Why the Transformation Scenes in Disney Movies Speak to Me

For many queer and trans people, the body can feel like a prison.

I’ve always loved the transformation scenes in classic Disney movies. Maybe it is the beauty of the animation: that breathless, 360-degree swing of the camera as the evil queen transforms into the haggard witch; the swirling, golden threads that encircle Cinderella, turning her from an abused woman into the hero of her own story.

If Disney is selling narrative consistency (and it is), then the transformation scene is a big part of that promise. I bought into it from an early age.

That wasn’t necessarily because I am trans, but it helped. Transformation as a trope and a concept has always resonated with me. It doesn’t matter if the change is glamorous or grotesque. It’s a moment I’ve always been able to see myself in, and that doesn’t happen often for me.

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When transformation scenes come along in live-action films, they’re never quite as, shall we say celebratory. Horror movies, for instance, often frame transformation as a sickness, an involuntary shudder in the night. The wolfman sees a full moon in the sky and knows his number is up. Dracula sees the sun start to rise and knows he’ll be toast if he doesn’t get back in the coffin. In the Val Lewton classic Cat People, a woman risks transforming into a cat on the instant of sexual arousal. The message is clear: Change is coming, kids, and it’s going to rewrite your body in ways you never would have imagined or, perhaps, wanted.

That’s their stock-in-trade, of course, and no wonder. Transformation scenes deal with shame, self-hatred, and fear of one’s own humanity. To an extent, this is true in Disney movies, too. When Elsa’s parents tell her at the start of Frozen to “conceal, don’t feel,” we know exactly what they’re talking about: If there’s an unbearable truth in you that’s threatening to come out, all you can do is try to keep the lid on it.

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But the inevitable fact of transformation is what centers these stories in truth. Frozen has been lauded as a fairy tale about queerness, as has The Little Mermaid and Beauty in the Beast, both gay-authored stories featuring violent, painful scenes of transformation for each of their heroes. It’s not just a handy visual way of showing us what happens to our bodies during puberty, sex, or any kind of monumental life change. It’s a way of embracing that evolution, messy as it often is.

Think about the transformation scene in 1937’s Snow White, which, being the first Disney feature, would set the template for all Disney films to come. A beautiful woman drinks a green, bubbly fluid. Within seconds, she shapeshifts into a “hag,” gray hair, warts, and all. She’s so happy about it, it almost feels radical. The scene depicts the very opposite of the beauty industry’s perennial promise to keep female bodies young and beautiful forever.

But not quite.

Is the transformation scene in Snow White about becoming your true self, or becoming a “fag hag”? Is it about taking a new shape, something empowering and unexpected? Or is it simply a plot device, a way to make cogent any half-formed ideas about evil that kids might have? I don’t know. I can only speak to what it means to me.

When I realized that each of these films had at least one scene like this, I became addicted. I knew I could count on those scenes to speak to me more than any major change in traditional fairy tales. Disney’s transformations were so honest, so painful: the sudden onslaught of violence when Ariel’s tail is ripped in half to form two legs. The frightening spectacle of the evil queen clutching her throat in horror as the change comes for her. Even the pain and shame of Fiona’s reversion to her Ogre state in Shrek spoke to me.

These scenes showed me what I was feeling even before puberty hit: that fear of change, that imminent betrayal of the body constantly, infuriatingly shapeshifting. As a kid growing up trans in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I didn’t have any language to describe the fear I had of my own body. I only had movies.

I’m not alone in this. For many queer and trans people, the body can feel like a prison. Disney has always understood that. Frankly, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Henry Giardina is a writer living in Los Angeles.
@punkgroucho