Bechdel Test: The Disney Princesses – Part One

I’ve often wondered about how certain groups of movies would hold up to the Bechdel Test. So today, I’m going to start scrutinizing the films featuring the eleven official Disney princesses. Since there are eleven movies and I anticipate having a bit to say about each of them, I’m going to split this post into two.

What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a series of pass or fail requirements applied to works of fiction, most frequently movies. It is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel and first appeared in her long running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. It has since been taken up by the general public as a test of how realistically female characters are treated in a work of fiction. As many writers examining the Bechdel test have noted, it is not terribly useful as a judge of an individual film’s quality or even its value as a feminist work, since films that are not exactly shining examples of feminism have passed the test. The Bechdel Test is best for looking at groups of films – a particular years Best Picture Oscar nominees or the top grossing films of the year – or comparing the pass/fail rates between groups of films and seeing what trends emerge.

The original Bechdel Test consists of three qualifications:

1. The film must have at least two female characters. A common addition to this rule is that the characters must be named. Under most circumstances, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request, but I’m leaving it off because it doesn’t appear in the original comic strip and for reasons that I’ll go into shortly.

2. The two female characters must have at least one conversation.

3. At least one of these conversations must be about something other than a male character. The original says “about a man,” but I’m changing it to “male character” since “a man” can suggest that the character in question has to be an adult or a romantic interest for one or both of the female characters.

Now that we all understand the rules, let’s get to the movies!

Snow White and the Wicked Queen

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – 1937

This film is a big part of the reason I didn’t want to require that the female characters be named. In a lot of cases, it helps to rule out minor roles like “woman with dog” or “lady getting parking ticket.” But in this case, you have a character known only as “The Queen” who is one of the most important characters in the movie. Plus, of the ten major characters in the film (discounting the various cute animals), three are unnamed and two of those are male: the Hunstman and the Prince.

The point where judging this film gets tricky is the third requirement. Both the prince and the dwarves are mentioned in the course of the interaction between Snow White and the disguised Queen, but the subject changes several times and it’s hard to tell if it should all be counted as one conversation. I’m going to say that their first exchange has more to do with confirming that Snow White is alone and getting her to try the apple than it does to do with the dwarves and give the film a narrow pass, though I’m open to alternate theories.

Verdict: PASS

Cinderella and Lady Tremaine

Cinderella – 1950

This one is surprisingly easy. Even if you wanted to be really harsh and say that every conversation Cinderella has with someone else about going to the ball is indirectly about a man, as meeting a man is her unstated reason for going to the ball, you’d still have the conversation where Lady Tremaine chides Cinderella and assigns her extra chores. There are even scenes with four way conversations between all female characters without one mention of any male character.

Verdict: PASS

Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather

Sleeping Beauty – 1959

If passing the Bechdel Test were primarily up to Aurora, this film would be in trouble. Even at the point where she presumably hasn’t seen a male human being since she was an infant, she can’t help going on about some fantasy love interest. Fortunately, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather pick up the slack and spend most of the movie talking about Aurora. Another pass, but also a great example of how the Bechdel test is not a screen for feminism. Aurora is so passive that she’s hardly even the main character.

Verdict: PASS

Ariel and Ursula

The Little Mermaid – 1989

This one is tough. Ariel and Ursula have a pretty extensive conversation, so that’s one and two down. But what is their conversation about? It’s about the terms for Ariel getting a spell from Ursula to turn her into a human. Nothing particularly male-centric there, until you get to the question of why Ariel wants to become human. That’s where things start to get murky.

On the one fin, Ariel has shown an interest in the human world through the entire movie. She has a whole song about wanting to go live in the human world, all before she has a clue that Eric exists. But then again, the size of her collection indicates that she’s been curious about dry land for a long time, yet she never did anything beyond exploring shipwrecks and popping up to the surface for visits with a clueless seagull. That is, she never did anything beyond that before she laid eyes on her first human and fell in love. Ursula even says that Ariel’s reason for coming to see her is Eric. It’s a close call, but I’m going to say this is the first princess film that doesn’t pass.

