Thursday, October 27, 2011

Disney: Teaching Girls To Live With Violence Since 1923

A buddy of mine sent me a message with this picture, put together by the incomparable George Takei. Take a minute, read the captions, and then let's talk about this stuff.

I live two hours north of Disney World in Florida. I've been there a couple times as an adult, and went a few times as a little kid. There's something about Disney World that can be kind of intoxicating at first - the way every detail is considered, the fun roller coasters, the quick availability of ice cream - but I've come to see it as essentially a giant mall. Disney World exists to sell Disney products, and Disney movies are basically commercials for toys at this point, even if they didn't start out that way. I'm uncomfortable with that consumerism aspect. It's not just a general anti-capitalism thing for me, it's also about how we're training kids to think that they can introduce magic and fantasy into their lives through buying plush toys. The "magic of Disney" is really "the magic of thinking we can buy our way to a better life."

But Disney isn't just selling Lady and the Tramp dolls. It's also selling gender norms that fit right into the patriarchal power structure, as the picture above illustrates. Instead of elaborating on the captions in that picture, because they speak for themselves, I'd like to spend a minute focusing specifically on the relationship of women and violence in these films.

Beauty and the Beast is an easy starting point. Belle is in an abusive relationship. The Beast is terrifying and violent, and is very much of the "If you don't burn my waffles I won't hit you" line of thinking that many of us have encountered far too often in our lives. But the audience is meant to be rooting for her to win him over, and if she can do so convincingly, he will turn into a handsome prince and they will live happily ever after. She just has to figure out how to change him, is all! No big deal, guys!

But in real life, abusers like him can't be changed like that, no matter how perfect/beautiful/charming their victim. Any change they can manage has to be done on their own, internally, and probably with the help of a good therapist. Being a better victim is not going to end the abuse you're suffering.

The Little Mermaid deals with another kind of violence: the destruction of one's own identity in order to better fit into the mold that mainstream white culture tells us laydeez will land us some menfolk.* Ariel literally loses her voice. She loses her identity - as a mermaid, as a beautiful singer, as someone interested in collection random crap - in order to be something this man wants. And he is captivated by her, and intrigued by her voicelessness. It's working for him until he's put under the spell of a witch. Not only did Ariel lose her voice, she lost what made her a mermaid: her tail, her swimming ability, the capacity to live underwater. She distanced herself from her friends (a classic sign of abuse, by the way). This is a violence that is just as terrifying and real as the kind that was enacted on Belle, and in both cases, the women in question were forced to sacrifice themselves in order to get a guy. And I, at least, was never sure why even Prince Eric was worth attaining (The Beast is a clear loser). He was handsome? Rich? Is that what we're supposed to be telling our daughters is more important than their ability to express themselves in even the most basic ways?

Sleeping Beauty and Snow White both show the ways that violence can work on [conventionally attractive] women who then need to be rescued by [conventionally attractive and also void of personality] men. These women are considered worthy of rescuing because they are not challenging hegemonic femininity in any way, although their persecutors often are. Be thin, clear-skinned, [usually] white, vulnerable, and gentle, and some dude will come fix your shit up for you. So, we have men as the causes or perpetrators of violence as well as the protectors from violence. Not good.

Our kids, regardless of gender, are being sold these messages in big bad ways. This is education in consumerism, in gender, in body image, in relationships, and in power. The men have the power, the women just have to be worthy of having it used in their favor instead of against them. It's in considering things like this that I become enormously relieved that I am unlikely to have small kids of my own, because I'm not sure I could stomach dealing with their inevitable interactions with Disney. I know some of you are parents: how do you deal with this stuff?

*And of course, a significant number of us aren't at all interested in landing menfolk anyway.


  1. Well, my wife and daughter both LOVE Disney, and I certainly enjoy it as well, though not to the same degree. We still get Florida resident passes every year and probably stay overnight there 4 or 5 times a year. We spend most of the money on food, some t-shirts, and what my klepto grabs while sitting in her stroller. My little girl will often declare that she works at Disney with Spiderman. She does love the place.
    Meggie loves the princesses, and I have no problem with that. She has enough strong female role models that the issues you raise aren't a concern right now. Anyway, while she loves the princesses, and she calls herself my princess, we both know I am grooming her to be a left-handed starter for the Boston Red Sox. :)Hard to pitch effectively in a pink tafetta dress.
    I kid. Somewhat. Seriously though, I really do not worry about it at all. She is a smart kid, and her mom and I will teach her and show her how to live as a strong young woman.

  2. I always liked Belle at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast--the quirky book nerd who rebuffed the vile Gaston. If only she could have been more assertive against the Beast.

    The messages these princesses convey is pretty disturbing. Hopefully, though, parents will be able to have conversations with their children about them and, as you suggested Steve, provide strong female role models as alternatives.

    There is a little light in the end of the tunnel from Disney, though. They have teamed up with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to produce a line of anime that appeal to kids and have stronger, more complex female protagonists. I won't assert that there's nothing problematic about the films, but they do present some better characters and richer stories. And even though they come out of Disney studios, these films aren't as wrapped up in the consumerism. At least not yet.

  3. Wonderfully interesting article. I have to confess that violence and domination are so intertwined in these stories (both Disney, but also the larger cultural ones) that I often miss them.

    "He was handsome? Rich? Is that what we're supposed to be telling our daughters is more important than their ability to express themselves in even the most basic ways?"
    Yup. These kinds of morals don't happen in a vacuum. From European and far eastern immigrant notions that American streets were paved with gold to the Horatio Alger-style work hard and get rich, the underlying American value (for men) is to obtain wealth. Now, as women don't have access to things like jobs, what is their way of obtaining
    wealth? Men.

    "For contemplation he and valor formed,
    For softness she and sweet attractive grace;
    He for God only, she for God in him." -Paradise Lost

    I know subjugation is only one element of the greater whole here, but I'd say that Disney movies (most of which are not original stories) are part of a larger, deeply ingrained western and Judeo-Christian traditions. I think, and I'm sure you would agree to at least some degree, that these are the symptoms, not the disease (of course these systems solidify the disease).

    My as always jumbled and scatterbrained two cents.

  4. @Desi: I liked Belle, too, being a giant book nerd as a kid, but now I'm bothered by the fact that the movie expected me to like her partly because she turned down Gaston. On the one hand, okay, he was a douche and so that's evidence of good taste, but on the other hand, I'm not gonna judge a lady for getting busy with ten douches. I mean guy-douches, not, like, Summer's Eve.

  5. Good point. But, when I think about little children who may be watching that movie (like my 5 yo niece), I'm thankful for how Belle reacted toward Gaston. If she had given in to his whims, that could have conveyed the message that girls should sacrifice themselves for the mens, even the sleazy scumbags.

    Of course, she goes on to do that very thing with the Beast anyhow.