Disney Junior lacks female, career-driven leading characters.
I was recently reminded of Rachel Wiley’s poem, “Halloween Shopping with my Niece,” in which Wiley asserts that Doc McStuffins, the leading character of a Disney Junior cartoon would make a scary enough Halloween costume, as she herself poses a scary enough threat to the patriarchy.
A young African-American girl, raised by her stay-at-home-dad and her physician mother with clear goals of becoming a doctor, Doc McStuffins is undoubtedly feminist and an important narrative to have on-screen.
Of Disney Junior’s most well-known shows, McStuffins also happens to be the only female lead who is not depicted as a princess (unlike Elena of Avalor, Sofia the First, and Rapunzel in Tangled: The Series). Leading males on the same channel, however, are consistently written with a wide range of occupations: astronauts, special agents, construction workers, race car drivers, and even pirates. This isn’t to say that characters like Elena and Sofia aren’t feminist (I think they are, in the ways that they destroy preconceptions of what “the princess character” must mean). However, the differences in the ways male and female leads are portrayed is evident and, moreover, problematic. Young girls should be able to look at their TV screens and see characters that look like them take on real and exciting careers.
As such a powerful and influential source of media, Disney needs to recognize and act on their social responsibility. With the widespread success of Doc Mcstuffins, it is strange to think that the brand hasn’t made any apparent effort to create more of these female, career-driven leading characters, which have made their content not only entertaining, but relevant.
It is also strange to think that the company has an entire channel that seems to be marketed for boys: Disney XD. Just a quick glance at the channel’s website reveals that only four out of the thirty-three programs listed features a female in its cover photo. The fact that there is an entire channel dedicated to portraying male lead characters as crime-fighters, gamers, creatives, and superheroes, while their sister channel fits the majority of their female leads into the “princess” box, is startling.
All things considered, I do believe there is significance in taking the princess role, something criticized for its historically hyper sense of femininity, and turning it into something empowering. Why shouldn’t young girls also be able to find power in their femininity? While this femininity might be just one piece of an individual’s puzzle, there is no reason as to why someone shouldn’t find each one of their qualities empowering. A young girl’s femininity does not make her fragile, and this is a lesson characters like Elena and Sofia bring to the screen.
At first glance, Sofia the First seems to be the generic story of a young girl thrusted into the life of a princess. While there are definitely elements of the show that lends itself to this stereotypical narrative, it is clear that Sofia sheds a new light on prince/princess dynamic. She not only questions what it means to be a princess, but also what it means to be a prince —which is interesting because it’s not the usual conversation had when discussing the relationship between the Disney brand and feminism. She directly attacks what these gender roles mean in the very first episode, confidently asserting that any activity (especially the ones typically reserved for the princes) can indeed be a “princess thing.”
As for Elena of Avalor, the show features Elena (Disney’s first Latina princess) bravely protecting those she loves, flipping the notion of the “damsel in distress” right on its head. Elena also tackles real problems relating to her work as a ruler, such as putting together a representative advisory body, which discusses relevant topics in relatable ways for young audiences.
Considering the widespread influence that the Walt Disney Company has, it has a ways to go before we can be satisfied with its representation of women on television. Ultimately, we have to be careful with the messages we send our younger generations. Young girls look up to the characters they see on-screen, and because of this, we must be careful that these characters are the empowering role models that they not only need, but fundamentally deserve.
(Illustration: Sophie Lee)