In Defence of the Disney Princess

As a Disney fan, I frequently find myself mildly irritated and fairly amused by the kind of Disney-based articles I come across whilst conducting my daily internet browse. THE DARK SIDE OF DISNEY, WHAT YOU NEVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT DISNEY and various other headings grab my attention, and before I know it I am engrossed in a BuzzFeed piece about how Walt was cryogenically frozen, how Cinderella is the worst possible role model for young girls and how everyone who works for Disney is actually a secret racist.

I’d quite like to have a ramble about the classic princesses of Disney (as well as I can in a short-ish article). I did my dissertation on this and I had a blast. “Why are characters like Cinderella and Snow White so meek and mild?”, people ask. “Did you know that Cinderella just STAYED INSIDE BEING TOLD WHAT TO DO AND DIDN’T EVEN REBEL? Then she just married the prince and everything was fine?! I’ll never bring my daughter up on that stuff”. Hmm. That’s true, but here’s the scoop: Cinderella was made in 1950, a time where, sadly, women weren’t afforded the same opportunities they are today. I guess her way of doing things was different to how ours would be, but she did the best she could with what she had. How can people compare Cinderella and other classic Disney princesses to today’s standards? Not to mention the fact that Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty are all based on fairy tales. Walt didn’t just gather his workers, sit them down at a table and say “Hey guys, let’s all come up with a really sexist story!” – these tales had been in existence for hundreds of years before Disney even touched them.

And you know what else, I feel pretty bad for poor Cinderelly and Snow White. Snow White’s stepmother tried to have her killed, and Cinderella’s entire family is dead so she is looked after by her stepmother and stepsisters, who – as we all know – are incredibly cruel towards her. So what would you do? If you’d been brought up in that abusive and self-esteem-ruining environment from a young age, would you honestly tell your wicked stepmother where to stick it and then run away, knowing full well that there would be no job and no security for you? I doubt it. We may mock the older princesses for relying on princes to come and rescue them, but a prince represented an escape and a ticket to a better life, something the princess would simply not have been able to achieve on her own. Not because she is ‘weak’ or ‘pathetic’, but actually because there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for her to do so.

What baffles me is when people are positively outraged by Disney films and can reel off a whole list of gender-based issues within them, but don’t have the slightest care for any other related topics. Sure, question Disney if that’s what you want to do, but please don’t let that be where your interest in feminism ends. Disney is a huge company, but it’s not the only source of female portrayal within the media, so why is there such focus on what it creates and such apathy and ignorance towards other things that also need our attention? When I visit the Disney Store, I’ll see women come in, stand and complain about how terrible a role model “Sleeping Beauty” is (HER NAME IS AURORA FOR THE LOVE OF GOD), in between chatting about their diet in front of their children and flicking through their copies of Heat magazine, where the front cover screams about female celebz who looked really wrinkly the other day and then didn’t wear make up to the beach. Sigh. By all means boycott Disney if you feel it will aid your daughter’s self esteem, but don’t stop there, you know?

Also, why are no other films from the earlier part of the 20th century ever brought in for questioning? In popular Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, suicidal George learns about what his town would be like, had he never existed. Turns out everything would have been terrible, and for his wife, the worst has happened – she has ended up a shy spinster who works in a library. Sexist? Yes, definitely. Criticised today? Definitely not. More like regarded lovingly as a ‘classic’ and brought out for nostalgic reasons every December. Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind is a fun and assertive character, but she still moves from husband to husband, knowing that often the marriage she has agreed to will be the only thing keeping a roof over her head. Sexist? Yes, by today’s standards. But we recognise that ‘that was then and this is now’ and, again, the film is considered a classic. D’you see where I’m going with this? Why are we so lenient towards other films from the same eras as famous Disney movies, but so unaccepting of the Disney movies themselves? Just because Disney set out to make family entertainment, that doesn’t mean it was exempt from all of the societal influences of the time.

I can’t disagree that Disney is still a few years behind everyone else in terms of equality for all (although I just read an article that Disney Channel show Good Luck Charlie will now feature a lesbian couple, hooray!), but what I don’t like is the fact that everyone is constantly trying to somehow catch Disney out. Like I said, I’m not trying to say that the company is perfect and that nothing in its films should be analysed or explored (that’s part of the fun!), but what I do think is that sometimes the films are hyperanalysed, the criticisms of them are repeated and exaggerated to prove a point, and, most importantly, I think that people will always go out of their way to prove something that prides itself on being ‘good’ and ‘innocent’ is actually corrupt and evil.

I think the last thing is that actually, I don’t go to my Disney film selection for hard-hitting social commentary or even realism. I watch Disney films because of their sense of magic, because I know that at the end of the film, Rapunzel is going to fall in love with Flynn and Mother Gothel will be no more and everyone is going to be happy. I get that it’s important to look at how women are shown in TV and films, especially films that are widely adored by young children. I understand that Disney movies aren’t entirely realistic, and I understand that finding a husband and living happily ever after should no longer be any young girl’s sole goal in life. But Disney is the one place people can come back to whenever they like, to in order to escape the harshness of the real world and instead be engrossed in a place where dreams and wishes can come true, where people stay together forever, and where good always triumphs over evil. Can’t we appreciate it for that?

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