Thursday, May 13th, 2010...10:35 am
Why My Daughter Doesn’t Watch Disney Movies
This is the first of two posts about Disney movies and why I don’t like my daughter to watch them. Part two should be up sometime next week.
Obligatory disclaimer before I even start writing this post: it’s about Disney movies, and, more specifically, Disney Princess movies. I realize that Disney has other movies and that Pixar’s owned by Disney, but for most people, when you say Disney, they hear “princesses”. So that’s what we’re talking about.
It comes up, from time to time, that Maura isn’t really allowed to watch Disney movies. This is less stridently enforced than it used to be, partly out of necessity—it was one thing when she was with me all of the time, but it’s another thing entirely to tell her daycare provider that she’s not allowed to watch Disney, especially when every other kid in the group knows and loves all of the movies already. But still, we only own The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog, and those aren’t standard viewing fare.
To most people my age, it seems, this is a completely heretical stance. Everyone pities Maura, whose crazy, crazy mother doesn’t want her to watch Disney movies. I have yet to find anyone who responds with “oh, thank god, my kid isn’t allowed to watch them, either.” (I have hope, though—surely someone else is bothered by this, right?)
Here’s the thing, though: I really, really hate Disney movies. Almost across the board, the Disney movies (at least those with people in them—I admit that I’ve seen very few of their animal-based animated films) hold up marriage, usually to someone completely inappropriate, as the holy grail. I remind you that these are films being marketed to children, and that the overwhelming message in the end is this: Be pretty and kind and good, and maybe someone who is wealthy and powerful will want you for his bride.
Note that I didn’t say his partner, or even his wife. No, he’ll want you for his bride, his beautiful trophy.
Usually when I try to explain this to people, they immediately demand to know if I’ve seen
For those of you who’ve not read the original poem upon which the movie was based, the whole point of the poem is that no one knew if she was a man or a woman, and it didn’t matter because in war we are all affected. Her comrades didn’t know that she was a woman until after the war was won, when she returned home clad as a woman. When this happens, it’s pointed out again that it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman, and that it’s society, not nature, that separates the two sexes.
So Disney’s interpretation of this—one in which she is outed as a woman early on, one in which it’s a plot point that she is a woman, leaves me cold. Mulan starts out promisingly: she’s not great at the feminine arts, and she runs off to join the army in her father’s place. And, okay, she’s made to look a fool in the early military training, but she soon proves herself and is as good and as strong as any of the men. That’s pretty awesome.
And then she falls in love with her commanding officer, Shang. Okay. It happens. Maybe he’ll respect her for her skills and abilities as a warrior! …Or, on the other hand, maybe she’ll single-handedly win a battle for the Imperial Army and save Shang in the same battle, getting badly injured in the process. When it’s revealed that she’s a woman, the Emperor’s advisor orders her killed. Instead of standing up for her, Shang suggests that they just leave her–wounded and alone–at the snowy mountain pass so that she can find her way home. I think that we’re meant to feel that he’s saved her life, but realistically, he’s just condemned her to a slow, painful death. Despite Shang’s betrayal, when Mulan finds out that her comrades are in danger because the Huns weren’t actually dead, she rides back to warn them. She gets there and Shang—oh. Well, that’s embarrassing. He brushes her off. After all, she’s just a silly girl. But then the Huns show up, and Mulan defeats them. Again.
This time, the Emperor commends her, and Shang…does basically nothing. She heads home with military honors, and the Emperor comments to the love interest that hey, she’s pretty special, huh? And then Shang goes after her, and is pleased to find that she’s no longer clad as a man, but now looks appropriately womanly. She is, of course, delighted to see him and, as with all Disney movies, the implication is that they’ll live happily ever after.
So first he leaves her on an isolated, snowy mountain pass that’s recently been overrun with Huns who may or may not be dead. Then when she shows up to warn him that the Huns are coming, he ignores her. After she saves the day yet again, he still has to be told by the Emperor that he might want to consider her as a potential partner. I’m sure that it’s a fantastic match for Shang—after all, she’s already proved that she can pretty much do for herself if need be, plus there has to be some social cachet to marrying the only decorated female war hero in the country, right? It’s less of a fantastic match for Mulan, though, married to someone who doesn’t respect her or trust her judgment.
