Zootopia is already being hailed by many as the animated movie of 2016. While this might be premature, it’s rare to encounter a Disney movie that explores prejudice so subtly and so persuasively.
I was fortunate enough to grow up during the Disney Renaissance. I recall the days when the release of every Disney film was an event. As Disney’s 2D animated works gained greater and greater prominence, they began to incorporate deeper themes than the usual fairy tale messages of “love will conquer all” and “follow your dreams.”
Films such as Pocahontas, Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame all tried to explore different forms of prejudice and the danger of preconception. Sadly they often did so by incorporating different stereotypes which is in itself a form of prejudice.
One such stereotype was that of the sibilant, cerebral and somewhat effeminate male villain. This equation of effeminacy with degeneracy is something that I first noticed in The Lion King and Aladdin. Even as a young child, it niggled at me. Of course there were exceptions to this trend. Beauty And The Beast, an exploration of toxic masculinity, had a macho sexist as its villain. But the effeminate antagonist reoccurred with greater frequency.
The Lion King is about the journey to manhood. This in itself is not problematic. The issue lies with the movie’s view that there is only one kind of man worth aspiring to be. Mufasa, Simba’s father and role model, is the booming epitome of masculinity. His heterosexuality and virility are linked not only to his rightful position as leader of his pride but even to the cycle of life itself. Under his guidance, the veldt thrives.
Scar on the other hand lacks both muscle and honor. His body language is often theatrical, his approach to power-play devious and his redeeming qualities few. In the first film of The Lion King franchise, he seems to be a near-eunuch. Even after taking over the pride, he shows little interest in mating with any of the females.
Under his reign, the Pride Land becomes a sterile wasteland. It is only restored with the return of Simba. His ability to reclaim dominion over the lionesses and reproduce restores fertility to the land.
In Pocahontas, Governor Ratcliffe is portrayed as an effete fop. His fussy clothing, mincing walk and coddling of his pet – a small pug portrayed as the era’s equivalent of “handbag dog” – contrast with the simple attire and rugged qualities of the main male character, John Smith.
Ratcliffe makes his debut after John heroically saves one of his crew-mates from death. The preceding scene – showing the sailors battling against the elements – focuses on the bonds of brotherhood that exist between them. The crew’s response to Ratcliffe’s appearance make it clear that he is excluded from this brotherhood.
In Aladdin, Jafar acts as the perfect foil for the protagonist. Aladdin is athletic and bare-chested while Jafar relies on cerebral (in this case, magical) might and is given to flamboyant mannerisms. However, Jafar’s interest in Jasmine is meant to mark him as heterosexual.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame features a similar antagonist. Frollo, while presented as physically formidable, fits into same Disney villain archetype as Jafar. He is tall, slender and elegant with elongated, oddly sexless features. At one point, his features and attire are openly mocked (“Frollo’s nose is long and he wears a truss/dress”) when the gargoyles attempt to eavesdrop and mishear a conversation.
Frollo also fits a trope seldom applied to a male villain – that of The Evil Stepmother. Frollo acts as a surrogate parent to Quasimodo. His treatment of the main character consists of locking him away from the world and filling him with fear of the unknown. It some ways, it foreshadows the behavior of Mother Gothel in Disney’s later 3D film Tangled.
Frollo is given a strong, if twisted, libido which sparks his obsession with Esmeralda. This obsession is contrasted with the clean healthy attraction between her and one of the other male characters, Phoebus. Phoebus’ character design recalls that of John Smith – they are both strapping men of action.
Both Frollo and Jafar express attraction to women and none of the other “unmanly” villains are shown to have same-sex attractions. Therefore Disney wasn’t linking effeminacy to a sexuality but rather using it as a creative shorthand for villainy. Effeminate men were portrayed as unnatural and therefore dangerous.
Films such as The Lion King focus on a return to the “natural order.” In such stories, there is only one role for the “unnatural” – that of the villain.