'Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains' and Disney's Slow Evolution

by Jose Solis

4 June 2014

Is Amy Davis smarter than most for staying away from narrow-minded judgement? Or is her love for Disney so big that she is blind to the company’s many flaws?
cover art

Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains

Amy M. Davis

(Indiana University Press)
US: Mar 2014

Above: Peter Pan (1953)

Dr. Amy M. Davis is a professor at the University of Hull where she teaches Film Studies. Her specialty is Disney history. In 2006 she published Good Girls and Wicked Witches, a fascinating compilation of essays in which she examined the way Disney has treated female characters throughout its history. Like the characters at its center, the book seemed to be slightly polarizing, given that to some it felt like an encouragement of Disney’s sexist methods, while to others it was indeed a worthy study of Disney’s films, without ever being too condemning.

However, the truth of the matter is that Davis seems in no way interested in exposing Disney for the countless evils others accuse of the company. What remains clear in her work is that she holds the studio in deep admiration, which doesn’t necessarily cloud her judgment. She’s neither accusatory nor expiatory.

In Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains, Davis intends to do for male characters what her 2006 book did for female characters. Take that as you will, for if you weren’t a fan of the predecessor, this one will may seem even more unpleasant, given that it never attempts to condemn any of the Disney heroes or villains for setting up unachievable goals for children of all ages and genders.

“When many people think of the Disney studio’s films, they think of princesses” begins the book, “but what about the men?” it continues. “The young boys who go on amazing adventures? The princes and heroes who win the hearts of the princesses and heroines and who, we just know by the end of the films, will go on to live in love and romantic unity happily ever after?”

With its idealistic introduction, that “dares” to say Disney has been forgetting about its boys, the book will instantly seem appalling to those who for years have accused the studio of doing exactly the opposite. Davis cleverly points out that the studio’s marketing is mostly comprised of princess merchandising. What she fails to see—and this is most likely due to the fact that she’s not a fortune-teller—is that nowadays, Disney goes beyond the realm of the canonical, classic fairy tales.

The studio now owns Pixar Animation Studios as well as two companies that, if nothing else, have always been designed to cater to men: Marvel Comics (and now those certainly aren’t lacking in male-oriented merchandising) and Lucas Film, whose Star Wars was recently at the center of a controversy for its lack of multicultural, multi-gender casting.

Is Davis smarter than most for staying away from narrow-minded judgement? Or is her love for Disney so big that she is blind to the company’s many flaws? Throughout several chapters in Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains, she chronicles the way in which Disney brought to life all these characters and never fails to make the point that once an artistic element is created, more often than not, its creators lose all control over how it will be digested and processed by audiences.

Davis goes as far as to say that while Disney may not always please all audiences, little by little it is correcting its path and creating more balanced representations of gender roles. “this fact alone means that this body of films is doing rather better than Western society in general” she proclaims and it’s important to note that by the time she finished the book, Disney’s Frozen hadn’t been released.

The film coincidentally seems to support many of the points Davis makes in her book, particularly when it comes to the studio slowly embracing the changes that has made it seem old fashioned in the face of other animation studios. Throughout the book we are reminded that at one point, the mission of Disney Animation Studios seems to have become to carry the legacy of Walt, whether it means instant box office success or not.

While Frozen is indeed a tale of princesses, the likes of which would have made Walt gleeful and excited, this is the first instance—or among the most memorable—in which the princesses in question take their fates in their own hands. The film subversively changed the Disney version of happy endings, to give us a tale of sisterly love and to some degree, even queer empowerment.

To dwell on this film would be an injustice to a fair assessment of the book, but within her idealism and love for the House of the Mouse, it seems Davis is on to something. Whether idealistic or delusional, the Disney she talks about seems to be a thing that’s waiting just around the corner.

Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains


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