First, I loved the classics: Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. Then came the newer, spunkier films: Lilo & Stitch, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles.
After I went back and watched some of the classics as an adult, though, the films began to take on a new, and not-so-positive, meaning for me. I realized that Disney taught some great lessons…and some really terrible ones. Then, when I looked around at my life in the real world, I realized that it seems that we, as a society, and especially women, tend to take away the least promising, worst lessons we can, and ignore the ones that might change our lives (and the lives of others) for the better.
Around the age of 13, I coined the term “damsel-in-distress syndrome.” For the most part (and I recognized this has changed significantly – and thankfully! – lately), the princesses of the classic Disney films were portrayed as helpless victims, waiting for their Prince Charming to come riding in with the cavalry, saving them and taking them to live happily-ever-after. Even at that young age, it bothered me. Why do we have to wait for the cavalry – why can’t we be our OWN cavalry? It seemed a much better lesson to teach girls that they could do anything they wanted in life – with or without a “Prince Charming”.
Unfortunately, I know many, many women (even to this day!) who still believe that, and took this awful lesson from Disney movies. Sure, we pretend to have careers and friends and lives and be really successful and happy, but how many of us are actually STILL waiting for the cavalry to come? Sadly, far too many.
Luckily, films like Mulan and Tangled have been portraying a different kind of heroine lately, my kind of heroine: bold, brazen, brave, and up-for-anything. Here’s hoping the next generation of women will grow up believing in this type of message: your life is your own, and you are the only one who can create your own happily-ever-after.
Disney movies also preach another lesson – one that we seem to accept whole-heartedly as children, and then quickly forget as adults: respect all animals and treat them with compassion. If you remember, Snow White had her bird friend and deer friends and all the animals in the forest loved her; Cinderella loved and played with the house mice, and even Pocahontas cherished and respected every single creature she came across, proclaiming in song: “the heron and the otter are my friends.”
When we watch them as children, and then later have our own children watch them, we are encouraged to love and respect animals. The fact that Snow White and Cinderella and Pocahontas respected and cared about all the animals around them is a positive attribute – not a negative one. And when we love animals as children, THAT is seen as a positive attribute. Yet, somehow, we forget, or try to explain away our lack of compassion as adults, even labeling people who remember these lessons as “hippies” or “treehuggers”.
It seems ironic and strangely unsatisfactory to me that we as adults and as a society embrace the worst lessons Disney has to offer, and forget the most important: don’t bother trying to forge your own life and your own happiness because a Prince and cavalry are surely coming to save you…and, forget about concerning yourself with the welfare of other creatures as soon as you hit adulthood, too.
It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence, either, that many adult women are unsatisfied and unhappy in their own lives, even if they “have it all.” Not only is it difficult to find your happily-ever-after if you are always waiting for it to come rushing in on a white horse, but it’s even more difficult if you’ve forgotten the compassion you once had for that same white horse as a living creature all on its own.
We as a society would do well to take the more important lessons from these well-known stories – that respect for all creatures is paramount – and forget the ones that having us believing that we can’t control our own destiny.