Content warning: This shows a lot of bodies and talks a lot of ratios and trends. This can be triggering for some folk so please avoid if this is you I promise none of these takes are that masterful.
Disney, Disney, Disney. Love it or hate it — we can’t deny the influence it has.
Before we bash, we should give some credit. Disney has come further in plots and representation. In some ways they show the reflection within our culture as well.
One thing that everyone has always been enraged about is the way that women are portrayed in Disney movies, not only in plot but also in looks. Disney princesses are usually the battleground for this. Big eyes, thin wrists, invisible waists, impossible boobs. Buzzfeed and other sites have done write-ups on this.
People point out that even more “woke” princesses like Elsa also have extraordinarily tiny waists. And that even in live action appearances seem to have digitally altered waists, sorry Lilly James.
But it’s not just Disney princesses, a variety of characters have just unreasonable bodies.
I think it’s also worth noting that the cartoon men are also unreasonable. I understand why are are more enraged about the women, but I have to be honest — I am concerned about the men too.
But I digress, many people have focused on the princesses. Like most people. And that’s fair — they were a cultural moment and pivot in so many ways.
But I think there is some extraordinarily interesting and disturbing trneds in how Disney has drawn lots of female characters.
I have been thinking a lot about this type of stuff recently. My research and interests think a lot about aesthetic and the human face in context of identity and narrative. So I figured I should at least dip my foot into the pseudo-science Disney pool.
Disclaimer 1: This is not an academic study or paper. This is a data/photo exploration I am doing on my couch.
Disclaimer 2 (and please don’t come for me): I am actually not that big of a Disney fan. Like the Disney original things from my childhood. I liked some of their stuff growing up, but it was never life defining? I never was super super into it like a lot of kids. I wasn’t into it by the time I was like 10. And I feel disconnected from adults who sing Disney songs and go to Disney movies in theaters. You do you; I just don’t get it.
Anyways, I downloaded some images and only considered female characters before 2000. Just so I had less to work with and so I could keep this nice and short. After all, I am doing this on my couch becuase I just can’t deal with my other work but I am a bit TV-ed out.
Anyways, let’s dive in.
Section 1: The Characters I Chose
I decided to go from Snow White to Tarzan. Here’s a timeline and the characters I picked. Note I left out super inhuman characters and movies like Toy Story. I kinda wish I had done The Fates from Hercules now though.
Let’s start with the princesses, since those are what you’ve heard of.
Now let’s look at the fairies. Including the OG Fairy God Mother AND the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio.
And then we have villains:
Note — Ursula isn’t a villan I’m sorry but I love her too much. That is like the one Disney hot take I will die on. We aren’t considering her for this becuase she is a sea witch that can be any form.
And then we have characters that aren’t princesses or villains, aka a lot of moms and folks that own dogs and love interests of heroes:
Section 2: Color Trends
So first we can think about colors. Here is a layout of these women over time in terms of outfit color schemes and their categories of character.
Color Scheme Palettes
Why so blue fairies? There are quite a few takeaways from these palettes. The princesses are actually quite pastel while villains are bolder and darker colors. The supporting characters seem to match the princesses fairly well.
Ok, next, we will think about skin color. Brace yourselves, folks.
Skin Color Scheme Palettes
Section 3: Casual Insights aka if you aren’t a main character what do you look like even?
The Very Large Mom or Nuisance Woman
From the matchmaker in Mulan to the Queen of Hearts to Mrs. Pots in Beauty and the Beast, it feels like any maternity figure or any woman who is annoying is large.
Even Mim was large before she transformed and became more evil and threatening.
There is a coded aesthetic between the supporting characters, the protagonists, and the villains.
It seems like a lot of supporting female characters are very round. But these are often only: mothers, mean characters, or annoying joke characters.
The Bland Best Friends/Fairies or Evil Stepsisters
Fairies are all nice ladies with magic. They are kind of a mild aesthetic. Whimsical. They will probably bake you cookies and give you shower gel sets.
The Villain Bone Structure
Like…those chins? Is it just me or does every villain have a moment with their chins?
Section 4: Form Rations
Now we can start looking at form. Again, this is very very casual math and is not science please don’t think this is science. ANYWAYS I don’t want to put a ridiculous amount of time in this so we are going to do the following categories:
Waist vs Shoulder and Waist vs Hips ratio
I think this is the one people care about the most. This impossible hour glass figure that so many of these folks have drawn. Note that I didn’t do everyone —time permits and such. It’s a pandemic out there, folks. But enjoy this lovely graphic. And remember; these are graphed as Waist/Bust — so smaller waist to bigger bust is going to be a smaller number.
So I took Maleficent out so we could look more closely. You’ll note the red dot. I got these ratios out of a 1950–1960s fashion measurement situation, since these movies were from 1930s — 2000.
You can see, as many people often say, Snow White and Mulan are the most realistically human proportionate princesses. Which, if you’ve seen the movies, makes sense.
But um. No one is at human proportions.
We can argue the issue behind “ideal” ratios as long as we want — but these proportions in the red dot at least…existed in real life. And none of the ratios of these Disney characters did.
There is a linear trend in these proportions — as most of these figures are quite hour glass and symmetric in nature (they’re cartoons). But they really cluster around 0.5. Meaning that most of these bodies have waists that are half of their shoulders and hips.
Ok, let’s try Waist vs Bust and Waist vs Hips. Maybe that’ll help.
Waist vs Bust and Waist vs Hips ratio
What’s wild is in terms of proportions Jessica Rabbit actually isn’t as ridiculous as Ariel. Her waist makes more sense with her chest than Ariel’s does. Her chest is much bigger, but in context of her body, it makes more sense. Still not human anatomical sense.
This is a less linear graph, also because chests in Disney are a careful thing. And because bust size varies so much in the general population. So in some ways, it is interesting and possibly good there is a lot of variety and not clear trends here.
Eyeball vs Wrists ratio
So my wrist is about 2.5 eyeball lengths. People have talked about how crazy big Disney eyes are and crazy thin wrists.
Let’s see what we have for that.
Section 4: Takeaways
This is not a science paper. Please don’t cite it. Please don’t take it too seriously.
But I think there’s a lot of interesting takeaways here. And I think at the end of the day, it’s interesting to lay out the trends of colors and sizes in how these female characters are represented. And that we might have to start retiring some of them and start looking at other stories told by folks who…aren’t Disney.
Nina M. Lutz is currently a graduate student at the Media Lab. She occasionally does informal data explorations like these.
Where many computer scientists want to make computers think more like people, Lutz aims to use computers to remind us to think of other people. Especially people who may not look like us. Lutz’s methods in doing this reconsider the design and technology choices around the human face in exploration of human identity through technology.
As a first generation college student, she is passionate about education and combating inequities in STEAM and opportunities in academia. Lutz welcomes emails from students and mentees about research and education both in and out of the design and computation space.