In the last few months, I’ve heard some discourse on the negative messages that Disney movies send to kids. Not that I don’t feel strongly about the media that children are exposed to, but I think (in the case of Disney movies) that people need to relax.
These negative “Disney messages” are things like,
- “Cinderella teaches kids that marriage solves everything.”
- “The Little Mermaid teaches kids that it’s fine to drastically change one’s body to please man.”
- “Beauty and the Beast teaches kids that domestic violence is acceptable.”
They make me mad because, for one, kids don’t think this way. And, two, that isn’t what these movies are teaching at all.
I was raised on Disney movies and other similar cartoons. My favourites were Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Lion King— the former four featuring some of the most prominent Disney Princesses: Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine. Now, I loved these characters. I used to run around in my back yard “singing like Ariel” until my mom asked if I could “sing like Ariel” just a bit quieter, please. I’d draw Princess Jasmine over and over during class because I loved making that curl at the end of her ponytail.
And yet, I understood inherently that these were not real people and that their circumstances were not mine. And although I don’t think I was an unintelligent child, I didn’t connect “Disney messages” with my own life or self very often. I can only think of one instance, when I was probably about four years old. I remember asking my parents if I’d get married soon. They seemed to wonder a bit at where that question came from, and said that no, I wouldn’t be getting married very soon. I said, “Oh, because Ariel got married.” And they replied, “Well, she grew up a bit first.” That answer satisfied me completely. On my own, I didn’t understand right away that Ariel and I were not quite at the same stage in life. But then I decided that my parents were right— Ariel did grow up first. Sixteen years old sounded ancient. I was half an eternity away from being sixteen years old.
All that to say, kids deconstruct and understand movies much differently than adults do. But by the time I was sixteen, I wasn’t prepping for marriage just because Ariel was married at my age. My parents knew this would be the case, otherwise I imagine that they would have mentioned back then that even sixteen years old is a little too young to be married. Why didn’t they?
Because kids don’t grow up in a Disney vacuum. Yes, these themes are not perfectly realistic at all times (“and they lived happily ever after”) and some would be detrimental if they were the only message that kids ever received. But they aren’t. Not by a long shot. By age ten, most kids have witnessed either their parents, or the parents of someone they know, get divorced. Most kids will have encountered a woman who definitely does not look like a beautiful princess enjoying a very happy life and marriage. A girl may wake up and feel shocked and betrayed because her life after marriage is no better than her life before marriage, but that girl has more to blame for that than the fact that she watched Cinderella as a kid.
And that’s what it is, isn’t it? Something to blame for spotty parenting. It’s as if people think that once a movie is watched, a child’s initial gleanings and impressions can’t be changed. Well, they can. And it requires having a conversation with a child after watching the film, not sitting them down in front of the TV and then getting angry when aspects of a story hit too close to home.
People who complain that Disney movies send messages that will one day mar the lives of children are just plain bad at interpreting stories. They take unimportant elements and make them into the crux of the plot.
“Cinderella teaches that marriage solves everything.”
Watch Cinderella again. It’s the story of a girl who gets dealt a bad hand in life. When her father dies, her step-mother and step-sisters are cruel to her and force her to be their servant. Despite her undesirable circumstances, Cinderella does not become bitter and vindictive. She serves her awful family patiently and kindly for years. And though it would be instinctive to some to be cruel to those she does have power over, (the mice and birds) she goes out of her way to take care of them. Even making them clothes! One day, a letter decrees that all eligible maidens are to attend a royal ball. It’s Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters who immediately latch on to the idea of marrying the prince, not Cinderella herself. She wants to go to the ball because she’s been invited to something for once. Those obnoxious women, though, sabotage her so that it appears that she will not be able to attend. But lo, a Fairy Godmother appears to help Cinderella. She arrives at the ball and isn’t even interested in meeting the royalty. She’s admiring the architecture when the Prince asks her to dance. She accepts, but she doesn’t even know that he’s the Prince. She couldn’t care less about “The Prince,” really. She uses meeting him merely as an excuse for leaving this wonderful man at midnight when the spell is about to break. The glass slipper is left and the owner searched for the next morning (after a bit more jealous sabotage from the step-mother) but ultimately, Cinderella is able to produce the shoe’s twin. She marries that man she fell in love with despite not knowing about his power or money (which, to me, makes her the only lady present at that ball who the Prince could have married in good faith.)
