It goes without saying that most kids in America grew up with Disney at the center of their childhood. The world that Walt Disney created became our worlds as well, his movies serving as our babysitters when our parents couldn’t get us to take a nap, his characters inspiring countless years of Halloween costumes and his theme parks being the dream destination of every Super Bowl winning quarterback.
As a mature 20-year-old looking back, I can see all the wonderful things that Disney provided me with as a child but I also am now more aware of some of the issues that people may have with the Disney culture as well. As a little girl, I saw Disney movies as nothing more than 90 minutes of bright, musical entertainment; I never picked up on the parallels throughout the characters and themes of the movies. It wasn’t until I grew older, however, and began to understand more about life and culture that I began to feel slightly perturbed at these movies that I had once been so enamored with. The main subjects of criticism are Disney’s princesses; the stories of these young women may seem romantic and alluring on the surface, but upon deeper investigation these stories can appear to be a modern woman’s worst nightmare.
After recently re-watching a personal favorite of mine, The Little Mermaid, my eyes were opened to the disturbing idea that the movie presented: Ariel gives up her voice to be with the man whom she loves and must rely solely on her “body language” to woo Prince Eric. Yikes. This wasn’t even veiled in some kind of metaphorical situation; Ariel literally has no voice and has only her body to entice a man into loving her. Now I don’t consider myself a big feminist but c’mon, Disney. You’re killin’ me with this one.
Another issue I’ve noticed with my reevaluation of Disney movies is that of healthy body images. Just as Barbie provides little girls with an unrealistic (and frankly, unhealthy) image of body weight and type, Disney princesses could easily give young girls the false impression that the only vision of beauty is one of a minuscule waistline, large breasts and hair down to your butt. Princess Jasmine of Aladdin is the quintessential example of unrealistic Disney bodies: she wears a provocative, midriff-baring outfit, exposing her almost nonexistent waist that is drastically contrasted by her large bust and voluptuous hips, her waist-length and cascading hair serving as the cherry on top of the perfect body sundae. Even as a 6-year-old I understood that my Princess Jasmine outfit definitely did not look the same way on me as it did on her. I’m certainly not putting the sole blame on Disney characters for body issue images amongst young girls but I can say with confidence that it doesn’t help our body image issues to grow up watching women with 39-18-33 measurements.
Disney does a wonderful job of presenting us with unique women; each princess has her own personality and her own story to tell. Often these stories are ones of strength, courage and acceptance. Unfortunately, the redeeming qualities of the princesses (Ariel’s spunky and independent attitude, Belle’s love and appreciation of literature, Mulan’s refusal to accept traditional gender roles) are often completely negated in the end when their stories all end roughly the same way: they live “happily ever after,” with this fairytale ending prompted solely by a man–their “knights in shining armor.” Mulan basically single-handedly wins the war (the war they didn’t even want her in) for her country, but her grandmother’s last concern is that she find herself a husband. Ariel goes through an incredible journey of self-discovery and ends it by leaving her family to marry Eric. Jasmine runs away to avoid getting pushed into a marriage she does not want at her young age but happily marries Aladdin anyway at the end of the movie. Disney often presents us with wonderful themes and stories but their downfall lies in their undermining of these themes and stories by having stereotypical, one-dimensional and sometimes downright offensive female characters.
I personally never suffered from unrealistic expectations of love or severely lowered self esteem due to what I saw in Disney movies but I can understand why other girls might have. Disney brings childhood stories to life in amazingly poignant and entertaining ways, this I think we can all agree on. Unfortunately, their success in this area does not completely outshine the fact that they often present young girls with unrealistic or anti-feminist visions as well. In the culture we live in today, (one constantly surrounded by and exposed to stick-thin models, pills and drinks promising quick and plentiful weight loss and most women in the public eye wearing sizes no bigger than a 2 or 4) it should definitely be a cause for concern that girls are being exposed to these issues so early. I think it’s important to keep Disney in the lives of these young girls, but also to make the distinction between Disney and reality.