In October of 2012, I was enrolled in one of my first serious animation classes, with a professor who I rather admired. I admired him so much, in fact, that I caught him outside of class time and asked him to review a few of my personal character designs. I was a very mediocre artist at that point (as opposed to now, where I’m a slightly less mediocre artist) and upon presenting my teacher with my designs, which were all intended to be different characters with different stories and different appearances, he barely had to scrutinize them before he delivered his verdict: “They all have the same face.”
And, I was dismayed to discover, he was right.
Since then, I have studied long and hard, so that my female characters may no longer have the Exact Same Face. Huh…female characters. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
A few months after this incident, the official character designs for Disney’s Frozen were leaked.
Up until then, all we had seen was concept art, which was so far removed from these that a lot of people thought they were faked, me among them. I seriously believed that someone with too much time on their hands had photomanipulated some screenshots of Rapunzel and tried to pass them off as the official Frozen designs. After all, there was no way that a major animation studio like Disney would knowingly, willfully produce three princesses with the Exact Same Face.
And again…princesses. Female characters. Exact Same Face. Something is amiss here.
Unfortunately, I overestimated Disney, and it was revealed that these were the real character designs indeed. Even though I will concede that, yes, there are some slight differences between the Frozen girls and Rapunzel, there are zero changes in the faces of Anna and Elsa. Zero. They have the same facial structure, the same eyes eyes, the same nose, the same mouth…and while we’re at it, the same body too, with the exception of Elsa being a little taller. The only differences are in skin tone and surface details, such as freckles and makeup (which, as I’ll cover in a moment, don’t fulfill even the most rudimentary basics of good character design — but we’ll get to that). So, how did this happen? How did a design mistake that would get you called out in a beginning animation class end up in a major Disney release?
In my opinion, the answer isn’t necessarily limited time, which was certainly a factor in Frozen, or laziness, or the fact that they’re all CG characters (sorry, 2D animation advocates, but lots of 3D girls do not look identical). To me, this speaks to a disturbing trend in Disney’s general approach towards designing female characters.
But first, some context…
(Before we begin, please keep in mind that whenever I reference a film, I’m only talking about the design elements, and it has nothing to do with the story or whether or not I find that film to be good.)
It’s important to understand how character design generally works at a studio such as Disney. Obviously, whether the characters are humans, animals, or inanimate objects, they’re always stylized to some extent. But why do things get stylized the way they do?
Obviously, the answer is really complicated, and also the subject of several dozen books and classes, but I’ll try to condense it: it’s all about simplification and exaggeration. Simplifying generally refers to condensing the character down to, more or less, a series of basic shapes. Different shapes imply different things about a character’s personality; triangles read as being sharp, squares are sturdy, circles often come off as friendly, et cetera. As far as exaggeration is concerned, you mostly take the character’s physical traits and push them to the extreme. If a character is thin, you make them far thinner than they would be in reality. If they’re fat, same thing. It’s the same with tall or short, buff or lanky, and…pretty or ugly.
This is where things start getting tricky.
Remember when I said that characters are specifically designed to speak to their personality? Well, you can see where that might be problematic. Essentially, you end up implying what a character’s moral grounding is based on how they look. So it’s not that Disney has no characters who are “ugly” or fall outside of being conventionally attractive: it’s that those people are either background characters, or the villains.
Often, these villains have much more variance in their faces and bodies than the good guys:
Even so, you can see a pattern emerging here: they’re typically older, with more visible wrinkles in their faces, and either grotesquely thin or on the heavy side. (And I find it interesting that in 101 Dalmatians, an older Disney movie, Cruella represents being “grotesquely thin,” when Anna and Elsa up there aren’t a whole lot bigger than her.)
Obviously, this trope was notably averted with Gaston:
And apparently his designer had trouble with that:
Andreas Deja…was assigned Gaston, the bluff, vain bully of Beauty and the Beast. His first efforts were rejected by Jeffrey Katzenberg.
"No, no, he’s not handsome enough," said the production boss.
"But he’s a villain," Deja replied. "Can’t we just juice him up?"
Source: “Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast,” by Bob Thomas (Hyperion, 1991)
Still, Gaston isn’t exactly a Disney prince; he’s too built-up and muscular for that. And then you have Mother Gothel:
Even the first time I saw Tangled, Mother Gothel’s design disturbed me. Not because she looks bad — of course she doesn’t — but because the character who was obviously the villain was shown as being heavier than the heroine, even when “heavier” was much closer to what an actual person looks like.
You get the idea: the “good” characters are basically always attractive, and the “bad” characters are basically always unattractive. You see a little more variance in movies from, say, DreamWorks (not so much Pixar) but this rule still holds true for Disney.
