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Since the 20th century, America has been subject to waves of feminism, from the suffrage movement to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. This increasing demand for equality in America stemmed an increasing demand for positive female role models in film, specifically films aimed at children. Disney responded to this call creating more three-dimensional female characters, which included Pocahontas, an ecologist “Indian” or indigenous princess, and Mulan, a cross-dressing soldier. Jack Zipes, a professor and expert on fairy tales, in Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry explains that “any other filmmaker who has endeavored to adapt a fairy tale for the screen, whether through animation or other means, has had to measure up to the Disney standard and try to go beyond it”; a statement like this exemplifies this deep connection that over time has manifested between fairy tales and Disney, as well as the near-monopoly control of the fairy tale entertainment industry; in the modern age, fairy tales are generally associated with Disney and vice versa. Because of such, it is imperative to analyze the didactic messages being epitomized by Disney; especially since many of these heroines are being dubbed as role models.
Disney’s films are not the only animation films to center around a heroine. Born January 5, 1941, Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese film animation director known for his fantastical and vibrant films that revolve around a strong young female protagonist. Despite coming from a country that historically has been far more oppressive of women, Japan’s animation, specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s, illustrates some of the strongest female role models on screen today. In Miyazaki’s films, unlike Disney’s whose heroines are never wholly free of this restricting sphere of male power, his heroines are able to assume and hold positions of power. Manuel Hernández-Pérez in “Animation, Branding and Authorship in the Construction of the ‘Anti-Disney’ Ethos” explains that Miyazaki’s “female characters are not eroticized and seldom are involved in romantic relationships”, unlike Disney where romantic interest is shown as a simplified route to happiness, which is a damaging idea as it is a form of escapism from reality. In comparing Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, 1984, and Princess Mononoke, 1997, with Disney’s Pocahontas, 1995, and Mulan, 1998, it can be seen that Miyazaki’s heroines are realistic women in a realistic world facing realistic consequences and that the future of feminism is animated films unquestionably Japanese. Aside from starring female protagonists, these four films have further similarities that enable this Japanese-American animation comparison. Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, Mononoke, and Pocahontas all have apparent ecological themes. And all four films place their heroine in a unique position of influence and leadership in an armed conflict between opposing groups in a fantasy, or in Disney’s case a somewhat historical world, where spirits or magic play a role.
Though all four heroines act in leadership roles in their respective films, they vary in terms of the acquisition of such power, the extent of it, as well as its duration. San of Mononoke, Nausicaä and Pocahontas are all royalty of one kind or another, and because of such one would think they would all have a certain amount of respect. Out of these three heroines, Nausicaä is the youngest and also the most powerful. She is shown as competent with her gun and her tools. Miyazaki illustrates her feminine features, which is demonstrated by her girlish laugh but also shows her as valorous, which is shown when she rushes to protect her older mentor from an Ohmu, a massive and dangerous insect-like creature. Nausicaä is often portrayed in a manner that illustrates her freedom and independence. She is not afraid to fly alone on her glider or to collect needed materials for her village in a poisonous forest, which she also does alone. She is a competent, beautiful and strong woman.
Pocahontas is introduced to the audience in a similar manner to Nausicaä, in a forest. But Pocahontas is introduced in a way that implies immaturity as within the first few minutes of the film she is shown to perform a perfect dive off a steep cliff into the waters below and the proceeds to overturn her sister’s canoe in a girlish act of mischief. From the start of the film, it is Pocahontas’s youth and competence that is emphasized which seems somewhat contradictory as the film progresses as her potential as a leader is complicated. Pocahontas is shown to indirectly push her tribe and the English colonists to the brink of war because of her secret encounter with John Smith. Unlike Nausicaä, Pocahontas only takes action to save her people because she was the one who put them in danger. Pocahontas’s actions she takes to protect her tribe not only require approval from her father but also the intervention of John Smith, her lover, to be complete. It is John Smith who ends the feud between opposing groups by taking the bullet meant for the Indian chief. Disney’s Pocahontas has little power in her world. Her father even pressures her to settle down and marry, something Nausicaä’s father would never ask her to do as she is too valuable for domesticity. Pocahontas is shown to need the grounding effect of a family in order to be fully integrated into her tribe. And one could argue that Pocahontas was not created to be a role model for women as she has been appropriated for a white male audience. Pocahontas: Her True Story describes how the real Pocahontas was a political adversary at only 12 years old, the age that she met Captain John Smith, not in what looks like her 20s according to Disney, and conducted negotiations between her father and the English colonists, only to later be kidnapped by them (1995). She is described much like Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, a wild and formidable full-bodied woman ready with spears and arrows. But instead of commending Pocahontas for her clear power and intelligence, Disney chooses to eradicate these achievements and portray her as a domesticated and sexualized caricature of her legacy. Similarly, with Mulan, a hero carrying the sword of the enemy along with the crest of the Emperor, upon her return home is judged for bringing a sword and not a man home despite saving all of China. Disney emphasizes the fact that being a hero will not bring her family honour, but a bride will. It is apparent through this comparison with Disney that Miyazaki supports independent female characters, who are not limited by their beauty and female stereotypes and are instead able to be a jack of all trades and not be shamed into domesticity.
