At some point, while we were becoming grownups, some of us looked back on the beloved Disney films that we watched until the VHS tapes wore out (remember those? VHS?) and noticed that . . . well . . . these films, they have some problems, dude. Huge plot problems, huge character problems. Boy-obsessed main ladycharacters who continually have to be saved by said boys. Princesses who are all thin, traditionally beautiful, wear dresses, and blah-de-blah-de-blah. Stories that seem to have, upon further reflection, horrible messages. Selling your soul to the devil, Stockholm Syndrome as love, laydeez are forever damsels in distress, you don’t have to do anything and a magic fairy will make your dreams come true, etc. Looked at through the eyes of a moderately cynical adult, I have to agree that the Disney films seem borderline inappropriate.
Thing is . . .
I . . . didn’t really get any of that stuff from Disney movies when I was a child. All of the troublesome stuff. And I wasn’t any slouch when it came to stories, characters, and whatnot as a kid–lifelong reader here–so . . . I have to wonder exactly how troublesome they really were. I’ve read a ton of articles about how horrifying these movies are, but I’m not so sure that I see it.
Cinderella: Stupid girl who gets everything handed to her, or brave girl who works hard to overcome adversity?
The modern gripes about Cinderella usually include the fact that she should have been smart enough to know that OF COURSE her stepmother wasn’t going to let her go to any damn ball; that instead of overcoming adversity herself, Cinderella had to let her Fairy Godmother do it for her; that her dream in the first place was kind of silly and why didn’t she have more of a dream than just falling in love? You could interpret it that way, certainly. In my opinion, though, that’s not a very true interpretation to the spirit of the story.
In the film, Cinderella starts off as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters; despite the fact that she totally did not sign on for this kind of life, she manages to keep a fairly positive attitude. Cinderella could have written “Don’t Stop Believin’.” She also maintains an attitude of kindness toward her family, even though they’re completely awful. When given two really difficult tasks to complete in order to get to go to the ball, tasks so difficult that her Stepmother thought they’d be insurmountable obstacles, Cinderella gets on it and gets it all done (with a little help from her friends, of course).
Even princesses-in-the-making are allowed to be helped, yo.
For Cinderella to show up alongside her stepsisters to go to the ball, knowing certainly that she’ll be the object of ridicule at the least, took some
balls ovaries. It doesn’t matter that they fucked her over, in terms of her role-model-worthiness; it’s not her fault, after all, that they’re miserable bitches. And the fact that her Fairy Godmother swooped in to save the day after that doesn’t diminish the fact that Cinderella busted ass to keep her end of the bargain initially. And Cinderella could have refused her help, totally given up and done the 1950′s version of painting her fingernails black and listening to Morissey, but she didn’t. She got back on the, erm, pumpkin and went to the ball anyway.
Bravery, diligence, kindness and positivity–I dunno, guys. I think I’ll probably end up letting my kids watch Cinderella.
Aurora: Lazybones princess waiting for a man to save the day, or girl who never wanted to be a princess any-damn-way?
Aurora doesn’t really get to be the hero of her own story, this much is true. Aurora’s no wimp, though; nor is she some vacuous blonde who stumbles into princesshood. Just think about it for a second–she would rather be Briar Rose, married to the dude she loves, who is probably borderline poor (at least, as far as she knows) and living a modest life, than to step into the luxurious slippers of a princess and live the high life with wine and servants and a fancy-pants castle. Yet, she also shows a great amount of dignity and maturity when she accompanies the fairies to the castle to fulfill her royal duty instead of running away or throwing a great bloody fit; it’s not like she had a lot of options at that point–what was she going to do, pursue an acting career, maybe bang out a few novels, go to college and become a scientist? Did they even have college in the middle ages? While the film is imperfect (and what film isn’t?), I think Aurora makes a fine role model.
Belle: Victim of Stockholm Syndrome with a little battered wife thrown in, or headstrong woman living to the beat of her own drum?
Okay, okay. Right off the bat, I’m going to admit that Beauty and the Beast has a super-glaring plot hole: why did the Beast feel compelled to have a prisoner? Like, he totally could have just let Belle’s dad go, or chased him off. And it was pretty fuckin’ weird that he was like, well, I’ll let your dad go but now you have to live with me FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER. (In the original story, it made more sense, as far as fairy tales ever make sense, but uh . . . not so much in the Disney version.) As a kid, though, I’m pretty sure I wrote the prisoner thing off to some kind of consequence of the magic spell he was under.
As far as Belle playing the role of a battered wife to Beast’s abuser (which, he does not abuse Belle . . . beyond the weird prisoner-taking thing.. which I already admitted is problematic), it’s important to remember that Belle didn’t like the Beast at first. It’s not like she was all “GEE I AM A PRISONER AND NOW I LUFF HIM”. She was pretty pissed off about never seeing her dad again; she directly defied the Beast’s orders not to go into the west wing. It’s not until the Beast saves her life that she’s like, “Hmmm well, maybe staying here with the Beast is slightly better than being eaten by wolves.” By then, the Beast is demonstrating that he is a good guy, just misunderstood.
