Even the most precocious child would struggle to find anything deeper than fairy tales and musical numbers in classic Disney films. But if you use your over-analytical college mind to deconstruct Disney, you’ll find a whole new world of adult themes beneath the surface.
(Freud and) Sexual Awakening: Snow White
Snow White (1937) was Disney’s first feature-length animation, and with the right Freudian lens, it’s possible to view it as a tale of female sexual awakening. She awakens to find seven phallic dwarves’ seven phallic noses popping up in her bed. This is her moment of discovery. During the dwarf dance party, Dopey stands on top of Sneezy and dances with Snow White. Everyone hides when Sneezy sneezes from the bottom-half (think about it), shooting Dopey into the rafters. Everyone laughs with relief, happy to have done the dance. This is a positive sexual moment for the young Snow White.
“I don’t think anyone would say you must interpret the film this way, but it’s another way of looking at it,” says adjunct NU instructor who teaches film tutorials as a CRC faculty fellow and a full-time English/journalism instructor at the College of Lake County John Kupetz.
Film critic and Disney blogger Tim Brayton suggests a view that is less explicit, but similarly meaningful.
“The dwarves don’t look like human beings,” says Brayton. “They are her first exposure to men and are so non-threatening that she is then ready to be with human men. She has seen a more sanitized version of masculinity.”
One can’t say for sure how much subtext was intentional, but Freud had recently been translated into English at the time of the film’s release.
Femininity and Gender Roles: Sleeping Beauty
Disney has a long history with princesses, but its attitude towards femininity is not fixed. Sleeping Beauty (1959) establishes a conflict between Aurora, a fair maiden dependent on a man’s kiss, and Maleficent, who is “self-directed and interested in getting what she needs,” according to Brayton. And since Maleficent is the villain, it doesn’t send the best message to would-be empowered females. English and gender studies professor Nick Davis offers another perspective, however.
“Maleficent is the show-stealer … it doesn’t seem unsympathetic to her at all,” says Davis. “She’s like Satan in Paradise Lost — not the one you side with, but everything exciting comes from them.”
In contrast, Beauty and the Beast (1991) is less ambiguous: Belle is entirely defined by the men for whom she fights—first her dad, then the Beast. Lady and the Tramp (1955) predicts a polarized view of the posh vs. the bourgeois. “It’s sad,” laments Kupetz. “You choose to be upper class and repressed or free and wild but violent. What alternatives!” But a more recent film, The Princess and the Frog (2009), gets the most respect points with regard to gender roles. Tiana finds her man AND follows her restaurateur dreams. Her happily ever after is more than just a marriage and a household.
Lust: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Perhaps no Disney film is as overtly sexual as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Most of this tension comes from Frollo, the priest who lusts for Esmeralda. In his song “Hellfire,” Frollo admits that “desire is turning him to sin.” He cries that he wants to have relations with her but would be sent to hell for breaking his vows. Instead, he resolves to burn her. Images includes Frollo nuzzling Esmeralda’s scarf and grabbing at her breast.
“Nothing else in Disney is quite as overt,” says Brayton. “It isn’t the subtext, it’s the text.”
The message becomes more positive when his lust is contrasted with Quasimodo’s respectful longing. “One character is demonizing sexuality while the other is being rewarded for not getting worked up about it,” explains Brayton. “This is the movie’s way of saying, lust isn’t bad, but feeling guilty about it is. It’s surprisingly adult for a Disney movie.”
It’s hard to say how much of this is just interpretation, but don’t assume that the animators and audiences back then were stupid,” Kupetz warns. “It isn’t a question of what they intended. They made a movie, put it out there and it takes on a life of its own.”
Revisiting movies means you can ask them for more than just a sing-a-long. “Good fairy tales should have a sense of awe, the real horrors and truth of life,” adds Kupetz. Next time, run a little psychoanalysis on your favorite characters. You just might learn something about yourself.