Course:GRSJ300/2021/Intersectional Approaches to Disney Films

From UBC Wiki

Understanding Intersectionality

What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a theory and analytical tool that understands race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and other factors of one’s identity as overlapping and interconnected. Intersectionality counters single-axis frameworks, which see discrimination in isolated terms rather than seeing the ways privilege and oppression intersect. Vivian May explains that intersectionality “invites us to think from ‘both/and’ spaces and to seek justice in crosscutting ways by identifying and addressing the (often hidden) workings of privilege and oppression” (21)[1].

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist scholar, lawyer, and advocate.

Brief History of Intersectionality

The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, where she analyzed the ways Black women in workplaces were being misrepresented by understandings of sexism and racism within legal systems[2]. As Crenshaw’s paper demonstrated, intersectionality is a tool that is often needed to make visible systems of oppression that would otherwise remain invisible. Similar understandings of how identity, privilege, and oppression function are visible in earlier work by Black feminists, such as the Combahee River Collective, who state that they “practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” (210)[3].

Intersectionality as a Framework for Analysis

Rather than creating a stagnant definition, another way to frame intersectionality is to look at what it can do (May 19)[1]. May draws from Crenshaw, stating that intersectionality is “akin to a ‘prism’ to be used to ‘amplify’ and highlight specific problems, particularly by drawing attention to dynamics that are ‘constitutive’ but generally overlooked or silenced” (19)[1]. May goes on to accentuate the “problem-solving capabilities” (19)[1] of intersectionality. Putting intersectional theories into action, we can identify and solve problems that previously felt nebulous and create specific plans of action based on our findings.

Intersectionality and Children's Films

Media, film in particular, has an immense impact on social ideals and norms. By analyzing what is present and missing in mainstream media, one can gain a better understanding of dominant ideology and narratives. Given this, it is worth investigating what films and narratives are presented to children as they are forming their understanding of the world around them. What is said in these films holds great influence over children’s worldview and what is left unsaid, arguably, even more so. According to CNBC, the top fifteen highest grossing children’s films in the United States as of 2011 were all Disney films[4]. This is an important indicator of what narratives are being told most frequently to children in North America. Though Disney has attempted to tell a more diverse array of stories in the last twenty years, there are still many ways they fall short in representing characters with complex and nuanced backgrounds.

The following analyses consider three different, popular Disney films — Cinderella (1950), The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Zootopia (2016) — and the ways they demonstrate and fall short of demonstrating an intersectional framework that highlights interlocking forms of oppression. Applying the lens of intersectionality to engage with these films enables us to gauge the ways that Disney’s stories have changed or remained the same over a large period of time and see how different stories approach interlocking forms of oppression.

Cinderella (1950)

Cinderella is one of Disney’s most famous and beloved fairy tales. The movie follows the life of an orphaned girl named Cinderella who, with the help of her fairy godmother, marries Prince Charming and overcomes the poverty imposed on her by her cruel step-family[5]. Throughout the film, viewers are exposed to the shortcomings and challenges Cinderella faces in meeting Prince Charming and attending the royal ball. However, the directors of this film, Clyde Geronimi and Hamilton Luske, focus heavily on Cinderella’s individual choices and shortcomings, distracting viewers from identifying the interlocking forms of oppression faced by Cinderella because of her gender and class identity.

Original poster for Walt Disney's Cinderella (1950).

Scholar Sirma Bilge argues that intersectionality is a useful tool of analysis for drawing out the systems of oppression that affect the life chances[6] and experiences of individuals, adding that this framework is needed because we tend to individualize issues that are systemic (Bilge 410)[7]. Bilge’s observations are useful in this context as Geronimi and Luske focus heavily on the individual factors prohibiting Cinderella from attending the ball. Viewers are led to believe that everyone, rich and poor, is invited to Prince Charming’s royal ball and that Cinderella cannot attend the ball because of her individual circumstances: merely because she is prohibited from doing so by her ‘malicious’ stepmother and she lacks the proper attire needed to attend the ball, which is later magically resolved when the fairy godmother transforms her attire. This notion distracts from the fact that Cinderella is set in a society divided by class. Despite the fact that the ball is open to “every eligible maiden in the land” (Cinderella 1950)[5], there is a dress code which only the rich and well connected can satisfy. Because the ball is falsely portrayed as being a classless event, Cinderella’s inability to attend it without magical assistance is displayed as an individual or personal issue. This notion masks the structural reason behind Cinderella’s initial inability to attend the ball — poverty and class stratification.

