Disney is a cornerstone of the American childhood. Even for someone like myself who was raised in an environment where most Disney movies were banned because of the witchcraft, sorcery, or overt references to Satan (The cat in Cinderella is named Lucifer, for example), I was still influenced via friends or the occasional contraband storybook found in a dentist’s or doctor’s waiting room that I would sneak into a corner or playhouse and read. I didn’t see most Disney movies until I was a babysitting teenager. To this day I have never seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or 101 Dalmatians, yet I could tell you the stories and even sing nearly all the songs. With such a pervasive influence, it was impossible to escape the clutch of Disney.
When I say Disney, I should clarify that for the purpose of this blog I shall restrict my definition to the animated classics mainly centering around the princess fairytale. While this circumvents a lot of the boys who preferred the more rough and tough movies, like The Jungle Book, this exclusion is necessary for length and interest.
From toddlers to women in their thirties, nearly every girl in America can tell you their favorite Disney princess. For some, the reasons are superficial, like a shared hair color. For others the reasons are more complicated and involve an emotional connection to the struggles of the princess. A girl’s favorite Disney princess can say a lot about her, but what does Disney say in return? With such an important piece of girlhood revolving around Disney stories, it’s interesting to look closer at what it’s actually teaching impressionable young minds.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – (1937) After fleeing her evil stepmother (an unfortunate recurring theme in Disney stories as it predisposes children to distrust a stepmother figure) Snow White escapes into the forest and stumbles upon a little cottage. Finding it unoccupied, Snow White enters the cottage and makes herself at home (a felony nowadays). Once she is discovered by the seven dwarfs, they agree to let her stay so long as she cleans and cooks for them. Without any thought, Snow White agrees to exchange favors for seven strange men. While the story does discourage homicidal vanity and taking food gifts from strangers, encouraging young girls to move in with seven men (whatever their stature) seems like a very bad idea.
Cinderella -(1950) Perhaps the most popular and recognizable of all the Disney princesses, Cinderella is the quintessential “good girl.” She is kind, courteous, and obeys her evil step mother’s every order without protest. In her spare time, she rescues animals and makes clothing for them. However, it is only through magic that she is able to achieve her desires of going to the ball and meeting the prince. While this story reaffirms good behavior, it does emphasis that without her fairy godmother, Cinderella would have never escaped her stepmother’s hold. Many other versions of Cinderella have appeared over the years (one source says that Cinderella is the most re-told story in the history of literature and cinema), and in many of those re-telling the character of Cinderella is much more independent and less passive; a more heroic character, if less obedient.
Sleeping Beauty – (1959) While this is another story of disguise. Aurora is nothing more than a victim of circumstances beyond her control. She is not even made aware that she is not Briar Rose, the orphan peasant who lives with three matronly fairies, but is, in fact, the only child of the kind and queen. She’s a fairly unremarkable character who succumbs to the curse placed upon her as an infant. She lays in a coma until her prince comes to kiss her. She lives a normal life, discovers on her sixteenth birthday she’s a princess, falls under a spell, wakes up, and goes on to live happily ever after without any effort. Though, like Snow White, Mulan, Cinderella, Pocahontas, and Ariel, Aurora is able to talk to animals and understand them in return.
The Little Mermaid – (1989) The only amphibious of the princesses, Ariel sports dissatisfaction with her surroundings, constantly longing for the world on land. When she falls in love with a guy she sees dancing on a ship, her dislike of her home becomes even more intensified, until she finally makes a deal with the sea-witch to transform her body (for the low low cost of one voicebox) in order to abandon her father, sisters, friends, and entire world to pursue a man she knows nothing about. In the Hans Christian Anderson story that of the same name which Disney used as a basis, the little mermaid’s plan backfires when the prince uses the girl as a companion/servant and falls in love with someone else. The Anderson story concludes with the mermaid dying and turning into a spirit that is sustained by the goodness of little boys and girls. Disney’s mermaid causes her father’s entrapment to the sea-witch, which nearly results in the entire underwater kingdom being overtaken. Perhaps the most horrible outcome of all the runaway princesses. Ariel, and the entire ocean and aquatic life is only saved because Eric is intuitive enough to impale Ursula with the bow of one of his ships. Which is, essentially, a lucky shot. Things end happily for Ariel and she gets her prince, and still retains friendship with her marine pals and her family, but her love does keep her separated from her family and friends. It is only when they so choose to rise to the surface that she can have any real contact with them.
