Because I am to busy and lazy to blog about something interesting due to the sudden influx of papers that came with me starting two new courses in July, but I would like to extend my 3-day blogging streak into 4, I will allow you all to read this fascinating paper I wrote about how Disney movies teach harmful gender stereotypes to young girls, a position which a) I totally agree with, and b) I will totally disregard when I have my own children, even if they are *shudder* girls, because I grew up on Disney films, and so. will. they.
The fairy tale has no landlord. - Greek saying
The fairy tale has always been at the mercy of the teller. Originally part of the oral storytelling tradition, these stories were manipulated to suit the tastes of both performer and audience. When the infamous brothers Grimm set about gleaning tales and putting them down on paper, even they fell prey to a bit of editing here, some censoring there (Gould 24). Subsequent editions of their Nursery and Household Tales saw incidences of illicit sex and incest disappearing, making the stories more child-friendly, while the violence exacted upon evildoers was intensified in order to reinforce the underlying morals (Tatar, Hard Facts 19). It should come as no surprise, then, that later renderings would be further distorted. The only versions that many story-lovers are familiar with today are those censored by Walt Disney, himself arguably a 20th century Grimm (Gould 24). Few people know, for example, that Cinderella’s sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit them into the slipper, and that a trail of blood and a singing bird let the prince in on the deception (Grimm 221). Or that it was a servant’s stumble, and not “true love’s kiss” that resuscitated Snow White (Grimm 197). Or that the Little Mermaid did not, in fact, marry her prince, but died a sacrificial death (Anderson 76). These adaptations, it could be argued, render narratives that are better suited to a younger audience. However, many of Disney’s changes enhance the tendency of fairy tales to instill unrealistic ideals in children, particularly in young girls.
Fantasy tales have an enormous amount of power over impressionable young minds. The Walt Disney Corporation has frequently come under fire for assaulting children with “saccharine, sexist, and illusionary stereotypes” (Zipes, When Dreams 25). Whether they did so simply as a reflection of popular culture (Wright par. 2) or to deliberately control their audience’s “aesthetic interests and consumer tastes” (Zipes, Happily 91) is debatable, but the power they wield is not. Bruno Bettelheim, in his book “The Use of Enchantment,” argues that fairy tales help children structure their impressions of the world in general and of their lives in particular (45). Given that there is much power in the art of narrative, it is only right to examine some of the elements of these new renditions and their potential effects. Many fairy tales come pre-made with harmful assumptions regarding their heroes and heroines, and, more often than not, Disney’s adaptations intensify the damage done by those implications.
A nearly universal characteristic of fairy tale heroines is their overwhelming physical beauty. Briar Rose (or, Sleeping Beauty) is “so very beautiful that the king could not cease looking on [her] for joy” (Grimm 41). Little Red Riding Hood’s features are such that she is “loved by everyone who look[s] at her” (Grimm 137). Even the obscure Jorinda is “prettier than all the pretty girls that ever were seen before” (Grimm 24). While some heroines meet with disaster through jealous mothers-in-law or incestuous fathers because of their beauty, they are almost exclusively vindicated and rewarded in the end because of their winning smiles and gentle manner. In thirty-one percent of tales, beauty is directly tied to inherent goodness (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholtz 9). The implication is that children who are obedient and kind will also be attractive and successful (Tatar, Hard Facts 30). The Grimm brothers designed their book of tales as a sort of “manual of manners” (Tatar, Hard Facts 19). Charles Perrault, when speaking of fairy tales, commented that “virtue is rewarded everywhere and vice is always punished” (qtd. in Tatar, Off 25). Selflessness and diligence are correlated with physical attractiveness and “happily ever after,” and sloth and malice with ugliness and painful, messy deaths. Beauty was used as a carrot to lure children towards proper behavior.
Disney shifts the focus from virtue versus vice to beauty versus ugliness. By removing many of the challenges faced by the heroines and substituting jaunty woodland helpmates and stirring tunes in their place, beauty is no longer correlated to good behavior. It becomes an end in itself, desirable above all others. Ariel does not spend weeks in intense physical and emotional pain trying to win a man’s love, as Anderson’s Little Mermaid does. Rather, she spends three quick days trying to make herself pretty and appealing enough that a boy will kiss her. In the Grimm’s tale, Snow White accepts laces to tie her stays and a poisoned comb for her hair from her disguised step-mother. These two items both appeal to her vanity, and result in her near death as a result (Sale 41-2). Disney eliminates this clear warning against pride in one’s appearance, since including them would undermine the idea that beauty is eminent.
Once upon a time, beauty was only one facet of a heroine. Charles Perrault’s Cinderella is not described as pretty until the second paragraph of the story, and then, rather off-handedly. The brothers Grimm only happen to mention how attractive “Ashputtel” is (their version of the same tale) when she finally arrives at the ball. Disney’s heroines are certainly generous and good, but their inner beauty is overwhelmed by their tiny waists and shimmering locks. To intensify the effect of such lovely ladies, each heroine is tailored to suit the tastes of her generation. From the plump, bob-haired Snow White of the ‘30s to the lithe, toned Ariel of the ‘90s, from the Marilyn Monroe-with-wings masquerading as Tinker Bell to those comely efforts to embrace multiculturalism: Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, each female form is lovingly sculpted in the image of modern perfection (Marling pars. 6-8).
Attractive protagonists are a prerequisite for the survival of a tale (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholtz 12). Stories that have been reproduced into the twentieth century reference the good looks of their main characters more than twice as much as those stories who’s players are lovely in character alone (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholtz 11). By choosing to build feature films out of “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” instead of other classics such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” Disney is reinforcing the Hollywood assumption that the only people worth talking about are the pretty people. A woman must be flawless in both figure and dress before she is worthy of consideration.
