Feminist Disney Rating: ** 2/4 Stars (see bottom for details)
The Great Mouse Detective has always been one of my favorite Disney films. And let me tell you, this movie is legit still a bit scary/disturbing to watch at parts- things happen to mice at a G rating that would never fly if they had been animated people in a children’s movie. Like where Ratigan gets super angry, then “calm,” rings a bell, and his giant pet cat EATS the drunk mouse that called him a rat? WHHJWJDNJDJSJ!!
Olivia Flaversham: Now will you please listen to me? My daddy’s gone, and I’m all alone.
Basil: Young lady, this is a most inopportune time. [Resumes playing violin]
Basil: Surely your mother knows where he is.
Olivia Flaversham: I… I don’t have a mother.
First of all: no, it does not pass the Bechdel test for female presence, at least as far as I am aware. The majority of characters in this film are male (background or main), and almost all the main characters- except for Olivia- are male. When women do appear, they are given rather stereotypical/expected roles (housemaid/mothering figure, young girl who is lost and needs help, bar waitress, the bar performers, crying lady at the end who needs help with a missing father).* And on the flip side, men are the doctors, detectives, sailors, piano players, guards, inventors, evil masterminds, etc.- overall more diverse, less gendered representation.
*there is the Queen, which is cool, but I felt like she was sort of a throw-in since the mouse world was supposed to be a miniature version of “the real world” and everyone associates English royalty with the Queen, since England has had queens for the past several decades. And she didn’t do much as a character other than be manipulated by Ratigan.
Unfortunately Olivia is not very active in this film in terms of being independent or causing things to happen or anything like that; she mostly relies on Dawson to take her to Basil, and then Basil to help her from there. She does have some moments of bravery where she tells Ratigan what she really thinks of him, etc, but I don’t think there’s any real contest over who is the true star of the movie/the doer, the rescuer (Basil). I don’t think any of this is very surprising considering this movie came out (1986) before even the Little Mermaid, which was one of the movies to really push forward the potential of the female lead character in animation.
I read my first Sherlock Holmes story in fourth grade and was hooked ever since then, and re-read the entire collection every four years or so. I think this movie is a pretty good adaptation of the series and lives the spirit of it, if not the letter. The actual Sherlock Holmes stories are often incredibly racist, but luckily that did not make its way into the film. I love the old stories but they are not remarkably progressive when viewed through a modern lens. There is literally a story where the conclusion is that a woman was ashamed of her child so buys a separate house to secretly keep her in- and even though she is clearly a girl child, is often described as “it” like you would an animal- because her former husband (and therefore the child) was black. Ohhh Sir Conan Arthur Doyle! (this is also a counter-argument to anyone who uses the original stories- the original original or the mouse book version of it- as a defense for lack of female representation).
edit: I honestly expected to find subtle racist cues in this movie because of the dichotomy between mice/rats and potential racial application, but I didn’t really find anything in that line that wouldn’t take a lot of reaching and conjecture. After I wrote this I thought to google “racism” + movie and this link came up; after re-watching the clip his “asian” person costume in the intro definitely was reliant on racial stereotypes/was racist caricaturing. The words below the link refers non-specifically to something Basil says about Ratigan- still not sure what aspect of it would be offensive however
edit edit: a link to the history of yellow face (which has been present in other Disney movies and shows, notably the Siamese cats in the Lady and the Tramp).
Anyhow, one scene I remember so well as a kid is the dancing burlesque mice in the bar. These scene bothers me for a few reasons. It reinforces a common theme found in many, many movies and tv shows aimed at children, the use of women’s appearance or sexuality as a “carrot on a stick” for men. What bothers me even more is that there is no vocalized explanation going on- I mean, that would be weird- but the lack of explanation means the audience is expected to understand exactly the context. Which, for children who are grasping to understand social norms, is a powerful indicator of expected norms. In animated movies, the trope is often exaggerated- in this case, the entire bar of rowdy men are completely quieted and suddenly become softer and more nice in the presence of this woman [and very white??] mouse (who at first is singing with something covering her). When she goes behind the curtain then suddenly throws off her top to reveal the feather underoutfit, the entire place suddenly goes bonkers and men are tripping over each other for the chance to get closer to her.
And what bothers me again is that this trope posits female sexuality and beauty as a distractant as well- Dawson’s awe at this beautiful, sexy mouse prevents him from concentrating on the job at hand, which is a pretty important one (rescuing Olivia). And again, like I say in other reviews, if this only happened in one film ever? Not a big deal. But the problem is that I can point to about 5 other films it happens in, without even having to think about it. And I can also assure you that men’s sexuality/beauty is never posited in children’s films as a similar plot device- you never see men sticking their legs out from behind a curtain in order to entice some one-track-minded woman to be led away… and yet if you’ve watched even a handful of children’s movies, this probably sounds fairly familiar except it is always the man being misled by a woman’s body. (other quick example: in Hercules, Pegasus is led away by evil villains disguised as a “sexy” female horse that beckons to him then walks off, and even though he’s doing important things he also completely forgets them in the presence of a female horse).
The result of constantly viewing this trope:
- the reinforcement of sexuality/beauty being an important asset of women (especially when this mouse woman has some of the most visual screen time of any of the background women)
- women’s sexuality/beauty, whether intentionally or not, often distracts men from fulfilling their duties/tasks
- women’s bodies/sexuality/beauty are often used as a ruse or as a manipulation tool against men
- and we are supposed to find it funny, because we are supposed to see some truth in the portrayal (otherwise, what would be the point in it constantly being used?)
I don’t feel like it’s a particularly inspiring trope for any children to constantly encounter. Aside from that, I also question the fairly common presence of The Humorous Drunk in animated movies… maybe I’m overreaching here but they often seem to be alcoholics and positing them as the butt of jokes often feels… off to me? I mean, in this movie, the drunk-possibly-an-alcoholic-mouse paid for his transgression with death?? Idk. I guess they put things like that in there as a funny ha-ha for parents going to the movies, but sometimes I wonder if the humor is a little forced, considering that the characters often display behaviors that would otherwise be indicative of near-alcohol-poisoning.
Possible ableism with Fidget, but maybe not. Not sure if it’s just “yep that happened” or “yep that’s an offensive ending to give a disabled bat.”
Basil: Did he have a crippled wing?
Olivia Flaversham: I don’t know, but he had a peg leg.
…The bat (presumably, off screen) dies at the end because he cannot fly.
Overall, I still love this movie- the animation, the plot, the mice, the fat cat (Felicia) even though she is an evil character, and definitely Basil of Baker Street- but I wouldn’t say it’s remarkably progressive or anything. I would say that, on average, Disney does a better job now than it did in 1986, at least in regards to female representation. But as Basil once said:
Don’t worry, old fellow. It’s not entirely hopeless.
There’s always a chance, Doctor, as long as one can think.
Promotion/Equal Voice given to women: **
Representation of Women present (are they more than typecasts of female stereotypes etc): *~
Racism/Classism: **~ (potential classism: lower class characters are the bad guys)
LGBTQ representation: ** (no one present, but no queer villain coding)
Gender Binary adherence: **
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