Beauty and the Beast – (1991) With a name like that means “beauty” it’s not wonder that appearance is central to the story of Belle. Like in Cinderella, goodness is translated to physical beauty. So all the characters who are good are also attractive, while the characters who are bad are ugly. Gaston, the would-be suitor to Belle is supposed to be handsome and attractive, in fact, he has an entire song based on his looks and masculinity. Yet no girl, familiar with the story or not, would admit that they find him appealing. In order to save her father, Belle agrees to be the prisoner of the Beast. Effectively selling herself. Belle is perhaps the least passive of all the princesses. She vocally refuses to capitulate to the Beast’s desires, even scolding him at times. Belle is the only princess whose prince charming is neither handsome, nor charming. Even Aladdin, who is a criminal (the Beast’s only crime was vanity) is at least pleasant and attractive to Jasmine. While almost all the princesses fought to overcome something, Belle was the only one who did so with no regard to herself. She fought to overcome the Beast’s anger and bitterness in order to make him a better person rather than to make her personal circumstances better. In all the other stories, there was some sort of personal gain involved, but Belle had already come to terms with her situation before she ever knew of the curse or of the way to reverse it. It can also be noted that Belle is the only one depicted as book-smart. Also, unlike all the other princesses, Belle is the only one not to fall in love at first sight.
Aladdin -(1992) I will avoid going into depth that the origination of this story is from One Thousand and one Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights) that features a king who marries virgins and then murders them the next day. But I will say that it can be a traumatic thing for a young girl to discover. Aladdin, while driven by poverty, is a thief and fugitive. Yet he is considered a “diamond in the rough” because he steals with a good heart. The guards are depicted as frightening, bumbling dopes. In other words, Aladdin is the pitiable bad boy, a victim of his circumstances. Yet he goes on to spin a massive lie in order to ingratiate himself to the spoiled princess. The theme here being that so long as he has a good heart, it’s okay to forgive his criminal activities. It should also be noted that they met because Jasmine lied about her own identity in an attempt to run away, leaving girls with the impression that if you don’t like your circumstances, running away and falling in love with a felon equals true love.
Pocahontas – (1995) The Native-American version of Romeo and Juliet, Pocahontas is the only one of the preceding Disney stories to be based soundly on a historical figure. Surprisingly, Disney does a relatively good job with accuracy when it comes to John Smith and Pocahontas. The other characters are much less historically credible. Not surprisingly, this is the only story as well where the female protagonist does not have a happily ever after with the leading male character. Pocahontas defies her father, rejects her suitor, and risks her life to protect a man who is not of her own kind. While this thankfully works out for the good of most, one important fact is easily over-looked. Pocahontas’ disobedience leads to her betrothed’s (Kocoum) death. It should be noted that Pocahontas’ name means “playful.” But this does not necessarily mean fun. Playful can refer to mischief, such as playing with the line of right and wrong. Much like fairies are considered “playful.”
Mulan – (1998) Yet another story of a girl who runs away from her family, Mulan’s is unique in that she goes to extensive lengths to disguise who she is. By wrapping up her chest and pretending to be a man, she joins the army, an act punishable by death. The story is based on a lie that began by a feeling of gender inferiority. Freud would have a field day with this story, but I will restrict myself to a simple commentary that lying and pretending to be someone you’re not, seems to always lead young Disney girls to their soul mates.
All images found on Yahoo! Images