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Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Masculinity in Disney's Feature Films

Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Masculinity in Disney's Feature Films

by Amy M. Davis


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From the iconic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to Tangled, the 2010 retelling of Rapunzel, Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains looks at the portrayal of male characters in Disney films from the perspective of masculinity studies and feminist film theory. This companion volume to Good Girls and Wicked Witches places these depictions within the context of Hollywood and American popular culture at the time of each film's release.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861967049
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 01/31/2014
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Amy M. Davis is author of Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Changing Representations of Women in Disney's Feature Animation, 1937-2001 (IUP, 2006) and a Lecturer in the Film Studies Department at the University of Hull.

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Handsome Heroes & Vile Villains

Men in Disney's Feature Animation

By Amy M. Davis

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86196-907-4


On Wooden Boys and Assistant Pig Keepers

In 2011, a huge "controversy" (in some people's minds, anyway), arose in the United States. A e-mail-formatted mailer, sent out on 5 April of that year, featured a photograph of a mother (J. Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons) painting – with bright pink nail polish, no less – the toe nails of her cherubic, tousled-haired son, Beckett. Both are laughing and smiling, clearing enjoying both each other's company and the pedicure. On the mailer, there are two small blurbs of text. To the left of the photo, it says, "Saturday With Jenna – See how she and son Beckett go off duty in style". Below the photo (and to the right of a second photo, this time featuring young Beckett in a medium close up wearing what appears to be eyeglasses, with chunky, black plastic frames, which presumably belong to one of his parents), is the second caption: "quality time – 'Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.'" Judging from the way some pundits responded to this, you might be forgiven for thinking she was doing something that would permanently harm her son. According to those who found the mailer shocking, that is exactly what she was doing. Some commentators even saw the mailer as "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children", going on to claim that "Propaganda pushing the celebration of gender-confused boys wanting to dress and act like girls is a growing trend, seeping into mainstream culture". Others, however, saw this reaction as springing from a very blatant double standard. In an article on these angst-ridden reactions, Dr. Peggy Drexler, the author of Raising Boys Without Men (2005) and Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (2011) – and someone who also happens to know Jenna Lyons and her son – raised a very interesting set of questions in regards to the worries over the "harm" this pink nail polish was going to do to young Beckett:

Just for the sake of discussion, let's restage the photo shoot. Suppose instead of a mother, it was a father. And instead of a son, it was a daughter. And instead of toenail polish, the father was applying eye-black to reduce glare on the cheek bones of a little girl, with a backwards baseball cap, who was getting ready for a game.

Would the world be having this conversation?

It is, indeed, a good question. Though feminism, unfortunately, is a very long way from being declared "post-" (to paraphrase Winston Churchill's comment on the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the feminist movement has, perhaps, reached the end of the beginning), nonetheless the idea of a girl dressing "boyishly" or engaging in play activities which, traditionally, have been associated with boys (competitive sports, for example) has become normalised in many western countries, even though some sports continue to have specific gender associations in various countries. Generally, though, thanks in large part to second-wave feminism, girls – without challenging perceptions of "appropriate" or "normal" behaviour – can enjoy being more active and rough-and-tumble than was once the case. But the reverse is not true for boys, at least not to the same extent. In his 1997 best-selling book Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph sought to allay fears in this regard:

Under six years of age, gender isn't a big deal, and it shouldn't be made so. Mothers are usually the primary parent, but a father can take this place. What matters is that one or two key people love this child and make him central for these few years. That way, he develops inner security for life, and his brain acquires the skills of intimate communication and a love of learning and interaction.

These years are soon over. Enjoy your little boy while you can!

