Disney Animated Movies passing the Bechdel Test to shift away from Emphasized Femininity

Disney’s representation of women in animated films tends to portray women in support roles of  the hegemonic men and showing how women should act. Since the creation of movies, women have always been told to “act like a woman,” but we will analyze how animated Disney women represent what it means to be a woman without following typical stereotypes, and what movies have passed the Bechdel Test to explain our argument. The Bechdel Test, “is a measure of female representation in film and television that uses three criteria for evaluating the presence and visibility of strong female characterizations” (Wilkins). The three criteria presented to pass the Bechdel Test ask ‘if there are at least two named female characters?’, ‘do they speak to each other?’, and ‘do they speak to each other about something other than a male “love” interest’? Disney often portrays the emphasized femininity for female characters as white, cisgender, and able-bodied that embodies the personality traits of thin, small, and in need of protection. The stories that Disney tells of “central women characters are actually reinforced stereotypes, who fulfill petty roles” (Balint). However, shifts are moving away from emphasized femininity towards a more independent woman that doesn’t follow typical narratives about men, and present women as the subject of the film rather than the object of the male gaze. In our photo essay, we will be analyzing Disney animated women and their character traits that explain how they have passed the Bechdel Test to show how Disney is slowly shifting away from emphasized femininity traits.  

Mulan (1998)

Mulan is a great starting point that shows Disney beginning to steer away from emphasized femininity by portraying a woman of color as she represents an independent woman. She saved not only her group of soldiers from the Huns but also is a hero of China because she saved everyone. At the beginning of the film, there is a bit of a contradiction in passing the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, the women need to speak to each other other than a male love interest, and the contradiction is that Mulan is preparing to be chosen as a bride for a potential suitor by the matchmaker, but they are also not talking about men. As Mulan is preparing to meet the matchmaker, she tells her mother, Fa Li, that the bath is cold and her mother responds by telling her it would have been warmer if she got there on time. 

Source: Silver Screening Room

After meeting with the matchmaker, Mulan was told: “she will never bring her family honor.” Disney attempts to shift the conversation away from men, but this is an example of women’s roles in society. Mulan then transforms herself into a soldier and temporarily breaks the barriers of gender roles by putting away the fan and replacing it with her father’s sword. Mulan takes her father’s place in the army and trains with male soldiers to bring her father honor. She trains under the name of ‘Ping,’ and during the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” Mulan “transforms from a helpless failure into a skilled soldier” (Shapiro). Mulan trains and proves that she can do what men can do. She reveals that she can be in the army with the other men by using her intelligence to show she is a better soldier than the other men. 

SOURCE: Geeks and Gamers

In another song, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” the male soldiers are marching off to war and singing about what types of women they would fight for. The verses from the song “I want her paler than the moon with eyes that shine like stars/ My girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars/I couldn’t care less what she’ll wear or what she looks like

It all depends on what she cooks like”.  When Mulan was asked what she looks for, Mulan asks, “How ‘bout a girl with a brain/Who always speaks her mind,” and the men respond saying no. This reveals that men have an expectation of women and standards that they hold up against women and see them as inferior. When Mulan is hurt from an attack of the leader of the Hun army, and it is revealed that she is a woman shows that “nothing in society has changed” that women should be in an obedient place to men and men are the superior in the male/female role (Shapiro). This shows that what she “does throughout the movie is for a man” (Shapiro). There is still a form of protection that is portrayed needed by Mulan, in other words, the honor and approval she needs for her father. Even though she saved everyone and is the hero for all of China, she still goes back home to be in a position of the typical female role to be settled and married. Mulan is beginning to show some representation of Disney steering away from the stereotypes of emphasized femininity and temporarily breaking the barriers of gender roles. Since the roles aren’t remodified, she is only able to move between the roles because she is disguised as a man. 

However, Disney does begin to give women the agency they deserve, especially to the disproportionate representation of women of color. Mulan represents what it means to be a woman by thinking, fighting, and providing for herself without the assistance of others, especially men. Mulan was highlighted as “an individual pursuing and proving her self” because “she physically fights almost to the death for her family and to earn her own honor and respect” (Hopkins). From this time, Disney can still work on moving away from an emphasized femininity that doesn’t revert to a stereotypical category of women accepting their submissive role in a male-dominated world. 

Frozen II (2019)

In Frozen II, we can see the character growth between Anna and especially Elsa. This movie is a great example that shifts away from emphasized femininity towards female independence and passing the Bechdel Test. Anna and Elsa are on another adventure guided by spirits. They are on this journey to save the kingdom of Arendalle to find the voice that Elsa is hearing, to find the truth, and get them home. Throughout this movie, Elsa hears a voice to follow it to learn more about her past because she feels like she doesn’t belong. What keeps the narrative of the story going is Elsa’s determination to find the voice she hears, and that there is no talk of male interests between the two since both ladies are determined to find the truth. 

