Herculean dimorphism

Who knows how many animated Disney movies I haven’t even seen yet? I never saw Hercules before.

I know, I know, Hercules is a demi-god. But he’s also all man. In Disney’s (1997) version, Hades says to Megara, “I need someone who can — handle him as a man.” And handle him she does:


And since they involve him in such matters of the human flesh (and heart), that means their measurements are fair game for the Disney dimorphism series. If Disney is going to eroticize the relationship and sell it to innocent children, then we should ask what they’re selling.

As usual, they’re selling extreme sex dimorphism. I did some simple measurements from one pretty straight shot in the movie, and compared it to this awesome set of measurements taken of about 4,000 U.S. Army men and women in the late 1980s. Since Hercules is obviously extremely strong and this woman seems to be on the petite side, I compared their measurements to those of the biggest man versus the smallest woman on each dimension in the entire Army sample. The numbers shown are the man/woman ratios: Hercules/Meg versus the Army maximum/minimum.

As you can see, this cartoon Hercules is more extremely big compared to his cartoon love interest than even the widest man-woman comparison you can find in the Army sample, by a lot. (Notice his relaxed hands – he’s not flexing that bicep.)

To show how unrealistic this is, we can compare it to images of the actual Hercules. Here’s one from about 1620 (“Hercules slaying the Children of Megara,” by Allessandro Turchi):


That Hercules is appallingly scrawny compared with Disney’s. Here’s another weakling version, from the 3rd or 4th century:


Now here is one from the 2014 Paramount movie, in which he is conveniently paired with the human female, Ergenia:


That bicep ratio is only 1.5-to-1. And that’s not normal.

Seriously, though, isn’t it interesting that both the Disney and the Paramount versions show more extreme dimorphism than the ancient representations? Go ahead, tell me he’s a demigod, that it’s a cartoon, that it’s not supposed to be realistic. I have heard all that before, and responded with counterexamples here. But that doesn’t explain why the modern versions of this myth should show more sex dimorphism than the old-school ones. That’s progress of a certain kind.

I’ve written so far about Frozen and Brave, Tangled, and Gnomeo and Juliet, and How to Train Your Dragon 2. It all goes back to the critique, which I first discussed here and Lisa Wade described here, of the idea that male and female humans aren’t just different, they’re opposites. This contributes to the idea that Mark Regnerus defends as the “vision of complementarity” — the insistence that children need a male and female parent — which drives opposition to same-sex marriage. If men and women are too similar, then we wouldn’t need them to be paired up in order to have complete families or sexual relationships.

In the more mundane aspects of relationships — attraction and mate selection — this thinking helps set up the ideal in which women should be smaller than men, the result of which is pairing couples by man-taller-woman-shorter much more than would occur by chance (I reported on this here, but you also could have read about it from 538’s Mona Chalabi 19 months later). The prevalence of such pairs increases the odds that any given couple we (or our children) observe or interact with will include a man who is taller and stronger than his partner. This is also behind some notions that men and women should work in different — and unequal — occupations. And so on.

So I’m not letting this go.

27 thoughts on “Herculean dimorphism

  1. Disney movies are terribly sexist. The worst offender is Beauty and the Beast. The beast displays all the behaviors of an abusive partner. He locks her up in his castle, cuts her off from her family, he locks her in her room and restricts her movement in the castle. When she refuses to do as he commands, he threatens to starve her. AND she is told that he’s really a good guy who needs the love of a good woman to save him! How many women in abusive relationships have heard that? The implication being if he’s still a beast it must be your fault…you’re not good enough. Shame on Disney!


  2. A great analysis – thanks! I wonder, though, whether it might be worth removing your claim that a painting from the 1620s – or indeed any art work – shows the ‘actual’ Hercules; this seems to suggest that c17th images are more valid sources for what Hercules (a mythical figure) might have looked like than c20th ones. Certainly they represent him differently, but they aren’t ‘actual’ Hercules… I only make this point because I think that this discussion of Disney’s dimorphism is so compelling and important, so hope you don’t mind!


  3. Great observation: Once it’s been pointed out, the extreme sexual dimorphism is impossible to miss. I’ll be watching for it in upcoming movies–Disney’s as well as others.

    An obvious point, however, is that physical size is only one very small example of differences between men and women. There is a large body of research showing that mothers and fathers behave quite differently with their children, as I described in my 2014 book, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked.” That’s not an argument against gay marriage–but it’s true.

    Research has shown, of course, that gay and lesbian parents can raise healthy and well adjusted kids. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the differences between fathers and mothers. They are not nearly as sexually dimorphic as Disney’s characters, but mothers and fathers *are* different.


