Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away: The Empowerment of Female Heroes Against Hegemonic Masculinity

Disney’s reputation of stereotypical portrayals of gender in their films has not gone unnoticed, especially within their extensive princess genre. In the animated film Beauty and the Beast (1991) the female lead, Belle, is one of the first princesses to be presented in a more feminist light through her intelligence and wit. It also addresses hegemonic masculinity as seen in Gaston’s character and alternative masculinity in the Beast. In comparison, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001) portrays a female protagonist, Chihiro, that is trapped in the spirit world and befriends a boy named Haku who can transform himself into a dragon. Although some representation is based on cultural differences between the two animated films, there are similarities that can be discussed such as both female character’s reliance on a male character for their freedom. By analyzing Beauty and the Beast and how the three main character’s, Belle, Gaston, and the Beast, represent hegemonic ideals of masculinity and femininity, we can compare Spirited Away’s representation and how the Disney animated film undermines the empowerment of the female lead through the damsel in distress trope.

Belle, the main female protagonist from Beauty and the Beast, is from an era of Disney female characters lauded for being a breath of fresh air from the stereotypical depictions of women found in earlier Disney films like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. She is often celebrated as a strong, intelligent, and independent female character. She is far from being the damsel-in-distress heroine. She has hopes and dreams that extend far beyond obtaining the love of a man. Throughout the film, Belle is shown, and even called by other character, to be very independent, and ambitious, driven by her own sense of agency – attributes not typically given to many female protagonist in Disney movies from before Beauty and the Beast. In fact, the movie goes to great lengths in the beginning to market just how different Belle is suppose to be from other women.

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Source: Screenshots by Author

In the opening of the movie, the very first song shows the relationship Belle has with the rest of the town. Throughout the song many citizens of the town go out of their way to describe Belle as “strange” or “peculiar” due to her interest in books and her independent nature. They criticize these aspects of her, deeming that it’s both “a puzzle to the rest of us” and “pity and a sin”. For the rest of the song, they, including Belle herself, “other” her and her actions, clearly separating her from their society’s values as Belle is “very different from the rest of us”.

However, despite all of that, the movie very quickly works to undermine Belle’s difference in numerous ways. Two of those ways are presented in the characters Gaston and Adam, the Beast.

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Source: Screenshot by Author

Gaston displays typical traits of hegemonic masculinity; he’s seen as an attractive, physically fit, straight, white, controlling male. This is evident in every scene he’s in – even when he’s not the main focus; the trio of women swooning after him during the song “Belle”, everyone speaking their admiration of him in “Gaston”, and the scene where Gaston rallies the town together to kill the beast are all examples of Gaston flexing his dominant masculine attributes. Numerous times throughout the film, Gaston tries to force Belle to be his wife. Despite her constant rejection, he continually pursues a marriage with Belle – even showing up dressed up ready to get married that very second, expecting her to give in to his demands. Joseph Allen accurately sets up why this is such a problem, saying “Gaston seems to feel as though Belle’s assertion of her independence comes at the expense of his…which, for Gaston, means that he has lost the ability to decide for her — a threat to the foundation of his patriarchal identity” (2017). This means that Gaston’s repeated actions become normalized in the terms of masculinity. This is seen as something that’s simply a part of the masculine identity, which can then be read as normal behavior for society to replicate (hook 1994; Wormer, Juby 2015).

Despite Disney’s attempts to speak against this – seen in the way Gaston is clearly demarcated as the villain of the story, thus painting his form of hegemonic masculinity as something negative and unappealing – Belle still falls prey to a much subtler form of masculinity that still emulates this behavior. While Gaston represents a terror of toxic hegemonic masculinity, the Beast subscribes to a more alternative form of masculinity.

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Source: Screenshot by Author

The Beast, or Adam, doesn’t fit into your typical masculine category. He’s not seen as attractive and he is often seen emoting in ways that are typically marked as feminine, and yet he still given something called the patriarchal dividend. According to Connell, men considered not able to achieve hegemonic masculinity are still at an advantage in society. (2001). They still receive the benefits of masculinity from what they do achieve – which is given precedence over women, a group seen as subordinate (Connell 2001). The Beast is no exception to this. He still exhibits typical hegemonic masculine traits despite not quit reaching hegemonic status; he’s clearly of upper-class standing, he hold a position of authority over everyone in his household, to which he provides and protects, and most importantly, is male in either form – human or beast.