A common element to Disney princess films is that there is a tendency to use romance as a sense of finality, a conclusion to the conflicts that have arisen, and sometimes a way to show acceptance of the heroine. But Miyazaki is “skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue and wants to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live and if able to, then perhaps… be closer to portraying a true expression of love”. Hayao Miyazaki creates “strong female leads who are brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart, and most importantly they’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior because any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man. Whereas with Disney it is clear with both Mulan and Pocahontas that they never exit from this male sphere of dominance. Mulan argues that one should strive towards being a “man”, reinforcing masculine stereotypes and oppressing feminine traits in order to be a hero. Pocahontas is not even the hero of her story; the man she is in love with is. Disney princess films revolve around men despite being the female characters being the protagonist of the story, whereas Miyazaki creates female characters that are unquestionably competent heroes.
Miyazaki shows real women in a real world in the sense that it has real consequences. Miyazaki’s films do not share in Disney’s tradition of happy endings to satisfy the audience. Often his heroines and characters are left to linger in the mistakes and losses that have occurred; this is clearly illustrated in Princess Mononoke. Upon San and Ashitaka’s return of the Forest Spirit’s head to its rightful home on its body the common expectation, possibly due to Disney’s pattern, would be that the spirit would come back to life but in this instance, it does not. Miyazaki’s films are different from Disney’s in this fundamental way; they are not happily ever after films. Miyazaki’s heroines experience loss; they face their fears and become familiar with the trauma that is associated with war. There is no kiss, romance or magical surprise that makes all the bad things go away. Miyazaki’s heroines must find a way to move on with their lives. This is a true role model because they move on as real people must when they experience hard times. Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind is an example of what the consequences might be if people do not realize the consequences of their actions. Princess Nausicaä because of mankind’s mistakes has to deal with a polluted world in which she attempts to protect both the people and the creatures that live on it. Nausicaä strives to find a way for people and creatures to coexist as some people are trying to take advantage of the natural environment. In this process, Nausicaä never compromises her femininity and does not need a Prince Charming to make everything okay. Miyazaki’s heroines employ their strength of character through a compassionate understanding of those who are oppositional to them within the film rather than seeing them as enemies to be vanquished. Miyazaki in these films is advocating for people to respect and care for all living beings because life is not promised or permanent; people’s actions have consequences, whereas in Disney’s Mulan, Mulan is never shown to face any emotional hardship. All of her bumps in the road were purely physical despite going to war where she would have to and did kill people. This lack of acknowledgement of emotional loss is shown in Pocahontas as well when Pocahontas’s actions indirectly lead to Kocoum’s death. Pocahontas reacts to his death in shock but moves past the loss in a matter of minutes. Unlike Disney, Miyazaki does not gloss over human emotions and experiences, as they are important to acknowledge in order to grow and illustrates that there is no redo button to change the past.
Although neither Disney nor Miyazaki use female characters in a common reoccurring motif of the “token female,” Miyazaki clearly progresses beyond Disney in terms of realistic women in a more realistic world as they are shown to face real consequences and react in realistic ways to loss and hardship. In looking at Miyazaki’s depiction of women this can be seen as an indication of post-patriarchal consciousness in Japan. His heroines subvert the old-fashioned, patriarchal models of the victorious hero that prevail in Western cinema and go beyond Disney’s attempted female role models. As well as at as acting as unifying agents of change, Miyazaki’s heroines use collective solutions to conflict by rejecting unnecessary violence, preserving the environment and challenging stereotypical gender roles. All the while Disney uses princesses in a schizophrenic matter; Disney somewhat reinforces traditional heterosexual norms, as the portrayals of Mulan and Pocahontas behave in incredibly conservative and regressive ways in parts of each film, but in some parts are quite progressive. These themes of ecology and feminism are true didactic lessons that should be imparted to the old, the young, and everyone in between, as they are the key to a thriving global community.
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