Mulan is hardly an isolated example, either. A brief rundown:
The very first Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is—like many Disney movies—based on a fairy tale. I’ll recap the fairy tale, for those of you who’ve forgotten. Beautiful child, evil stepmother, hunter unable to kill her, goes to live with the dwarves, poisoned apple, glass coffin. Check, right down the list. Prince shows up and begs to be given the coffin, and the dwaves—somewhat inexplicably—agree. They start to move the coffin, and the movement dislodges the poisoned apple stuck in Snow White’s throat. And yes, she eventually marries the prince.
So, really, it’s not all that different from the Disney version. Beautiful child, evil stepmother, hunter unable to kill her, goes to live with the dwarves. In both versions, her time with the dwarves is spent cooking and cleaning and taking after them. The inevitable poisoned apple comes, as does the glass coffin, and then comes the prince. You’ll note that he’s referred to only as the prince; his name, it seems, is less important than making it quite clear that he is someone of power, someone of wealth. And, of course, he saves her: Disney’s version is quite clear that it’s only the kiss of her true love that can wake her from her tragically beautiful, endless sleep.
What, then, does Snow White teach us (or our impressionable five year olds)? To be fair, it’s a bit more nuanced than some of the other films—though Snow White’s beauty is ultimately her savior, it’s also what sets the Evil Stepmother after her in the first place. Still, we come away with the knowledge that she was so beautiful and pure and womanly that the prince (who is, don’t forget, important and wealthy) fell “in love” with her the moment that he saw her. And, in turn, he’s her “true love”—despite the fact that they’ve not spoken a word to each other. After all, what could be a better marriage than childlike, subservient beauty and wealthy, manly power?
Cinderella was made over a decade later, but it falls into many of the same traps that Snow White does. Cinderella herself is good to a fault, friends with all of the animals and creatures of the forest. Every other (human) female character is evil, though, providing us with plenty of reminders of how good Cinderella is compared to all other women. Through the eventual intervention of her fairy godmother, Cinderella is turned “beautiful”—that is, she’s given a fancy dress, a carriage and all of the trappings, and a curfew. She heads to the ball, where the Prince (again nameless) has been rejecting every woman he meets. He sees Cinderella and is immediately in love with her, chasing her as she runs out of the castle, desperate to leave before curfew comes and she reverts to her normal state. Of course, in the end, it’s discovered that she’s the beautiful woman from the night before, nuptials ensue, and the happy couple ride off as the narrator intones “and they lived happily ever after”.
All well and good, though again, I’m forced to wonder what on earth the Prince and Cinderella could have in common. While I’m sure that it’s a step up for Cinderella, the idea that she “lived happily ever after” seems suspect to me—lived happily ever after doing what? With whom? With the prince, who she’s only known for a few hours when they decide to wed? The movie assumes that we won’t care, that we’ll fall for living happily ever after as surely as Cinderella fell for the promise of a life better than the one that she knew.
Sleeping Beauty takes us to 1959. According to Wikipedia—and this lines up with my recollections of the film—the titular character is on stage as an adult for less than eighteen minutes of the seventy-five minute film. Which, I suppose, is appropriate. After all, the title tells us everything we need to know about her: she’s beautiful. Beauty, nee Aurora, is born, and is immediately betrothed to Prince Phillip, which I’m willing to buy as part of the pseudo-Medieval thing that the movie has going on. Her fairy godmothers queue up to bestow their blessings upon the child, and they cover all the important stuff, making sure that she’ll be pretty and able to sing. Then the evil fairy shows up and casts the curse: death by spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday. Good fairy the third isn’t powerful enough to counter that, so she changes it to eternal sleep by spinning wheel. Then the good fairies take Aurora to live in a cottage in the woods, trying to keep her safe. On the day of her sixteenth birthday, she meets a handsome boy in the woods and falls immediately in love with him. She’s called away before she learns his name, though, and goes home only to find out that she’s a princess, and also cursed, and also engaged to some guy called Phillip.
Apparently unable to hold out the single day it would take for the curse to not happen, the fairies take her back to her parents’ castle, where Maleficent lures her to the spinning wheel. She, inevitably enough, pricks her finger. The kingdom falls asleep just as the fairy godmothers realize that the boy Aurora is in love with is, in fact, Prince Phillip, her betrothed. Happy coincidence! He’s been captured by Maleficent, but aided by the fairies—and the “shield of virtue” and “sword of truth”—he defeats Maleficent, makes out with the sleeping Aurora, and gets his happily ever after.
