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.

Thank you for reading this blog post! If there are any questions, feedback, or requests for future posts, please feel free to email me or post in the comment box below! Please note that any comments made on my blog posts may be used in my research, if you are not comfortable with this you may retract your post at any time by emailing me, or you can maintain your anonymity by posting as a guest.

Disneypol

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Why #YesAllWomen Is Totally Okay

Today, to celebrate my first ever blog post, I want to talk about something that has been going crazy on the internet.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, it’s #YesAllWomen.

This started over the last month or so, with women from all over the world explaining how, in one way or another, sexism affected their everyday lives. You can take a look at them here: https://twitter.com/hashtag/YesAllWomen?src=hash

I also tweeted my experiences of sexism, and created my own hashtag: #RelyingOnPatriarchyToGetOutOfPatriarchy after I realised that when trying to reject male advances, an example of a woman’s ‘go to’ response, whether single or not, is “Sorry, I have a boyfriend”. There are at least two things wrong with this response. Firstly, why are we apologising for saying no? You wouldn’t apologise for saying no to a packet of crisps would you? Secondly, why are we relying on a made up male, (or our own boyfriend for that matter) to reject another man’s advances? Why should we have to have an excuse to just say ‘no’?

Then this really got me thinking, how often do women end up using patriarchy as a way of getting out of patriarchy because of social construct? From previous personal experience? A hell of a lot. This is not only something that is probably experienced by most women, but it is also produced within the media. This leads me to thinking about how, as a child, I could see female characters being portrayed in Disney films as relying on patriarchy to get out of patriarchy. Am I saying Disney could be the sole reason why this happens? Of course not! Disney have produced many inspiring female protagonists, especially in their later years of production. Nonetheless, I can see that within some of the second generation princesses, i.e. Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and Jasmine (Aladdin), these characters are portrayed as being reliant on men, to escape from the patriarchy in their lives.

 

The Little Mermaid (1989)

In my opinion, Ariel is one of the least feminist Disney Princesses’, aside from the first generation princesses, i.e. Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), Cinderella (Cinderella), and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). At first you can see Ariel’s clear defiance of practically everyone in the ocean, she dreams of being a human, and undoubtedly makes it happen for herself, defies the evil sea witch Ursula and lives happily ever after with her man. What’s not to love? When I first began planning my dissertation, I was under the impression that Ariel was fairly feisty because of her rebellious nature. However when one looks deeper into her role within the film, we can see something completely different.

Although King Triton loves his daughter, we can see that his constant protection over Ariel makes her feel pretty suffocated. Unlike her sisters, Ariel has a quirky and curious nature, preferring to spend her time exploring ship wrecks as opposed to singing in a concert (that’s dedicated to her) in front of her father. The constant overpowering, controlling and almost patriarchal ways of Triton, cause Ariel to attempt to rebel more, especially when she sees the man she claims she has fallen in love with after only twenty seconds and risks the exposure of her species and her life by saving him from a storm. That kids, is love at first sight. So, after Ariel has decided she now definitely wants to be a human because of her ‘love’ for Eric, and Triton finds the statue she salvaged from the ship wreck, Triton goes bananas. To escape the controlling ways of her father, she is led to the evil sea witch Ursula who offers her a solution. To become a human permanently, Ariel must give up her voice as payment, and be kissed by her ‘true love’ Eric by the end of three days. Basically, in order for Ariel to escape the patriarchy of her father, she has to give up one of the only thing that defines her – her voice – with the hope, that another man will save her. Worst of all, even though we give feminist points to Ariel for querying how she will communicate with him, and worrying she would never see her father or family again, Ursula makes a simple reply of, “You’ll have your man”, and:

“You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!”

Now I know this is a song, but lets think about this: what kind of message does this send to children? The first thing that is socially constructed for gender roles is ‘don’t worry about the fact you are abandoning your family for your ‘love’ you will have him and as long as you have a man, everything is fine. Secondly, a woman should not be concerned about having a voice in society, because her real purpose is her looks and how she presents herself. A woman must communicate with others through her looks, because thirdly, men do not want a woman that talks too much. In five lines Ursula has presented to young children something that all feminists fear, a stereotypical gender for women that ultimately forces women back into the private sphere instead of the public sphere.

 

Aladdin (1992)

Princess Jasmine, although feisty, does unfortunately reduce herself to using patriarchy to escape patriarchy. At fifteen years old, she is being forced to marry another man by her father. Although she rejects this idea, claiming that she is not a “prize to be won”, and that she wishes to marry for true love, she does end up betrothed to Aladdin at the end of the film, using Aladdin as a tool to escape the patriarchy of her father and Jafar. Jasmine’s father does mean well, he does not force her to marry a specific man, he just keeps inviting suitors to stay and discusses the political implications of the marriage. You would think the first time a woman said ‘no’, it probably meant ‘no’, however, what does a woman know about her own life decisions right?

Before we even arrive at the idea of Jasmine using patriarchy to get out of patriarchy, it is vital to address the evil Jafar’s role in the film. As Jasmine’s father’s chief advisor, he is an aspiring Sultan himself. Once he realises that by marrying Jasmine, his powers will escalate, he does everything in his power to achieve his goal. Throughout the film he refers to Jasmine as a “shrew”, and often belittles her:

“You’re speechless I see, a fine quality in a wife.”

Only as one grows older do we see the sexism portrayed by certain characters in Disney films, and Jafar is certainly one of them. Even the male protagonist, Aladdin objectifies Jasmine, claiming he will “win” her to be his wife. Although he does see the errors of his ways and wins Jasmine back around with the wonderful magic carpet ride, once can’t help but think whether Aladdin would still see Jasmine as his “prize” for all his hard work, the man who she is supposedly in love with, and he her.

Worser still, before Jasmine can be reunited with Aladdin-in-disguise-Prince-Ali, in order to escape from the evil Jafar, she has to use her sexuality to attempt to save herself by kissing Jafar. This reduction presents women as having a specific set of tools, which are namely their looks and their body language, as the good sea witch Ursula previously pointed out. However, when Jasmine’s plan fails, Aladdin ultimately swoops in and saves the day, and Jasmine – the damsel in distress. After this ordeal ends, Jasmine’s father blesses the marriage between Jasmine and Aladdin, suggesting that although Jasmine has got what she wants – a marriage for love – she has still had to use another man to escape patriarchy.

“But this is a children’s film!” I hear you cry. EXACTLY. If children watch this what kind of thoughts are they going to develop of their own role within society, both girls and boys? For girls, they have to look nice and presentable in order to fall in love with a man they have just met and live happily ever after. For boys, they save the woman and therefore the day, and are the hero of a story that is not even about them, especially in Prince Eric’s case. Of course a six year old is not going to be thinking any of this whilst watching the film, but subconsciously they will adapt their position in society to be more like one of their favourite Disney Princesses. Of course I still love both of these films, however I do think that in order for Disney to maintain their positive impact on children’s lives, they must think about the gender roles they portray within their films. Given, more recent films such as Frozen and Maleficent do provide a more stable and powerful female protagonist, however Disney still have a long way to come before they themselves can demolish the gender gap.

Thank you for reading this blog post! If there are any questions, feedback, or requests for future posts, please feel free to email me or post in the comment box below! Please note that any comments made on my blog posts may be used in my research, if you are not comfortable with this you may retract your post at any time by emailing me, or you can maintain your anonymity by posting as a guest.

Disneypol