Disney was founded in the 1920’s, originally just as the mouse who now rules a large chunk of global media. In 1970, they released The Aristocats which IMDB summarizes as:
With the help of a smooth talking tomcat, a family of Parisian felines set to inherit a fortune from their owner try to make it back home after a jealous butler kidnaps them and leaves them in the country.
This was their twentieth movie, eighth movie with a female lead, fifth if princess movies are not counted, and one of only a handful of Disney movies at that point to pass the Bechdel test in any capacity, much less with flying colors. Besides any of the significance in the history of Disney, it was my favorite movie growing up. You know how little kids will watch a VHS until the tape wears out? Like that.
In the movie, the anthropomorphic cats are clearly gendered. This is done through both their voice acting as well as design choices. The three male leads are shades of brown, and garmented in blue red and green ascots and bowties. The female leads are both white, one with pink bows both at her neck and in her implied hair, and the other wearing a jeweled gold collar (J. Holt 2015). This gives them color schemes commonly associated with their respective genders. The older male lead, a tomcat, is given a not unrealistic muzzle that is much larger than the small male leads, and the dainty noses on the females (Cynthia Ebere-Anaba, 2016) . While face size and shape is genuinely a secondary sex characteristic in cats in real life, the eyelashes given to the females are very much not. In the adult cats, body language is also a significant choice (Ore, 2000). The mother cat is feminine in her motions and posture, they are mostly turned inward, smoothly animated, with dainty paws and limp wrists. At no point are her teeth shown, nor are they shown on any of the kittens. The adult male lead however, is given typically confident motions, he is larger with more substantial limbs, and he has in some shots one lower tooth that is shown. This is notable for the portrayal of differing classes between the city and country. The predominant plot of the movie is four “city cats”, playing off the conceptual story of the city mouse and country mouse, are taken out to the country and abandoned to find their way back. Because of this animators feel the need to differentiate between “city cats” and “country cats”. They do this by making the city cats look like cats that might be your pet, they have something resembling outfits, but not clothes and are well groomed. You don’t see their teeth and they are non threatening. The country cats are drawn as ungroomed and scruffy, they have some human clothing for no clear reason, and several have teeth visible with mouths closed. This is not unlike Ore’s idea of constructing class through physical presentation of aspects of an individual like clothes accent or behavior (Ore, 2000) They are not threatening exactly but they are not cats that look completely like cats either, especially not like ones that would be domestic. They are depicted as more wild, and less refined though surprisingly they are not voiced by, as far as I can tell, by black people and they do not have anything like an overbearing “country” accent.
An aspect of Disney movies that has long fallen somewhat short, is the interaction between women. For films aimed at little girls and young women, there is very little conversation between female characters that does not focus on a male subject, something that media must do to pass the Bechdel test. The Aristocats passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, placing it squarely ahead of most movies at the time, as two of the main characters are female and have extensive conversation. Although Disney does not usually care the age of female characters when it comes to discussing men, one of the two females is written as a child which does help drive the conversation away from the love interest in the movie. Conversation between the female cats ranges from siblings to current plot to the world around them, touching only briefly on the love interest of the movie and doing so innocently (Alice Oostdyk, Jessica Oostdyk 2017).
The movie seems to assume, based on its portrayal of class, that people of lower socioeconomic class or rural upbringing have less socially acceptable or refined behavior. The cats from the country are shown with worse grooming habits and more raucous interaction with the world around them in comparison to the sleek city cats and their tentative foray into country life. Because The Aristocats is a Disney movie produced prior to 1990, it is a safe bet that it was made by a white male production crew, except in the case of voice actors, as some of them are women. It was created for children and adults who might watch the movie with their kids. I am somewhat within the movie’s intended demographic.
As a kid, I was a middle class white girl, who did not have enough exposure to other people to see any of the demographics not represented in the movie. Currently, I can see a lack of both demographics I am not part of, such as low income or races other than white, and ones that I am part of like LGBTQ or people with disabilities. I don’t really mind it too much, since none of my childhood movies represent any of those communities, and this one at least has three dimensional female characters. While it would be hard to place an LGBTQ character in a movie where their identity would rely mainly on spoken and body language based coding, having characters coded black could have been as simple as having black voice actors, which really isn’t that hard. Because the characters are primarily animals it would also be complicated to design and animate a character with a disability. The Aristocats sends an unusually positive message about being a woman, as both of the female characters in the lead set can fend for themselves and are for the most part equal to their male counterparts. The message sent about masculinity is fairly neutral, while we see the male kittens engaging in masculine behaviors more consistently than we see their sister engage in feminine ones, there is not any atypical level of toxic masculinity to it. Although there is a clear divide between the city and country cats, the value placed on the behaviors of either group is not inherently higher than the other.
In the grand scheme of Disney movies, Aristocats is fairly representative of its viewer demographic. It has well rounded female characters, who are placed as equal to their male counterparts. Its representation of different classes is not great, but also not overtly detrimental or insulting. The biggest flaw in representation within the movie compared to its potential viewers is the lack of diversity in race, that said it is no worse than any other disney movie at the time, or even going forward. There is no representation of disability or LGBTQ either, but given the time period it was produced in that is not only expected, but would not have been acceptable or appropriate material for a children’s movie. If the movie were to be rewritten, this representation could be added through adaptation of characters, at the risk of losing its classic Disney shortcomings charm.