When Anna and Elsa first decide to follow the voice, they later come across some spirits in an enchanted forest. Once they find more information regarding the spirits in the enchanted forest, they continue their journey to find a crashed boat that their parents left in before they died. The girls realize that their parents attempted to cross the Dark Sea headed towards Ahtihallan to try and find the truth about Elsa. Elsa realized that she must embark on her journey alone because she alone, with her powers, can cross the Dark Sea and decides to send Anna back to the enchanted forest. She continues to follow the voice that leads her towards the Dark Sea. Elsa prepares to cross the sea by getting rid of her puts and pulling her hair back.

SOURCE: Express

Elsa shows determination to find out more about the truth in the past and herself. She is breaking the typical ‘queen’ stereotype by showing she is prepared for what may come next. She is confident in crossing the sea and “she fights the ocean tide, using her powers to make an ice path”(Dundes). “To break the spell and atone for her family’s perfidy, Anna breaks the dam,” that unleashes a flood but Elsa diverts it with her magic (Dundes). Both Anna and Elsa were able to do what was needed to restore the kingdom and free the enchanted forest. Elsa needed to find herself to do so, and realized she was the one she was waiting for and find herself, while Anna needed to learn that loving someone meant giving them their space to be the best version of themselves. As a result, both girls had an identity outside of each, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need each other.

SOURCE: Pinterest

This in itself not only passes the Bechdel Test, but it also shows women’s agency represented in the movies as subjects of the film. The film not only represented one powerful woman but two that faced obstacles to save their kingdom. Although this film portrayed a lot of powerful women, there is still the matter of having more diversity in Disney films. The main characters of the film were still represented as white, able-bodied women that represents how Disney still reverts to the amount of diversity, especially for women of color, that is not shown in the film. These women didn’t need protection from the men and did what they needed to do to help save Arendalle. As we continue our time into the modern day of the 21st century, Disney is improving their duty to move away from emphasized femininity. Disney can continue to move away from this trope, and include more films of women of color that represent women as the subject. However, the story of Frozen 2 exemplifies the shift away from an emphasized femininity that Disney typically reinforces in their animated films, by incorporating the Bechdel Test to incite more female leads in speaking roles as well as women of color.

Lilo and Stitch (2002)

In the 2002 Disney animated film, “Lilo and Stitch”, a majority of the picture focuses on the relationship of sisters Lilo and Nani’s sister, with some adventures on the way. Prior to the movie, it is explained that they lost their parents to a car crash and Nani had to step up and fill in as Lilo’s legal guardian. It is now up to Nani to raise Lilo on her own, with some monitoring from a social worker. There are some ups and downs in doing so since Nani is still a nineteen year old woman still navigating the new life she has been given as a mother figure.

SOURCE: Tumblr 

Being that the Bechdel Test has qualifications such as two female characters talking one on one about something other than a love interest, this movie does just that while showing a strong bond between sisters, without the distractions of a male. Towards the beginning of the film, Nani does appear to have a love interest named David, however, when she realizes that the social worker is becoming more worried that Lilo is not under the best care, she ends the relationship to focus on becoming a better caregiver to her sister. This is a quality that steers away from the typical Disney stereotype that women need a prince to have their happy ending or to get what they want. It portrays Nani as a strong individual who simply is not a damsel in distress, rather quite the opposite, who is another object of affection for men.

This film steps away from emphasized femininity for more than one reason. The first being that the two are women of color who do not possess the typical passive, sweet, traditional trope that is exhibited in other disney films. This is important because rather than having the typical white characters that are usually seen in films such as these, the diversity allows for a representation of people of color to have a platform and portraying two women of color as strong and independent. Through this representation, it allows Disney to break away from their emphasized femininity and breaks this stereotypical category of women in a male-dominated world. A strong example that supports the Bechdel Test criteria is a montage scene in which Nani is looking for a job to support herself, but more importantly to support her little sister Lilo. She goes around to countless locations in her town telling business owners her skills and how she would be an excellent fit for that job. This is an important scene that exemplifies how she is selfless and putting Lilo before herself, a quality that typically is not seen as much in animated films. 

SOURCE: Devian Art 

In addition, they tend to do things for themselves, motivated to help one another, a quality of the Bechdel Test which the audience sees on numerous accounts.  In the film there is a scene in which the two have a typical sister argument, but then quickly make up in Lilo’s room and talk about how they are not a “broken family”, but they are still sisters who love each other. This strays away from the classic emphasized femininity once again because it shows these little moments of weakness, which are not bad, but simply make them seem more relatable and human rather than appearing strong all the time. 

SOURCE: Smule 

Overall, this film is an excellent representation of a film that passes the Bechdel Test because it represents women who are subjects of the film in a manner that is not for the typical male gaze. 

Being the main characters of the film were not the typical white, able-bodied women that are usually shown in Disney films, it  allows this diversity for women of color and shows that they can overcome obstacles presented to them. In addition, it shows that Nani did not need the help of a male counterpart to raise her sister and give her the best life she could, fighting against the same damsel in distress stereotype that is highly presented. This film is an excellent representation that shows how Disney, with the help of the Bechdel Test, is straying away from the emphasized femininity and overdone tropes.

