Sunday, October 13, 2013

In Defense of the Disney Princess

Disney – and in particular their pantheon of princesses – has been getting a lot of hate lately 
for being “chauvinistic”, anti-woman and generally bad for little girls. This isn’t anything new, however; people have been accusing the Disney princesses of having a negative effect on little girls for years now.

Now, granted, I’d hardly agree with every choice the company’s made (“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” remains a cinematic atrocity), but I think it’s massively unfair to throw all of the Disney princesses out the window as being bad for little girls to watch. Why?

First off, I believe that, if one looks for it, one can find a lesson that is true, good, and beautiful in just about anything. But beyond that, I have this crazy theory that I want to share with you. Are you ready? Good.

My theory is thus: every Disney princess film contains a valuable lesson. Sometimes it's a lesson intended for all girls everywhere and sometimes it's a lesson for a very specific type of girl. Some might argue that these lessons were placed in the films intentionally, while others might argue it's simply coincidental (although I think this is probably naive).

Either way, the lessons are there and most of the time they're too awesome to ignore. I’ve compiled a little summary of each of the Princesses complete with (to be fair) the arguments against them and the moral lesson I believe each attempts to present. But keep in mind that there may be many more lessons in each film than the ones I mention below. Take a look at the ones I provide, then post any other lessons that occur to you in the comments section.

      1. Sleeping Beauty

The Accusation: “Sleeping Beauty teaches little girls to be innocent and stupid, that love-at-first-sight exists, and it sets them up to have their hearts broken.”

My Defense: Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) may come off a little shallow, true. She falls in love with her prince after only 5 minutes. However, she is no more naïve than her prince, who feels the same way. Their innocence is actually a valuable lesson. Far from the cynical worldview of their political parents, these two lovers are able to find love by ridding themselves of worldly things (the castles and such) and turning to the simple life of the woods. When their love is challenged, Philip must defend it with “the sword of truth and the shield of virtue”, as these are the keys to innocent love as God intended. I fail to see how a “shield of virtue” is anything but a BA lesson for boys and girls everywhere.

Moral of the Story: Essentially, I see Sleeping Beauty as a call to return a sense of innocence, purity, and virtue to romance. Romance in our culture has been permeated with cynicism and distrust and everybody could do to reintroduce a little purity and Disney-like trust into their relationship.

      2. Mulan, Jasmine, and Pochahontas

The Accusation: “Jasmine starts out strong and independent, but ends up selling out to a man who lies to her. Mulan abandons her femininity totally and ends up with a jerk. Oh, and Pochahontas is just a stupid movie”.

My Defense: I’m going to go ahead and lump Mulan, Jasmine, and Pochahontas together because they each teach similar lessons. Each coming from a patriarchal and strongly chauvinistic culture, they each teach their respective audience how to find competitive strength without ridding themselves of femininity, a valuable lesson in this day and age. Jasmine does this with her wit, Pochahontas with her fortitude and courage. Now, you might be arguing that Mulan has to shed her femininity; however, one must remember that she is only able to defeat Shan Yu when she embraces her womanly strength and dignity. As to Aladdin “getting the girl” by feigning charm, good looks, and appearing to be rich and famous, remember that Jasmine initially dismisses him for exactly these qualities. She eventually falls for him because of his loyalty and spirit of self-donation and sacrifice. The story of Aladdin is not one in favor of deceit. It is instead one which flies in the face of an ever-rampant class system and hostility to love-marriages that is just as extreme and awful today as it every was.

Moral of the Story: Each of these Princesses are a shout out to the little girls of different chauvinistic, woman-repressing cultures. The movies teach little girls to rebel against their bigoted systems, embrace their feminine genius, and love whoever-the-heck they want to love.

      3. Beauty & the Beast

The Accusation: “Beauty & the Beast is – at best – the story of an abusive relationship and – at worst – a nerdy girl’s exploration into bestiality (um, ew?)”

