Cartoons aren’t meant to accurately portray people, EVER. They are meant to exaggerate features, so that they are more prominent and eye catching. So feminine features are made more feminine, and masculine features are made more masculine. … The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.
Flipping through IMDB’s list of the top 500 animated movies reveals that Disney is certainly not alone in emphasizing the larger size of males. But there are a few successful counterexamples as well.
Here are some good ones where the male and female characters are similarly proportioned. Note these are not just random male and female characters but couples (more or less).
Even some old Disney movies have romantic moments between physically-similar males and females. The original Snow White (from the 1937 movie) was paired with a Prince Charming whose wrists were barely bigger than hers (plus, look at her giant/normal waist!):
Disney non-human animal pairs were sometimes quite physically matched. Consider Bambi and Faline (Bambi, 1942):
Or Dutchess and O’Malley from Aristocats (1970) in which their exaggerated femininity and masculinity are not conveyed through extreme body-size difference:
In other realms of animation, Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference:
Of course, Lucy and Charlie Brown were virtually identical if you think about it:
I can’t offer much in the crowded field of Disney gender criticism. But I do want to update my running series on the company’s animated gender dimorphism. The latest installment is Frozen.
Just when I was wondering what the body dimensions of the supposedly-human characters were, the script conveniently supplied the dimorphism money-shot: hand-in-hand romantic leads, with perfect composition for both eye-size and hand-size comparisons:
With the gloves you can’t compare the hands exactly, but you get the idea. And the eyes? Yes, her eyeball actually has a wider diameter than her wrist:
Giant eyes and tiny hands symbolize femininity in Disneyland.
While I’m at at, I may as well include Brave in the series. Unless I have repressed it, there is no romance story for the female lead in that movie, but there are some nice comparison shots of her parents:
Go ahead, give me some explanation about the different gene pools of the rival clans from which Merida’s parents came.
Since I first complained about this regarding Tangled (here), I have updated the story to include Gnomeo and Juliet (here). You can check those posts for more links to research (and see also this essay on human versus animal dimorphism by Lisa Wade). To just refresh the image file, though, here are the key images. From Tangled:
At this point I think the evidence is compelling enough to conclude that Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships.*
REAL WRIST-SIZE ADDENDUM
How do real men’s and women’s wrist sizes differ? I looked at 7 studies on topics ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to judo mastery, and found a range of averages for women of 15.4 cm to 16.3 cm, and for men of 17.5 to 18.1 cm (in both cases the judo team had the thickest wrists).
‘Then I found this awesome anthropometric survey of U.S. Army personnel from 1988. In that sample (almost 4,000, chosen to match the age, gender, and race/ethnic composition of the Army), the averages were 15.1 for women and 17.4 for men. Based on the detailed percentiles listed, I made this chart of the distributions:
The average difference between men’s and women’s wrists in this Army sample is 2.3 cm, or a ratio of 1.15-to-1. However, if you took the smallest-wristed woman (12.9 cm) and the largest-wristed man (20.4), you could get a difference of 7.5 cm, or a ratio of 1.6-to-1. Without being able to hack into the Disney animation servers with a tape measure I can’t compare them directly, but from the pictures it looks like these couples have differences greater than the most extreme differences found in the U.S. Army.
*This conclusion has not yet been subject to peer review.
Originally published by TheAtlantic.com. An update to my old post on the first Smurf movie (which keeps getting traffic from people Googling for Smurf names).
The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The sequel doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.
In the original graphic novels, Smurfette (or La Schtroumpfette in French) was the creation of the evil Gargamel, who made her to sow chaos among the all-male Smurf society. His recipe for femininity included coquetry, crocodile tears, lies, gluttony, pride, envy, sentimentality, and cunning.
In the Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.
These characters, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people–with their unique qualities and abilities–while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The Smurfs 2, which premiered last weekend and came in third at the box office, doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.
Here are the Smurf characters McDonald’s is using for their Happy Meals:
When you buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the cashier asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to my daughters, girls get Smurfette. I guess boys get any of the others.
The Way It’s Never Been
Identifying male characters by their non-gender qualities and females by their femininity is just one part of the broader pattern of gender differentiation, or what you might call gendering.