Yet fourteen years later, the idea that boys might be harmed by engaging in – and engaging with – "feminine" activities like painting their toe nails was still a cause for concern to some. But not to all: the response to the "pink toe nails" controversy to be found online was, by and large, that those who were worried about it were, frankly, a little silly. Most of the comments to these articles pointed out that, sometimes, boys like to do things like have their nails painted (after all, it feels pleasurable!), and it has no impact on them whatsoever; it's not even some kind of "early indication" that they are homosexual, let alone that they are transgender. Typically, it just means that they like having their nails painted, and probably also that they enjoy the attention that comes with having their nails painted, as well as enjoying the way it looks and/or feels. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes nail polish is just nail polish. Most of the reactions made by the general public can be summed up by a comment posted on 13 April 2011, to an article about the furore, which was published on Yahoo! "Isn't criticizing happy little kids ... simply for being uninhibited ... exactly how you create bitter, angry and repressed adults who take out their internal fears and frustrations by making nasty comments about happy, uninhibited, little kids ...?" Even an article on the very conservative, which highlighted two articles criticising – in fairly emotional language and with obvious homophobic agendas – the idea of painting a boy's toenails (the same article mentioned only briefly just one commentator who saw it as a non-issue), admitted that the majority of responses it had to a twitter poll it conducted agreed that the whole episode was no big deal.

What does all of this have to do with human boys in Disney's animated films? The short answer is, quite a lot, actually. As was discussed in the introductory chapter to this book, the perceptions about the real boys who may (or may not) go to Disney films have come to shape, at a very minimum, the titles of some films; how the films depict male and (especially) female characters has been an issue for even longer. Putting likeable, positive boy characters on screen means that the films are more likely to attract boys to the film; making sure that the boys on screen are relatable to the boys in the audience ensures the film's success. Furthermore, putting boys on screen who conform to cultural ideas and expectations about what is suitable as a construction of "appropriate" boyhood means that the films are deemed by parents, child advocacy groups, educators, and society at large to be "safe" and "family-friendly" entertainment which is suitable for a general audience: filmmakers who have catered to these groups, both during and after the Hays Code era, would be foolish to court too much controversy in their characters and their narratives. This chapter, in looking at how boys are depicted within Disney's animated features, considers the various depictions of boys and boyhood, and seeks to link these depictions with ideas about boyhood and childhood that were contemporary to each of the films. The films included in this discussion are Pinocchio (1940), Make Mine Music (1946: the "Peter and the Wolf" segment), Peter Pan (1953), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), and Treasure Planet (2002). Following the sections looking at different types of boy characters is a section looking at what these characters have in common across their depictions. In particular, there is analysis of how the depiction of attraction to a member of the opposite sex (both when the boy experiences it and when the boy is an object of it) can serve as a sign of the character being "ready to grow up", as Wendy Darling describes it in Peter Pan. This linking of romance and boyhood is an important and complicated one, and so is worth exploring as a section in its own right.

Not all of the boys in this chapter experience it, however; some are too young, and some are too busy. Our first character under the microscope is one of the busy ones: he's too busy trying to become a real boy to worry about love. Towards the end of the chapter, there is a specific examination of those characters who begin the films as boys, but whom we get to see grow to manhood over the course of the narrative. This theme, until very recently, was unique to the male characters: five characters in four films spend a substantial chunk of their narratives at more than one age; in three of those films, an important thematic concern is an examination of what kind of man a character grows to be, and what forces shape each of them as they grow. Only three female characters are shown as both women and girls in their films: two of the characters are in the same film (Tiana and Charlotte in The Princess and the Frog, 2009), and for neither them nor for Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010) does their narrative examine too deeply how their childhoods affected their adulthoods; yes, childhood is shown to shape them, but it is more of a narrative device to explain their adult selves and lives than it is an examination of growing up and what makes a woman a woman. What makes a man a man, however, is very much at the hearts of three of the four films where boys become men. The films which will be discussed in this section are Melody Time (1948: the "Pecos Bill" segment), Hercules (1997), Tarzan (1999), and Meet the Robinsons (2007).

