Well, I suppose it has been over 10 years since Disney actively mocked it’s classics with movies like Enchanted and Cheetah Girls (specifically, they had a whole song poking a stick at Cinderella), so that means it’s time to talk about what bad role models they are again!
Now, I want to be clear up front that there’s nothing wrong with Kristen Bell and Keira Knightly having concerns. Every parent has a right to their own concern about any media being presented whether I or anyone else disagrees with them, and many, like these celebrities, do talk about their concerns with others — it’s just that these two are celebrities so when they talk about these matters, the whole world hears about it and, of course, the whole world is going to have feelings about it. I know I certainly did. That’s why I wrote this story.
Well, to be more specific, I had feelings about the way everyone outside of the actual interviews where these discussions occurred has been handling the news. There seems to be, as there always is, two camps: The ‘yeah I agree’ camp, which ranges from ‘yeah, there are problematic messages’ to ‘yep we’ve banned them in our house, too.’ And there’s the ‘how dare you!’ camp, which includes the likes of ‘but these are classics, so you can’t criticize them,’ ‘these stories are based on fairy tales, so you can’t criticize them,’ and ‘these movies weren’t made to have lessons, they were made to be entertainment, so you can’t criticize them.’ (I’m somewhere in between the two camps, which is a place I’m accustomed to being in these days.)
It’s a silly idea that we, as a culture, can’t criticize these movies just because they’re considered classics. I believe it’s extremely important that we reassess our past creations every now and then. After all, The Birth of a Nation is, technically, a classic film based on old traditions and ideas and it broke new ground in the cinematography department. That doesn’t mean we should start showing it to our toddlers. Or, really, anyone other than film and culture studies students.
For Disney, Snow White is amazing for everything that it accomplished and everything that it changed in the world of animation and film, but it is important to question the message and if it’s something we should still be showing to the most malleable among us. We also shouldn’t give the movies a pass because they came from even older fairy tales. Just because people told their kids certain stories 200 years ago, that doesn’t mean those stories are even remotely appropriate for kids. People also used to think that 5 year olds were just tiny adults and girls were married off as soon as they got their first period. Our ancestors got a lot of things grotesquely wrong.
“Don’t you think that it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission?” Kristen [Bell] said she asks her girls. “Because you can not kiss someone if they’re sleeping!” — Parents interview
Kids are sponges. They take in everything, even (or, perhaps, especially) things that adults notice. So it definitely doesn’t hurt to be on alert to try and keep an eye on the less than savory messages they could be internalizing. And, yes, I’m talking all kids. It’s just as important that sons know that kissing a passed out girl isn’t going to make them a prince as it is to teach girls that being kissed while passed out isn’t ok.
At least Disney cut Sleeping Beauty’s sleeping pregnancy. For anyone that thinks it’s ok to not question the classics, there’s a big sign as to why we do. Even classic Disney thought the fairy tales went too far. Disney isn’t the end-all-be-all for fairy tales either just because they made the most iconic movie versions of them. It’s completely ok to question what they did end up deciding to do. That’s how we grow as a society. That’s how our kids will be better than we were, and their kids better than they were. We should always be holding the classics up to modern moral standards so that we can keep discussing them and teaching better lessons as we go.
BUT! I also don’t think banning them, as Keira says she’s done, is the full answer either. I definitely wouldn’t show Sleeping Beauty to a four year old, but Cinderella? Yes.
Of the classic trio, Cinderella has the best lessons. It teaches kindness, perseverance, not giving up. It also shows that abusive behavior is bad — the abusive step-mom and sisters are the villains, and they end up left behind in the end. (Though their feet and eyes are still intact.) And, well, the one thing Cinderella is supposedly famous for — sitting around, waiting for a man — didn’t actually happen. Cinderella did no sitting and no waiting. Yes, an outside force did eventually rescue her, but she wasn’t waiting for him.
Actually, none of them waited, necessarily. They just sort of ended up finding their way to a man for their happy endings. Which is an issue unto itself, but it’s an issue that 99% of romances face, including any media technically classified as anything but romance but still has romance in it.
The closest any of the official Disney princesses got to actively waiting for a man, specifically, to save them was Ariel, and she didn’t wait as much as she literally went out to try and force him to save her from her perfectly happy underwater life. From her, we can learn not to make hasty deals with shady people just to get what we think we want. For most of the others, they either seized an opportunity using their prince or just happened into romance while doing something else. Even Aurora. She was just out singing in the woods on her birthday none the wiser to anything when she happened upon the man who would later choose to slay the evil fairy dragon to wake her. She never once asked or even expected him to help. And then, of course, there’s Merida, who proudly doesn’t have a love interest at all.
I really can’t argue much in favor of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. I mean, Snow White definitely has a ‘be kind’ message, and there’s definitely a good ol’ ‘don’t try to kill people just because they’re prettier than you!’ message in it, so at least there’s something. There’s really no good messages in Sleeping Beauty, though I very much appreciate Sleeping Beauty because the real protagonists are middle aged-looking ladies, but that’s more of a personal thing. (I even dressed up as Merryweather when we went to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party.) But then, these three movies weren’t made for lessons. We use cartoons to teach kids now, because we make cartoons with the express purpose of entertaining and reaching out to kids. When the first several Disney movies were made, they were just making movies. There was no ‘target audience.’ There was just…people, going to see movies. Movies as a concept were still pretty new, too, when Snow White was made.
So it can feel harsh to look for messages, but kids are going to be digesting this, just as they digest literally everything. It’s easy for adults to tune out the little things, or to just enjoy something for being pretty, or sounding nice. But kids are eating up what those things are saying. At the very least, kids need to be old enough to talk about what they’re watching, so we can let them know ‘hey, this is just a movie — what you’re seeing here isn’t necessarily a reflection of reality. Not just the magic, but the princesses too.’
To that end, I really like Kristin’s approach.
“Every time we close Snow White I look at my girls and ask, ‘Don’t you think it’s weird that Snow White didn’t ask the old witch why she needed to eat the apple? Or where she got that apple?’ I say, ‘I would never take food from a stranger, would you?’ And my kids are like, ‘No!’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m doing something right.’” — Parents interview
Kids are very likely to run into Disney’s take on these stories one way or another. Disney has a huge campaign surrounded around these characters. You can’t go to a toy store without running into them, and you probably can’t go to any American Kindergarten without at least some of the kids having chosen one of the classic trio as their favorite. One of my nieces chose Cinderella at that age. (The other chose Tiana.)
Its better to broach the topic on your own terms so they know what’s what before they get into the thick of things. Unlike a lot of the dumb things our ancestors thought and did, the Disney movies come with a lot of good beside the bad. The older princesses are more demure and less adventurous, but they can still be good role models.