Feminism in Disney Films: Does Big Hero 6 mark a change in the representation of culture and identity?
In New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis’ disparaging review of the film Big Hero 6, she concludes with this kicker:
“It’s too bad that in making its first movie based on a Marvel comic Disney didn’t decide to take a real leap into the future, say, by making [the film’s protagonist] a girl.”
As both a proud feminist and film aficionado, I saw this as pretty inane statement. Firstly, I was confused by a jab at a film based on the fact that its main lead wasn’t a girl. There’s no question that the lack of complex female figures in film is an enormous issue: one that has ramifications extending much farther than in the spheres of pop culture. However, if a movie has a male lead, it is simply a symptom of Hollywood’s tendency to refrain from writing and funding films about women. Criticising Big Hero 6’s artistic merit for not having a female lead is ridiculous. Simply changing the gender of a character in a film without considering the effects on the persona of the character itself is a very arbitrary and foolish decision.
More troubling is the fact that Ms. Dargis does not realise that Big Hero 6 is actually a victory for feminism in film, not an impediment to it. The protagonist of a film does not have to be a female for it to have a progressive tilt. Is it not counterintuitive to label a movie as more progressive simply because its protagonist is female? Having a female lead does not empower women if the character in question is vapid and uninspired. By Ms. Dargis’ logic, one could consider all romantic comedies as inherently progressive because they feature female protagonists.
Disney’s biggest hit for the past two years, of course, has been the ice princess monolith Frozen. The film’s messages of sisterhood and girl power are a positive force for young, growing feminists. Its message, however, is in no way revolutionary. Frozen remains a princess film. Initially, it looks as if Anna is learning to fend her own way to happiness. In the end, however, she finds a romantic interest anyway, souring this lesson of independence in a film with a theme of female empowerment.
Fast forward to late 2014. Disney has released another hit, albeit to much less fanfare than Frozen. Big Hero 6 tells the story of a kid genius Hiro and his healthcare robot Baymax. They go on adventures with their four friends against the backdrop of “San Fransokyo”, a futuristic city reminiscent of both Japanese and Cali culture.
While praise has been lavished upon Frozen for having female characters, the criticism it has seen due to lacking in diversity has had a much smaller voice. Arendelle is based on the Norwegian landscape, but it is a fictional setting. It is unfortunate the filmmakers did not take this opportunity to have a cast of varying backgrounds. Big Hero 6, on the other hand, is refreshingly diverse. Hiro and his brother are of Japanese and American descent, while his friends are all of different races.
Of his four friends, two are female. GoGo and Honey Lemon are unfortunately, still characters shaped by traditional female tropes (the “tough girl” and the “girly girl”, respectively). In this vein, Frozen is the more progressive of the two films. Anna and Elsa are both strong, nuanced characters. However, the characters in Big Hero 6 are female scientists who are just as important to the team effort as their male friends. It is highly encouraging to see female characters in film that are brilliant in STEM subjects.
Hiro’s emotional development is a significant theme of the film. He does not feel the need to be tough all the time, rather becoming emotional and relying on his friends to get him through difficult situations. The attitudes of masculinity in society are very damaging to young men: they are taught to be strong and “stop acting like girls” so they don’t come off as looking “weak”. Big Hero 6 has helped to rectify these attitudes of traditionally associated with femininity in men.
Feminism is not an ideology that is simply restricted to gender equality. Rather, it’s intersectional: it encourages inclusion through a wide range of forms of representation. Big Hero 6 thereby embraces feminism by creating characters who are from different backgrounds without making their differences a point of consideration.
Frozen has its flaws, but it is not a bad film. It is admittedly put under heightened scrutiny due to its popularity. Its efficacy in popularising these strong female characters should definitely be applauded. However, it shouldn’t be put on a pedestal as a paragon for feminism in film. Big Hero 6 is also imperfect. However, it is a film like Frozen, which is valued for helping to consider the multifaceted aspects of feminism. Family films have a responsibility to their audience through the messages they send to young people. Hopefully these two films only mark the beginning of Disney’s trend in crafting stories that are representative of cultures and identities that can be explored through their characters.