Being a woman or man Disney Style

I was led through BoingBoing.net to two very interesting image representations of how Disney’s portrayal of relationships boils down for men and women:

What Disney Teaches Men

What Disney Teaches Men

What Disney Teaches Women

What Disney Teaches Women

I think that pretty well sums it up, no?  At least it left me snorting in agreement and with the sad realization that I will probably still continue to enjoy Disney films but wonder how I would approach the topic of such things were I to finally break down and have a child at some point in the near future.  How do any parent readers approach these sorts of things?  Do you monitor what the little ones watch in hopes of culturing the perfect mind?  Do you explain away the ways that such films make things like lying to get a girl and having to be beautiful to get your white knight problematic?  I’m curious both in an idle way and also in a “what if I do end up having a child/children?!  What will *I* do?!?” sort of way.

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15 thoughts on “Being a woman or man Disney Style

  1. HAHAA!!!

    My 6 year old Daughter has been obsessed with “The Little Mermaid” since she was 4. When she was about to turn 6 I read her the original Hans Christian Andersen version.

    Now it might not be much better as the little mermaid (Coraline) flung herself into the sea to drown (no, she did not turn back into a mermaid “Splash” style, I don’t know why) because the prince married someone else.

    But at least it’s a bit more realistic, none of that happy ending crap in this household!

    • @AReader I do like thinking about adding the reality bit. I read the original version of Little Mermaid and thought it even sadder than the Disney bit. So poignant..and a bit gruesome too!

  2. This is a sore spot for me.
    I didn’t think I would ever let my child, let alone my daughter (who is five and a half), watch Disney films, princess ones in particular, but I’ve folded like a cheap card table.
    My daughter loves these movies, but we only own two — the others have been rented or borrowed. The ones we own are Sleeping Beauty and The Princess and the Frog. I hate that Sleeping Beauty is entirely passive in her own story. From birth, she’s punished for the errors of her parents, there’s nothing she can do to escape her fate. In my opinion, Little Mermaid is the worst from a “messages to women” perspective, but Aladdin/Jasmine is a very close second.
    One thing I’ve done is to expose her to the other versions of the same stories. We’ve check out books from the library (yaaaay, the library!) that have a variety of versions and this helps her to see there are different ways of telling the same story.

    There are some good things about Snow White, Cinderella and Belle — and in terms of the actual agency women had in the time these stories are set in, they aren’t inaccurate. I read Sleeping Beauty as a primarily political story. Tiana’s story, while problematic in some ways, portrays a powerful, self-directed African American woman.
    I think part of the attraction of princesses to young girls these days is that so much is expected of women, in particular of moms, that the idea that a woman could be cared for and loved without having to work so hard and do everything that most moms have to do (these days and for as long as anyone can remember) has appeal.

    The other positive thing about Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Belle and Cinderella is that these are girls who survive the loss of their mother. And Tiana survives the loss of her father, with whom she has a close relationship, like my little girl does with her dad who has had several episodes of not being with her.
    That’s a big fear that I have, even if it’s not entirely realistic, what would happen to my daughter if she lost me? And she has the same fear, too, I think. We mean so much to each other (cue the power struggles) — and these stories provide some opportunity to see girls surviving without a mother. It’s dangerous, being a beautiful young girl without a mother on the scene to protect you. Beauty stands in for much more than beauty — I think of it as “grace” — the luck and faith to carry you though difficult times. You mostly just have to get through sometimes until the danger has passed.

    I don’t mean to apologize for Disney movies or the fairy tales upon which these are based, but life IS really hard, people do die, parents (step and otherwise) do horrible things to their children — not only in fairy tales. And being beautiful might help you when you are surrounded by love, but it doesn’t save you from horrible things happening to you. If my daughter hadn’t loved these, we wouldn’t let her watch them, but since she does, we make the best of it. If she hasn’t watched the movies, she would have sought out the stories when she was old enough to choose her own books at the library. Would that have been better? We don’t have a “control child” to test this hypothesis on. If she someday says to me “Mom, why did you let me watch those movies!” I will say, “honey, you were a very strong willed child, and you loved them, and I am sorry if you feel now that watching them hurt you.” And then wait until she’s a mom, and hopefully, I’ll be around to let her tell me she now understands. And have her tell me what her own children can or can’t watch while strapped into the car seat of the flying car.

    We don’t watch TV, only DVDs.
    My little girl is actually watching Snow White as we speak — Snow White has entered someone’s house while they aren’t home (dangerous and illegal) and she’s acquired a labor force of animals to clean the house on the presumption that doing so will make the house’s occupants want to let her stay. Aside from the illegal trespassing, it’s kind of a “take-charge” thing to do.

