Sitting through Disney’s Tangled again, I saw new layers of gender in there. They’ve moved beyond the old-fashioned problem of passive princesses and active princes, so Rapunzel has plenty of action sequences. And it’s not all about falling in love (at least at first). Fine.
But how about sexual dimorphism? In bathroom icons the tendency to differentiate male and female bodies is obvious. In anthropomorphized animal stories its a convenient fiction. But in social science it’s a hazardous concept that reduces social processes to an imagined biological essence.
In Tangled, the hero and heroine are apparently the more human characters, whose love story unfolds amidst a cast of exaggerated cartoons, including many giant ghoulish men (the billed cast includes the voices of 12 men and three women).
Making the main characters more normally-human looking (normal in the statistical sense) is a nice way of encouraging children to imagine themselves surrounded by a magical wonderland, which has a long tradition in children’s literature: from Alice in Wonderland to Where the Wild Things Are.
That’s what I was thinking. But then they went in for the lovey-dovey closeup toward the end, and I had to pause the video:
Their total relative size is pretty normal, with him a few inches taller. But look at their eyes: Hers are at least twice as big. And look at their hands and arms: his are more than twice as wide. Look closer at their hands:
Now she is a tiny child and he is a gentle giant. In fact, his wrist appears to be almost as wide as her waist (although it is a little closer to the viewer).
In short, what looks like normal humanity – anchoring fantasy in a cocoon of reality – contains its own fantastical exaggeration.
The patriarchal norm of bigger, stronger men paired up with smaller, weaker women, is a staple of royalty myth-making – which is its own modern fantasy-within-reality creation. (Diana was actually taller than Charles, at least when she wore heels .)
In this, Tangled is subtler than the old Disney, but it seems no less powerful.Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.