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Posted in Film
April 18, 2018

Gender And Sexuality In The Animated Films Of Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki, Part 1 (Hiroko Miyashita)

The following is the first installment of a three-part series.

Hayao Miyazaki and Walt Disney are the two best-known and world famous directors in the history of animated film. Despite Miyazaki and Disney’s differences in style, themes, and approach when making animated films, both are extremely popular both in the United States and in Japan.

As Susan Napier mentions, if mass culture such as televisions, videos, and films is the visual representations of national histories and national identities, it is important to consider popular culture from this point of view.(468) Napier also mentions that anime fantasy is a kind of mirror to reflect modern society (12), and Walt Disney Studios manifest an American style and tone of animated films while Miyazaki’s films display a new way of looking Japanese culture and identity.

In other words, both Disney and Miyazaki’s animated films act as a social critique of contemporary America and Japan. Therefore, in comparing Miyazaki and Disney, this paper will attempt to clarify similarities and differences between Japanese and American culture, in order to understand the relationship between popular culture and identity in each society.

This article will explore Walt Disney’s animated film Alice in Wonderland (1951), Frozen (2013), and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away (2001). The reason for selecting these three animated films is because all three have strong feminist themes even though they were released at different times and directed by different directors in their respective studios.

There are four female protagonists, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Anna and Elsa from Frozen, and Chihiro from Spirited Away. Anna and Chihiro represent women of today who are mostly strong and independent. On the other hand, Elsa portrays more of a traditional type of a woman. Alice and Chihiro are both little, ordinary girls, and the stories are told primarily through the eyes of women in general.

In addition, the storylines of these three animated films are quite similar. The protagonists are accidentally caught up in a series of adventures, and through their trials and tribulations, the protagonists become mentally stronger and emotionally mature. This could be seen in both western and Japanese folk narratives as well.

In fact, Margaret Thorp points out that Walt Disney’s animated films became a part of American folklore (23). Napier notes that Spirited Away delivered a magnificent vision of Japanese folklore (236). Furthermore, in his book, Miyazaki himself argued that he considered his animated film Spirited Away a direct descendant of Japanese folktales (199).

Since these three animated films have such similarities, we will explore these three animated films in order to compare the films that Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and Disney Studio produced and understand the relationship between popular culture and identity in Japan and in the United States.

Female Characters in Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, and Spirited Away

First, we will focus on the four female protagonists in Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, and Spirited Away and examine them from a feminist perspective. As Teresa De Lauretis observes, the questions of identification, self-definition, and the possibility of envisaging oneself as the subject have been fundamental questions for feminism for years (130). Jonathan Culler argues that literature has been concerned with questions about identity (111).

In addition, he argues that the explosion of theorizing about gender and sexuality in the field of literary study is because literature provides rich materials for complex political and sociological accounts of the role of such factors in the construction of identity (111). Therefore, discussing cinematic narratives by Disney Studios and Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli from a feminist point of view, such as what the female characters represent, symbolize and mean in the animated films, would be meaningful in order to understand the female position and identity in the West and in Japan.

The first female protagonist to be examined is Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Disney’s animated film Alice in Wonderland was created based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was released in 1951. Walt Disney usually had females as main characters in his animated films, and he did it as well in Alice in Wonderland.

However, with this story, Disney did not choose to animate a princess story he had done before like Snow White and Cinderella. He decided to make an ordinary girl, Alice, the protagonist. It is notable to mention that Disney made Alice in 1951, almost ten years before the women’s liberation movement occurred in the United States. Before Alice in Wonderland, for example with Snow White and Cinderella, Disney had princesses as heroines, and the storyline relied on the damsel-in-distress model. These old-Disney animated films followed the active/male and passive/female narrative structure which Mulvey mentioned (837).

The basic assumptions of important to the discussion here are as follows: Culler argues that there is a question that in literature narratives, characters actively make their portion in their lives or they are passively fated (111). From these points of view, the princesses in Snow White and Cinderella do not often act subjectively, other than to cook or clean and look intoxicatingly beautiful for the prince, so the prince will act to save the female character from her passive predicament. On the other hand, Alice makes decisions and acts by herself. No prince to save

Alice appears in the story. It was entirely different from Disney’s past work, and so Alice in Wonderland was a revolutionary work for him in the early 1950s. However, Disney did not receive positive reviews about the film because the no-princess story was too new in society at that time.

