In recent months,I have had the unique experience of divulging myself into the world/whirlwind of Disney criticism as I wrote a thesis/research paper for my media criticism course titled “Adventure Is Out There: The Narrative of Disney Pixar’s Up As A Positive Enforcer of Social Values.” My countless hours of research of preexisting scholarly journal articles and studies led me to conclude that there is a lot more information out there about the negative effects Disney movies have on children than on the positive effects. (My analysis found that there are certain Disney movies that actually do, sometimes rather subtly, but do preach tolerance and acceptance of sexuality, individualism, etc…but that’s for another blog post.)
Henry Giroux, arguably one of the most “anti-Disney” scholars in academia, argues that the dreams provided for children in Disney movies “are not innocent and must be interrogated for the futures they envision, the values they promote, and the forms of identification they offer”(Giroux, Mouse That Roared,p.7). Similarly, theorist Dorothy Hurley maintains that the images depicted in Disney films are “translated into beliefs children hold about status in particular group membership, in relation to notions of good, bad, pretty, and ugly, as reflected in these films”(Hurley, Seeing White, p.222). The ideas of these theorists, coupled with our classes’ readings on “Princess Culture,” have laid out a great framework to examine one of my favorite childhood movies Beauty and the Beast, from a new eye and more educated perspective(although I did have a preschool diploma under my belt during my last viewing…)
After re-watching Beauty and the Beast, I think what struck me the most was how my initial (as a child) perception of Belle was that of a courageous and independent woman. She fought for and protected her family, tried with all her might to be a fierce heroine, and dealt with living in horrible captivity;all because she was a servant to mankind. These notions are almost laughable to me now, because I am able to see that this is not the case at all. In fact (other than her beautiful singing voice,) Belle does not really have a voice at all. The Beast constantly demeans her, locks her in her room and deprives her of food. Looking at this outside of the Disney world, this is essentially abuse, and Disney is essentially justifying the abuse by adding a castle, a beautiful girl, and some talking tea pots to the mix. Regardless of the abuse Belle endures, and rather than vehemently try to escape her imprisonment, Belle falls right into the societal/media-induced gender role of a “nurturing and care-giving woman.” Belle feels the need to nurture and sympathise with her captor despite his abuse, eventually falling in love with him. In the real world I believe this would be called Stockholm Syndrome, but in Disney’s world, it’s a fairy tale.
The Beast, to me, moreso than conforming to any gender roles specifically, exemplifies the notion of masculine hegemony and a patriarchal society, in which, females are powerless. The Beast sets the rules, whatever the Beast says goes, and if you don’t abide with what the Beast wants, you won’t eat and will be confined to your room. I think that the presence of the Beast de-feminizes, and moreover dehumanizes women in a way. Although Belle can still be beautiful and lovely in her yellow dress; a princess that lives in a man’s (Beast’s) world, acts on a man’s commands, and says only what a man wants her to, is not much of a princess–or woman–or person, at all.
It’s difficult to determine if Disney Princess movies are the first steps in the direction of, as Orenstein worries, “a Hundred Years War of dieting, plucking, painting, and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results,” or if they really are, as the Disney corporation probably maintains, a creative outlet that expands girls’ imagination. Tackling this debate from my own experiences, I tend to lean towards the latter of the stances. As much as I longed to be a princess, like any little girl watching a Disney movie, I think that I, like other children, was relatively able to cognitively comprehend the differences between real and make believe at a young age. Although the messages some princess movies send may be troublesome, I don’t think we give children enough credit.
I think we need to look at the medium behind the message. Disney isn’t trying to play the role of juvenile agenda-setters and project gender roles or promote sexism and racism to children. I do believe that Disney princess films are just trying to entertain children by offering a 90-minute adventure of which they can let their imaginations run wild. These films aren’t going to lay the moral building blocks of which a child bases the rest of their life off of—these children just know it’s bedtime and are praying they will encounter a talking candelabra in their dreams tonight.