Additionally, Geronimi and Luske make it appear as if Cinderella is attending the ball out of pure choice - in order to find the “love of her life” (Cinderella 1950)[5]. This distracts from the ways in which interlocking forms of oppression have influenced Cinderella’s desire to attend the ball. While Cinderella is a woman, she does not lead a life similar to her step mother and sisters who, while disadvantaged because of gendered barriers and expectations, possess great amounts of wealth and class privilege. As bell hooks argues, “‘gender' is [not] the primary factor determining a woman's fate" (hooks 9)[8], which could not be more true in Cinderella’s case. In that, Cinderella leads a “multiple axis life” (May 22)[1] and thus lacks power and control over her life because she is a woman but also because she is poor. Therefore, the goal of attending the ball and "marrying the Prince" is not just about love, as suggested by Geronimi and Luske’s romanticized framing. Rather because, as a poor woman who is disproportionately responsible for her household’s gendered division of labour, marrying a rich prince is presented as the only way for Cinderella to overcome poverty and access social mobility, which in itself speaks volumes to the interlocking barriers imposed on her.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

In the 2009 Walt Disney animated film, The Princess and the Frog, the character Dr. Facilier remarks that the “real power in this world ... [is] money” and this sentiment underpins the film’s framework (00:32:00 - 00:32:07)[9]. The film follows Tiana, who lives in New Orleans during the late 1920s as she tries to fulfill her dream of owning a restaurant and embarks on a journey after kissing a frog prince. Because she is the first African-American princess, the filmmakers attempted to attend to her identity as a working-class, Black woman. However, the film flounders as it employs a single-axis framework of class without confronting its intersection with race and gender.

Logo for Disney's The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Beginning with the film’s conceptualization of Tiana’s class, the film suggests that her biggest impediment to achieving her dream is wealth. From the outset, it is established that Tiana is not wealthy. Tiana is dressed in humble clothing and her family is a working-class family who lives in a run-down home on another side of the city (00:02:00 - 00:05:00)[9]. For Tiana, she is unable to have frivolous dreams and she must put in “hard work” as a waitress to accomplish her dreams (00:05:30 - 00:05:45)[9]. The film presents “subordination as a disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis” of class without a recognition of the impacts of race and gender on Tiana’s dream (Crenshaw 140)[2]. Here, Tiana’s class and fixation on hard work is part of the film’s broader message that a lack of wealth is the only hindrance to Tiana's dreams.

Moreover, the film demonstrates a shallow engagement with race and gender. Beyond the scene in which Tiana is outbid and told that as “a little woman of [her] background, [she] would have had her hands full [with owning a restaurant],” the film does not indicate that the intersections of her race and gender will have an impact (00:25:0 - 00:25:20)[9]. However, as the Combahee River Collective notes, class, race, and gender oppression cannot be separated because Black women “experience [them] simultaneously” (213)[3]. As the film is set during late 1920s New Orleans, the historical expectation is to see a depiction of the system of Jim Crow, as it was this system that prevented Black people from obtaining wealth. Yet, the film glosses over this history and portrays a New Orleans devoid of racial difference and terror. Furthermore, because of the film’s single-axis framework of class, Tiana’s identity as a woman revolves around the “Strong Black Woman” archetype in the film. While Tiana realizes by the end of the film that she can obtain her dreams with love and the help of others, the archetype persists throughout the film. In this narrative, Tiana is an invulnerable, hard worker because she cannot afford to be anything else. However, this characterization perpetuates myths about Black female subjectivity that “render Black women into self-disciplining bodies who uphold social order” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant 36)[10]. Because her character is reduced to strength and hard work to achieve her goal, she is left with little room to be a human being. Hence, as the film engages only with the impact of class in Tiana’s pursuit, the framework does not extend to her experiences as a Black woman.

Consequently, because the film only focuses on class oppression, it does not depict the influence of Tiana’s race and gender on her dreams.

Zootopia (2016)

The 2016 Walt Disney animated film, Zootopia, features a metropolitan city where animals of all species coexist in a society similar to ours. There, we follow Judy Hopps on her journey in being the first rabbit police officer. Despite graduating at the top of her class in the police academy, Judy’s colleagues dismiss her competency merely because she is a rabbit and she is assigned to be a meter maid. These themes of stereotyping and discrimination underpin the film’s framework as we follow Judy’s experience with interlocking forms of oppression.

The film first explores the issue of discrimination against Judy as a minority in her workplace - a police force consisting of only large, male, predatory animals. As a prey animal, Judy is a member of Zootopia’s majority species class, but was only the first of her species to join the force. Following this dynamic, Judy is constantly underestimated throughout the film, simply by virtue of who she is. Stereotyping the gender and species axes of her identity, she is considered to be nothing more than a cute and fragile animal who did not follow the conventional path of becoming a working class carrot farmer. Judy is evidently a token hire as her colleagues are all surprised that their superiors “really did hire a bunny” (00:13:45)[11].

Logo for Disney's Zootopia (2016).

It is clear that Judy’s experience parallels typical story lines of female trailblazers in their respective fields. Though this parallel demonstrates basic ideas of perseverance to the young, target audience, the film primarily focuses on the concept of Western feminism, “which is largely based on liberal thought, overemphasiz[ing] gender roles as the sole reason for women’s oppression” (Valoy)[12]. When a major crime is committed, Judy volunteers to lead the investigation in order to prove her skills and worth to her fellow police force members. This results in a shallow representation of intersectional and transnational oppression as the solution to Judy’s obstacles is fundamentally to “[assimilate] into patriarchal and Eurocentric standards of leadership and equity” (Valoy)[12]. With this storyline, the film also portrays leadership and perseverance as “good traits” and provides a one-dimensional, uncritical view of police.

