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.