Much feminist criticism has been leveled at Disney animated films' depiction of girl- and young womanhood, with the understanding that children's films are teaching films, intended to instill broad moral and social standards. I've written on this subject myself. The Disney princesses in particular are invoked constantly as problematic female role models for young girls. Until Brave, there were no Disney princess characters who did not have a male love interest and even in Brave, the catalyst for the central conflict is a rebellion against the traditional romantic-sexual paradigm. The set of standards for girls, refracted through these female characters, is fairly uniform, though it evolves somewhat over time. All of this is well worth discussing. However, Disney films are as widely seen by little boys as little girls and I've begun to consider what these films have to say about boyhood. How is the ideal little boy supposed to behave? What qualities should he have? What sorts of goals should he be working towards? While it's certainly true that boys have a far more diverse range of role models than girls do, the Disney films seem to have an outsize influence and it's worthwhile to think about what Disney boyhood looks like.
For the sake of this analysis, I'm considering only depictions of human boys and excluding examples like Simba (The Lion King) and Bambi. There are five Disney animated films that explicitly deal with male coming-of-age: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, and Aladdin. All of them follow pre-teen or teenage heroes through a period of development that culminates in a shift in identity and role in the world, with the exception of Peter Pan, who, given a choice to make that shift, rejects it.
Pinocchio is explicitly framed as a narrative of moral development. Pinocchio must demonstrate moral worthiness in order to be granted full humanity. His sins, many committed in the most naive innocence, include shirking school, lying, smoking, drinking, gambling, and overeating. He eventually achieves his wish to be a real boy with an act of extreme selflessness and heroism, saving Geppetto and the household pets from the ferocious whale, Monstro. Pinocchio's bad habits are indeed the sort of vices most parents would wish to discourage in their offspring, but the larger conclusions to be drawn from the film are rather disturbing. First, Pinocchio's motivation to be a real boy is not his - it is his father's. Thus, Pinocchio is a child acting under the imperatives of a paternal, and frankly patriarchal, directive. Second, Pinocchio is actually a complete innocent. He doesn't have to reform so much as be told what is wrong and what is right. His moral agency is less his own than it is Jiminy Cricket's. Third, the actions that entitle him to full humanity, an obvious metaphor here for adulthood, is life-threatening heroism and a willingness to sacrifice all for his father. If Pinocchio were female, this film would by intensely misogynistic; in either case, the film demands stringent and severe adherence to a patriarchal system.
It's worth noting that Pinocchio's docility and sweetness are entirely Disney inventions. In Carlo Collodi's novel, the little wooden puppet is rude, nasty, selfish, and fully aware that he's breaking rules. The literary Pinocchio is a mascalzone, a rascal; the cinematic Pinocchio is an innocent.
J. M. Barrie's creation is a difficult one to analyze, given the sheer scale of its cultural influence. While Peter Pan in the original play says, "I am youth! I am freedom!" and culturally speaking we see him as a symbol of the anarchic child spirit, he is intended, fundamentally, to represent the very essence of boyhood. As such, even though his character alters very little throughout Disney's film, Peter Pan functions as the definition of boyhood. What is Peter Pan really like? He is a leader, a fighter, a conqueror, a kidnapper, a rescuer of women and children, a sadist, and a short fuse. He greets acts of extreme cruelty against those he dislikes with hilarity - i.e., any nasty thing that happens to Captain Hook or Smee - and resolves any such acts against those he does like by staging a heroic, devil-may-care deliverance - i.e., catching Wendy as she plummets to the rocks and whisking Tiger Lily above the rising tide. Peter Pan is also roguishly charming and uses his charm to attract the attention of girls, flitting among them according to whichever flatters him most at any given moment. What is most disturbing about Peter Pan is the fact that he is utterly incapable of responding to people as anything other than pawns to be deployed in his adventures - the Lost Boys are his army or a gaggle of sons to boss around, as the mood strikes him.
The only genuine, lasting emotional connection that Peter has is with Tinker Belle. She ties him even more strongly to his permanent childhood, a female being with exaggeratedly sexual features who is utterly unattainable sexually, temperamental, capricious, fascinating, but defined by her attachment to Peter and without an identity outside of that attachment. In the play, Peter explains to Wendy that every child used to have a fairy, and it's implied that Tinker Belle is his. Her continued presence indicates his stunted growth, his pure inability to grow up. As a role model, Peter Pan is shockingly bad, the precise sort of figure that supports the deeply misogynistic adage, "Boys will be boys." Violence, sadism, arrogance, selfishness - according to Peter Pan these are the fundamental qualities of boyhood.
The Sword in the Stone
Though on a deeper level this film, like Pinocchio, is about moral development, it is more literally the story of the young King Arthur's education with his tutor Merlin. I consider this one of the most unfairly underrated Disney films. Arthur, or Wart as he is called, is a good kid. As Merlin says, he "throws himself heart and soul into everything he does," he's humble (a rare and precious quality) and selfless, he shows great respect for his elders and for animals, and he has a strong sense of justice. Arthur has no truly bad qualities or habits. His only moment of rebellion against
his boorish guardian Sir Ector is motivated by his abuse of Merlin,
rather than his extreme disciplinary measures. As the destined heir, "ordained by Heaven," to the throne of England, one expects Arthur to be, in miniature, the dazzling monarch that united his knights with affection for his person. Throughout the film, he learns that the intellect is mightier than brute strength, that love is the most powerful force in the world, and that true learning trumps superficial cleverness. Throughout his adventures, he is rescued, not once, not twice, but three times by Archimedes, a squirrel, and Merlin, thus absolving him from the need to demonstrate heroics beyond his abilities.
