within the context of the film — but the movie definitely marks the beginning of a shift that would continue to play out over the course of the next three decades.

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Suddenly the princesses weren’t only trying to find their way out of childhood and into womanhood, they were also trying to escape a “toxic” male villain who either wanted to place her in some sort of terrible romantic situation, or sought to subjugate her in some other nefarious way. Jafar (from Aladdin), for example, wants to marry Jasmine in order to become Sultan (he even dresses her in red, chains her up, and implies that he will enjoy sleeping with her). Relatedly, almost every one of these movies, has the princess fighting against betrothal to a man she doesn’t want to marry — a circumstance that the princesses before this shift never had to face. (The only exception to all this is the 2010 film, Tangled, a surprising throwback to the original kind of princess narrative, with Mother Gothel playing the jealous mother figure to a T.)

Enter Hans. I said earlier that there wasn’t a shred of foreshadowing to let us know that this handsome prince was really a total nut job, but actually there was one thing: he seemed like a really great guy. By the time Frozen came out in 2013, the shift that began with Beauty and the Beast had taken the princess narrative about as far from its original iteration as it could possibly go. See, the villain in Frozen is the patriarchy. If a guy seems like your perfect match, the movie tells us, he isn’t — because men are evil and psychotic, that’s it, the end.

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Modern Disney princesses are still trying to find their way from girl to woman. Each movie begins with a child asserting her desire for independence within a situation that is holding her back. But, without the crone to try to keep her from growing up, her journey towards becoming her own autonomous being relies not on her ability to leave behind the fetters of childhood, but on her willingness to cast off the company of men. What kind of womanhood will she find, though, without a partner to share it with? It’s a question Disney is trying to answer. If only they didn’t have to try.

15 thoughts on “Beware The Patriarchy! How Disney Villains Changed In The Age of Feminism

  1. Excellent article.

    “What kind of womanhood will she find, though, without a partner to share it with? It’s a question Disney is trying to answer. ”

    I think rather, that Disney is trying not to answer that question because they know audiences would not like Disney’s answer.

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  2. Fascinating. That does explain quite a bit (including why I love Tangled the most), but how does it fit with Brave (a film which I agree is pretty horrible, but the villain is…possibly the mother and daughter both, unless you count the bear, which seems more of a sideplot than the villain)? And it explains part of the “problem” with Princess and the Frog, in that the villain is actually the Prince’s villain…which shows that the structure of the plot is about the Prince, even though Tiana is theoretically the main character, explaining why the film feels so unfocused and unsatisfying, despite several truly delightful elements, including the glorious fashions, the wonderful characterization of Tiana, Charlotte, and the Prince, and the richness of the animation.

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    1. Brave is the worst Disney princess film of all time. And the villain really is just the patriarchy — this feudal system that forces her to choose one of the horrible suitors, and forces her to “conform” to “gender roles.”

      I actually really like The Princesss and the Frog, because I think it’s really a traditional princess narrative masquerading as a feminist one. The villain is after money, which is really what Tiana is after too at first, but then she sees the error of her ways.

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      1. Well, that definitely explains why they wasted so much time in the final act on pointless slapstick. An abstract villain just isn’t very compelling. 🙂

        I quite like Princess and the Frog as well – but my emotional reaction to it is always about moments and bits, never about the overall story.

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  3. I like your article, but I’m pretty sure Hans’ heel-turn comes so far out of left field because he was in fact supposed to be a hero – Elsa was the villain in the original conception of the film. When the producers heard the song “Let it Go”, they recast her as a hero and had to shoehorn in Hans as a villain. They reconfigured the story, but didn’t start over from scratch, and the result is a jarring character shift late in the movie.

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    1. That’s true about Elsa’s character shift, but the whole film is full of the idea that marrying someone you just met is a terrible idea (Elsa accidentally turns her whole kingdom to ice because of it!). Much of the film is meant to be a refutation of the traditional princess narrative.

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  4. What are your thoughts on Kristof? He isn’t the one to unfreeze Anna’s heart but there seems to be no attept to cast him off or make him less masculine.
    Love your insightful writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks! Kristoff is a character similar to the Beast — he’s “a bit of a fixer-upper.” But the traditional symbolism of Beauty and the Beast isn’t there in the movie so it doesn’t work very well. I think he’s there because people want a good love story!

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  6. What’s funny about this pivot is that Disney went from being substitute friend to substitute Daddy.

    “I told you that prince you were infatuated with was just plain rotten. You see it now?”

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