  4. I’m more interested in what you are selling, as your vocation is teaching. Don’t use the strawman that men and women “are not just different, they’re opposites”. Where are these people who believe men and women are extreme opposites with little to no shared ground? Where, beyond “Men are from Mars” lowest common denominator pop culture conveniences? You utilize this strawman over and over again, for example to minimize men and women’s differences to the point where the differences between motherhood and fatherhood are reduced to – what? The ridiculously anti-science reduction of differences down to conception and gestation, as in the Salon article? Our brains do not develop in isolation to our bodies. Or am I being unfair, and you understand that there are other significant differences as well, but that mothers and fathers are still similar enough to warrant no considerations as to how children may be impacted differently by a same-sex parental unit? If you want to argue against critiques of same-sex parents, use the myriads of anthropological and historical examples of kinship arrangements diverging from the biological mother and father as primary guardians of their children. Use comparisons to other animal species, it can have some value if caveats are carefully considered (unlike in the Salon article, but what do you expect, it’s Salon). But arguing that men and women are baaarely different is a false and terrible way to address gender inequalities, and you and Wade sure do it a lot. It’s advocacy, not sociology.


    1. Well, “lowest common denominator pop culture conveniences” is another way of saying “dominant cultural views.” So I think the opposites view is important. Yes there are “differences” between men and women in central tendencies on many variables, as I always note — physical and psychological. But in almost all cases the distributions overlap substantially, the origins (or “inherentness”) of the differences is often ambiguous, and the results are culturally malleable. How we interpret and act upon the differences and similarities is the social construction of gender.


      1. There is no such cultural view, unless you want to play mental gymnastics and make “dominant” mean whatever you want it to mean. You point to low-brow culture as representing “dominant” cultural views. Quite simplistic and pessimistic, but I suppose one could sociologically defend your position to a great extent. But show me specific institutions and sociological phenomena wherein women and men are viewed and treated as opposites in these strict terms you claim exist, beyond these simplistic black and white, easily consumed cultural phenomena. Is that view espoused in our everyday phenomenological cultural interactions? What about the law? By the state? Is it reflected in various prominent institutions, even ones that rest more heavily on pure physicality, such as the military and sport? Among social science academics at least, the “dominant” view is apparently an anti-science, far-left extremist position that seeks to completely divorce gender from sex, such as the Salon article written by a sociologist and that you uncritically reference as a sociologist. (The publication in question is telling in and of itself, nevermind the content of the article.) Overlapping distributions and the exhausted, dated social construction theory are such weak arguments, repeated over and over again by those who dare to enter an academic field that tolerates little criticism or dissent on this matter.


          1. Could you please show me where I make a personal attack and not a criticism of your sociology? Nothing I wrote is a personal attack, and believe me, I’ve been the recipient of many. What happens when these issues come up in a classroom? What a horrible way to disengage from criticism, no matter how harsh.


  5. I think the Rock’s bicep would look relatively larger if they were in profile also (and maybe with his forearm at a 90 degree angle), rather than sort of turned to the camera.


  6. Well, Disney movies can be incredibly sexist, and the dimorphism in their movies may be exxagerated, but that still doesn’t mean it has anything to do with females marrying larger guys, or females preferring different occupations. To assume that someone’s preferences (wrt to spouse choice or occupation choice) MUST be surely solely result of sexist culture and not in any part because of biological preferences is, in my opinion, not justifiable.

    I, for one, prefer tiny girls with nice arse and I would not want to marry a women larger than me. I do not think this was because I saw too much Disney movies. After all, I came from a communist-catholic mixed country, where access to movies was heavily restricted by economy, state, and my parents. Not to mention my preferences, when I first expressed, where laughed out by my peers, which caused me to shut about them for more that decade.

    Second comment: when you know what to look for, you will surely find it. Sometime ago i started to look for acceptance of violence agaisnt males in Disney movies and surely I found it – by that I mean in Disney movies it is acceptable for females to beat males and such acts usually are presented as either funny or justified. Does that mean Disney promotes violence against males? I do not think so.


    1. It is actually a recognized problem that a woman’s violence against a man is considered “funny” in media. Maybe not widely recognized, but I see posts and essays about this on a regular basis…


  7. Considering the generational gaps between views regarding gay marriage, the children most likely to have seen and grown up with this extreme dimorphism in Disney movies are the ones most likely to support gay marriage today. Like many “cultural critiques” of media and film, this one falls short of any convincing causal argument. Previous generations managed to be far more homophobic and sexist without Disney cartoons. Far more convincing an explanation is commitment to religion/religious belief.


  8. Revolutionary point of vision… no logic behind that. Destruction of the family is the point. Diversity and complementarity are the propose of the nature. The order and the chaos are very distinct between themselves and both are necessary.


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