In other words, audiences at that time wanted to have a princess story. Although Alice in Wonderland was not a princess story, and the female protagonist Alice acted subjectively and actively, Walt Disney depicted Alice as very feminine looking like the princesses from the classic Disney works. Disney’s Alice has curly blond hair, big blue eyes, and full, pink lips.

Laura Mulvey mentions that films reflect that socially established interpretation of sexuality and image of erotic looking which appeal to audiences (833). Even though Alice was a much more independent and active woman than the other princesses from the old Disney productions, Alice’s appearance still had this conventional, sexual image of women.

Over sixty years later after the release of Alice in Wonderland, in 2013, Walt Disney Studios produced a new princess story called Frozen. Frozen is a quite new animated film and is not directed or produced by Walt Disney himself, yet the story has Disney’s usual female characters: princesses. These two new princesses, however, are quite different from Disney’s old princesses.

It is interesting to note how the directors, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, cleverly contrasted these two leading characters, Elsa and Anna. It is clear to see that the directors portrayed the younger sister Anna as a ‘go-getter’ type of woman who always takes the initiative in her life. She is a representation of today’s modern woman.

For example, in one scene, Anna is riding on her horse and bravely going into the mountains alone to rescue her elder sister Elsa. A horse is usually a symbol of masculinity, yet in Frozen, it is Anna, a female, riding atop the horse. This depiction indicates that the story wants to show a female can have the same ability as a man or more.

Conversely, the elder sister Elsa is a representation of a traditional woman. For example, she wonders alone in the mountains fleeing within herself because she was hiding something.

This depiction indicates that she is not ready to express her true identity, which is her power to freeze things around her. It is difficult for Elsa to express her powers because her parents have been urging her to suppress them since she was little, particularly after she accidentally hurt her younger sister Anna while they were playing. This is what society does with females.

Sometimes, society wants to put women in a certain box or category even though they may want to reach higher and become very successful in life.

However, a female’s free expression can only be suppressed so long. This is reflected when Elsa’s powers came through automatically when she was very nervous or upset. This happened on her coronation day. Her strong emotion on that day brought forth her powers, and she partially froze the wand she was holding, but she was able to suppress it just like her parents or society taught her. This suppression is also represented when she begins to sing the song For the First Time in Forever. She says in the song, “be a good girl you always have to be” (line 40- 41). This line in the lyrics is the voice of society as a whole.

On the other hand, Anna who is more symbolic of modern, free, independent women sings this song very happily without any concern. She lets nothing suppress her. Anna says in the song, “Finally, they’re opening up the gates / There’ll be actual real live people” (7-8). As she was singing this, Anna was unaware of her sister’s struggles. Anna was so engrossed in meeting Elsa and other people finally because she had not seen anyone since her parents closed the gates of their castle in order to conceal Elsa’s powers. This scene is one good example that shows a clear contrast between Anna and Elsa, and also society’s portrayal of women, as well as their responses to it.

The ending of Frozen and choice to deviate from the ‘fairytale ending’ is also significant. Even if it had followed the typical ‘happily ever after’ Disney’s storyline, it still would not have been exactly the same because in Disney’s past movies, it was always a male and the female who got together at the end with love prevailed everlasting.

As Culler argues, if literature is a tool of ideology to tell that women must find out their happiness and fulfillment in marriage (39), Disney’s traditional princess stories such as Snow White and Cinderella were the ones to teach this ideology to people. However, Frozen depicts the love and growth between two sisters even though they are princesses, and they finally live happily ever after without marriage. This had not been done in Disney’s past animated films. This is a unique and modern twist taken from a feminist perspective.

In the two movies Alice in Wonderland and Frozen by Disney Studios, the growth of the female characters can be observed. The growth is not only mental, but also emotional as they go through many unexpected trials and tribulations. It is the challenges in the story that lead them to become mentally stronger and emotionally mature.