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Source: Screenshot by Author

Much like Gaston, the Beast tries to stamp out Belle’s agency by taking away choice from her. We see this in early scenes like the one where the Beast attempts to sit down to have dinner with Belle, only for her to refuse to attend. In retaliation he bellows out that “If she won’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all”, limiting Belle in her options.


Animation World Network

Beauty and the Beast makes a noticeable effort to stray away from typical stereotypes such as emphasized femininity which describes many of the original Disney princesses, but still struggles in how it ultimately undermines Belle’s agency. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, the main protagonist is a young female heroine, Chihiro, that becomes trapped in the spirit world and must not forget who she is in order to escape. Much like Beauty and the Beast, Chihiro relies on the character Haku, a young boy that has the ability to transform into a dragon, in order to gain her freedom. In comparing Belle and Chihiro, there are noticeable differences in the way Miyazaki portrays his female protagonists and how he represents gender overall.


Chihiro’s appearance is vastly different from the appearance of Disney’s animated characters. Influenced by Japanese culture, the features of Chihiro are less exaggerated and feminized than that of Belle’s. At the beginning of the movie, Chihiro and her parents are traveling to a new home. Her father decides to take a short cut and they come across an entrance to a dark tunnel. Chihiro’s demeanor at this point in the film is timid and afraid as her parents are curious as to what is through the dark tunnel. She clutches her parents tightly as they walk through together only to end up in what appears to be an abandoned theme park. They travel further in until they end up in a deserted town. Chihiro is ultimately left alone in what is labeled the spirit world when her parents are transformed into pigs. Throughout the rest of the film, Chihiro’s attitude changes as she gathers courage to help other spirits and confront the evil witch, Yubaba. Unlike Disney’s portrayal of Belle’s reliance on the Beast to save her in the end, Miyazaki portrays his female characters as “courageous, compassionate, independent, and located in worlds that are hybrid and imperfect” (Trafí-Prats 2016). Throughout the film Chihiro follows the instructions that Haku provides her in order to survive but in the end, it is she who ultimately helps Haku when he is attacked.

HakuSource: IMDB

Also influenced by Japanese culture, Miyazaki’s representation of masculinity in Haku’s character is less hegemonic and more related to the alternative form of masculinity. When Chihiro is alone in the spirit world, Haku appears suddenly and tells Chihiro how to survive. He is short and strict with his warnings, but as the film progresses he eases up on his sternness and coldness towards Chihiro. The typical representation of men in Japanese culture are tough, strong, and encouraged to have dominance over women and children (Sugihara and Katsurada 1999). These traits are apparent in Haku’s character as he interacts with other characters throughout the film. Haku’s appearance is far from the blonde, tall, and built traits presented when the Beast transforms back into his human form in Beauty and the Beast. Even Gaston’s traits are similar to the Beast, displaying a message of how Western society invisions the hegemonic male.



Though both Disney and Studio Ghibli comes from different cultures, as discussed above, both cultures seem to hold masculinity up to the same ideals. Men are usually the ones in authority and usually in charge of women and children. They’re the decision makers. What they say is expected to be followed for the best of most everyone – that was Haku’s intention when helping Chihiro, as with the Beast with Belle. However, what’s different is the result for both their female characters. While one used this as a device to ultimately build up and empower the main female protagonist – Chihiro – and give her agency outside of another male, the other failed to so. Instead, Disney fell back into its usual pattern of limited female representation. This is something troubling when taking into account the way media has the power to influence society. By letting these types of microaggressions slide, it runs the risk of becoming normalized in society.




  1. Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities (2nd ed). Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  2. hooks, b. (1994). Outlaw culture: Resisting representations. New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. J Allen. (2017, March 22). Toxic Masculinity in “Beauty and the Beast”. Retrieve from: https://womenandhollywood.com/toxic-masculinity-in-beauty-and-the-beast-8fbe0ae37367/
  4. Sugihara, Y., & Katsurada, E. (1999). Masculinity and Femininity in Japanese Culture: A Pilot Study. Sex Roles,40, 1-12.
  5. Trafí-Prats, L. (2016). Girls’ Aesthetics of Existence in/with Hayao Miyazaki’s Film. 17(5).
  6. Van Wormer, Katherine & Juby, Cindy. (2015). Cultural representations in Walt Disney films: Implications for social work education. Journal of Social Work, 16. doi:10.1177/1468017315583173.



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