Socialization of sexual repression as
demonstrated by the Disney films Lady and the Tramp,
The Little Mermaid and Mulan
June 12, 2000
Essentially it's a primer on love and marriage directed at very young people; imprinting on their little psyches the idea that smooth talking delinquents, recently escaped from the local pound, are a good match for nice girls from sheltered homes. When in ten years, the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house, their hormones will be racing, and no one will understand why. Films like this program woman to adore jerks.
-- Josh, The Last Days of Disco
In modern society, even traditionally wholesome, family-oriented institutions are questioned for their sexual significance. The Walt Disney Company is no exception. In 1997, two Texas women filed suit against Disney for what they perceived as subliminal sexual messages in a number of Disney films. Their complaints included a scene from The Little Mermaid in which the minister performing Ursela’s wedding apparently has an erection. Despite the questionable nature of such covert messages, other aspects of Disney films point towards a sexual agenda that attempts to reflect mainstream beliefs.
The Walt Disney Company’s adherence to the corruption model of sexuality in movies such as The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp and Mulan, attempts to discount the importance of sex to children; however, instead Disney exemplifies the inescapability of sexuality.
Inherent in the ideal of "happily ever after" is the implication that fairy tale couples live normal lives. Indeed, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp describes all the events surrounding coitus, excepting the act of intercourse itself. Tramp offers it’s audience a strict definition of normal sex and exemplifies the happiness that normalcy brings. Furthermore, the villainous sexuality of Mermaid’s Ursula implies that there is such a thing as deviant romance. Also the modernized gender views in Mulan deviate from Disney’s earlier static views of sexuality; however, in the end, normalcy is restored and gender bending is written off as acceptable only in certain circumstances. Conspicuous in its absence is actual intercourse. These stories uphold the idea that children are born innocent and susceptible to perverse influence.
Tramp provides its audience with a dictated view of normal sexuality. In fact, the human masters are portrayed as faceless, nameless archetypes of family life. Known only as "Jim Dear" and "Darling," even to their friends, their Christian, upper-middle class origins are immediately denoted during the opening scene. Darling receives "a perfectly beautiful little lady," puppy for Christmas. The humans immediately fret over their innocent, wide-eyed little girl, and rather than letting her explore, attempt lock her in the kitchen. Darling hesitates leaving her alone, but Jim Dear replies, "no, no, we want to show her who’s master." A single sheet of newspaper suffices for potty training, which actually proves to be futile because Lady never goes to the bathroom during the entire movie. Of course, Lady turns out to need the company of Man, and uses crying and tail wagging to manipulate a permanent place at her master’s feet. Lady also whimpers when she needs to control Tramp after he gets her impounded.
Lady is insulated from the corruption of the outside world. In fact, her mishandling of the newspaper saves her masters from "those disturbing headlines." Lady’s male friends are happy, but impotent. "It shouldn’t happen to a dog," Jock whispers, "but Trusty has lost his sense of smell."
Lady’s first disillusionment is the direct result of a sexual act—after leading her friends to a private place she reveals how her masters have been acting strange. Jim Dear had been ignoring lady, and instead tends to his fragile wife. Instead of walking the dog, the pregnant Darling just sits around, knits, hums, craves strange foods and looks "radiant."
Lady has no natural understanding of sexuality. Trusty attempts to explain sex but can only say "well as [the humans] put it… uh.. the birds and the bees… or well… uh… the stork… you know… oh… uh…" When Jock states that Darling is expecting a baby, the six month old Lady replies, with genuine astonishment, "What’s a baby?"
Lady’s coming of age, symbolized by her licensing, opens her up to suitors. Despite their age, the previously platonic Trusty and Jock eventually approach her for marriage but are rejected.
Despite her naiveté, Lady’s ability to domesticate the Tramp offers a moral lesson in normal sex. Tramp starts out distrusting the rich: "I wonder what the leash and collar set does for excitement," he remarks. He chases chickens, "just look at those fat, lazy biddies." And the Tramp was promiscuous: "He has an eye for a well turned paw, he has…" Furthermore, he maintained distance from humans because "foot loose and collar free you take nothing but the best." By feigning disinterest, the Tramp maintained the power in his relationships and could eat somewhere new every night. The Tramp also handles Lady indifferently. He calls her "Pidge," and excuses accidentally getting her impounded by saying "who could ever harm a cute little trick like you?" The Tramp’s friends are a scruffy bunch and because they didn’t have a family to save them, they presumably perish at the dog pound.