Marriage is an epilogue in Cinderella’s story, not some deus ex machina plot twist that saves her from her plight. Her own goodness saved her. (Her terrible sisters did not get Fairy Godmothers.) If my kids grow up thinking that being kind in the face of cruelty will serve them right, then good.
“The Little Mermaid teaches kids that it’s fine to drastically change one’s body to please a man (and fine to disobey a parent!).”
Watch The Little Mermaid again. It’s the story of a girl who is different from everyone around her. Instead of being enveloped in the frivolity her family’s existence (i.e. music concerts, hair-do’s), she’s captivated by the world of humans. It’s something in her that will never go away. Her dad is naturally resistant, but out of love and heartbreak— Ariel’s mother was killed by human pirates. Ariel has a dangerous obsession. And yet, she can see what none of her kind can: that not all humans are dangerous. King Triton is racist. He says, “Know him? I don’t have to know him. They’re all the same.”
Ariel loves her dad, but recognizes that he’s not completely right. Disobeying him means doing what she has to in order to pursue her love: making a deal that gives her the ability to live on land. This involves a body change because you can’t live on land with a tail fin— it isn’t about plastic surgery to make herself more beautiful than before in hopes that Eric would love her more. Eric’s love for her began when she rescued him as a mermaid. Ariel obeying her father and staying a mermaid would have gone against the very thing that made her special. Sebastian sums it up perfectly as he comes to terms with Ariel’s new situation: “Maybe there’s still time. If we could get that witch to give you back your voice, you could go home with all the normal fish and just be… miserable for the rest of your life.” At the end of the story, Ariel’s own dad is the one who returns her to human form after she’s turned back into a mermaid when Ursula’s allotted three days are done. Her final words in the film show that she has come into her own without betraying her roots: “I love you, daddy.” Her sisters are all waving to her above the surface of the water, implying a new harmony between mermaids and humans that wouldn’t have existed if not for Ariel and her being different.
As an aside, Ariel may be sixteen on the day of her wedding, but Juliet Capulet is fourteen when she secretly marries Romeo the day after meeting him. Yet you don’t hear about parents requesting their children be removed from tenth grade English class to shield them from that story.
“Beauty and the Beast teaches kids that domestic violence is acceptable.”
No. Watch Beauty and the Beast again. The Beast was a despairing and violent creature when he captured Belle’s father and held him prisoner for trespassing. Belle comes searching and pledges to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner— forever. This gives the Beast true pause, and it is the first of many times that he shows signs of his cold heart changing. But Belle doesn’t make this sacrifice because she thinks she may one day grow to love the Beast. She does it because she loves her father. (Right now, this is not a love story between beast and beauty.) The Beast agrees to this trade and gives her but one single rule: not to enter the west wing. Later that same evening, Belle is too curious to resist. She shakes off Cogsworth and Lumière and walks directly into the forbidden section of the castle. The Beast is (understandably) angry when he discovers her there. What about Belle’s actions suggest she’s accepting of violence, I wonder? She is so afraid of the Beast’s anger that she goes back on the promise she made mere hours ago and runs off. In the woods, Belle is attacked by wolves and the Beast saves her, only to then collapse in pain and exhaustion. Belle has to make a choice, because she has an opportunity in that moment to leave him to die and continue running away. Instead, she returns with the Beast to the castle, willingly. It is at this part of the movie that the love story actually begins and, note, all violence between Belle and the Beast vanishes.
I think Beauty and the Beast actually offers a very practical lesson: If you want someone gentle to love you, you can’t act like a selfish, irrational, crude animal.
So, here’s something. Go back and watch Disney movies now as an adult. You’ll experience them differently than you remember as a kid. And know that, while these films were being made, no man was behind the scenes twirling his mustache and plotting that children would one day base their expectations for life, love, and marriage on these stories. People just wanted to take some old fairy tales and make them real for new generations.
Above all, if you think something is sending unhelpful messages to kids, then talk to the kids about it.