(Re)Considering Disney Classics

14 04 2008

For the past 6 weeks or so, my homelife has taken on the musical scores of The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and101 Dalmations. How did this happen? Well, like most of my parenting mistakes, I all began at Target. I was moving down the DVD aisle, looking for the Doodlebops (an educational show about three young people: 2 boys and a girl, one purple, one blue, one orange. Disturbing? yes. Harmful? not if you don’t count my singing along to the theme song.), when I came across The Little Mermaid. “OH!” I cried. “I used to love this movie! Ruthie, looooook! You and Mama are going to watch this as soon as we get home. Kay?”

After the first 40 minutes or so, I realized that I had made a mistake. My background in gender theory has problematized every encounter with popular culture in the first place. In this case, I was completely and utterly horrified at what I had subjected my child to. Main issues with the film:

  • Ariel trades her voice for a body.
  • Ursula is the ultimate excessive woman (who lives in a vagina, no less)
  • There is no mother
  • The Law of the Father is explicitly introduced in the second song in the film when the daughters of King Triton exult in their names “Great father who loved us and named us well…”
  • Ariel marries at 16.

With each viewing (by now, Ruthie was incessantly inquiring after both Ariel and Ursula), I became more and more engrossed by the representations of gender and gendered relationships. Now I know some of you readers are probably saying what nearly everyone says to me when I go off on the Little Mermaid tirade: “But do you really think Ruthie gets all of that from the film? I mean, c’mon! It’s a kids movie.” This vignette is for you, wary reader.

Ruthie is eating mac and cheese with us at dinnertime. She leans in real close to me, grabs my cheeks with both hands very gently, and says with conviction, “I’m gonna get married like Ariel.” I might have choked. Adam started laughing. I was incredulous. Who told her that she got married?! I was already upset by the fact that Ruthie paid particular attention to the parts when King Triton was mad and by her obsession with Ursula, who she says is “not very nice.” I was equally distraught by her newfound interest in princesses and “pretty” things.

I’m not entirely sure what we’re going to do about this Disney catastrophe in our household. On the one hand, I don’t want to teach Ruthie the age-old binary that insists good is pretty and bad is ugly. I also don’t like the assumption that women need to be saved (as seen in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and many other children’s stories). And the absence of mothers in many of the Disney movies is especially disturbing. However, I was brought up on Disney movies and seem to have turned out alright (for the most part anyways). Several other people whom I esteem and admire have admitted to having favorite Disney movies.

This being said, I have not restricted Ruthie’s Disney movie time. While I remain vigilant over the screenings, I have decided that withholding the movies might not be the best thing either. When she’s old enough to have some idea of how brainwashed she has been, she can unlearn all of the idea that she comes to think of as “natural” as a result of her socialization. Meanwhile, we continue to praise her for being “smart” and “funny” and “pretty.” We notice when she does a good job drawing and we affirm creativity and imagination.

One day I came home from class and found Ruthie and Adam outside looking under a rock. When I walked outside to see what they were up to, Ruthie stuck out her little finger, pointing to a creature that resembled a maggot or something equally disgusting, and said, “Look, Mommy! A gggrrrrruuubbbb. Is he a sweet little boy?” I can say with some certainty that none of the “princesses” featured by Disney would be depicted searching for grub (although Timone and Pumba do have a healthy appetite for such tasty morsels).

In the end, Disney movies will probably not take too much of a toll on her innocent existence… perhaps the best we can do as parents is educate our kids about the world around them as it is rather than censor every single thing that they encounter.

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4 responses

15 04 2008
Jennifer

Agh! Now you know how I felt when I took Lily to Disneyland in February…a right of passage for so many children, but frought with stereotypes I DO NOT want her to embrace! Why can’t the kicky little songs and spunky sidekicks live in movies that are a little less disturbing when you stop to think about them as adults??? Sigh.

15 04 2008
Ms. Lawrence

It’s horrid, really, little girls (5 and 6 and in my class) wearing shirts which proclaim that “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. We definitely DO need to influence them to be thinkers, not to be merely decorative wastelands. (Not that your daughter would grow to be such by just ingesting a few Disney flicks)

p.s. I adore the part in Beauty and the Beast when Belle fights off wolves and saves The Beast. I also admire her “nose stuck in a book” and her being described as a “beauty but a funny girl”. Hurrah for one great Disney heroine. (Although this movie, too, displays Mother Absence.)

20 06 2008
Adellita

Mulan may be the only Disney movie in which a woman is a hero in her own right. A woman who has a mother, takes the place of her father, saves the man she ends up with (instead of being saved) and is acknowledged as a hero.

Pocahontas, although grossly inaccurate, is a close second for a strong female Disney character. Although she doesn’t have a mother, she has a strong female role model…who happens to be a tree, and rejects an arranged marriage.

It’s funny to notice the only two really strong Disney women are also the only two ethnic main characters. Hmm..

23 11 2008
Shema

Adellita, you are spot on. My daughter is watching Disney movies in high school at the moment, and is amazed that as a child she could have liked them, though she genrally spent more time reading Harry Potter and cathing lizards, for which I am VERY greatful!
No one has yet mentioned Jasmine from Aladdin, however. She rejects her fathers wishes for her to marry, and sneaks out of the palace. Like Pocahontas there is no mom element, though. Even in Mulan the father is more dominate.
Why is this?
And where are all the white feisty girls? Disney has coped claims of racism before, but genrally about negative potrayal of any non-white person; just look at the lyrics (that were changed later) from the oppening song in Aladdin:
‘I come from a land where they cut off your ear in they don’t like your face…it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.’
Yet, looked at from the girls point of veiw, Disney seems to be saying some thing entirley different.
My head is spinning.

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