Released in 2006, Amy M. Davis’s Good Girls and Wicked Witches is a theoretically light, often unconvincing examination of Disney’s depiction of femininity in animated features over the course of the 20th century, specifically as related to similar depictions in live-action films, such as 1991’s Thelma & Louise. The situating of Disney’s femininity within a larger Hollywood schema ultimately leads Davis to the conclusion that “the Disney studio has presented an image of women—and femininity—which, although not perfect, is largely positive in its overall make-up,” a conclusion (and apologia) that remains problematic, not least for its by-proxy estimation that Hollywood cinema’s depiction of femininity over the course of the 20th century is “largely positive.”
These hollow sorts of claims return again in Davis’s new book—a sequel, if you will—entitled Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains, which takes as its subject the male figures in Disney’s animated feature films. As it turns out, Davis displays no more aptitude for positioning these depictions in a suitable socio-historical context, eschewing research-based examinations for apologia redux, ultimately ending the book by stating: “Though Disney films are not perfect by any means, their track record for showing balanced representations of gender roles is improving, little by little.” Such conclusory remarks would merely be weak rather than baffling had they not been preceded by Davis’s accusatory comments that “Disney’s enormous familiarity, combined with the popularity of iconoclasm generally, makes Disney the perfect focus for those with time on their hands and an axe to grind.” Davis’s evidence of “those” people amounts to a single YouTube video from 2007, with nary a single academic (or even popular critical) work as the object of her scorn.
These are perplexing issues for an academic press release to face, made all the more confounding by Davis’s persistent allusions to her lifelong attachment to Disney films. In fact, a childhood snapshot from a visit to Disneyland is used as her author photo for each book! Ultimately, Davis’s investment is less critical, theoretical intervention than a stabilizing of Disney’s image under “politically biased” criticism, though she neglects to provide a single credible source for these supposed attacks.
These considerable problems aside, Davis begins the book with an informative, thoughtful questioning as to why a “princess” culture took shape among young girls, while a similar “prince” culture failed to manifest for boys. Davis acutely notes that of the 52 animated films to date (ending with 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph), 21 film titles are named solely for their male leads, but only six solely for a female lead. The answer, it appears, is merchandising, though Davis drops the subject rather quickly instead of reaching informed conclusions. Likewise, an introductory bit about the studio’s “safe” brand is intriguing but ultimately flawed; Davis contends such safety began in adherence to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) of the 1930s, but persisted well past its demise, because “the basic principles underlying the Code were principles with which [Disney] agreed, and which they wished to stress to their children not in spite of, but rather because of, the many social, political, and cultural changes which characterized the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.” As to this claim, Davis provides not a single footnote, document, or source; it appears these are conclusions of pure speculation.
A book insufficiently framed by either strong historical or theoretical parameters is bound to flounder quickly and Davis’s work is no exception. Claiming a desire to engage these films and characters through a “gender studies” lens, Davis neglects this promise and proceeds to provide extended critical synopsis of numerous Disney films, with each chapter organized by the type of masculine figure present. Thus, there are chapters on “wooden boys and assistant pig-keepers,” “dashing heroes,” “handsome princes,” and “evil villains,” each consulting a handful of Disney characters and examining each of them for character traits/flaws. However, the extent of “gender” analysis amounts to examinations of Peter Pan as an “All-American” boy or the Beast as a figure of the “New Man,” who can be transformed “through love and family associations.” The simple designation of types engages neither the structures that bring these figures into being (Disney’s production practices/methods) or larger theoretical arenas (queer, feminist, race) that often accompany academic discussions. As such, Davis’s work is unsatisfying as more than a bound collection of general, singular examinations of Disney archetypes. Davis shows flashes of larger engagement, as when she explains how Walt Disney insisted that Pinocchio be “naughty, but not bad,” so that children could empathize with him, or Disney’s trepidation to kill off Captain Hook in Peter Pan, since “the audience will get to liking him.” These flashes do not, unfortunately, result in deeper insight.
In addition to Davis’s faults, even the printing of the book has errors/oddities: the table of contents claims chapter two begins on page 95, when it actually begins on 87; in a few instances, there are minor typos; editing is loose, as info and phrases from the introduction are curiously repeated, nearly verbatim, in the conclusion; and, just like in Good Girls and Wicked Witches, the text is arranged in a bizarre, flush right/left format, with the footnotes appearing in the margins to either the right/left.
Near the end of the book, Davis claims that “Disney is not making its films in a vacuum.” Perhaps not, but Davis does almost nothing to explain how Disney is making their films or establish an academic critical terrain to embrace/discuss these films.
Amy M. Davis’s Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Masculinity in Disney’s Feature Films is available now from John Libbey Publishing; to purchase it, click here.