It has been almost two years since I wrote the post about good versus evil, as depicted in children’s literature and movies. I focused on Disney movies since it was becoming evident by my daughter’s adoration of them that the princess theme would be sticking around for a while. A reader commented on another aspect of Disney themes: the princess only wants to find and marry her prince, and at some point requires the prince to save her. That comment stayed with me, so much that I began to pay closer attention.
I actually find two common themes in Disney movies quite troublesome. The princess needs to be rescued (especially in the older movies) and at least one parent, usually the mother, is no where to be found. I do acknowledge that Disney did not create these stories, most of which have been altered by story tellers over centuries. Some of the Disney movies are quite aged themselves, Snow White being over 70 years old. There is no doubt in my mind that in 1937 there was no argument against the behavior of the docile and naïve Snow White. But what place does she hold in America today? What messages do to the films send to our daughters, who are just beginning to understand their place in society and their power within? Are we stifling their independence? Are we leading them to believe they cannot, or feel as though they should not want to save themselves? I could write a literary criticism on each script but that’s a whole lot of posts. Instead let’s see if I can briefly make my point:
Snow White: Her mother dies shortly after Snow White is born, her father remarries, and her wicked step mother the evil queen tries to kill her. The dwarves defeat the queen, and the Prince brings Snow White back to the world of the living with his powerful kiss we can presume to be that of true love. The original Grimm fairytale is similar with the exception of how the spell was broken. The prince happens upon the coffin and convinces the dwarves to give it to him. The coffin is shaken up in the course of travel and the poison apple is dislodged from Snow White’s throat, causing her to awaken. No true love saving prince is required, just someone who knows the Heimlich.
Cinderella: Like Snow White her mother had died and her father remarried before he also passed away. In the absence of her father her stepmother and step sisters made Cinderella their slave. With the assistance of her fairy godmother she gets dressed up and goes to the ball. She and the prince fall in love, she loses track of the time and her shoe, and takes off before the spell breaks and all of her pretty adornments disappear. I haven’t seen this one in a while so I’m a little sketchy on the details, but I think that in the movie someone in the royal guard searches for the maiden by having every woman in the kingdom try on the slipper. In the original story it was the prince who did the searching. What troubles me is that this prince, though so in love will only know he’s found the right girl again if her foot fits into the lost slipper. So in theory if you wore a size 7 and lived in the kingdom back then you actually had a shot at the thrown! This story is intended to represent goodness and its importance over beauty. While it was her goodness that brought her the fortune of a fairy godmother, it still took beautification on the outside for Cinderella to capture the prince’s heart, and in turn deliver her from a life of poverty and servitude.
Sleeping Beauty: Upon her birth Princess Aurora is cursed by a wicked and slighted fairy to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before she comes of age. A good fairy alters the curse; not in death but in sleep would she wait for her true love of a prince to come along and kiss her to save the day. The good fairies take the princess away from her parents and hide her for just shy of 16 years, in hopes of concealing her from the wicked fairy and pointy spindles. That is until the day of her 16th birthday; the same day she meets a handsome stranger in the woods and falls instantly in love. Regardless, that very last day the curse would work is the day they choose to send her home. Because they could not wait that one silly little day to start celebrating, the fairies send her back full of woe to her estranged parents and an arranged marriage. As a result, the wicked fairy finds her at the castle and prick…Sleeping Beauty. In the end the prince who happens to also be the handsome stranger bests the evil fairy and wakes the princess with his stunning smooching skills. They are then free, along with the rest of the kingdom who were put to sleep having been deemed incapable of dealing with heartache and disappointment, to live happily ever after.
There are some really creepy origins for the story of Sleeping Beauty involving rape and cannibalism (thank you Google) and a rather sketchy prince/king, so kudos to Disney for leaving that part out. In these versions however, the princess is not separated from her mother and father to go into hiding. All spinning wheels are banished from the kingdom and the princess is happily raised by both parental units until the wicked fairy manages to sneak one into the castle. Though they are still living we again see a princess separated from her parents.
Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty; these are all old stories which were retold long ago and therefore speak of a different world for women. They are old to my generation as we re-watch them, but not to our daughters who are seeing them on first sight. The new princesses have a little more to offer. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Tiana are all brave, smart, and for the most part do not require a prince to complete their lives (even Ariel just wanted to live among the humans before falling for Prince Eric). Yet Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine are all motherless. Tiana loses her father after he has a presence in The Princess and the Frog. Thanks a lot Disney, that line of questioning from my four year old was a lot of fun. Slightly off topic, same goes for Bambi. Don’t even get me started on the murder of Bambi’s mother and the subsequent re-appearance of his otherwise dead beat dad.
These issues of heartache and loss, and familial separation are all tools for teaching our youth that hard times will come and people do die. These are difficult lessons to learn, and yes they must be taught, but at what age? The princess theme that is adored by little girls is marketed towards them as early as pre-school. You can try and hide it from them, but good luck. And what do they take from these stories? One of my daughter’s favorite games is to lay in wait for a prince to come and save her with true love’s kiss (Director’s Note: the part of The Prince will be played by Mommy for the foreseeable future).
The damsel in distress, this is not the role I would choose for my daughter. Instead, I have this in mind:
A self-rescuing princess, wouldn’t that be something? Disney almost had it right with Mulan. Unfortunately Mulan is not a princess, but that chick joined the army (albeit in disguise as a boy), kicked ass, and saved China. What’s that Sofia? You want to watch Mulan again? Well let me just swell with pride and lament that we do not own it on DVD.
Hey Disney, are you listening? Release that baby on Blu-ray, STAT!
*Want the t-shirt? I got it at Think Geek. I purchased it with my own money and geeky joy, and they did not compensate me for the endorsement.