Arthur is a strong role model, but his character lacks the deviously subversive qualities of most children. As a result, he may be a positive ideal, the polar opposite of Peter Pan, but just as Peter represents the most negative expression of boyhood, Arthur represents a childish type of nobility and even maturity - qualities only a very extraordinary boy could hope to imitate all the time.
The Jungle Book
Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves who longs to remain in the jungle and, thus, never grow up into manhood, is the most nuanced of the five boys. Though he can be disobedient, bad-tempered, disrespectful, and foolhardy, he is also brave, quick-witted, enthusiastic, and affectionate. His most troublesome flaw, as far as his elders are concerned, is his refusal to acknowledge his own vulnerability. Although he has no human guardians, he is perhaps the most treasured by his carers, beloved by his adoptive wolf parents and protected even at the risk of death by Bagheera and Baloo. When he does face Shere Khan, he does so with bravery and quick thinking, but it's made obvious that his survival of the encounter is only possible because the older, stronger Baloo intervenes. Mowgli's growth into manhood is precipitated by his first glimpse of a girl, symbolizing a sexual awakening that propels him to leave behind his jungle childhood and enter the human world. Of the five boys, Mowgli follows the most typical path from boyhood to adolescence. He has both negative and positive personality traits and, in the end, chooses to move forward of his own accord.
Aladdin is about eighteen years old (making him a closer counterpart to the princesses, all between the ages of fourteen and twenty). At the beginning of the film, he is a streetwise thief who dreams of acquiring money and property. His dreams get more ambitious when he gets a look at Jasmine. A promise to the Genie, to set him free after he grants two wishes, proves problematic when Aladdin realizes that he can't keep up the illusion of being a prince without supernatural help. His use of deception to acquire what he wants - Jasmine and the glamorous life that comes with her - is excused when he defeats Jafar with a mixture of physical fighting prowess and clever thinking. He makes the right choice, keeps his promise to the Genie, and is rewarded with what he hoped to get all along because the sultan is thus convinced he's worthy. Though the film steadfastly sticks to a spoken message that it's important for Aladdin to accept who he is and live that reality, the film's fairy tale conclusion contradicts that message completely.
What's disturbing about the ultimate message of Aladdin is that his success is framed as a reward. By marrying Jasmine, he acquires the wife, money, and property that he wanted, and he becomes an absolute ruler - a deeply worrying prospect given that he has no education and no understanding of how to govern a country. In other words, Aladdin hits the jackpot because he's acted out his own fantasy. Aladdin hasn't accepted who he really is because that fantasy posits him as something else entirely. Aladdin is, in most respects, a terrible role model. He lies and cheats, gets in trouble when he's with Jafar who lies and cheats better than he does, and has success when he's with people, like the sultan and Jasmine, who don't lie and cheat. Though he does become less selfish, his basic attitudes remain the same and his transformation into a fairy tale hero, complete with a woman as a reward, doesn't instil strong self-esteem, but rather teaches that acting the hero guarantees a prize.
There are several salient points to be made about attitudes towards boyhood in Disney films. First, there is more diversity in terms of roles and character traits among the five boys than there is among the Disney princesses. This, in itself, entails that the prescribed set of behaviors is less constricting for boys than for girls. Second, boys are given latitude to learn from their mistakes and improve their basic characters, something granted to only the more recent Disney heroines. Further, self-improvement for boys is usually predicated around a reward-system; similar rewards for girls entail either submission to standards for female behavior or having been rescued. Pinocchio becomes a real boy, Mowgli enters the man village to the siren song of a flirtatious and apparently attainable girl, Aladdin gets the princess plus her kingdom and wealth, Arthur gets the throne of England. With the exception of Arthur, destined to be king, these rewards are predicated on the fulfillment of active tasks, usually heroic in nature. There is no question of not getting what they want because they became stronger, less selfish, more capable, and smarter. They win; they defeat the bad guy. In contrast, the girls, even including Mulan and Merida, must already be strong (usually in an emotional sense), capable, and smart before their adventures begin, and, with the exception of Merida, all of the Disney princesses begin their stories as deeply selfless characters. Even Merida, who learns to be more selfless, never comes close to the self-centered behavior of, say, Peter Pan or Aladdin.
These depictions of boyhood include some disturbing lessons for little boys. Violent behavior is portrayed as heroism within a simplistic dualistic moral paradigm and girls are frequently depicted as rewards for those heroic acts. An aspiration to manhood is often an aspiration to possession, whether of objects or girls. That being said, many fine qualities are also encouraged in these stories of male growth, including greater selflessness and regard for one's parents and friends, independence and creative problem solving, and a love for learning. Over all, Disney films have a healthier and more eclectic set of attitudes towards boyhood than towards girlhood.