And okay, as I was getting at before, animated designs shouldn’t be restricted to just what actual people look like, and someone is inevitably going to mention that the villain in Frozen not only looked like a typical Disney prince, but he was also literally a prince. But remember, Frozen contains, in my opinion, the most problematic Disney character designs to date. How does Sameface Syndrome tie into the trend of villains being “ugly” and heroes being “pretty”? Well, that happens when you examine our societal definition of those terms.
Through reading some of Feminist Disney’s reviews, I’ve seen that one pretty common measurement used by the admin to judge a character’s proportions is the head-to-waist ratio, as in: “X character’s head is much larger than her waist.” I don’t necessarily think that’s fair, because big heads are just an element of caricature, and many male characters also have heads larger than their waists. Big heads are just a thing in animation, and have been since the very beginning. I don’t know exactly why; it might be something about big heads instinctively generating appeal due to babies and cute things having big heads, or it might be a way to emphasize the most expressive features of the face, or both or neither. But it is a thing, and it will remain a thing for years to come. Different head-to-body ratios also communicate the age of a character to the audience; the closer to reality a character’s proportions are, the more “adult-like” they will appear, and larger heads and larger eyes are almost always used to denote children. There is of course a middle ground between the two, which is why, say, Rapunzel appears to be younger than Cinderella at first glance…but more on that later.
This is not to say that I don’t find the body proportions of Disney’s leading ladies to be troubling; I do, make no mistake about that. It’s just that when I see articles like this discussing how Princess Anna’s eye is wider than her wrist, I feel like it’s a bit of a diversion from the overall issue. Cartoon characters have big eyes and big heads because it’s easier to make them expressive that way. There’s no easy measure of comparison you can use when most every animated movie establishes its own visual style, and only by examining the character designs across the board can you tell what the film posits as “normal,” “ideal,” “ugly,” et cetera. Character designs are exaggerated by nature; the problem doesn’t occur when a character is given a small waist or large head, it occurs when design after design after design portrays these traits as the height of beauty.
How did this trend begin in the first place? For many years, Disney’s women were much more realistically proportioned, largely due to their reliance on live models and rotoscoping. The bodies were the first thing to change, and even as they gained much more tucked-in waists and wider hips, their faces remained more or less the same:
The same can be said for the child characters:
People often use this as a way to excuse the character designs of Frozen, by saying that it’s just Disney’s “style” to draw all their faces the exact same way and that it’s been that way in the past. But they overlook the fact that during the early days, Disney was literally making up the fundamentals of character design as they went along. These were the early days of animation, and there were no books or classes about this; everyone with a hand in the game was a pioneer.
But the principles were established over time, and you can see with Aurora that the leading ladies were receiving increasingly stylized faces and bodies. And then, when The Little Mermaid was released, the now-familiar formula of “big head, big eyes, small nose and mouth, tiny waist” really started to take off…
Which was applied in various ways to the rest of the Disney Princess line:
These are all a certain type of female design, which is the real dilemma. A key part of many of these characters is that they’re supposed to be beautiful princesses (there are some exceptions; for example, Mulan, Tiana, and Pocahontas all stick to the visual formula in various ways, but their stories don’t hinge on their looks, which brings up the issue that these stories could have been told without the protagonist being super hot) so what does it say that beauty is defined, over and over again, by slight variations on the same thing?
However, all that aside, the newer princesses — “new” meaning anything from The Little Mermaid onward — do not have the Exact Same Face. Which brings us full circle, back to Tangled and Frozen.
In that image up there, you might notice that Rapunzel sticks out like a sore thumb, as the style of her design is a noticeable departure from the others. The rest of the princesses aren’t exactly the picture of reality, but compared to them, Rapunzel does have a larger head, larger eyes, and more…infantile features. Which would be fine, if Disney hadn’t decided to repeat this style to a T in Frozen.
You see, there’s something I didn’t mention about character design before. It’s called “silhouette” and it has to do with how the overall body shapes work with each other and how different characters compare. So in a sheet like the one below:
Everyone is easily identifiable. Even if you don’t know who one of those characters is, you can tell that they’re still a different person from whoever they’re standing next to. It helps with clarity and appeal.
For this reason, differentiating your characters only through surface details, like hair style/color, eye color, freckles, clothing (to an extent), and yes, even faces — especially faces — is frowned upon, at least in western-style animation. As stated in the anecdote at the beginning, animation classes will call you out on it. Textbooks warn against it.
Source: “Prepare to Board: Creating Stories and Characters for Animated Features and Shorts” by Nancy Beiman (Focal Press, 2007)
In the concept and design stage of making an animated film, typically you portray one character with multiple faces, not multiple characters with the same face. And sure enough, Frozen’s earlier concept art showed a lot more variance in appearance between the two leading women.
