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Disney and it's toxic stereotypes

We’ve all grown up watching some, if not a lot, of Disney’s classic animated movies. With these movies being such an integral part of my media consumption as a kid, they had a large impact on the outlooks I held on people and beauty.


First and foremost, when one looks at the following images, the intentional pattern in character design becomes immediately evident.




Since Disney first began producing cartoon characters for children’s entertainment, they have relied on unfair stereotypes of weight and beauty to reinforce views around how beautiful characters are a representation of good while conventionally “ugly” characters are shown to be evil. While not all Disney villains follow this like a strict criterion, when viewed in comparison to Disney hero's and princesses with the “perfect” phycological and physical traits, this pattern becomes painfully obvious. While it is obvious that most classic stories need a villain to end up reaching to a moral lesson at the conclusion, it is the demonization of these characters through relation with their physical traits where the issues come up.

In most cases, the villain in a Disney movie is shown to be either aesthetically ugly or significantly fatter/thinner than the protagonists in the same story. These physical traits are meant to highlight their evil personalities, hence creating troubling stereotypes for different body types.


Female characters are seen to be subject to this treatment more so then male characters. When they ae seen in these roles, it seems to represent that they embody an “Incorrect” type of femininity. With their “unlikeable” physical features, they don’t fit into the typical female character mold. Hence the femininity they possess is seen to be undesirable and unattractive. This is especially interesting because when we these villains tend to posses’ traits such as being ambitious, driven and having bold personalities in comparison to the princess with timid and gentle traits. With their motivations aside, making these traits seem undesirable to young girls and boys, just reinforces traditional and toxic gender stereotypes that are inherently harmful.

These traits are often times also expanded beyond just the token evil character in the movie. Certain female characters are often shown are overweight as a sign of their lack of femininity. In Aladdin, the character Bakhtawar is seen as the women in charge of the harem. A mean, overweight character who is considered to be one guarding the petite and shy girls in the harem. The girls in the harems are seen to giggle and laugh at Aladdin as he gets kicked out by Bakhtawar, ridiculing the character for the masculine traits she posses in doing her job.




At one extreme of the spectrum there is the representation of extremely thin villains, with skeletal frames and exaggerates bodily features such as Yuzma and Cruella De Vil .





At the other end, the overweight villains tend to have round bodies, with double chins, meant to accentuate the beauty of the protagonist who fits conventional beauty when in comparison to them.


A particular character I’d like to highlight, is Ursula. The character for Ursula was noted to be modeled after a drag queen from the 1980’s called Devine.


When the characters diverge from the expected behaviors of being a compilation of beautiful looks and silence, they are seen to be unfeminine. In her size, demeanor and behavior, Ursula is seen to non-conforming to traditional gender roles and her traits are then associated with her evil cruel nature.


With the vast majority of Disney’s audience being young children; these associations, whether made consciously or unconsciously have very negative consequences. These characters define the limits of what is considered to be feminine and desirable and how diverging for these confines could make one relate more to the evil characters. When children see this same trope play out over and over again in different stories, these representations of the “unfeminine”, fat and “ugly” characters becomes cemented and creates a very harmful image of how a gender non-conforming, over weight woman that doesn’t fit into conventional beauty standards would always turn out to be the bad guy.

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I 100 percent agree with this. I have also noticed this several times. But I'm glad Disney's narrative has shown some positive shifts in recent years, but it remains crucial for them to consistently strive for more diverse and inclusive storytelling that celebrates the uniqueness of individuals and promotes positive values for all audiences.


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Khadija Nasir
Khadija Nasir
Jun 22, 2023
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Absolutely, I definitely agree with the points you've made. It is very encouraging to see how there have been many recent shifts in popular media concerning positive authentic representation with more diverse and inclusive storytelling. With authentic representation on such large platforms, they have a profound influence on their large number of consumers. Consistency is critical in these cases, and I hope Disney keeps working for more empowering and inclusive environment for its audiences.