    My daughter has been talking about marriage for about the past year — she wants to marry her best friend — a boy — but recently, she made a proposal to a boy in her class, who said “maybe when I’m older, like 15. My dad will be so happy!”

    I draw the line at the Barbie straight-to-videos. These have nothing redeeming at all about them. I do not allow these in the house, and my bias against all things Barbie is well known to my daughter — this is one of those things I’m willing to fight with her about.

    I try to use these as a chance to see what my little girl is thinking about — it gives us a pretense to talk about what these things mean — beauty, marriage, the existence of mean people in the world. I don’t worry about damaging her psyche with the Disney movies — I don’t view her psyche as something so easily damaged. She will encounter difficult things in life, things beyond my control, so what I can do is to be there with her while she’s making sense of what she sees. I can’t promise I’ll never die (although she wants me to) — my job is to give her as much of my full attention and all of my love while I’m with her.

    Sorry so long!

    Regarding the “having to be beautiful to get your knight” (not white) — I am cultivating an “everyone is beautiful” ethic, not a hierarchy of beauty. A “beauty is as beauty does” sort of perspective. Little girl’s beauty gets commented on all of the time. I’m white, her dad’s family is from India, so there’s often a “what is she?” question behind the attention. She has some important things in common with these fairy tale princesses. She’s petite (but hella strong) and needs to be able to stand up for herself. Her path in life will be different from mine, and all I can do is try to equip her for the journey.

    • @AcceptanceWoman thank you so much for the analysis and insight into how you have approached the topic with your own little girl. My own thoughts tend to fall along the lines of hoping that these sorts of films and stories can be the sort of discussion starting point you’ve described. A way to get at and explore some deeper issues that the plots and characters bring up while being all beautifully animated and sing-song-y.

      As a related aside I have only seen the one but I really enjoyed seeing the Tinkerbell movie about the Lost Treasure. It was fun but also has some themes of stealing and running away to solve problems that might really be good…I don’t want to say “teaching moments” but perhaps jump off points for talks?

  3. Many of these original fairy tales are a lot more gruesome. In Cinderella, I think one of the stepsisters even attempts to mutilate her foot in order to get them to fit into the glass slipper. Today, that’s called tortureporn. 😉

    I was never a big Disney fan growing up. I watched a few of the movies, but when I was a young girl, I was all about Annie. Then I moved on to horror movies and sci-fi and never looked back.

    I really don’t have a problem with kids watching Disney movies. For them at that age, it’s entertainment. At some point though, parents have to explain that what happens in the movies is not how real life works, and when a hairy beast forces a young woman to stay with him, it’s felony kidnapping, not a love story.

  4. Life On Fats — I try to watch my daughter for cues — and I do look at the fairy tales from a somewhat Jungian-Joseph Campbell-ish perspective.
    April — We’ve been through some difficult stuff as a family since little girl was born — and the stories have sometimes served as a good way to talk about what her experiences and feelings have been about these difficult things.

  5. Wow, does that ever say it all!

    My daughter from the start was utterly and completely devoted to the villain in every movie she watched. She’s got Asperger’s, and I assume that the empathy gap made her view movies with an eye to who was the most interesting, rather than the main character. I love that perspective, and I think it really indicates the problem with these movies — that the main characters are generally boring, and the goal of “getting the man” is generally boring. Why can’t there be a princess movies about finding lost treasure? About defeating the dragon? About taking over the kingdom usurped by the evil regent? I guess Mulan was kind of like that, but what Mulan was missing was all the actual princess stuff.

    Because I really think that what girls love about these movies is all the beautiful clothes and hair. They don’t care about the romance stuff so much and they REALLY don’t care about the lessons being taught. And despite being a dead serious feminist, I do actually think that there is probably some kind of evolutionarily determined interest in display in women, just like there is in lots of other animals of one sex or another. Little girls almost universally love sparkly things and complicated, multitextured clothing and being told they are so pretty! Boys almost universally couldn’t care less.

    This was the problem with Beauty and the Beast, which was generally quite good. Belle was supposed to appeal to feminists because she liked reading and didn’t care about being beautiful. But is that so bad? Should we be forcing little girls to dislike “girl” things just to keep them from being all simpery and pathetic?

    Sparkles are awesome! I’m all for enjoying dressing up and watching Disney movies, and I’d leave the lessons about working hard and respecting yourself and exploring your intellectual side for times when we aren’t watching a bit of entertainment. It would be nice if there were more movies that celebrated the fun of pretty things but blew off the whole romance thing, though.

