Poor Unfortunate Gender Stereotypes: Gender Transgression and Masculinity in the Music of Female Disney Villains

In the spring of 2015, Dana Gorzelany-Mostak hosted a semi-formal writing competition in her Music Since 1900 course at Rider University. Students were free to explore a wide variety of musical topics and were instructed to model their essays on those found on The Avid Listener. Co-editor Felicia Miyakawa visited Gorzelany-Mostak’s class via video chat and discussed the writing, development, and revision process that goes on behind the scenes at TAL. We’re thrilled to feature the winning essay here, and we invite readers to send us their own classroom success stories! — Michael Fauver (W.W. Norton)

By: Christopher R. Hochstuhl (Princeton, NJ) //

Between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and Maleficent in 2014, Walt Disney Studios has released over 50 feature films. Many of Disney’s characters have been popularized and merchandised, and among the most favored are the Disney princesses. The original Disney princesses (prior to the 2000s) are known for their child-like, helpless, and submissive nature, exemplifying a socially conventional ultra-feminine persona; the music that underscores the characters affirms these qualities.

In the world of Walt Disney, as in any other fairy tale, the “happily ever after” each princess wishes to attain is threatened by a frightful villain. The Evil Queen (Snow White, 1937), Lady Tremaine (Cinderella, 1950), Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, 1959), and Ursula (The Little Mermaid, 1989) are some of the most notorious of the female villains to populate the Disney universe. The music associated with these characters tells us how villainous they are. What we learn from their music, however, is not just that they are evil, but that they transgress gender. Composers deploy musical signifiers connoting masculinity for these villains, and in doing so associate these women with masculine-gendered qualities of strength, vigor, and independence.

Heroes and heroines in Disney films embody exaggerated personality and physical traits associated with their gender; the music schema surrounding these characters is equally gender specific. As a quintessential example of Disney’s ultra femininity, Snow White’s child-like demeanor and pure white complexion are paralleled musically by her soft and trilling soprano voice.

In the opening of the song “I’m Wishing,” Snow White sings over a chorus of violins, embellished by flute and harp, an instrument combination strongly associated with femininity. Further suggesting femininity, the accompaniment is light with the middle-upper range of the instruments dominating the music. Snow White sings with a sweet, heady soprano shaped by a quivering vibrato. The mixture of a soft operatic soprano voice, string-flute-harp orchestration, and overall light and warm timbre leads us to perceive the music as feminine. The music itself is literally soft, gentle, and fair, fitting for the “fairest of them all.” These musical qualities are also present in the music of other early Disney princesses, such as Aurora and Cinderella.

Just as delicate grace and beauty are embedded in the feminine music of the princesses, Disney composers personify strength and independence in their male characters’ music. For example, in Beauty and the Beast (1991), American composer Alan Menken utilizes specific musical signifiers of masculinity—pronounced rhythm and a brass-percussion dominant instrumentation—for the character of Gaston (a notoriously “manly” figure of the Disney universe). But when it comes to female villains, “masculine” and “feminine” characterization converges: their bodies may be female, but they are assigned music typically associated with male characters.

Self-absorbed Gaston reveals his ambitions for the town’s prettiest girl, Belle (beginning at 3:05).

Ursula the sea witch is one of Disney’s most musically active female villains; she is one of the few original Disney female villains who literally sings. Although Ursula is female, her body features masculine characteristics and is more an exaggerated caricature of performed femininity. Ursula possesses a stocky body—contrasting with the lithe form of Ariel—and wears exaggerated makeup (bright blue eye shadow and red lipstick). Her double chin and short silver hair complete a look decidedly opposite of delicate heroines. But Ursula carries her body in a feminine manner, gliding effortlessly through her cavern while graciously twirling her hands, arms, and tentacles. The dichotomy between Ursula’s unrefined appearance and performed femininity suggests that Disney is portraying Ursula, “for those in the know,” as a drag queen performing “camp” (a theatrical, exaggerated form of gender-play). In fact, although Pat Caroll supplies Ursula’s voice in the film, Disney originally sought Bea Arthur, another low-voiced actress whose work is highly “drag-coded,” for Ursula’s voice. Further emphasizing Ursula as a drag reference, in DVD bonus material of the 2006 The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition, audio commentary by John Musker, Ron Clements, and Alan Menkin (the animation directors and composer for The Little Mermaid) suggest Ursula was based on the popular drag queen Divine.