SOURCE: Tor 

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

In the Princess and the Frog, the character growth and determination of the main character Tiana is an excellent example of how there is a shift away from the typical emphasized femininity to empowered female independence. Tiana is a waitress living in a small house with her mother in New Orleans. Her father passed when she was a young girl and that had a large impact on her throughout the film and being one of her main motivations to work hard. She is never looking for a ‘happy ending’ that is fulfilled with a prince charming, rather she wants to have her own happy ending that is filled with accomplishing her own desires.

SOURCE: Pinterest 

To begin, Tiana is a waitress at a small cafe restaurant in the heart of New Orleans. She works a large amount of shifts, usually back to back, to save up and accomplish her dream of opening up a restaurant. Tiana shows determination to open this restaurant and does not want the help of anyone else, she wants to be able to do it on her own. Eventually, her hard work paid off and she saved enough tips and paychecks to purchase an old sugar mill that will be known one day as, “Tiana’s Place”. In a particular scene, Tiana takes her mother to look at the sugar mill and goes on and on about how it will be the most extravagant restaurant in all of New Orleans. Her mother then goes on to make a comment about how she is overworking herself and she needs to find time to settle down, marry, and have a family. This can be disputed as not passing the Bechdel Test since her mother is talking about a male, but Tiana quickly tells her that “has to wait a while”, since she is so close to getting her dream come true. In addition, the scene’s musical number “Almost There” shows Tiana telling male workers what to do, which is a different pace from the life she is living currently. This passes the Bechdel Test because it shows a lack of emphasized femininity and rejects the idea that Tiana is damsels in distress that needs the assistance of a rugged man to get what she truly wants and desires.

SOURCE: Pinterest

In addition, this film passes the Bechdel Test being that it does an excellent job at the representation of people of color. Rather than sticking to the stereotypes and tropes that are presented, they stray away from this. It does not revert to the stereotypical category of women of color, and pushes against them. It gives agency to Tiana and shows that women do not have to be submissive to the male gaze, but they could also accomplish what they want without the assistance of others. Overall, this diversity in the film is a great example of the use of the Bechdel Test because it shows that women are just as, if not more, capable at achieving what they want and also being able to provide for themselves.

SOURCE: Walt’s World 

Overall, The Princess and the Frog is an excellent example of the shift away from emphasized femininity and rejects the idea of hegemonic masculinity in the process. By passing the Bechdel Test, it allows for this emergence of a strong, woman character to push against societal boundaries. In addition, this disney film pushes against stereotypes and assists to give agency to disproportionate representation of women of color. Tiana is a main character that represents empowerment, fighting for what you want, and accomplishing your dreams all while pushing away the emphasized femininity. This film is a wonderful example of how Disney and animated films in general are moving away from the ‘classic’ tropes and bringing more inclusion.

In conclusion, as Disney animated films begin to progress and move away from the idea of emphasized femininity in their characters, they ultimately embody the characteristics that move away from the ideas that believe ‘how women should act’. The women in the films of Mulan, Frozen II, The Princess and the Frog, and Lilo and Stitch are all excellent representations of how they defy the typical “act like a woman” mindset as seen in previous disney movies. The Bechdel Test follows the qualifications of ‘do they speak to each other?’, and ‘do they speak to each other about something other than a male “love interest’? which are more than followed in each of these four films. The characters in these animated movies are fantastic examples in how they are not the objects of the male gaze, but rather do things for themselves and the loved ones around them. The independent qualities each character possesses is a great start to moving past the well known narratives that tend to focus around a prince charming, and overall shift away from emphasized femininity traits.  

Works Cited

Balint, E. (2013). The Representation of Women in Walt Disney’s Productions in the Studio Era. Americana: E-journal of American Studies in Hungary, 9(2), 8. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=6131cca4-db22-40ee-ae6f-e687c69a375d%40pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=95031182&db=a9h

Dundes, L. (2020). Elsa as Horse Whisperer in Disney’s Frozen 2: Opportunity “Nokk”s to Quash Gender Stereotypes. Social Sciences(Basil) 9(5), 86. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci9050086

Hopkins, K. (2017, February 15). Mulan Crushing the Patriarchy since 386 AD. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://info.umkc.edu/womenc/2017/02/15/mulan-crushing-the-patriarchy-since-386-ad/

Lilo and Stitch – Possibly Disney’s Most Feminist Film. (2019, July 28). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.silverpetticoatreview.com/2015/02/21/lilo-and-stitch-possibly-disneys-most-feminist-film/

Moffitt, K. (2019). Scripting the Way for the 21st-Century Disney Princess in The Princess and the Frog. Women’s Studies in Communication, 42(4), 471–489. https://doi.org/10.1080/07491409.2019.1669757

Pages, T. (n.d.). Race and Gender in “The Princess and the Frog” – Sociological Images. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/08/27/race-and-gender-in-the-princess-and-the-frog/

Shapiro, A. (2017, November 14). “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”: Carnival and Gender Roles in Disney’s Mulan. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://sites.williams.edu/f18-engl117-02/uncategorized/ill-make-a-man-out-of-you-carnival-and-gender-roles-in-disneys-mulan/

Wilkins, H. (2020, February 17). The Bechdel Test Using a Script Breakdown | Diversity in Film. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/the-bechdel-test/

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