Tangled up in Disney’s dimorphism

Sitting through Disney’s Tangled again, I saw new layers of gender in there. They’ve moved beyond the old-fashioned problem of passive princesses and active princes, so Rapunzel has plenty of action sequences. And it’s not all about falling in love (at least at first). Fine.

But how about sexual dimorphism? In bathroom icons the tendency to differentiate male and female bodies is obvious. In anthropomorphized animal stories its a convenient fiction. But in social science it’s a hazardous concept that reduces social processes to an imagined biological essence.

In Tangled, the hero and heroine are apparently the more human characters, whose love story unfolds amidst a cast of exaggerated cartoons, including many giant ghoulish men (the billed cast includes the voices of 12 men and three women).

Making the main characters more normally-human looking (normal in the statistical sense) is a nice way of encouraging children to imagine themselves surrounded by a magical wonderland, which has a long tradition in children’s literature: from Alice in Wonderland to Where the Wild Things Are.

That’s what I was thinking. But then they went in for the lovey-dovey closeup toward the end, and I had to pause the video:

Their total relative size is pretty normal, with him a few inches taller. But look at their eyes: Hers are at least twice as big. And look at their hands and arms: his are more than twice as wide. Look closer at their hands:

Now she is a tiny child and he is a gentle giant. In fact, his wrist appears to be almost as wide as her waist (although it is a little closer to the viewer).

In short, what looks like normal humanity – anchoring fantasy in a cocoon of reality – contains its own fantastical exaggeration.

The patriarchal norm of bigger, stronger men paired up with smaller, weaker women, is a staple of royalty myth-making — which is its own modern fantasy-within-reality creation. (Diana was actually taller than Charles, at least when she wore heels .)

In this, Tangled is subtler than the old Disney, but it seems no less powerful.

30 thoughts on “Tangled up in Disney’s dimorphism

  1. I was struck by how slim are the forearms and wrists of the young woman who tutors my children (M.A. candidate in English Lit).

    As for the postage stamp of Charles and Diane, a variant on Hanlon’s Razor might more accurately explain the positions of their heads: never attribute to sexism that which is adequately explained by fitting large pictures of both people into the portrait-oriented stamp. (As for why her head isn’t on top: he’s the crown prince, not her.)


    1. Ron, it is understandable you might think that, because you are probably too young to remember the 80s – they were almost always photographed with his head higher. (there are some other examples if you follow the links.

      But when it comes to gender, anyway, I would suggest patriarchy’s razor: the simplest explanation is the one that relies upon the maintenance of gender inequality as a motivator.


      1. because you are probably too young to remember the 80s

        I remember them quite well. Not so much Charles & Di, though, since celebrity fandom is scraping the bottom of my priority list.

        relies upon the maintenance of gender inequality as a motivator.

        That fits your world view, and there’s little I can do to change it, just as it’s unlikely that you’ll change my opinion that patriarchy isn’t as common as it is just because men are evil, brutish, sexist bastards who only know how to knock out women with clubs and drag them off by the hair.

        Anyway, Google says that both Charles and Di are (were) 1.78m. So, only her pumps would make her taller.


      2. “Patriarchy’s razor”–so, so true. A portrait-oriented stamp could have featured the couple at their natural heights with a downscaled image (75% ought to do it) to fit the stamp just as easily.


      3. Also, I certainly don’t remember the 80s, but I got the full brunt of cultural baggage about gender from the 80s via my family and school! And in response to your commenter below – it’s not men as individuals (generally) who think, “Super, time to go oppress women!” but the cultural institutions and social norms internalizing the notion that women are less worthy, and, by extension, “feminine” women.

        Would Disney consider a short or slight man for a dashing romantic lead? Would Disney consider a solidly built, muscular woman? Would Disney ever have a male-female pairing in which the characters were of similar build instead of playing the “mismatched” pairing for laughs? Mulan was portrayed as being mostly convincing as a young man, but Shang was twice as wide across as she and a head taller, and the other body shapes were comical – the short guy, the fat guy, the scrawny guy. Other body shapes exist, Disney, and comedy doesn’t have to stem from them.


  2. downscaled image (75% ought to do it)

    Smaller faces and more whitespace? While politically correct, it’s horrible design.

    Maybe if her helmet hair wasn’t so huge…


  3. cultural institutions and social norms internalizing the notion that women are less worthy

    For your consideration: if enough women really were strong enough to lead then Way Back When society was organizing, they would have muscled into leadership roles. But they didn’t. Oh, sure, some obscure backwater cultures are matrifocal, but all the rich/successful cultures are patriarchal, violent and expansionist.

    Shang was twice as wide across as she and a head taller

    The width is unnatural, but that height differential is exactly how much taller I am than my wife.

    Would Disney consider a short or slight man for a dashing romantic lead?

    This blog being run by an academic, the question should be: is female attraction to “big and muscular” nature/genetic or nurture/cultural? Since in our relatives the Great Apes, as well as mammals as diverse as lions, wolves and horses, it’s the biggest most aggressive male that gets the harem (who then often commit infanticide in order to mate with him quickly), I’d bet it’s nature/genetics that make women swoon over Marky Mark.

    So, the answer to the Disney question is a resounding, “No”.


  4. Much ado About Nothing. It is a cartoon, So what if her eye is wider than her wrist. The obvious influence is Japanese anime. It is just a style that is in right now. Now go watch Cinderella and see the far more regular proportions. Of course you won’t bring that up, as it diminishes your ‘point’.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s