To summarize: Aurora is a good singer. Also, really, really pretty. All of the adults are idiots, since apparently none of thought to keep an eye on her on her potentially tragic sixteenth birthday. Phillip likes to dance in the woods, and is also truthful and virtuous, except for when he sexually assaults cursed princesses. Most importantly, he will someday be king, and he will have a beautiful wife who can sing. Excellent. I know that’s what I was looking for when I sought out a partner.
The next Disney “Princess” movie jumps forward three decades—suddenly, it’s 1989, and The Little Mermaid is heralding the revival of the animated film. You’d think that maybe, after thirty years, there’d be some passing nod to women who do something other than look pretty and cook and clean and sing, but you’d be mostly wrong. I say mostly because Ariel does not, to my recollection, cook or clean—she just looks pretty and sings.
I’ll be honest that I’m none too fond of the original story (which is a Christian allegory in which the mermaid is desperate to become human that she might gain an immortal soul), but Disney took a bad concept and made it worse. In the movie, sixteen-year-old Ariel longs to become human—partly because she thinks that they’re fascinating and probably less restrictive than her father, but (and this is apparently the more pressing concern) also because she’s fallen in love with a boy.
Don’t be silly—she hasn’t spoken to him or anything like that, but she did save his life when he got washed overboard. She swam him to shore, and then she sang to him until he regained consciousness. Predictably, he has fallen in love with her on the power of her voice alone.
Ariel heads over to the Sea Witch and trades her voice for legs, then heads off to win the boy’s heart. She gets three days. Wacky hijinks, mostly on the part of Sebastian the Crab, ensue. There’s a bit where Ariel almost succeeds in kissing Erik–which, in Disney movies, means that they’re in love–but not quite. Her failure gets her turned into a sea vegetable, or would if her father hadn’t shown up and proved himself to be the worst king in all of existence, dooming his kingdom to be ruled by an evil witch by taking his daughter’s place as a sea vegetable. Ultimately, everyone gangs up to kill the Sea Witch. Because it’s clear that Ariel and Eric’s love is so pure and true, everyone supports it, and Ariel’s father turns her into a human so that she can marry the boy she’s known for three days and never actually spoken to.
I’ve heard The Little Mermaid billed as a trans fairy tale before, and while I certainly see that interpretation, I think that the ultimate message of the movie remains the same: in order to win the person of your dreams and fit in society, in order to be what you want to be, you need to silence yourself. It’s not just her singing voice that she loses, it’s her ability to hold a conversation, or to stand up for herself, or to ask for a glass of water if she’s thirsty. None of those things matter, because the important part is that she be beautiful and willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her fairytale love story.
Next up is Beauty and the Beast, which several people have pointed out to me as a Disney movie that’s not horrible. I can’t do much other than look at these people in bewilderment, though. Sure, we have Belle, who’s smart, bookish, and—by princess standards—fairly normal-looking. She’s brave, too: when her father is captured by the Beast, she goes to find him and tries to break him out. Then she offers herself to the Beast in her father’s place. So far, so good, right?
From here on out, it’s all downhill. First the Beast goes into a rage because she—understandably—doesn’t want to dine with her captor. After his temper tantrum, he declares that if she won’t eat with him, she won’t eat at all. Then he storms off to sulk. She sneaks into the West Wing, which is strictly verboten, and he catches her and has a tantrum so ferocious that she flees the castle, running into the woods. She is, of course, promptly chased by wolves. The Beast comes and fights them off, then they head back to the castle, where Belle tends his wounds and thanks him for saving her life. Eventually, Belle’s kind and gentle nature tames the emotionally abusive, violent monster who’s imprisoned her, and he allows her to go to visit her father. When the townspeople find out that there’s really a beast, they set up a raid, but once he knows that Belle came back to him, the Beast manages to fight his way out. Until he gets stabbed in the back and collapses, that is. No worries, though, because Belle whispers that she loves him, and he’s restored to the beautiful prince that he used to be, and the castle is restored to its former splendor, and there’s a meaningful waltz. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Beauty and the Beast is, I think, a fantastic movie about Stockholm Syndrome. It’s basically telling people that if you’re just nice enough to someone who’s abusing you, eventually they’ll turn into the princes that they really are. Which would be great, if it were true. The National Domestic Violence Hotline receives over 600 phone calls per day, and a quarter of women in the United States will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. We need a movie that tells people that it’s okay to leave if he’s treating you badly, and that there are places to go for help, not that you should just stay and be really nice and hope that he stops.