Later in the film, Judy meets Nick Wilde, a con artist fox, whose friendship with Judy opens space for the film to explore the issue of forced societal roles due to interlocking forms of oppression. At a young age, innocent Nick is invited to join a Boy Scouts group. However, his fellow members eventually muzzle him when they decide that he is too dangerous because he is a predatory animal, which ultimately leads him to a life of crime. Judy starts to overcome stereotypes against Nick’s character, but a chemical causes him to revert back to his traditional biological behaviour and he attacks Judy. This event contradicts the film’s attempt to encourage acceptance as it proves prey animals are correct in being suspicious of predators. One of the main messages of the film was to not discriminate against different identities, but the writers fell short in conveying this idea due to the single-axis framework and oversimplified concepts. Oppression is represented by the predator versus prey dynamic in Zootopia, but this one-dimensional concept overlooks the aspect of intersectionality.


The above analyses illustrate ways that three popular, yet relatively different, Disney films demonstrate and fall short of establishing an intersectional framework that highlights interlocking forms of oppression. Using an intersectional framework makes visible the ways Disney films have touched on aspects of oppression, yet still shied away from addressing issues in their full complexities. Disney’s 1950 Cinderella placed the onus on Cinderella to overcome barriers and did not identify for the young audiences how some factors of Cinderella’s experiences were due to interlocking forms of oppression she was facing — issues of class and gender. The Princess and the Frog (2009), Disney’s first representation of an African-American princess, removed the historical and social context from Tiana’s story and framed her class as her only obstacle — while avoiding the historical context of what would be keeping her and other African-Americans at the time in a lower economic class. Finally, in the most recent Disney film in this analysis, Zootopia (2016), we see a story that more directly addresses discrimination and identity-based discrimination. Unfortunately, it still falls short of seeing the ways oppression interlocks as Judy Hopps faces discrimination that is portrayed as primarily or solely based on her species rather than a combination of her gender, her species, and any other factors.

By approaching these well-known and immensely popular Disney films with an intersectional framework, a sense of “the politics of innocence” is evoked. Looking through an intersectional lens, one can conclude that the "notion of innocence within these films is potentially double-edged" due to the ways single-axis understandings distort the nature of interlocking oppressions (Whitley 75)[13].

All of these stories, and the ways they handle or ignore taking an intersectional lens, contribute to the ways children view issues they face and that they witness in their everyday lives. Though the impulse to create stories that feel distinctly “child-friendly” is understandable, these films can sometimes deny the reality of experiences of oppression that some children have faced or witnessed already in their lives. There are different factors that may contribute to the ways Disney tells stories, but a major factor is likely the size of the corporation and their desired profits. Telling stories that do not challenge dominant norms or do not challenge oppression in a critical or intersectional way allows Disney to maintain their audience and amass the most profits.

The changes to Disney’s stories, along with the changes to theory and understanding over time, illustrate the ways that “theory [and analysis] is never done, nor exhausted by its prior articulations or movements” (Carbado 304)[14]. Approaching popular culture and media with intersectionality allows us to think critically, adjusting with every new development.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 May, Vivian (2015). "What is Intersectionality? Matrix Thinking in a Single-Axis World". Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries. New York: Routledge: 18–62.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989). "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Back Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics". The University of Chicago Legal Forum. Routledge: 23–51.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Combahee River Collective (1983). "A Black Feminist Statement". This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Persephone Press: 210–218.
  4. Bukszpan, Daniel (April 14, 2011). "The Highest Grossing Children's Movies of All-Time". CNBC. Retrieved April 15 2021. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Geronimi, Clyde and Hamilton Luske, directors. Cinderella. Walt Disney, 1950.
  6. Hughes, John, Wes Sharrock, and Peter J Martin (2003). Understanding Classical Sociology: Marx, Weber, Durkheim. Sage Publications Inc. p. 107. ISBN 0-7619-5467-8.
  7. Bilge, Sirma (2013). "Intersectionality: Undone". Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race. 10: 405–424.
  8. hooks, bell (2015). "Preface to New Edition Seeing the Light: Visionary Feminism". Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. New York: Routledge. pp. xi–xvi.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Clements, Ron, director. (2009). "The Princess and the Frog". Disney+.
  10. Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara (2009). Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman. Temple University Press.
  11. Howard, Byron, Rich Moore, directors. (2016). "Zootopia". Disney+.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Valoy, Patricia (January 23, 2015). "Transnational Feminism: Why Feminist Activism Needs to Think Globally". Everyday Feminism.
  13. Whitley, David (2013). "Learning with Disney: Children's Animation and the Politics of Innocence". Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society. 5: 75–91 – via JSTOR.
  14. Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Crenshaw; et al. (2013). "Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory". Du Bois Review. 10: 303–312. Explicit use of et al. in: |first= (help)
This resource was created by the UBC Wiki Community.