In 'Lilo & Stitch,' Disney reshapes its female characters

Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Mrs. Rabbit's hyperbolically feminine frame lampooned the exaggerated hourglass figure of most animated heroines, but now, after years of catching flak from parent and feminist groups for depicting girls as miniature women with impossibly perfect bodies, Disney may be changing with the times.


In its latest animated film, Lilo & Stitch, the girl protagonists possess body types more reflective of reality. Here, female images seem diametrically opposed to the Barbie doll-like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas.

"A lot of women have complained over the years that there's one type of girl you see in the Disney films," said Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine. "They have little hourglass shapes. A lot of moms worry that this might lead their daughters to idolize a very particular type of look and a particular kind of body."


"We have a lot of female characters in the film, predominantly [big sister] Nani, and we just wanted to make her look like a girl," said writer and co-director Chris Sanders. "We gave her more substantial legs and a real pelvis, sort of a more comfortable body. More ample."

Pug-nosed and chubby fingered, Lilo and Nani are still cartoons, but ones lovingly designed by Sanders, who also provides the voice of Stitch. Feeling that Hawaiian culture had been "treated rather lightly" by Hollywood, Sanders also sought out advisers to depict customs and characters with accuracy and respect.

When Sanders and co-director Dean Deblois auditioned child actors for the voice of Lilo, Sanders said he was surprised at the compliments he received from parents on Lilo's demeanor and design.

"The reaction to her was so positive from everybody," he said.

Lilo & Stitch represents a departure from the Disney animated canon in other ways as well, from its outlaw-alien-meets-islanders plot to its Monty Python-esque humor and wrecking ball behavior toward Disney conventions.

True, big sister Nani is left to raise Elvis Presley-obsessed problem child Lilo after their parents die (absentee or deceased parents being a Disney staple), but alien Stitch throws a monkey wrench in the format when he falls from the sky and Lilo adopts him.

Only in a very few instances has Disney responded directly to criticism, most notably changing song lyrics offensive to Arab culture in 1992's Aladdin.

Janet Wasko, Disney scholar and author of Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, said Lilo & Stitch may not represent an apology for past depictions, but a studio evolving with the culture.


"Lilo and Nani are very different from other Disney characters in their typical animation films," Wasko said. "For women, they don't have exaggerated sensual features. Compare Nani to, say, the Little Mermaid, who is highly sensual with exaggerated hourglass features."

Sanders said the film's variety of female body types represents a personal choice, and not an initiative within Disney itself.

"I think that Disney Studios is open to directors and writers creating something of their vision. In our particular case, we wanted to break a few conventions. One of those was with character designs, to bring back a very rounded look," Sanders said.

The female and male characters all reflect that sensibility, Sanders said. "There was never a meeting ... the designs never raised concerns."

Not only is Lilo herself outside of physical conventions, but she delights in her photo collection of overweight, even obese, tourists.

Leive, whose May issue of Glamour launched a new commitment to making plus-size models a part of the magazine, said the depictions of Lilo and Nani can only draw trust to the Disney brand.


"It definitely seems like it's showing a different body image, and I think that's something a lot of women will cotton to," Leive said.

She added, "This heroine seems as if she is a little more realistic, and that can't help but have a trickle-down effect to the girl who is sitting in the movie theater subconsciously comparing herself to what she sees on the screen."

Robert K. Elder writes for the Chicago Tribune.