Little Boys

Generally speaking this group of characters (who are grouped together for discussion because they all are boys throughout their narratives) have certain basic traits in common that can be thought about and borne in mind when reading each character's individual analysis. Generally speaking, the boys in Disney's feature films – or the boys who fulfil major or main roles within their films, anyway – tend to be fairly selfish or self-centred, though not in a mean way. They don't act selfishly because they are bad, but instead because they have never had to think about others, even in those cases (such as in Peter Pan) when they have others around them from their own peer group with whom they must interact. They are typically very curious about the world around them, and it is this curiosity, coupled with their disregard for considering how others might be affected by their attempts to satisfy their curiosity through undertaking some sort of adventure or quest, which is usually what leads them into trouble (though, of course, without the "trouble" they get into, we don't get a story). All of the boys in these films are intelligent. Even Pinocchio, despite his ignorance about fairly basic things, is intelligent; it's simply that, in his case, he is only hours/days old, and so has yet to learn and experience a great many things that a real boy of roughly his physical stage would have experienced. Given how new to the world he is, he does very well (though, thankfully, even though he doesn't always listen, he does have Jiminy Cricket to help him when he doesn't understand what is happening). Pinocchio is also naïve, unsurprisingly, but so too are most of the boys in these films. They are just boys, so this is not terribly unexpected, but we do see a few boys (such as Lampwick in Pinocchio, as well as Peter Pan, by and large) who are a little more worldly than most other boys. All of the boys, however, tend to be a bit headstrong but, naturally, some are more obstinate than others. Overall, though, they are basically good kids, and are trying to do the right thing. Sometimes they don't know what the right thing is, but that is excused by their youth; when they know what is right and what is wrong, they do the right thing. Again, Pinocchio is the slowest to do this (he may have Jiminy Cricket assigned to him to be his conscience, but – and this is part of how he learns the moral lesson of his narrative – he doesn't always listen at first). But even when the boys in Disney's animated features make mistakes, they always try hard to make up for those mistakes, and always do their best to set things right.

Pinocchio certainly tries hard, even if it takes him a long time to do the right thing and redress the harm he has done through his selfishness and gullibility earlier in the film. Pinocchio, overall, is a good boy, but – of course – he's not real. Brought to life by the Blue Fairy in answer to Geppetto's wish and given a friendly, intelligent, practical cricket – named Jiminy Cricket by the Disney adaptation – to serve as his conscience (presumably until he can gain one of his own), Pinocchio is presented from the beginning of his life as a happy, cheerful, innocent child. But early on in the story, his innocence and naivety are presented as the reasons why he gets into trouble; in that sense, he must overcome these qualities – despite their traditional association with childhood – in order to become a "real" boy, rather than remaining a wooden puppet.

It has been claimed that Walt Disney cast child actor Dickie Jones to be Pinocchio's voice because the boy had "a typical nice boy's voice". This is important to bear in mind when understanding how Pinocchio is depicted in the film: he gets into a lot of trouble, he often ignores his conscience, he is led away from the right path very often, and (initially, at least) is very self-centred, but he is never mean or bad, something which that "nice boy's voice" helps us remember, especially when, the very first morning of his life, he gets into trouble. He starts the morning eager to be good, excited about going to school. He is on his way to school when he is spied by Honest John and Gideon. Ignoring Jiminy Cricket's warning that Honest John offers nothing but temptation, and should therefore be resisted, Pinocchio is swayed by Honest John's stories of "the easy road to success – the theatre!" despite the fact that Pinocchio has never heard of the theatre and doesn't know what it is. Unbeknownst to Pinocchio until much later, Honest John then sells Pinocchio to Stromboli, who puts Pinocchio on stage with a collection of marionettes and has him to sing the song "I Got No Strings" to the audience, who love the performance. But, of course, Stromboli isn't the honest man Pinocchio believes him to be (being only a few hours old at this stage, Pinocchio has yet to comprehend dishonesty), and so Pinocchio is shocked when he is imprisoned by Stromboli. Originally, it had been Pinocchio's plan to go home to Geppetto and give him the money he had earned from his performance. Instead, he finds himself being held prisoner and carried off into the unknown.


Excerpted from Handsome Heroes & Vile Villains by Amy M. Davis. Copyright © 2015 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Masculinity, Animation, 9 Old Men & Walt
2. Separating the Men from the Boys
3. Mad about the Boy
4. Handsome Princes
5. Evil Villains

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