We’ve just covered the whole Princess franchise. I know, I know–technically, there’s also Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, and, really, Pocahontas ought to be considered, too. We’re going to cover that in the second part of this post, so please just bear with me. The primary princesses are Aurora, Snow White, Belle, Ariel, and Cinderella, and princess-branded merchandise is always available branded with those five characters. The remaining three are rotated in, but don’t have nearly the popularity that the big five do.
So we’ve talked about why I find the movies, in and of themselves, problematic. But hey, there are a lot of problematic movies out there, and I’m sure that Maura’s seen her fair share of those. What is is about Disney movies, specifically, that I find so offensive?
When I was little, it was made clear to me–as I’m sure it was made clear to many others–that my primary job in life was to grow up and go to college so that I could get a nice, smart boy to marry me. No one ever said that, of course, but it was clear that that’s what people, girls, did, and once they did that, their lives would be good and middle class and easy. I know that it sounds stupid, but part of me is still trying to get over the fact that this is just inherently not true, that even if you win the lottery and marry someone totally awesome, life will still be hard. That you have to work at relationships, and even when you have a great relationship it’s still hard. That even if you’re rich, life is still hard, because life’s not fair, and bad things will happen and you’ll have to deal with it, and sometimes all the money in the world can’t make that better.
I mean, I’m a reasonably intelligent woman. I’m reasonably self confident, capable, and independent. I own my own power tools and I don’t back down from fights; I can grow and can my own food; I’m not afraid of the dark. But I still struggle with the fact that my life, as much as I love it, isn’t easy and probably never will be. That no one’s going to stride out of the metaphorical forest brandishing their sword and somehow make everything awesome and sparkly. It’s not ever advertised that adulthood isn’t really all that, that you might be single for a long time, that you might be married and still be desperately lonely, that you might divorce, that you might be in a non-hetero relationship that the government and your employer won’t recognize, that you’ll base where you live on where you can have health care for your family and where the schools are good, that your job might suck, that even when you try your hardest there are sometimes bills that you just can’t pay, that life isn’t easy.
It’s never mentioned that life doesn’t have to be easy to be good.
The other reason that I’m not comfortable with a lot of these movies is because they’re aimed at kids. And I mean kids, children–not even middle-schoolers, but three, five, eight year olds. Kids who aren’t anywhere near pubescent, kids who, frankly, don’t need to be thinking about finding a partner (or, in Disney parlance, their prince) and living happily ever after. am desperately, desperately uncomfortable with the way that we market romance to small children. When you’re six, you shouldn’t be worried about being pretty so the boy who sits next to you in kindergarten will want to be your boyfriend.
Happily ever after has always suck in my craw, too. Let’s face it–fewer and fewer people get married with each passing year, and the divorce rate is something like fifty percent. The odds that anyone’s going to get married and live happily ever after are incredibly slim, but it’s still held up as the holy grail of life; the one true path to absolute happiness. I don’t think that it’s healthy to be telling small children that what they should be aiming for in life is to get some rich, attractive boy to like them.
Films aimed at kids should be about finding your place with your family, with your friends. I’ve heard people argue that this, somehow, isn’t interesting, but I think that those people are maybe not watching the right movies. The Incredibles was awesome. Spy Kids. Quest for Camelot. Sure, they’re less common than the yay-a-prince films, but they’re better. They’re more interesting, and there’s more to them–they require stronger characters and more of a plot than “we saw each other and fell in true love and lived happily ever after”.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: I don’t want my child watching Disney movies, because I want her to have strong female role models. I don’t want her watching Disney movies, because I want her to see people with full and interesting lives, regardless of if those people are married or not. And, more than anything, I don’t want her watching Disney movies because I want her aspire to be something more than being a beautiful bride; to want more out of her life than just a wedding.