One of America’s popular cultural institutions is Disney. From Mickey Mouse to “Sleeping Beauty” to “Cars,” everyone has seen, or is at least familiar with, something from Disney. We view Disney as a family-friendly and wholly moral corporation, one that does not stand for anything that could offend anyone. But are we looking deep enough?
While young children may want to watch late night television and violent movies, most of the ones with decent parents never get the chance. What they far more commonly watch are things like Disney movies. It is from these movies that children often get their first impressions of how men and women are supposed to act.
Let’s take “Sleeping Beauty” for instance, one of the archetypal Disney princesses. When she is very young, a witch, Maleficent, curses Aurora, the titular sleeping beauty, to die when she pricks her finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday. But some good fairies use their good magic to change the curse to only make her fall asleep until she is kissed by her true love. So, as predicted, she pricks her finger on her sixteenth birthday and is captured by the witch. The prince comes and saves Aurora, kissing her to wake her up. They get married, and live happily ever after. How splendid.
The problem is: What is between the lines? Aurora is described as an extraordinarily beautiful woman, so young girls will understand, even if they are not directly told, that is how they are supposed to strive to look. If you have ever seen “Sleeping Beauty,” however, you will notice that Aurora’s figure is as impossible as Barbie’s for humans to achieve. Unfortunately, this is not isolated just to “Sleeping Beauty.” All of Disney’s princesses, and even some of the female villains, are impossibly proportioned, and the ones who are not, like Ursula of “The Little Mermaid,” are still hyper-sexualized to the point of absurdity.
Disney movies also teach little girls they are supposed to be complacent and weak if they want to be successful. “Sleeping Beauty” is a perfect example of this. Aurora, as the perfect woman, is depicted as extremely demure. In every case she is merely whisked through the story, rarely taking a proactive stance. Even when they are proactive, like Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” it is because of their aggressiveness that everyone else is plunged into peril.
The vast majority of women who do use power in Disney movies are the villains. Maleficent’s magic is more powerful than anyone else’s in the kingdom, including the combined power of the three good fairies. Ursula is the sea-witch people go to when their problems cannot be solved by ordinary means.
While men in Disney films are allowed to be aggressive, they are not allowed to be much else. The prince in “Sleeping Beauty,” Prince Phillip, is utterly forgettable, a completely flat character. I did not even know his name was Prince Phillip until I saw the movie. I thought his name was Prince Charming. Charming is actually from “Snow White.” Shows how memorable he is. All of this teaches the boys who watch Disney movies they need to be strong, but silent and withdrawn, to be successful.
Many of the movies and characters created by Disney are far more of an unacceptably bad influence on children than we realize. Parenting groups have long blamed more adult media for the problems with our youth, everything from the obvious violent television to the mundane school. Where they have failed to look is what seems like the least likely place: Disney.