My Defense: The Beast (Adam) may seem to be a difficult character to defend, but let’s first look closer at the target audience of this movie. “Beauty and the Beast” is geared towards girls like Belle: bookish girls, the ones you see falling in love with characters they’ve only read about on a page (hello, twilight fan-girls). The problem (generally) with this type of girl is that they end up desperately searching for the kind of guy they read about in those novels. Instead of looking for a guy who has the chivalrous characteristics of their literary heroes, they turn to muscular meat heads (cough, Gaston) who can never satisfy their emotional needs. Beauty and the Beast teaches a girl like Belle to look a little deeper at the guy who, despite his decided lack of a sixpack, may be her prince charming in disguise. Additionally, let’s remember that Belle’s attitude doesn’t change as soon as the Beast becomes kindly disposed to her. She starts to look differently at him when he attempts to sacrifice his own life for her, defending her from wolves.

Moral of the Story: People should learn to look past the physical and into the heart of the person, and true love always requires sacrifice. 

      4. Cinderella

The Accusation: “Cinderella plays the martyr for an hour-and-a-half of screen time and then gets ‘rescued’ by a guy she doesn’t know.”

My Defense: Ok, so Cinderella. This one is the hardest to defend, because it has the largest target audience: everybody. However, the lesson is still somehow often missed. This isn’t just a story of boy meet girl, boy marries girl five minutes later. Let’s remember that it wasn’t Cinderella’s beauty that won her the prince, but her virtue. In the ballroom scene, the Prince is surrounded by beautiful women, but he yawns and is bored by them. It’s only when Cinderella, whose virtue earned the attention of the Fairy God Mother in the first place, arrives that he sits up and takes notice. He then goes on a crazy intense hunt for her because she stood out THAT MUCH. Call it shallow if you like, but I feel that Cinderella is a “Gentleman Prefer Virtuous Chicks” story (as opposed to “Gentleman Prefer Blondes”), and that’s a lesson I’ll be happy to share with my future daughters.

Moral of the Story: Virtue makes you more beautiful than looks ever could and, when the time comes, the right guy will notice that.

Does that sound like a bad message?
Cinderella sure doesn't think so.

      5. Snow White

The Accusation: Criticisms of Snow White abound. There's the accusation that it's simply an "age vs. beauty" story, as well the familiar criticism that Princesses fall in love with their Princes just too quickly.

My Defense: Snow White is the last one I’ll talk about, but it’s easy to defend: it’s a Christ story. The reason the Prince isn’t much of a character is because he doesn’t have to be. When the story was written, and when the film was made, anyone with any sense would’ve realized “Oh, that’s kinduv like Jesus”. It’s the same reason Aslan doesn’t have a complex backstory. Look at it this way: There’s this innocent girl (man, pre-fall) who lives in the paradise of her father’s castle (Eden) but her stepmother (Satan) is jealous of the love shown to Snow White by her father (God). Out of this jealousy, the stepmother kicks her out of the paradise. Snow White has to venture out into the horrifying woods (the post-fall world), but finds shelter with 7 dwarves (there are lots of connotations with them. One could argue they’re the major prophets, while others argue that they’re the 7 Holy virtues). There is, of course, the added tidbit of Snow White eating a poisoned apple given to her by the Satan character in disguise. Snow White is then resurrected by the son of a King, and taken back to his castle to live with him in paradise. Again, I see this as a great thing to share with my future daughters.

Moral of the Story: Jesus and stuff.

Obviously I can’t write much more without this post becoming excessively long, but keep in 
mind that my argument that each Disney Princess is purposely written as a lesson for a certain 
type of girl holds true with the other princesses. Rapunzel? A message for an anorexic 
generation of girls bullied and subdued into low self-esteem by their mean-girl moms. Tiana? A 
love letter to exactly the kind of feminist that normally hates Disney films, telling them that, 
with a little openness, their dreams can come true too.

So what about you? What are some good messages you’ve found in Disney films? Let me know 
in the comments section.

1 comment:

  1. Oooh. You just about lost me in the second paragraph when you called Atlantis a cinematic atrocity seeing as it's easily one of my favorite Disney movies. However, I am glad I at least kept skimming enough to see some interesting points that drew me in enough to read them all in depth. You have a lot of great points that I really like and hadn't noticed in some of these! I feel like some of your defenses are weak (mostly Aurora's and Cinderella's) but overall this is good stuff! Thanks for sharing.