Once upon a time, about a half a century ago, one feminist suspected that Disney cartoons teach girls all the wrong lessons.
She fancied that the stories show “passive” princesses rescued by princes and fairy godmothers. The attacks on the cartoons went on, even prompting the creation of the creature known as “Modern Disney Princess.”
Yet the classic trio of “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” continues to dominate the Disney’s ever-after. Last week, the anti-enchantment crew got particularly obtuse when the Disney voice actress Kristen Bell opened up about her parenting choices.
Bell explained that she doesn’t like “Snow White” because the title character accepts an apple from a stranger (even though the story itself obviously warns about the dangers of such behavior) and because Snow White is then kissed by the prince without her “consent.”
Likewise, Disney megastar Keira Knightley revealed that she commends her daughter to roleplay a queen instead of a princess because queens are “in charge.” And since the actress doesn’t want her daughter to grow up expecting to be rescued, she banned “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid” from her house.
“The Little Mermaid” is especially suspect because the character gives up her voice for a man. Don’t tell Keira, but in Andersen’s original, the mermaid actually gave her life, so the Disney adaptation where the title character not only lives but gets her voice back does feel like a bit of a cop-out to those of us who have actually read it.
The un-fairest of them all was the Amnesty International ad, staring Aurora of the classic “Sleeping Beauty.” She mysteriously doesn’t wake up when Prince Charming kisses her, and he then proceeded to feel her up, which, I guess, is supposed to illustrate the idea of “consent” to college kiddos.
It has transpired in the recent years that consent has to be affirmative, enthusiastic and ongoing. So, if said princess didn’t give the verbal go-ahead for the kiss, then the dude felt free to do whatever he fancied, and she was thus assaulted. All of that betrays the near-total ignorance of the fairy tale genre bordering on obsession.
Most Disney princess stories are based on folk tales — or, at least, literary tales — like these of Charles Perrault, that were themselves based on folklore; they carry the structure of traditional Indo-European narratives. The great Russian linguist Vladimir Propp described that structure in his seminal work, “Morphology of the Folktale.”
Propp isolated the narrative units out of which these stories are formed, even if not every narrative is composed of every single one of those units. He showed that in a typical tale the parent of the same sex as the protagonist dies and is replaced by a donor figure and a villain of his or her sex. The hero or the heroine then uses the magic obtained with the help of the donor to defeat the villain.
My late adviser, Alan Dundes, found Freudian themes embedded in the structure of folktales, and once we, his students, heard about them, they were rather hard to un-hear.
When Cinderella triumphs over her wicked stepmother with the help of her fairy godmother, some unfortunate feminists rant and rave that this all wrong because a strong woman should model to tots how to do it all alone. The Second Wave passion is seriously misguided.
Male-centered tales with male protagonists have the same structure. Somehow, the dreaded patriarchy allowed men to assist each other, but girls can’t have that luxury.
It’s worth noting that the stories with male protagonists and villains are usually transmitted from man to man, or from man to boy. Likewise, the stories with female protagonists and villains are transmitted from woman to girl. Disney’s “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” are variations on the tales told from a female perspective.
So, if the narrator told us that Aurora was awakened by “a true love’s kiss” or some such, we should believe the millennia of accumulated women’s wisdom that it was, in fact, a true love’s kiss, and not, as Amnesty International insists, rape.
Perhaps the story can even teach young people a few things about the true nature of consent: don’t expect it to be enthusiastic, verbal and ongoing. Love is magical. An average person in Disney audience has never heard of Propp, but he intuitively knows what Propp had made explicit because he responds to wonder, and feels the romance.
To insist that Prince Charming assaulted the princess is to close one’s heart to beauty.
It is no surprise that appropriate opinions of cartoon tales favor deviations from the tradition. Folktales are marriage-oriented whimsical coming-of-age stories. They take dramatis personae and put her or him on an adventure, and when at the end, the protagonist defeats evil, he is rewarded with happily ever after.
Your typical Second-Waver is looking to deconstruct the wonder. They want to see something else entirely — a mother-daughter story, perhaps? Or a maiden wielding a phallic object, like a sword? Among the misguided feminist favorites is “Moana” (in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t seen the movie because my daughter aged out of princesses when it came out), which sounds like it was based not on a folk tale but a myth.
Also high on the misguided favorites list is the very disappointing Pixar’s “Brave,” which gave us the princess who is not ready for a relationship. Because folktales are about how to be ready, “Brave” comes across as words of a jealous dad, not reflecting an authentically feminine experience.
“Frozen,” starring Kristen Bell of Classic Disney-hate fame, is so entangled in the relationship between the sisters, one of whom is a mother surrogate, that the love story becomes but a subplot. By folkloric standards, the narrative is incomplete.
All these princesses are perfectly serviceable as long as they inhabit the narrative domain in which they can cannibalize on complete tales — the ones with knights in shining armor and happily ever after. Girls’ fantasies fill in the gaps.
Disney stories are empowering in as much as they speak emotional truth about coming of age. They are about princesses, not queens, because they are about assuming power — the process that, no doubt, fascinates Keira Knightley’s daughter’s imagination but is completely lost on the Hollywood lead herself. They are not about professional success as much as they are about starting a family.
The one potentially most disastrous Disney story is “Beauty and the Beast”; the one that speaks to a woman’s heart’s desire to reform a man. I didn’t ban that story from my living room because if such pathology exists, my daughter needs to know about it.
Ironically, the feminist Emma Watson starred in the recent live-action remake of the prior Disney adaptation. I guess so long as it’s a female character that breaks the spell to save her beloved —as long as the character can be described as “active” — her potentially ruinous inclinations are somehow just fine for a rank-and-file feminist.
Folk narratives are filled with motifs, or elements — glass slippers, poison apples, tall towers and spell-breaking kisses. Disney adds its own visual ones: pet friends, dancing China, magnificent ball gowns. All of them are breathtakingly poignant, but the misguided feminists see them all as problematic.
Even compelling contemporary heroines, like Harry Potter’s Hermione, are surrounded by progressive motifs, such as books of spells (and then she marries a sidekick). The beauty of a tale is not in the development of its characters or unusual plotline; these are all expected. The beauty power of a tale are in the flowering of symbolism, which excites the imagination of audiences young and old.
But here lies the question: Why is it that people who like neither the structure of fairy tales, nor the vivid details that bring these narratives to life, are so obsessed with them? Why do they insist on taming and reforming them? Why do they think that we need, for instance, Disney princesses who have abortions, as Planned Parenthood called for earlier this year?
Of course, abortion is a worthwhile topic for cinema; it’s just that it’s more appropriate for Kay Corleone than Cinderella. And yet, some people love to hate fairy tales so much, they can’t think of an alternative genre to test out their pet theories.
And while our culture wars are being fought on the bodies of female-centered tales, boys are having all the fun. True, Disney seems to have no interest in animating traditional stories told from the male point of view. The traditional dragonslayer makes a single appearance in the classic “Sleeping Beauty,” and the modern princes are glorified losers no self-respecting girl should lower herself to marry.
And yet, all the innovative, iconic fairy tales of the last several decades, from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter,” are boy-centered. The former is a glorious space-age fairy tale, and Harry Potter’s deliciously derivative wizarding world is filled with boys and girls whose mentality is no different from that of our children.
Unlike the female tales, they weren’t custom made to answer specific ideological concerns, and for that reason, they read and look authentic. They, not the modern Disney princess, have the staying power. Let’s not ruin them.
Katya Rapoport Sedgwick grew up in the former USSR, now Ukraine. She is a grad school dropout and a busy mom. You can find her here.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.