Disney lovers of the 21st century are plagued with a nagging sense of guilt for enjoying the old classics like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, namely because of their outdated ideas about femininity and romantic relationships. Today, concern and frustration is expressed about an all-pervading ‘princess’ culture promoting passivity, unattainable appearance and distorted notions of romantic relationships. However, of all the women I know who grew up enjoying these films (myself included), not one of them actually believes that it is possible to form a meaningful relationship with a man in a day, after which said man will come and rescue them from all the hardship in their lives. Such stories remain indulgent and laughable fantasies, the limitations of which are extremely clear. I can’t think of any self-respecting woman who would actually be fulfilled by the sort of relationships she grew up watching, and I don’t think that these films had a damaging effect on me as a child; quite to the contrary, Disney films were a form of escapism I very much needed at the time. Ultimately, all the Disney lovers I know have a notion of happiness that depends on self-worth, enjoyment, and genuine platonic and/or romantic relationships, all of which they set out to achieve themselves. I think it is quite possible to take from a film what is relevant to you, whilst still disagreeing with some aspects of it. There is no reason to disregard a film completely.
Older Disney films simply reflect older ideas about femininity. The female protagonists were impossibly graceful, beautiful, and annoyingly passive. Yes, it was wrong to promote that, and this is not what we want young girls aspiring to. But so long as both older and younger viewers are made aware of such limitations, does Sleeping Beauty become any less visually stunning, or the music any less wonderful in light of them? Do we feel any less elated when Prince Phillip finally beats Malificent and Good triumphs over Evil? That film in particular took almost a decade to produce, and we should not ignore all the creativity and skill that went into it just because it reflects some questionable 1950s values.
Modern Disney films express more current values that parents want to instil in their children. 2013’s Frozen features a much more relatable protagonist, Anna, refreshingly clumsy and with none of the unobtainable grace of her predecessors in the Disney world. The film sends the message that girls and women should not rely on romantic relationships to complete themselves, but rather self-acceptance and sisterly love. However, whilst all this seems like great progress, when we consider that both the female protagonists in Frozen are white and conventionally beautiful, we might question how far we have come after all, and so we might be tempted to disregard Frozen too. It’s definitely true that issues such as race and physical beauty need to be addressed in film, but there is always more work to be done. By all means, we should keep pushing for more change and more cultural relevance in children’s films, but we should also appreciate smaller changes along the way, and nor should we look down upon older, ‘out-of-touch’ Disney films, because I think that they all have something to offer. It just depends on whether or not you’re willing to see it.
by Kate Ferguson