Just as camp revels in gender play, Ursula’s music hybridizes gender characteristics; it is a play on femininity by someone not truly feminine. Featuring a conflation of feminine and masculine characteristics, Ursula’s ballad “Poor Unfortunate Souls” begins with a pronounced accordion upbeat rhythm later doubled by low brass/tuba. After a dialogue interlude, the music returns with an added timpani line reinforcing the rhythmic drive of the music; trumpets join the music playing a counter melody. Percussion and brass—instruments typically coded masculine—form the body of Ursula’s ballad. There are no traditional female instruments, such as violins, flutes, or harps. Clarinets, accordion, and reed woodwinds replace these higher accompanying instruments in the orchestral texture. Such textural substitutions take the would-be feminine aspects of Ursula’s music and twist their associated gender qualities. 

The vocal tessitura (or average range) of Ursula’s ballad completes the gender hybridization of her surrounding music. Ursula’s tessitura sits exceptionally low, in a range similar to a male high tenor. Complementing the exceptionally low range of her voice, Ursula sings in a speech-based style of singing. Ursula’s singing is quite a contrast from Snow White’s operatic soprano or Ariel’s bright and nasal belted voice. Instead, Ursula’s voice parallels that of Disney’s male characters in qualities of range and speech-like style.

Boston journalist Kathi Maio and scholars England, Descartes, and Collier-Meek have criticized the gender stereotypes of Disney heroes and heroines, but these authors have not criticized the gender-hybridized female villains of the Disney franchise. Embodying both masculine and feminine qualities, female Disney villains defy the limitations constraining traditional Disney heroines. Fairness, gentleness, and child-like helplessness are replaced by strength, intelligence, and a driven (though evil) personality.

The transgression of gender in the music of female Disney villains is inextricably linked to the rigidity of female role models in the Disney universe. In creating its female villains, Disney hybridizes gender traits of their music, as well as their personalities. The characters are marked as female, but their hybridized personas and masculine coded music are what foster the sense of strength that is missing from their heroine counterparts. Framed as evil, potential “positive” qualities are negated, thus preventing female Disney villains from serving as strong women role models. If the sonic traits that mark Ursula as wicked were removed, perhaps Ursula would not be too bad of a role model for young people.

For Discussion

  1. Disney’s Mulan (1998) explored the subject of gender identity and associations. Mulan is conscripted, under disguise as a young male, into the Chinese army in place of her elderly father. Listen to Mulan’s decision scene in the film and note the orchestral and timbre changes as Mulan makes the decision to assume a male appearance and join the army. What gender cues in the music do you hear in the initial moments of despair? How do these cues change and develop as Mulan makes her decision, cuts her hair, and flees on horseback?
  2. Music tropes associated with gender and personality traits are related to musical motives formerly established in opera. For example, in classical music, brass fanfares have historically served as signifiers of strength and power, while reeds have often signified the underworld or the pastoral. Strength, independence, and cunning wit are qualities belonging to female villains outside the world of Disney. Take, for example, the vengeance aria of the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. What masculine qualities do you hear? What qualities do you hear that are feminine? How are these qualities hybridized to foster a sense of strength, independence, and in this case, tyrannical rage?
  3. How might Disney Princess fairy tales change if princesses were imbued with masculine musical qualities, thus portraying qualities of reason, intelligence, independence, and strength? Does the genre of these stories—“fairy tales”—excuse them from criticism on the qualities of their heroines?

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