Not only do they not resemble each other very much, but they don’t resemble Rapunzel a whole lot, either. And then the finished movie came out and we got this:
Plus Anna and Elsa’s mom, who apparently reproduces through mitosis with no male influence necessary:
Disney has already proven that that they can easily design female characters who don’t have the Exact Same Face. Then they started doing that on Frozen, but someone — probably one of the higher-ups or executives, I seriously doubt it was the character designers — said, “No, make them look like this.” And they knew full well that they looked identical and also extremely similar to Rapunzel, because anybody with eyes can see that.
Don’t even tell me it’s because they’re sisters. If you want them to look similar to show their family resemblance, that’s fine, but there are so many ways to do it besides just slapping the Exact Same Face on both characters. And sure, there are some non-twin siblings in real life who are close to identical, but remember: Elsa and Anna are not real people, subject to the random whims of biology. Every single facet of their appearance was controllable, and how they look is the result of a series of choices on Disney’s part. So, why make those specific choices? It doesn’t even make sense for the story, because Elsa’s face in particular hardly fit her character or voice actress. (Something else notable in Frozen, not exactly character design-related, but still about Disney’s visual treatment of their characters: Anna and Elsa’s facial expressions, particularly Elsa’s, were significantly dialed back at the animation stage to prevent their faces from stretching out of shape and making them look “too ugly,” producing the side effect of making them look oddly stiff. Stretching and exaggerating faces to get good overall movement is one of the basic principles of animation, and I’m concerned that Disney decided to throw it out in favor of making their women look slightly more attractive, especially since I haven’t noticed this in any other Disney Princess films.)
So now that we’ve ruled out laziness, lack of ability, or some story-based cause as reason for their Sameface Syndrome, and taking into account the trend of “good people = pretty; bad people = ugly” that’s always been so prevalent in Disney, the truth becomes clear.
Rapunzel, Anna, and Elsa all look the same because they’re supposed to be beautiful.
And Disney has decided, either consciously or subconsciously, that there’s only one way to look beautiful. For women, that is.
Keep in mind that the two male leads of Frozen, who are both intended to be physically attractive, look quite different.
Just as I was implying before, it’s much more common for women to come down with a bad case of Sameface Syndrome. Even the way that many books teach you how to design female characters makes it much easier for inexperienced artists to fall into the trap. That’s why my characters looked the way they did (well, okay, that and all my mediocre skills).
And I guess that Disney’s been going down this path for a while, and I just didn’t catch all the signs that were popping up when Tangled came out. I didn’t think much about the new design route on Tangled, despite the depiction of Mother Gothel rubbing me the wrong way, and I didn’t think about the implications of making the princess more baby-faced. Plus, I certainly didn’t see this image that was released later:
That would be a drawing of Rapunzel, already looking quite infantile, with notes about updates about her design. Some are normal, discussing which direction her hair radiates from and modifications to the costume…and then you see the ones that say “waist narrower” and “hips wider.”
Basically what I’m getting at is: do I think it’s terrible that many animated women don’t have human-sized waists? No, I don’t. Animated characters aren’t supposed to look like real humans, that’s sort of the point. If you want them to look exactly like real people, you go make a live-action movie instead.
But do I find it problematic that Disney’s “beautiful” characters are designed with the same basic features, over and over again, to the point where they’re becoming so homogenous that their faces and bodies are completely identical?
Yes. Absolutely. Because that’s more than just an aesthetic concern. Disney is a big reflection of our societal norms, so it’s frankly disturbing that they’re saying that this is what beauty looks like — not because all these girls have an unrealistic body type, but because they all look the same. Because what they’re communicating, in a subtle and subconscious way, is that there’s only one way to look good, and that’s simply not true.
So no matter what you thought about Frozen, please don’t defend the character designs. And while the story and the visuals may be different parts of a film that can and should be examined separately, they still are meant to inform each other, and come together in a cohesive way. Poor visuals can weaken even the strongest story, and vice versa.
Let’s stop taking it at face value that all Disney princesses have the same body dimensions. Let’s stop making excuses for why they’ve been afflicted with Sameface Syndrome. Disney may be in the business of stylizing reality, but that’s just it: they’re supposed to be using reality as a starting point. The world is an extremely varied place, and people come in all shapes and sizes. When you’re trying to improve your diversity, making your characters actually look different is a good place to start.
EDIT 3/21/14: This has spread a lot farther than I thought it would, and some people have been asking me why I only concentrated on Disney, when these issues are present in many, many kinds of media, and obviously Disney didn’t invent this trend either. The answer is: this article was originally written for feministdisney, which is why I chose to focus on Disney’s character designs. If I had known it was going to get so popular, I would have done a more general look at animation and other media, but it’s too late now…oh well.