The Beast also totally gets Belle. He gives her the giant-est damn library that ever existed because she loves to read more than anything ever. Gaston, on the other hand, put his gross muddy boots all over her book because he thinks books are stupid. Still, any chick in the village would have gnawed her right arm off to be with Gaston, because he’s pretty, even though he is super terrible. Not Belle, though! Belle has way superior values that don’t include going out with an awful person because he looks good and do include falling for the guy who, even though he’s not cute, tries to make her happy with things that she actually likes and enjoys.
So, Belle. Likes books. Doesn’t care if she gets ridiculed for being a nerd, just keeps doing what she loves. Doesn’t fall in love with an abusive, controlling, terrible dude just because he’s pretty. Doesn’t automatically write off the Beast just because he seems terrible and also is not handsome. Sacrifices herself to save her dad (who probably shouldn’t have needed saving in the first place but WHATEVER THAT IS THE WRITERS’ FAULT). Would have stayed with the Beast even if he was “ugly” forever, didn’t even need him to become handsome again (and the fact that he did go back to handsomeness could be a metaphor for how “ugly” can be beautiful if you love someone. SUPER DEEP, DISNEY). Gee, yeah, Belle, what a terrible role model, except that she’s not, at all.
Ariel: Silly fishgirl who sells her soul for a man, or (granted, naive) teenager on the verge of womanhood asserting her independence?
So, Ariel. Besides Belle, she’s another princess that people facepalm hard over. Sells her soul to a KNOWN. SEA. WITCH. so she can be with a man? PLZ.
Yeah, Ariel is also sixteen years old. Sixteen-year-olds do dumb shit. Maybe you did dumb shit at sixteen–like, I dunno, when you got your first job, maybe you also got a credit card and ran up a fairly hefty bill before realizing that, uh oh, you need to pay that back. (I did not do this–at least, not until I was unemployed and fully an adult and either had to use the card or starve–but a lot of people I know did.) Or maybe you did silly things to get a boy’s attention. The fact that Ariel kind of did some dumb stuff doesn’t mean she can’t be a good role model; it’s not the mistakes that make one’s character, but how one handles the mistakes.
Ariel did have some good qualities, despite being naive and young. That whole being obsessed with humans thing? Mer-people were super-racist against humans. (They probably had good reason to be, because we don’t have the best track record of not abusing our seas and sea life, but you can’t judge all humans by what a few humans.. or many humans.. do.) Ariel was like, hey, no, it’s totally not cool to be racist against humans.
Ariel also saved Eric’s life, even though it got her in trouble later. Doing the right thing even if it inconveniences you or puts you out is a win in my book.
More, I think it’s kind of really important that Ariel fucked up. Kids need to know that bad things will happen if you sell your soul to a sea witch. It’s not her fault that the sea witch tricked her, either; she worked really hard to keep up her end of the bargain, which shows integrity. Sure, she was pretty dumb for trusting the sea witch in the first place, but I’d like to redirect you to the “sixteen-year-olds do dumb shit” portion of this post. Overall, I don’t think Ariel has bad intentions or a bad moral character; showing her failing at something and having to face the consequences doesn’t mean she can’t be a good role model.
But the princesses all wear frilly dresses and have life goals of getting married, that’s still a horrible example for young girls!
While it would be nice to see more multi-dimensional princesses (something we are starting to see, just as we’re also seeing multicultural princesses), I don’t think their choice of wardrobe is necessarily anti-feminist. As far as the goal of the princess always being to get married and have a Happily Ever After . . . that’s not really always true, anyway. Ariel wanted to be a human primarily, or visit the world of humans; Eric came long after she already wanted that. Cinderella mostly wanted to get away from her wicked stepfamily. Aurora was dreaming of love, yes, but what sixteen-year-old isn’t a little hormonal? She was still pretty happy with her life and didn’t want to go off to have the big princess wedding; nor did Jasmine, who wanted to marry for love instead of status. Belle was trying to avoid marriage.
And, really–don’t we all want to be loved?
What I’d really like to see in Disney movies is more celebration of older women. The princesses are mostly all sixteen-ish, and most of the older women are dead or evil. (A notable exception is Mrs. Darling from Peter Pan. She was a lovely mom who got to live! Gasp!) The princesses don’t bother me so much, but could we have some more live and non-evil older wimmens, Disney? This might already be happening, idk–I haven’t watched a new Disney film in a long while.
I could be wrong about the princesses, though. What do you guys think–are these Disney movies rife with thematic problems? Do they set horrible examples for our children? Or are people just really cynical? Tell me what you think in the comments!