The 21st century is a fascinating time to grow up, in part because of our complex modern relationship with stories. Humans have used metaphor and narrative to teach lessons and entertain each other for thousands of years, but the past few decades have seen a new level of meta-awareness about how those tales are structured. We are increasingly aware of how stories shape the way we see the world and how that viewpoint can clash with reality. As adults, we must confront a sometimes-difficult truth: some of our childhood stories have serious issues regarding race, class and gender, which may clash with our adult ideals. And there’s rarely a thornier patch of stories than those told by the Walt Disney Company.
I was one of the lucky kids who grew up while the Disney renaissance was at its peak in the 1990s, when the studio recovered from a decades-long slump and made a series of hit musical films including Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. VHS tapes made it possible for many to watch the entire Disney catalogue at home.
When I reached adulthood, I realized that there are many issues with the Disney movies, not the least of which are the lessons they supposedly impart to impressionable children about gender roles and relationships. Princesses like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are rescued by princes who function more as plot devices than characters; Ariel the mermaid gives up her entire life in pursuit of a man she’s seen only once. Even a supposedly feminist character like Mulan ends up returning home at the end of her adventure, cast back into a domestic role rather than staying in an active one. And Beauty and the Beast, one of my favourite films of all time, is regarded by many to be a rather horrifying tale of domestic abuse and Stockholm syndrome (a mental state in which captives empathize or sympathize with their captors).
These alternate interpretations create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. On one hand, I loved these films as a child, and they provided inspiration for some of my greatest imaginative journeys. But on the other, some critics imply that fans such as myself are somehow naive and immature if, as adults, we continue to love the films for their triumphs rather than reject them for their flaws. Disney films are scrutinized more than others, in part because the company brands itself so aggressively as child-friendly and makes a mint off of its Princess properties. Yes, girls may grow up with an unrealistic idea of relationships and love based on princess stories, but can you continue loving the films you grew up with while still being a feminist?
I argue that you can. Feminist interpretations of film are just that: interpretations. For every writer who sees Belle as a victim of Stockholm syndrome, there is another who sees her as a prop or mechanism for humbling male vanities. I always saw her as a bookworm who found a man who loved books, too — and as a bookworm myself, that spoke to me quite deeply. Furthermore, these films are not propaganda; they are fictional stories. Stories are more than just their moral: they are character, dialogue, visuals and more. They give us pleasure because we are transported into another world, and Disney does an incredible job of providing richly imagined worlds to explore. The award-winning songs and accomplished animation of Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid shouldn’t be discounted. The arguments that the protagonists are poor role models fail to take into account the fact that stories should not be a complete replacement for all education. Disney doesn’t need to be rejected; the beauty and wonder of the films have a lot of value, even if you acknowledge that there are issues with the idea of a Prince Charming and a magic glass shoe.