For instance, at the beginning of the story of Alice in Wonderland, a little Alice was just feeling bored. She was with her elder sister who was reading a history book, but Alice’s action staying with her elder sister indicates that Alice is a dependent girl at first. At the beginning of the story of Frozen, the little sister Anna mainly focused on herself.

It is similar to Alice at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. It seems that both Alice and Anna at the beginning of the stories are unaware of their true selves. At first, Alice was thinking about only herself and feeling bored, so she went somewhere to escape from the situation. Similarly in Frozen, at the beginning of the story, Anna was just thinking about herself and in her own happy, optimistic world. Because of this, Anna did not realize until later in the story how much her elder sister Elsa was struggling in the mountains.

Yet Anna’s strong desire to help her elder sister led to Anna becoming more empathetic, which was not a quality she had at first. The more she helped her sister, the more empathetic she became toward others too. When considering Alice in Wonderland, Alice was able to wake up and go back to the real world from the wonderland because she realized her identity by herself. These actions by Anna and Alice are examples of emotional growth in Disney’s female characters as they discover their true selves. This happens through many trials and tribulations much like women of today who struggle to be themselves and not to care too much about outside criticism.

In Japan, there are the also animated films featuring female characters’ self-development, with Hayao Miyazaki being an influential director who has greatly contributed to this genre. In fact, some people have called him the Japanese Walt Disney. What is interesting about Miyazaki’s animated films is that he likes to bring out the strong independent side of his female protagonists. This is always a traditional theme in his animated films with one such example in his film is Spirited Away.

In this animated film, there is a ten-year-old girl named Chihiro. This anime is an important work as Miyazaki placed an ordinary girl as the protagonist in the story. In many of his other work, he has princesses or witches such as in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. In one of his interviews, Miyazaki answered that “it was necessary to have a heroine who was an ordinary girl, not someone who could fly or do something impossible. Just a girl you can encounter anywhere in Japan” to effectively send female audiences his message that women and girls could change the world not only in a movie but also in the real world (Mes).

All Miyazaki’s female characters are quite strong and very independent, but in the story of Spirited Away, the protagonist Chihiro was depicted as a weak, little girl at first. This depiction could be considered that Miyazaki portrays Chihiro as socially inferior in order to reflect the traditional social norm in Japanese society. Japan is historically male-dominated country, and for very long time, females have been considered lower than males in Japan.

Although Chihiro is weak at first, she gradually comes to understand her true identity more and more by experiencing many unexpected trials and errors. After these many trials, she becomes strong enough to release her parents from an evil spell that had been placed on them by a witch. Thus, Chihiro’s development delivers the message to audiences that even women or the weak can grow and solve problems by themselves.

As far as has been discussed, Disney Studios’ Alice in Wonderland and Frozen, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away have something in common: self-growth and empathy. They all show a natural, female trait, the ability to empathize with other people, and because of this trait, the female protagonists are able to solve problems using more empathy as opposed to fighting or violence.

It seems in most movies; male characters solve problems by fighting or the use of violence. However, Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, and Spirited Away show problems being solved without the use of violence. For example, in the story of Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters many weird characters in the wonderland and learns from the meetings by empathizing and understanding them so that she can make decisions by herself.

This is especially true at the end of the story, when Alice meets Queen Judith of Hearts at the judgment, Alice realizes the truth by herself so that she can go back to the real world. Similarly, in Frozen, it can be seen that Anna gradually learns to empathize with her elder sister Elsa as she goes through her difficulties. At the same time, Elsa is starting to gradually empathize with her little sister Anna naturally through Anna’s actions. By the end of the story, it is the love between the two sisters that saved them and their kingdom. Again, unlike Disney’s traditional princess stories, it is not a male figure that rescues the princesses in these two films Alice in Wonderland and Frozen, and it is quite a feminist concept.

Likewise, in the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, the protagonist Chihiro shows empathy with another female character, a witch, in order to get her to release her parents from an evil, magical spell. In these three movies, no violence was used to solve the problems. These female protagonists were portrayed as improving the world in a positive way without the use of violence and weapons, and this is a very feminist theme.

Hiroko Miyashita is a Japanese language instructor at City University of New York, the New School, Adelphi University, and New York University.  She is a writer and a New York City licensed tour guide.

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