There are two common misconceptions about gendering children. One is that it has always been this way – with boys and girls so different naturally that all products and parenting practices have always differentiated them. This is easily disproved in the history of clothing, which shows that American parents mostly dressed their boys and girls the same a century ago. In fact, boys and girls were often indistinguishable, as evident in this 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal contest in which readers were asked to guess the sex of the babies (no one got them all right):
The other common perception is that our culture is actually eliminating gender distinctions, as feminism tears down the natural differences that make gender work. In the anti-feminist dystopian mind, this amounts to feminizing boys and men. This perspective gained momentum during the three decades after 1960, when women entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers (a movement that has largely stalled).
However, despite some barrier-crossing, we do more to gender-differentiate now than we did during the heyday of the 1970s unisex fashion craze (the subject of Jo Paoletti’s forthcoming book, Sex and Unisex). On her Tumblr, Paoletti has a great collection of unisex advertising, such as this 1975 Garanimals clothing ad, which would be unthinkable for a major clothier today:
And these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):
Today, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes”:
Today, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash. In fact, even the words “sexism” and “sexist,” which rose to prominence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, have once again become less common than, say, the word “bacon”:
And the gender differentiation of childhood is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Not all differences are bad, of course. But what Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle“–in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation”–is not a difference between equals.
Keeping to my policy of two-year delays in movie reviews, let me add the same complaint about Gnomeo and Juliet, the charming adaptation from Disney’s Touchstone imprint. Here, a writing team of 8 men and 2 women (including Shakespeare) gives us a named cast of 14 men and 7 women, in a love story featuring these two adorable garden gnomes:
He’s only a little taller, and (judging by the gray beard) a little older. And in the movie she demonstrates bravery and feats of strength, as is now the norm. But look at those hands! Take a closer look:
What is it about hands that makes it so essential for men and women to have such differences? In the “man hands” episode of Seinfeld we learned how distressing it can be for a man to find out the woman to whom he was attracted has large hands.
That scene required a hand double. In real life, men’s and women’s hands differ on average but with a lot of overlap in the distributions — lots of men have hands smaller than lots of women. But in animation the gloves are off — and Disney is free to pair up couples who are many standard deviations apart in hand size. If real people commonly had this range of hand sizes, would such an extreme difference be considered desirable?
A few more suggestions have come in for cultural events upending name trends.
The story behind these name shocks seem self-apparent. Both Monica and Ellen were mildly popular, though trending downward, before their names were associated with sex in a bad way, apparently leading to their collapse. Forrest was enjoying a run-up in popularity, tragically cut short by the movie Forrest Gump.
Buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal and get a toy: OK, I didn’t expect it to be enlightening.
But to hear Kevin Newell, the company’s executive vice president and global chief brand officer, tell it, that’s exactly what it should be:
McDonald’s is committed to playing a positive role in children’s well-being. The Smurfs Happy Meal program delivers great quality food choices, fun toys and engaging digital content that reinforces important environmental messages.
Awesome. Granted, the last time I saw a Smurf, it was about 1978, and he looked like this:
And I don’t recall being overly concerned with gendered toy representations at the time. Anyway, now I’m told by the Happy Meal box that, “Smurfs are named after their individual talents: there’s Farmer, Painter and Baker… Know your talent and find your Smurf name!”
The girls both got male Smurf characters, which struck me as interesting, because the counter person had asked us if the Meals were for boys or girls. Then I looked at the characters on the box. Then I looked at the complete list of them on the website (see the poster version here):
Then I wondered what Smurfette’s “individual talent” was that got her — the only female Smurf – named “Smurfette.” And at that point, if it hadn’t been for all the fat and salt and sugar in my meal, I might have stopped enjoying it.
But isn’t it improbable that a blockbuster kids’ movie, which grossed more than $75 million in its first two weeks, could be so blatantly sexist? There are a few women in the cast of the movie version of The Smurfs, but all the Smurfs are still male except Smurfette. Next thing you know they’re going to turn the only female character in this promotion — which, remember, plays a “positive role in children’s well-being” — into an adult sex symbol played by Katy Perry. You’re kidding.
Is sexist even a word anymore?
In fact, sexism used to be a very common word. According to the Google Ngrams database of millions of terms from their vast collection of digitized books in American English, “sexism” was even more common than “bacon” during the 1990s (you can play with this yourself here):
Unfortunately, in my opinion, sexism has retreated from the language, and kids’ stuff seems to be more shamelessly gendered than ever. I think this sad state of affairs is at least partly the result of what you see in that green line above — the backlash against feminism (and anti-racism) that made it seem more unpleasant or unwarranted to make a “big deal” out of sexism than to treat girls like this.
P.S. I haven’t seen the movie. Please tell me it has a hidden feminist message I haven’t heard about.