The claim that Disney is producing more and more ‘feminist’ movies is not a new one, movies from Mulan, Frozen, Brave and now Moana have been applauded by how they’ve written female characters without watering their stories down to surround men. While I do agree that it’s needed to have strong female leads, why are some people claiming that a movie merely lacking a love interest is inherently feminist?
The idea is since a love interest is never shown or created, and there’s no point in which the idea of marriage is raised, that makes the film a feminist. Well, I disagree with that. What makes a film ‘non-feminist’ isn’t always linked purely to love, it’s the fact that the princess has usually sacrificed something to be with a man.
Ariel from The Little Mermaid, for example, left her family to live in a world she didn’t understand nor belong to species-wise, and then gave up her voice, which is ironic as she’s adamant about making her voice heard. This was all for Prince Eric whom she only saw on a beach for a minute or so and ‘fell in love’ because he was attractive.
She didn’t know his name, age, where he was from; basically, she gave up everything she knew on a hunch that he would like her. Eric then left her because he met a pretty girl that could sing well, who was Ursula incognito. Ariel is left to win back her prince, who again, she barely knows and cannot talk to.
This is one of the worst ways to write a love story into a film centered around a female lead. There’s no need for them to sacrifice something as dear to them as their voice to simply fall in ‘love’.
On the other hand, Princess and The Frog, while not one of my favorite Disney films for a whole range of reasons, does have one memorable quality: the love story.
Tiana dreams of opening her father’s restaurant and works her ass off to do so, until the fateful night she meets Prince Naveen. In this twist, however, he’s a frog. Naveen, desperate to turn back into a human asks her to kiss him as he thinks she’s a princess. Reluctantly, Tiana agrees because he promises her a reward which is necessary to open her restaurant. As she isn’t a princess, she thus becomes a frog.
For me, this story is an interesting take on the typical non-princess and prince idea. Tiana’s goal isn’t to be in love or to get married, it’s simply for her to open her dream restaurant, which she works hard to get what she wants. Along the way, she just so happens to fall in love with Naveen.
Tiana isn’t giving up anything to be with him, but instead teaches him the importance of hard work and to not just wait for things to be given to you. When they become human again, after they break the spell via true love’s kiss, he helps her build her dream restaurant in the space she was denied in the beginning of the movie.
The viewpoint that simply having a love interest makes the film non-feminist or, worse, anti-feminist is strange to me. Being in love isn’t and shouldn’t be a bad thing. It doesn’t make you less valid than someone who fights for equality, nor does it make you weak.
What we should be shown onscreen are more healthy relationships for young people watching these movies to take on board. In some movies, the idea of not having a love interest works perfectly, such as Brave where Merida rejects an arranged marriage, and her happy ending doesn’t lie in finding another potential spouse instead she reconciles with her mother and rejects all suitors.
In others, such as Nani and David from Lilo & Stitch, their relationship in no way takes away from Nani. It actually makes her far more complex by looking into how she’s just a young woman, looking after her baby sister due to the tragic loss of their parents; but also someone who’s in need of an adult life with adult relationships.
There’s also the issue of WOC not being seen as unworthy of love, which media critic and writer, Fangirl Jeanne explains.
WOC, black women especially, get coded as sexless caretakers, emotionless warriors, or hyper-sexual jezebels. What each of these racist tropes lacks is healthy, loving relationships. We don’t see women of color being loved, being cared for and thus struggle to see them as romantic partners, beyond sexual fetishization.
That has a damaging effect on women of color, both in how we view ourselves and how people dismiss their own racial bias as our fault. As well as contributing to the abusive ways our actual partners treat us because we’re strong we can take harsh treatment. They think we owe them more emotional labor and should be the caretaker. When we are emotional or upset, we are seen as aggressive.
When asked about the claim that Moana having a love interest would negatively alter the film, Jeanne didn’t agree.
Not at all. While Maui’s character isn’t really necessary for Moana to do everything she needs to in the story, I don’t see a romantic subplot as inherently bad. It’s how one is executed that can be the issue.
The actions attributed to Maui, in the film, would make more sense as the actions of a young man or boy trying to emulate traditional masculine heroes like Maui (who I might add is a teen in most stories about him). Moana wrangling a young guy her age into her journey, teaching him how to fix the mess he made and he in turn learning to listen, follow and understand a woman’s perspective would have been a wonderful addition to the story.
As much as Disney films about girls like Moana help girls IRL see that femininity isn’t confined to outdated sexist ideas. So too could a young boy learning to respect and support the girl he loves might also teach young kids, regardless of gender, how to be good partners to those they love.
Men always receive stories where they are both in love and their character is fully fleshed out, so why do women have to choose between them when we can have both? Yes, some writers won’t be able to pull it off, but that’s inevitable.
Yet, with the numerous films out there who aren’t writing in love interests to make their female characters less complex, I’m sure there are writers who know how to handle it. We shouldn’t be defending this trope in the name of feminism or defending the uncreative writers who are seemingly incapable of giving these female characters both romantic love and character depth.
Written by: hanxine
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.