Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice…

Male domination is so rooted in our collective unconscious that we no longer even see it. It is so in tune with our expectations that it becomes hard to challenge it – Pierre Bourdieu

Ever wonder why there are so many fragile princesses in children’s movies? And why the main male characters are mostly strong and powerful figures?

Despite loosened gender role prescriptions, children’s movies surprisingly still disseminate stereotypical images of men and women. Many of these stories depict their heroes as powerful, tough, and dominant, and the heroines as selflessly dedicated and submissive damsels in distress.  Girls, after all, are said to be made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” and boys from “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails”.

Children absorb these messages from a very early age on, through their exposure to these seemingly wholesome children’s films, and often construe their worldview accordingly. Little girls frequently dream of becoming beautiful, acquiescent princesses, and little boys strive to identify with the mighty and brave knights, warriors and fighters.

Let’s look at some of the stereotypical images that appear in Disney movies, for instance. In Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, there is the courageous, fearless rescuer on one side, and the helpless and weak princess on the other. This Prince Charming not only saves his leading lady from her defenseless fate, but also becomes her future provider. It is the classic story of the superhero vs. the defenseless heroine whose life depends on the doings of her savior.

Physical beauty is prioritized in the female protagonists, whereas prowess, strength, and stamina are highlighted in the male characters. “A girl will marvel at my strength, adore my battle scars” says soldier Yao in Mulan. Gaston, in Beauty and The Beast, boastingly proclaims that he’s “got biceps to spare”. Those characters who do not fit these idealized body types usually represent outcasts, misfits, or evil personages.

With some rare exceptions, female characters don’t have specific activities which define them, aside from, perhaps, household tasks. In Snow White, a strong gusto for cleaning is highlighted. She is characterized as the perfect maidservant who carries out her domestic chores while singing happy tunes.

Moreover, women are portrayed as willing to sacrifice it all for love. Ariel, for instance, gives up her voice in the hope of getting her man, while Belle, in Beauty and the Beast, is discouraged from pursuing self-actualization. When she is caught reading, Gaston tells her “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas, thinking”.

Male occupations, on the other hand, are more defining of their identity. The male characters do not have to prove their self-worth and selfhood through cleaning or vicitimization, but rather through brave actions such as diving into danger, battles against evil forces, and combats with other men (to show who’s the ‘better man’), all with fearless determination.

All these images help to construct domination as a cultural masculine norm – and in certain cases, violence as an accepted part of masculinity. They depict men as forceful and aggressive, if not abusive, towards other men as well as in their treatment of women. “Now you respect me, because I’m a threat” says Syndrome in The Incredibles. The unwillingness or inability to fight is shown as unmanly.

A message that many children receive is that it is OK for men to express aggression, and that women should tolerate this behavior and take responsibility for keeping men’s violence at bay. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle endures the Beast’s abusive behavior in the hope of bring out his tender side.

These messages are often carried over into real-life relationships. If the abuse implicit in these fictional situations are often overlooked, they are even harder to identify in everyday life. Click here, to find out more on how to identify controlling and abusive relationships.

© Karin Taverniers, PhD – Sugar and Spice… (2009)

Copyright 2009