Verdict: FAIL

Belle and the Wardrobe

Beauty and the Beast

Given how much I love this movie, it’s a little distressing to see how close it comes to failing. Belle has two or three conversations with other female characters, namely Mrs. Potts and the Wardrobe. The topics of conversation are Belle’s current predicament, dressing for dinner, and tea. The problem is that male characters are always just present enough to make this a tough call. Chip is part of the conversation, so it’s not exclusively between female characters. But he is outnumbered three to one. Maurice is brought up briefly and though the Beast isn’t mentioned here, his presence does have an impact on the conversation. The “very brave thing” that Mrs. Potts compliments Belle on doing is giving up her freedom to save her father from the Beast. The wardrobe is trying to get Belle dressed up for dinner with the Beast. This is an even more difficult call than The Little Mermaid, but since the male characters aren’t really the end goal of these conversations, I’m going to call it a pass by a slim margin.

Verdict: PASS

Princess Jasmine

Aladdin -1992

Now it gets easy again. ‘Aladdin’ clearly fails the Bechdel Test. Jasmine is the only female character of note in the entire movie and she never talks with any other female characters. I even double checked to see if she might have had a split second conversation with a lady merchant at the marketplace. No dice. Unless that little bird she snuggles with is female, Jasmine has exactly zero interactions with any other female characters of any species. That makes this the first Disney princess film to fail requirement number one.

Verdict: FAIL

I’ll be back next month to run the remaining five princesses through the Bechdel Tests. In the meantime, you can discuss the results so far and share your predictions for round two in the comments.

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13 comments

  1. Silverpixiefly

    I found this to be a pretty interesting read and I find your outcomes easy to agree with based on what you said. With Aladdin, they do make mention of Jasmine’s situation. She goes off on the men at one point that she is a person and not an object. It always felt like that was the secondary theme, the primary being “be yourself.” It just goes to show they could have done a better job, especially considering Jasmine was the only non-background female.

    • Cartoon Sara

      Given how unspecific the Bechdel Test is about certain things (understandably, since it’s about three comic panels worth of text), I did have to fill in some blanks and make a few judgements calls. So it’s great to hear that my rationale makes sense.

      I think part of Jasmine’s problem is that ‘Aladdin’ is a movie where Disney is working on developing their male lead characters for modern audiences. It’d be a few more movies before they worked out the logistics of having two main characters with their own character arcs. I agree with you that Jasmine isn’t a complete throwback to earlier films, but she doesn’t represent any major developments for the Disney heroine archetype either.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Maria Photinakis (@photinakis)

        It kills me that Jasmine fails the test. I feel like they tried to make up for this in the TV series a little bit but didn’t make much progress there either. Aladdin (the movies, all of them, and TV show) will always be my favorite Disney property because I grew up with it, but it was definitely because of the fun adventures and not because of any particularly good/memorable female characters, which is a serious shame!

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  6. Alex

    Little Mermaid I think might pass. There’s a quick scene where her sisters are talking about her being in love. It’s such a short scene and it might even technically count as them talking about a man, so I’m not sure.

    • Cartoon Sara

      The main problem with that scene is that none of the sisters actually talk to each other. Ariel is off in her own romantic dream world and the only character who responds to or is directly addressed by any of the sisters is Triton.

  7. Maja

    Sure Aladdin doesn’t pass the test, but jasmin has a conversation with a female, the tiger, raja, is a she but the conversation is about the men

      • Cartoon Sara

        I’ve always seen Rajah referred to as “he,” but it’s a moot point regardless. Jasmine can talk to Rajah, but Rajah can’t really hold up his end of the conversation regardless of the subject. He’s a bit more responsive than the average tiger, but his ability to communicate is still too limited for the real back and forth needed in a conversation.

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