The Development Of Feminism In America In The 20th Century

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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 and now the 21st century third wave. This increasing demand for equality in America stemmed an increasing demand for positive female role models in film, specifically films aimed at children which resulted in Disney’s response creating more three-dimensional female characters, which included Pocahontas, an ecologist “Indian” or indigenous princess, and Mulan, a female soldier disguised as a man. 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 endeavoured 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”(89); 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 centre 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 and higher domestic expectations, Japan’s animation, specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s, illustrates some of the strongest female role models in animation films 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” (301), 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.

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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.

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