Not all female protagonists in Disney movies are Disney Princesses, but viewers have routinely complained that all female protagonists in Disney’s animated features share the same face. You know that face — pleasantly round, with rosy cheeks, a dainty button nose, ginormous long-lashed eyes, and pale pink lips with a perfect cupid’s bow.
The think pieces about the similarities between Disney’s female faces have been done. I’m not here to retread familiar ground. Instead, I want to point out that like many things Disney has been criticized for, the criticisms of the studio’s same-face syndrome isn’t new to the digital age. Frozen rekindled the debate for modern audiences, but people have been pointing out that all Disney women share the same bland face since the beginning of Disney animation.
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Disney kickstarted its animation dominance with a round-faced, cherubic-lipped, long-eyelashed princess: Snow White, the fairest of them all. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs set a high bar for Disney, inviting critical comparisons to its design and story for years afterward. Critics as far back as the 1950s noticed that Cinderella, Aurora, and other early Disney protagonists shared very similar designs to Snow White. One Variety reviewer pointed out that Cinderella (and also her bland prince) felt “colorless” and “doll-faced” — but that other characters in Disney’s Cinderella, like the wicked stepsisters and the king, were more inventively designed. It’s telling which characters get to look unique, and which must adhere to that same-face syndrome.
In 2013, a Frozen animator’s quote about female characters being difficult to animate because they need to stay “pretty” made headlines. Regardless of the actual intention behind the quote, it stirred up conversation. Jennifer Lee, Frozen director and chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, jumped in to clarify that the statement was about the technicalities of CG. Brenda Chapman, co-director of Pixar’s Brave, however, recounted the difficulty she encountered when trying to make her female characters more realistic.
Walt Disney Animation’s guidelines for “acceptable” female faces get especially dicey when the movies are about nonwhite characters. To pull from Roger Ebert’s 1992 review of Disney’s Aladdin: “Most of the Arab characters have exaggerated facial characteristics — hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips — but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.” That isn’t exactly the same as pointing out that Jasmine has the same face as Ariel and Belle, but it speaks to the uniformity of faces when it comes to certain characters in the Disney canon. Heroines look one specific way; everyone else looks different.
In the 1990s and beyond, those design choices could be attributed to consistency across Disney’s in-house style. But the complaints about Cinderella and Aurora came in the early days of Disney, when the studio was still defining its style. In those 1950s movies, the heroes — male and female alike — had generic, unremarkable faces. The designs of comedic side characters and kooky villains pushed the boundaries of expression; the heroes remained stagnant, designed to look pretty.
Modern criticism centers more specifically on the female characters, for a couple of reasons: One is that up until recently, there were just more male characters in the Disney canon. Sure, Disney movies are associated with pretty princesses, but for a very long time, those princesses were the only significant female characters in their movies, apart from the occasional matronly older woman or scheming villainess. While the princes were often equally bland, there was also a surplus of male sidekick characters to flesh out Disney worlds — and those characters, like Gaston’s bumbling sidekick LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, Prince Eric’s butler Grimsby in The Little Mermaid, and Mulan’s soldier comrades in Mulan are all allowed to be dynamic and different in a way that the hero wasn’t.
In that vein, the male leads of Disney movies weren’t always traditional romantic roles. Take Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph, or Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even Hercules from Hercules, whose story is less about romance with love interest Megara and more about his quest to become a hero. But until comparatively recently in Disney’s century of moviemaking, the studio’s female leads — at least, the ones who weren’t specifically children — were almost always romantic roles. And that meant specific faces that conveyed beauty and charm, even if what exactly that looks like shifted slightly with the times.
That could be why Same Face Syndrome, as some writers have called it, feels so particularly jarring nowadays. As Disney stories have evolved, the central female characters are now leads in their own right. Nowadays, there can even be two of them leading a movie. And yet until recently, their faces and bodies still remained safely within the standard Disney model, apart from surface-level differences like coloring and hair. Frozen is still the most obvious example, with Elsa, Anna, and their mother all looking like slight recolors of the same basic design. Yes, these three women are related, but they aren’t supposed to be clones.
Slowly but surely, though, animators at Disney are pushing for change — after all, why should the women in their movies look the same way they’ve looked since Snow White? People have been pointing out the problem for 75 years, but change is finally happening. Movies like Encanto and Turning Red — which feature multiple female characters in lead roles with more distinct bodies and faces than ever before — are proof that Disney is finally moving into a new era, one where “pretty” doesn’t just mean one face repeated over and over.