When President Donald Trump, makes the news these days, one wouldn’t necessarily think of a correlation with Disney animated films, especially in regards to toxic masculinity. My research will examine how the message of toxic masculinity that is present in Disney animated films are the same flawed values that are used by President Donald Trump in his branding. The values of toxic masculinity that Donald Trump exhibits is not only present in Disney films but is a widely accepted value system in many leaders worldwide such as Kim Jong Un who uses women as sex slaves or Vladimir Putin who perpetuates a strongman image, these examples are also present in Disney animated Films such as the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty where Prince Phillip kisses an unconscious Aurora or the misogyny of a character such as Gaston from the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. The problem is that we have come to accept as a society that not only Disney character’s but world leaders can display these characteristics of toxic masculinity, because more emphasis traditionally has been placed on wealth and power in society, than on morality in the stories we tell/retell. Furthermore, these world leaders brand themselves often as champions of the “disenfranchised” but often are selfish and more concerned about their own self-interests opposed to the good of their citizens. A similarity to Disney princes who are mostly absent from the majority of Disney films until the end and as Jack Zipes alluded “When he does arrive, he takes all the credit” (Zipes, 1999). Similar situations can be recalled during the presidency of Donald Trump when he takes credit for the strong US economy or low unemployment rates. As Danielle Kurtzlben points out “A big problem with that claim is that those rates had been falling for long before Trump took office, and their declines don’t appear to have picked up speed. This implies that there’s nothing specific that Trump did to change this rate” (Kurtzlben, 2018). Why do we praise leaders who exhibit these negative characteristics like President Donald Trump and why is it a similar value system in many Disney animated films?
Many have written on the concept of toxic masculinity such as Colleen Clemens, the director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania who defines toxic masculinity as, “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness” (2017). Trump is the walking embodiment of this definition but ideologically the most dangerous themes that are shared between Trump (who has been accused of sexual assault by 24 women) and Disney, which Kritselis points out is the concept that women will love you if you abuse them which is present in the 1991 film Beauty & the Beast where Belle is the Beast’s prisoner and constantly yells at her, denies her food, and it isn’t until the conclusion of the movie where he shows her affection at the end of the film (Kritselis, 2014). These negative values have been embedded into us so much culturally, many of us would be unable to tell what values that we have unknowingly picked up from watching Disney films, which certainly influence our voting choices.
Donald Trump subscribes to this same ideology, a man who refused his wife and child an umbrella when it was raining (Agerholm, 2018). Which illustrates Trump’s self-aggrandizing behavior which is the norm for him and shows his belief of him being more important than even his wife and child. Trump also regularly berates women and reduces them to sexual objects such as current Presidential candidate and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on Twitter when Trump tweeted “[S]omeone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them)” (Trump, 2017). An example of Trump suggesting that the Senator offered him sexual favors in exchange for donations appears rather crass but also is evidence of Trump displaying the “hypersexuality” Clemens notes in her definition of toxic masculinity. Not to mention his constant claims of being universally adored and wealthy, while refusing to show his tax returns.
Beyond Disney’s immense wealth the influence of the corporation is immense and has left a lasting stench on not only society but American culture as well as Garey Laderman asserted in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion“Disney’ cultural productions, including films, television shows, and theme parks have left an indelible mark on the life of the nation” (Laderman, 2000). The marketing of Disney characters is so woven into the fabric of our society and psyche that many Americans would probably dismiss the similarities between our current President and some of the characters depicted in Disney films.
Even the message of colorism is present in films such as the 2009 animated film The Princess and the Frog, where the main character Tiana is a dark skinned African-American woman but her love interest Prince Naveen is several shades lighter. This same message has been echoed by Trump when asked if he had sex with a black woman on the Howard Stern show Trump said “Well, it depends on what your definition of black is,” (Fisher, 2016). The issue with the Trump statement on the Howard Stern Show was that Trump was inferring that it is socially acceptable to have sex with someone who is biracial or that mixed women were more attractive than black women. Or even Trump referring to Africa as a “shithole” country is a theme that has been echoed in Disney animated films such as the 1999 film The Lion Kingwhich is devoid of humans and depicts the continent of 1.2 billion people as being a wildlife preserve opposed to acknowledging the relationships of humans and animals in films such as the 2016 film The Secret Life of Pets which is set in Manhattan and explores the human and pet relationship. The concept of Disney making a film set in Africa but not including Africans shows a bias that is inherent in The Lion King franchise, that the people of Africa aren’t even important enough to be featured in the story.
