What the World can learn from Disney Princesses

The world of Disney and education combined last week when a lesson plan teaching children about sexism and racism within Disney films – specifically those of the Disney Princesses – emerged on a teaching website. The lesson plan mainly focuses on the gender issues that the Disney Princesses present, but also discusses racism within the films as well. And according to Tory MP Phil Davies, teaching children about sexism and racism represented in the media is “politically correct claptrap” rather than a valuable life lesson.

If we were to take the Online Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of ‘politically correct’, then it would be a person who “believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race, should be avoided”. This seems like a reasonable belief, which should be passed on to children. Therefore, teaching children about gender issues in Disney Princess films is not ‘claptrap’, its teaching children the way gender is represented through a popular media outlet, and how that can affect the way women and men are represented in society. Lessons like these can teach children respect for others and how to value and promote a diverse society.

That’s not to say there are issues with the lesson plan’s PowerPoint. It makes various misguided comments about the Disney Princesses throughout, which is the main thing that should be focused on rather than there being an issue with it being taught to children.

Taking Snow White as the first example, the presentation states “She doesn’t mind housework because she is sure that a rich young man will soon come and take her away”. This isn’t really the case. Snow White is by no means a role model to young girls, the film has very stereotyped characters: the young domestic princess, the seven men who go to work every day and come home to a cooked meal, the prince who ultimately saves the princess from her sleeping curse, and don’t forget the vain and evil stepmother. To give credit to Snow White, although she is what I would call the archetype of the ‘domesticated’ female, she is not “sure that a rich young man will soon come and take her away” as the lesson plan would suggest. Yes, she dreams about love – which is very clearly displayed in two songs “I’m Wishing [for the one I love]” and “Some Day my Prince Will Come” – but this is not evidence for Snow White not ‘minding’ housework. Snow White was brought up as a maid by her evil stepmother; the majority of her life has revolved around housework, therefore it is doubtful that Snow White is ‘putting up’ with housework until a prince whisks her away. It is more likely that housework comes as second nature to her than anything else. However, what the lesson plan fails to discuss is that the lack of positive female relationships and the gendered stereotypes are the problem with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Teaching children that some films do have negative qualities that affect the way women and men are represented in the media is valuable, not brainwashing them as MP Phil Davies has stated.

The second issue with this lesson plan is that it does not take into account the progress that has been made with the princesses, regardless of how small. The lesson plan then moves on to discuss Ariel of The Little Mermaid, stating, “Ariel is the same as the earlier Disney heroines”. Although Disney took a positive step forward by portraying Ariel as much more rebellious than her predecessors, it is true that The Little Mermaid was not as progressive as it could have been, partially due to the lack of positive female relationships. Also, the lesson plan does not discuss the main problem within the film to a deep enough extent. The main issue with The Little Mermaid is that Ariel has to choose between – as Laura Sells puts it in From Mouse to Mermaid – having her voice and having access to the human world. This is not a positive message for a children’s film to display, therefore children should learn to think about these messages critically. The Telegraph reported that Chris McGovern, Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education stated, “These lesson plans represent an ignorant, insidious and covert attack on family values and on the ancient wisdom of fairytales”. Teaching children about ways to interpret messages that films send is not an “attack on family values”, it not only provides children with critical thinking skills, but also offers children a chance to reflect on how gender is reflected in the media, and what that can mean within culture.

The final example that the lesson plan uses in detail is Belle in Beauty and the Beast: “The movie says, if a young woman is pretty and sweet-natured, she can change an abusive man into a kind and gentle man. In other words, it is a woman’s fault if her man abuses her”. There have been a number of arguments on both sides as to whether Beauty and the Beast has elements of Stockholm syndrome and abuse, and the majority are still undecided. One thing that we can be sure of, is that the minute Belle steps into the castle she is objectified as the girl who has come to “break the spell” by Lumiere the Candelabra. However, teaching children about the concept of objectification that is presented within Disney films is not a bad thing at all. Surely it is important that children learn from a young age that objectification is unacceptable, and by creating a safe environment to discuss this we minimise the risk of objectification in the future?

With the amount of exposure that different media platforms have within society, we should be teaching children that there are various films that promote certain gender and racial stereotypes. The use of film in education is just teachers providing children with a different platform to think about the promotion of negative gender and racial stereotypes. It doesn’t mean children can’t watch and enjoy Disney films. This isn’t brainwashing, and it certainly isn’t politically correct claptrap. We should be teaching children not to intentionally offend or disadvantage groups in society in order to prevent discrimination in today’s world.

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