Diametrically contrasted with Lady is Peg, whose sultry voice, sashaying walk, flirtatious glances and unkempt hair work as visual shorthand to tell the audience that Peg is a doggy slut. Indeed, she encourages Tramp to be promiscuous and laments that someday "some delicate fragile creature" will train him and it will be his downfall. "Yes, even I have got it really bad," Peg sings, without explaining what "it" is.
Also, Disney villains are an outlet for sexual lessons. Like Peg, Mermaid’s Ursula has a deep voice. Black tentacles, beauty marks and the contrast of red lipstick make Ursula appear devious. Her wrists go limp when she talks about the Prince and she uses seaweed like a feather boa while she shakes her bust. Contrasted with the muscular mermen and adequately endowed mermaids, Ursela’s girth exemplifies her deviance from normalcy.
Ursela’s sexual magic is exemplified when she sings of "poor unfortunate souls … this one longing to be thinner, that one wants to get the girl." In her cauldron, the boy becomes buff and the girl becomes curvy and they embrace. Of course, there is a price to pay for sexual wishes in this world, and eventually Ursula is able to turn her subjects into worms.
The price Ursula asks Ariel for is her voice. After all, talking will only get in the way of Ariel catching her man: "You’ll have your looks, your pretty face, and don’t underestimate the importance of body language." Ursula punctuates the phrase "body language" with two pelvic thrusts and laughs. "She who holds her tongue gets a man," she continues in song.
When Triton’s other daughters see that Ariel is "lovesick" one of them remarks, "she’s got it bad." Triton fears his littlest daughter’s corruption when he learns she loves a man and Sebastion remarks "somebody’s got to nail that girl’s fins to the floor."
The gimmick is that Ariel has four days to get the prince to kiss her. "Not just any kiss, the kiss of true love." When Ariel and the Prince are finally alone in the rowboat, Scuttle the seagull remarks "this calls for a little vocal romantic stimulation" and Sebastion sings "and you don’t know why but you’re dying to try; you want to kiss the girl." What reasons are there to kiss a mute girl other than pure physical attraction? This close call prompts Ursula to remark "that little tramp, she’s better than I thought Ursula uses sexual sorcery to trick the prince into nearly marrying her.
With Mulan, Disney attempted to conform to a new social idea of gender roles. On the other hand, the plot still falls into girl-needs-man formula. Gender conflict is the punchline to most of the movie’s humor. Mushu, "the powerful, the pleasurable, the indestructible," complains that, "Miss Man decided to take her little drag show on the road." Also, he explains that magically, "my eyes can see straight through your armor," and is slapped.
After a gratuitous bathing sequence, Mulan exclaims, "I never want to see a naked man again." And then a minute later she reveals her crush on the "pretty boy" captain without any tint of irony.
Considering the intended audience, it is hard to justify most of the male stereotypes in Mulan as satire. The men pick their noses, fight at the drop of a hat and objectify women. While singing, "a girl worth fighting for," one man unfolds a centerfold and Mulan runs away in shock.
In the end, the men follow Mulan as her real self and dress up as "concubines… ugly concubines," to trick the Huns, however, the overall theme is that crossdressing should be done only when necessary.
Mulan’s underlying conflict is indicative of western womanhood’s mind-body separation. Because of her objectification with the Matchmaker, she sings "why is my reflection someone I don’t know." It is interesting to note that on the Mulan soundtrack, Mousekateer turned teen sex idol Christina Aguilera performs a cut of this song.
For acceptability reasons, Disney attempts to avoid sexual controversy. However, by following the corruption model, Disney has replaced socially constructed ideas of "love" with sexuality. In the end, Tramp settles down and impregnates Lady, thus replacing his cavorting days of youth with happy normalcy. The same idea of romance existing without sexuality is inherent in The Little Mermaid’s thought pattern. Only the evil witch makes any connection between the two ideas. Mulan has some idea of sexuality, but only because she has no other choice. Disney’s sexual repression backfires when disgruntled animators insert sexual imagery into movies. The fact that such rebellion exists is relevant, in as that, it shows that sexuality is integral to storytelling and cannot easily be wholly removed.
Edited 11/21/2002 to replaces instances of "repression model" with "corruption model," since when I wrote it I had the two concepts mixed up. Read about the four models of childhood sexuality here.