  6. Trabb’s Boy — I think that’s the exact appeal for my daughter. She loves to draw pictures of princesses — she varies the colors of the gowns — she’s really interested in the sparkles and gowns. And that’s a form of expression, too.

  7. This is a tough one! I too wanted to avoid all things princess, but unless you live off the grid making toys from twigs and weaving stories around the campfire you can’t avoid them. We did until she was about 3 1/2, and all the neighbor girls are Disney-fied… We went through an intense interest, but now at almost 5, she is “over” the princesses, thinks they are “dumb,” and like “reptiles.”(Lots of boys in her kindergarten class) I think it’s alot like forbidden foods (I am a feeding specialist) if you make a big deal about it, they want it more. I did a blog today on forbidding things and heightened interest… We do try to talk about it while watching Disney though. It is amazing how tuned in they are to that “feminine” ideal. her favorite character in Peter Pan (Broadway version) is Tiger Lily. (She’s the only one with the long hair, the bare midriff and mini skirt…) Who knows, we do the best we can, eh?

  8. I’ve got a 6 year old, and she’s watched some of the “Disney princess” movies but she knows far more of them from the constant advertising of them everywhere n dolls and books and sticker books, etc.

    I try to balance it out with some alternative visions of the princess, like the book, “The Paperbag Princess” and the animated movie, “Anastasia” (which had a much stronger, butcher protagonist). And we talk about how the movies are very unrealistic.

    And in October, I show her (and her 9 year old brother) the costume catalogues and we talk about how the girls’ and boys’ costumes are different. And when we look for shoes, I point out how the girls’ sandals aren’t made for running in comfort but the boys’ are, and how clothes that are all pink discourage girls from getting dirty, and that the problem with “princess clothes” is that they’re fine if you’re going to sit on a shelf like a doll, but not so good if you want to run and jump and scoot and stuff. So I get her frilly things, since she likes them, and some pink and purple, but I mix it up with black and try to giver her some balance and teach her to think critically about what she’s being sold.

    And my daughter’s also seen some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so she’s got a firm grounding in the idea that women can be strong, competent, evil-fighting leaders who save the world instead of waiting to be saved.

    It’s a constant struggle though. It really is. And, inasmuch as I’d love to ban the whole thing, I think it’s best to limit it, let some in (because it’s hard not to) and use all of it as a series of endless teachable moments in the problems of rigid gender socialization.

  9. I think the princesses can be an age-appropriate phase. My daughter liked them but was not particularly obsessed. I think my daughter was mostly attracted to the clothes and the dancing. It seems a time when girls are infatuated with traditional gender identity. By age 7 she no longer dressed up or wore/used her purses or dresses. Now she is 8 and says she is half tomboy. Frankly I don’t think she took in any anti-feminist messages. I think these actually come as girls get older in middle school. I don’t think boys get bad ideas from these movies etc because boys have no interest.

    Now my daughter is reading the Twig light books. I don’t like some of those messages either but since I don’t censor books it is something I try to talk to her about. If no one knows about Twilight; it is about a teen girl who loves a vampire. He dumps her for her own good. She becomes depressed, subjects herself to danger and eventually gets over it by falling for a werewolf. The saga continues…

  10. Katja and Miriam — I use elements of both of your approaches.
    I do feel as though in general, I want to pick my “battles” carefully — like with food, there are some things that we just don’t eat — you don’t die if you eat them (well, some things are poisonous) but if it’s in the house, and its food, it’s okay to eat at least sometimes. I’m pretty much the same with media — we only watch TV when we are on vacation, otherwise, for the most part, if it’s in the house, it’s okay to watch it when it’s time to watch a movie. We might only have time for a short movie, or mama, daddy or auntie might be tired of seeing a particular movie so we won’t be watching that right now.
    So much of my daughter’s life is scrutinized, structured that she needs healthy ways to exercise choices. Saying no to everything she finds appealing isn’t teaching her anything good — I look for those things she likes that aren’t in 100% conflict with our overall values, and we provide her the opportunity to make choices.
    The idea that kids thrive with structure and rules is a convenient one for adults to have, but in practice, too many rules requires an authoritarian style to enforce. I save rules for really big things (by my own definition) and let many other things slide. My little girl hasn’t been very defiant or mischievous so far, she’s not perfect but overall, she’s a great kid.

  11. Pingback: Thankful Thursday « Living ~400lbs

  12. I think it’s just good to remember that as a child you enjoyed these very same films, and still turned out to be a respectful, feminist adult.

    That said, it can’t hurt to expose a daughter to things like Dora the Explorer, either.

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