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Aisha Aamir
Aisha Aamir
Jun 22, 2023

Ursula's character design being inspired by Drag Queen Divine reminds me of when the creator of the original animated version of The Little Mermaid was asked why they took that route and they replied with saying that "It just seemed like a funny and quirky idea". I always thought the implications of that were almost evil, but then later realized that the producer Howard Ashman related more closely to drag queens as a gay man himself. So while I do not think there were any actual ill intentions in choosing to model Ursula's villain character after a drag queen, I also can't chalk it up to being authentic representation because that would allow actual drag queens to play her character.…

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Khadija Nasir
Khadija Nasir
Jun 22, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for your insight! Its very interesting to find out that the producer was was part of the community himself. While i understand that there were no ill intentions behind such a representations, it is also just a case of a missed opportunity to support a group that is generally disregarded in society. By crediting the drag queen in some way. they could have provided some positive light on her work. Hence even without malintent the representation was minimal. This could have been understood as acceptable in the old version of the movie, but with a live action remake in 2023, one would expect more.

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Interesting read, this reminds me of the class lecture where we were talking about how ideas or the concept of the "ideal" or "beautiful" is socially constructed. When we see evil characters played by figures who are overweight or underweight or even figures who are not aesthetically pleasing over and over again, we start to make associations. Associating beauty to certain body features excludes a whole range of people with different features who grow up watching these shows and start to question themselves, for example that clip we saw in class where black kids pointed towards the black doll as being lesser to the white one. In this case, female characters having a voice or taking actions such as Ursula…

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Khadija Nasir
Khadija Nasir
Jun 22, 2023
Replying to

Your comment raises an important point about the influence of media consumption on our perception of beauty and idealized traits. This narrowly aimed representation only showcases a specific look. Not only creates and adds to harmful stereotypes, but it also alienates anyone that doesn't have those features. A child that does not conform to these ideals will feel left out and excluded for how they look due to these supposedly child-friendly things they consume! Like you've mentioned how the children thinking of the black doll as being lesser. These may only lead to harmful thoughts about one's appearance.

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Omg Ursula used to terrify me so much as a kid and I never realised that even a woman’s body size could be used as a signifier of evil :(

This article made me wonder if Disney did anything differently with the new live-action version of Ursula, but the unfortunately the representation pretty much remains the same. And if they were so inspired by drag queens, it would have been nice to see an actual drag queen being casted for the role instead of a cis-het woman.

While we can give Disney some points for subverting the stereotypes associated with princesses/protagonists, I think its equally important to address the stereotypes associated with negative characters like the villains, because they too…

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Khadija Nasir
Khadija Nasir
Jun 19, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for the comment! You've given such a great idea here about positive representation. With Ursula's original character design taking inspiration from a drag queen you would've expected them to at least say some sort of homage to the actual creator of her look in the new live action film but its no where to be found. This could have acted as such a great opportunity to cast or at least reference to the actual drag queen and promote visibility for the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light. IT could have been a great step towards authentic representation and a shift away from the the normal cis-heteronormative casting decisions.

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Such a great read! Absolutely agree that Disney princesses typically conform to a particular body type which also reinforces conventional beauty standards that prioritise thinness over everything else.

Also liked that you pointed out how Ursula’s non conformity to traditional gender roles typecasts her as the villain because I recently watched the live action little mermaid and I noticed how starkly disney portrays clever and powerful women as emasculating or threatening to men, and completely demonises them. Ursula is the only one who actually understands the restrictions a patriarchal society imposes on women because she’s shunned for wanting power in a sea-world ruled by a man. Also in her song poor unfortunate souls she points out: “It is she who…

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Khadija Nasir
Khadija Nasir
Jun 19, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject! I appreciate your engagement with my article. You pointed out some very important themes in the music and lyrical choices. Its disappointing how the portrayal of a clever and powerful woman has to usually end up being associated with the negative. When seen apart from her role as a villain in the film, we can understand how Ursula's character stands out as one that defies set norms and understands how there are patriarchal constraints set by the society they are in. Her want for power is then of course seen as a threat, in comparison with Ariel who is seen as the ideal, who just wants to settle, to pursue he…

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