Another reoccurring message that has been subconsciously embedded into the fabric of Disney films and Trump’s branding is the constant demeaning of women. A message that is present in animated films such as Aladdin,when Aladdin shows up after being granted his initial wish by the genie to court Princess Jasmine on her balcony and acts like a complete jerk until he realizes that she is more interested in who he actually is, Pocahontas who betrays her Native American heritage for a colonizer, Moanawhich features an antihero whose favorite pastime is making misogynistic and egotistical remarks, or more villainous characters such as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Referring to similarities between Donald Trump who has a history of demeaning women by mocking their looks and Disney characters, many would assume one would be referencing villains. However, toxic masculinity in Disney films isn’t exclusive to villains or heroes. Take for instance the 2016 animated film Moana wherein the reluctant hero of the film Maui who describes himself in the film as a “Hero of men” and tells a more than capable Moana “Muscle Up, buttercup!” Or further demeans her by calling her “princess” even though she is not royalty (Clements & Muster, 2016). While Disney animated films require a certain amount of hyperbole, it is Trump who triumphs in the category of disrespecting women, but nonetheless many parallels exist between Disney animated films and Trump, such as when he commented on Kim Kardashian when asked if her butt is big: “Well, absolutely. It’s record-setting. In the old days, they’d say she has a bad body” which is similar to Disney animated films with the unrealistic body images of Disney princesses who often have long slender necks, unobtainable thin waists, and small wrists.
The egotistical President Trump who referred to himself in 2015 saying “I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run. Ross Perot isn’t successful like me. Romney – I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney (Noble, 2015)”is the living embodiment of toxic masculinity. Quotes where the current President demeans women is a regular occurrence such as when he dismissed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election saying “The only card she has is the woman’s card. She’s got nothing else to offer and frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card, and the beautiful thing is, women don’t like her” (Nelson, 2016). When in reality Hillary Clinton was arguably far more qualified to be the President of the United States and had actually dedicated her life to a career in public service. Unlike Trump who had no experience in government and Former Republican House Speaker once stated Trump’s lack of knowledge about anything in government tempted him to “scold” Trump writes chief political correspondent for Politico Tim Alberta (Alberta, 2019).Disney character Maui is not only obnoxious to Moana but in their first encounter pushes her off a boat and insults her competence. Maui also brags about his accomplishments, even though his actions are destroying the planet. Similar parallels can be drawn between Donald Trump who denies climate change, makes bold claims about his fortune and leadership skills. As Douglas Kellner asserts in Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism“Trump exhibits the most gigantic and unrestrained ego yet seen in U.S. politics constantly trumping his wealth, his success in business, how smart he is, how women and all the people who work for him love him so much” (Kellner, 2018). The truth of the matter is that people only tolerate him because he has amassed a great deal of wealth. The values that he represents are repugnant but because of his financial success Trump has rarely been held accountable; and has become a hero to a xenophobic base.
Trump has often been accused of having “a large ego” but the problem is that he views women and minorities as inferior. Similar to the character of King Triton in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid who questions his daughters decision-making ability and calls the people who live on the surface “barbarians”, very similar to Trump who has called illegal immigrants “animals”. However, where King Triton was merely trying to protect his daughter from the unknown, Trump’s rhetoric is much more dangerous and divisive. Trump may or may not be a racist at heart, but his branding attracts white nationalists and misogyny is a feature of those type of thoughts.
One could also argue that Trump not only believes he can have any woman he wants because of his vast wealth which was echoed by his “grab ‘em by the pussy comments” in his infamous 2005 recording. He actually courted/stalked Princess Diana before her passing according to the Daily Mirror and saw her as “the ultimate trophy wife”(Shammas, 2019). However, Trump views women as objects. This type of message is present in many Disney Films such as the 1989 film Little Mermaidwith Ariel losing her voice in the film and being unable to verbally consent, the 1950 film Cinderellawhere Cinderella is being domestically abused at her home but falls in love with a prince after meeting him once, and as early as the 1937 film Snow Whitewhich is a message that reduces women to objects of obtainment and also raises issues about consent. A theme that Trump has echoed for most of his life, well before he was inside the Oval Office. His days of owning the chauvinistic Miss Universe organization is an example of this belief. As Alexander Bruce writes in Studies in Popular Culture “In depicting the marital success of subservient, passive females, Disney thereby teaches its audience that women should fulfill that passive role in society, not acting but instead waiting for a man to give them the perfect life” (Bruce, 2007). What promotes this idea more than the Miss America pageant? A “scholarship program” which puts more of an emphasis on physical beauty than intelligence or community service. Not to mention Trumps previous claims about barging into the dressing rooms as the pageants owner and when asked if he ever slept with a contestant. “It could be a conflict of interest. … But, you know, it’s the kind of thing you worry about later, you tend to think about the conflict a little bit later on,” Trump stated (Stuart, 2016). These type of comments raise the issue of sexual harassment and consent. Much like the Disney animated films where the princesses don’t have voices, girls as young as sixteen (Teen USA Contestants) were left to fend off a predator and if they didn’t want Trump, who could they tell because he was in charge of the pageant.
