A look at the customary roles of gender as depicted in the movies Beauty and the Beast, Mr Mom and The Little Mermaid, and Mulan
Traditional Gender Roles and the Media
Traditionally, girls must be gentle and submissive while boys can rough house and have the freedom the opposite gender is denied. This idea of gender roles is birthed from the static expectations of old societal views. Although the media is shying away from this nowadays, many films do not share the same sentiment. Mr. Mom, a movie from the 80’s, depicts a wife and husband switching careers—one as a housewife, the other as the breadwinner—for the underlying purpose of understanding each other better. However, even though both adults discover newfound pride and comfort in their work, they eventually return to their old stations, implying that they are ultimately happier in their traditional roles. Similar to Mr. Mom, as much as today’s media likes to portray the reversal of these roles, many of these old opinions still prevail in movies such as Mr. Mom, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Mulan.
Along with Mr. Mom, animations such as Beauty and the Beast portray a disruption in society caused by a defiance of set gender roles. Mr. Mom depicts a role reversal in which Caroline, a housewife, begins working in advertising while her husband Jack, a former engineer, loses his job and stays at home to care for their children. Caroline is belittled during her first day at work by her superiors for being a woman, and the rest of her working days are filled with sexual harassment from her boss, Ron. Other male executives blatantly disrespect her and her intelligence, opting not to listen to her at times because of her seemingly useless ideas. In addition to this, Ron continually tries to have his way with her despite knowing she is married and has children. Even when she presents herself as an educated woman with experience in her field, her superiors expect her to be submissive, to know her place and not speak up for herself when she is being insulted, and Ron feels entitled to having her simply because he is a man, her superior, and wealthy. Similarly, in Beauty and the Beast’s song “Belle,” as Belle walks through her village, the townsfolk sing, “With a dreamy, far-off look and her nose stuck in a book—what a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle.” Belle is educated, literate, and dreams of a more adventurous future, which is more than what most women do in this time period. The townsfolk note that because she does not follow the trend for women her age, she is a “puzzle” for them, implying that she is confusing and difficult. The mere act of being independent from the traditional gender role of an illiterate, submissive wife makes her strange in their eyes. Soon, even Gaston sings, “Here in town there’s only she who is beautiful as me, so I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.” Gaston’s pride and sheer entitlement to marrying Belle for her beauty shows that even though her most admirable traits are her kindness and mind, all he can think about is her looks. This mirrors Mr. Mom in that Caroline’s boss only cares about her looks and his own pleasure whenever he makes a move on her rather than her genius in advertising or bright personality. The fact that Gaston and Ron harass Belle and Caroline, respectively, for their appearance alone shows the audience that all that matters is a woman’s appearance, not her intelligence or personality.
In The Little Mermaid, evidence of traditional gender roles lies in the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Ursula, the evil sea witch, makes a deal with the mermaid Ariel, who wants to live in the world above the sea, to give her legs for three days as long as she pays a steep price: her voice. As Ariel is famous for her beautiful voice and one can hardly communicate without one, she is very unsettled by this offer. However, in response to her well-found suspicion, she is met with a convincing ultimatum given to her and the audience through a typical villain song. In “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” Ursula sings, “Come on, [men aren’t] all that impressed with conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can! But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn. It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man!” This song serves to remind Ariel of the concept of equivalent exchange in Ursula’s own conniving way—that to get something, one must first give something up in return. However, the lyrics also remind the audience of how women are traditionally expected to be: quiet and “withdrawn.” When Ursula says “[it’s] she who holds her tongue who gets a man,” she means that men are only attracted to women who know when not to speak, which, in this case, is always. Ariel’s acceptance of complete silence just to live in the human world and, more importantly, be with Prince Eric only emphasizes the fact that to win a man over, a woman must be “withdrawn” and willing to stay quiet since men are not “impressed with conversation.” This message is repeated many times throughout the movie in the fact that when Ariel tries to woo Eric over through body language and persistence alone, Eric actually falls in love with her, and Ariel finds herself comfortable and adaptive to her lack of voice. He does “dote and swoon and fawn,” as Ursula said, on Ariel in her silence, which only perpetuates Ursula’s argument that quiet women are what men want. Ariel never says a word to Eric during those three days except for at the very end when the spell that gives her legs runs out, but even then he has already fallen in love with her. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” introduces the concept of men feeling attracted to withdrawn women, and although Ariel eventually gets her voice back and marries her prince, the fact that Eric falls in love with her voiceless self says volumes about the underlying message of gender roles.
Traditional gender roles all around the world portray marriage as the end goal for all women, including Mulan’s ancient Chinese setting. In Asian cultures specifically, there is a widespread belief that a son will always be more valuable than a daughter due to carrying on the family name and their ability to do hard labor for the family. The only duty a daughter has to her family is to marry well and birth and care for sons. This is shown when Mulan, the only child of the Fa family, is rushed to beautify and ready herself for a matchmaking session that will pair her with a potential husband in the song “Honor to Us All,” in which the happy characters sing, “A girl can bring her family great honor in one way: by striking a good match . . . We all must serve our Emperor . . . A man by bearing arms, a girl by bearing sons.” The entire scene depicts several girls including Mulan readying themselves to meet the matchmaker. By singing “[we] all must serve our Emperor,” it establishes marriage as a duty rather than a choice for the girls, that they “must” serve the Emperor through marriage. The smiling girls and characters all around imply that girls are happy with this duty. It then goes on to say that while “sons bear arms,” “girls bear sons,” which also puts females underneath males in order of importance from birth alone, furthering the power of the patriarchal society. Everything about this song points girls towards the idea of marriage and birthing sons as the only way women can be of use and be happy. Even though Mulan later saves all of China through bearing arms, something that the song states is for sons, and defying her culture’s sexist traditions, at the end of the movie, even her grandmother is disappointed that she does not bring home a husband by the end of the war. While both incredulous and humorous on the basis of exasperation, it reminds the audience that no matter what Mulan does, even if she saves China and bests male troops in fighting, her not finding a husband by the end of it all is still a disappointment. As declared in “Honor to Us All,” it does not matter that she killed China’s greatest enemy or that she receives the Emperor’s approval, just that she needs a husband to be of worth.
Traditional gender roles are emphasized in many types of media today, whether it be subtle or obvious. In particular, Mr. Mom, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Mulan hold to the latter, from comedic situations that portray the inequity between genders to songs with lyrics that condemn female independence and empowerment. It sends a powerful message to the audience that women must be beautiful and withdrawn to attract men, girls are less valuable than boys, and a woman’s only duty is to marry and have children. Unfortunately, as progressive as today’s society is about breaking away from gender roles, these old, traditional ideals still hold true in many movies.
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