The similarity to Disney films is a mirror of society but what many have long viewed as unacceptable is experiencing an uprising. While Disney certainly played a part in shaping Trump’s worldview and his concept of masculinity, it wasn’t the only factor. The similarities between Trump and Disney characters isn’t exclusive though to villains or heroes as previously explained. However, because of the message in Disney films which is often subtle in regards to the concept of toxic masculinity, Trump is a symptom of a larger problem within society that Disney has helped play a huge part in creating. Men are struggling to find their role in a changing society as Michael Kramp writes on Salon.com “The #MeToo Movement, the Women’s March, and the insurgence of women in Congress have, no doubt, altered the contemporary gender dynamics of our country, and men are struggling to adapt. But in reality, men have been struggling to adapt for years — perhaps centuries — and their struggles are now manifesting themselves in far more aggressive ways” (Kramp 2019). Disney has been one of the foremost proponents of creating entertainment that held on to the idea of notions that no longer fit in with the changing spectrum of what the world has become through tricking a gullible public. As Jack Zipes wrote “Was Disney making a statement on behalf of the masses? Was Disney celebrating “everyone” or “every man”? Did Disney believe in revolution and socialism? The answer to all these questions is simple: no” (Zipes, 1999) The messages in Disney have no social redeeming value and as Zipes further explains “Disney’s hero is the enterprising man, the entrepreneur, who uses technology to his advantage. He does nothing to help the people or the community. In fact he deceives the masses” (Zipes, 1999). Similar to Trump who has deceived his supporters into believing that he would be their economic champion and promises of a border wall. However, even Disney has had to make strides in becoming more inclusive and diverse to grow its audience, but the deception of messages still remains.
The damage that Donald Trump is doing cannot be calculated yet, but many young men and women are growing up under the notion that this is how a world leader should behave. This is very damaging considering the more diverse world that we live in, but just as Trump has found allies who hope to hold onto the past, he has found rivals who challenge his concepts of toxic masculinity in the form of protests and political organizing. The 2020 presidential election will be an important test in determining the direction that this country is headed, especially in regard to the issues of how we as a society progress towards gender equality.
While Disney is socially required to have the appearance of making strides in diversity and inclusion in its films. The belief that the themes of toxic masculinity will disappear from its brand is wishful thinking. The concept of toxic masculinity will always be present in the Disney brand. Even with the current appearance of Disney being more inclusive, it could be argued that these attempts at best are examples of tokenism, such is the case with the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in the 2019 film Toy Story 4.Even with films such as the Princess and the Frog the colorism issues is evidence that Disney is not doing as well as it could. However, it is our responsibility as consumers to advocate against these harmful messages [toxic masculinity] that are present in many of these films and played a part in creating a monster like Donald Trump and reemphasizes the importance of the messages in the stories we tell.
While Trump and Disney have been able to harness a nostalgia in their base, based upon a flawed value system and get their supporters to buy into the ideas of toxic masculinity being acceptable behavior. Disney like Trump uses the nostalgia of the past to profit from and spread the ideas of patriarchy through its animated films. We as Americans must be vigilant against groups such as the Alt-Right in the future using the messages in these films in attempts to weaponize and justify unacceptable behavior from not only world leaders but regular citizens as well. As the 2020 election approaches no greater event will depict the concept of whether Americans have chosen a future with toxic masculinity or a more diverse and inclusive future that is moving away from the stale concepts of the past echoed in the current Presidents campaign slogan which asks us to “Make America Great Again.” But as Senator Kamala Harris has been saying on the campaign trails “We have a president who says he wants to “Make America Great Again.” Does he want to take us back to before schools were integrated? Before the Voting Rights Act? Before the Civil Rights Act? Before Roe v. Wade (Harris, 2019)?” Hopefully, with more vigilance on the types of stories that we chose to tell, this fate can be avoided and instead of going back to our country’s flawed past, we as Americans will be able to move in a forward direction where we don’t have a leader that thinks it’s acceptable to make disparaging remarks about women, minorities, or anyone for that matter. Will the American people demand a President that respects people of all sexes, creeds, and fights for equality? Or will we have another four years of a President that thinks it’s acceptable to grab women by the pussy?
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