Such flawlessness must be both inherent and acquired. Disney’s Cinderella is impeccable from the moment her blue eyes open in the morning, yet the entire first scene of the movie shows her grooming, showering, and slipping into a set of rather fetching “rags.” Large portions of airtime are devoted to preparing a dress for the ball, acquiring accessories, prepping her sisters’ hair and clothes, and prancing about in a shiny white gown (Tatar, Off 138-9). Belle, of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” has an even more elaborate wardrobe. She, likewise, begins the film in something efficient but flattering, only to replace the outfit with a succession of increasingly decadent gowns. Ariel, while undeniably alluring underwater, must be primped and polished for her presentation to the prince. The clear indication is that physical beauty, while essential, must be accompanied by laborious effort and expensive trappings in order to be recognized.
Aside from the hours each heroine (or her singing wardrobe, or her rodent accomplices) spends nurturing her precious beauty, she usually has little else to do besides sweep and dust. Cinderella slaves away for her step-mother and step-sisters, Snow White tidies up after seven full-grown (if short) men, and Belle looks after her absent-minded and cowardly father. Even Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan’s Wendy engage in mild bouts of servitude. Off-screen, these periods of tribulation act as a catalyst to bring about maturity and growth in the heroine (Gould 24). Onscreen, these housewifely duties are dispatched with no more effort than a song and a wave. Snow White’s helpful woodland friends make short work of the untidy dwarves’ house (a house which, in the Grimm tale, the dwarves are perfectly capable of cleaning themselves) and Cinderella blithely warbles a tune as she scrubs the floors. Housework is not only portrayed as effortless (an assumption that may cause some shock once these films’ young viewers acquire homes of their own) but as the only legitimate occupation for a young woman to engage in. Disney women know their place and do their housewifely duty, biding their time until salvation comes (Zipes, Happily 128).
Flamboyant action has never been the fairy tale heroine’s strong suit, but a certain decisiveness can be found if one looks hard enough. In her article “And She Lived Happily Ever After?” Kay Stone discusses how an alternate view of heroism can shed new light on seemingly-passive protagonists. She argues, truthfully enough, that many heroines do more on their own behalf than they are often given credit for (629). A mutilated girl gains a royal marriage in “The Handless Maiden”. A bereft sister wins her brothers’ freedom through pain and dedication in “The Seven Swans.” Even the tales that Disney has pared down originally show evidence of active women. Grimm’s Cinderella lacks a fairy godmother completely, and it is only through a series of heartfelt actions (requesting the first twig that touches her father’s cap as he returns home, planting that twig on the grave of her mother and watering it with her tears) that she ends up at the ball. Anderson’s Little Mermaid, after she sells her voice for a pair of legs, spends an undisclosed length of time (but certainly much longer than Disney’s three days) walking as though on sharp knives, devoting her life to the prince, and eventually sacrificing herself so that he may live (Anderson 58-78).
Disney’s heroines lack even this semblance of assertiveness. Ariel, whom the majority of young women are more familiar with, also seeks out the witch and buys herself two extra limbs. Once she reaches the surface, however, she sits and simpers, counting on her pretty face and her father’s minion to win her a prince. Aladdin’s feisty Jasmine sets out to escape her wretched, pampered existence, but immediately gets herself into trouble and must be rescued by the titular hero, a theme which continues throughout the flim. Others are not even this daring. The responsibility for their fate is taken out of their hands and placed firmly in the sword-wielding hands of the inevitable Prince Charming (Gould 25). Cinderella remarks that, whatever else her antagonistic family may do to her, “they can’t order [her] to stop dreaming,” and dream she will, until those dreams take handsome human form and whisk her away. Snow White likewise flits about her domestic tasks, convinced that “one day [her] prince will come,” before collapsing into unconsciousness to await him. Sleeping Beauty is completely insensible for much of her adolescence, patiently biding her time as well. Because these “barely alive” heroines (Stone, Things 44) all receive their happy ending, a young girl discovers that “to be happy she must be loved; to be loved she must await love’s coming” (Weigle 36).
Marriage is portrayed as the crowning achievement of a woman’s life. Disney indicates that the ultimate purpose of being beautiful, helpless, and handy with a broom is to win one’s self a man. It is not an immortal soul (the ultimate goal of Anderson’s heroine) that Ariel is pursuing, but a lavish wedding. Snow White does not wrest her life back into her own hands by challenging the queen directly, but allows a man to rescue her so that they may wed. Mooning about her house, waiting for the duke to find her and bring her back to the prince, Cinderella may as well be lying in a coma next to Sleeping Beauty. The prince formerly acted as a symbol that a woman had reached endured her trials faithfully and reached maturity (Gould 25). By removing many of those trials and “strip[ping] the original fairy tale of anything but the romantic trajectory” (Cummins, qtd. in Craven 6), the prince becomes the end to which all means were subjugated
No ordinary man justifies this sort of Herculean, life-long waiting game. No woodcutters, no lackluster royals, and certainly no beasts are worth a second glance. True, Madame de Villeneuve’s Beauty was able to see the good inside the Beast, but Disney’s Beast is so vicious and coarse that there does not seem to be any good in him until Belle force-feeds it to him manners and gentility (Craven 11). Beasts aside, the men to whom these damsels give their hearts in the end are paragons of masculinity and romantic endeavors. Snow White’s prince spends much of the film off-screen, patiently searching for her (Wright par. 33), while Cinderella’s young man sends his vassals on a tireless search of the kingdom in the off chance that they might find her. Sleeping Beauty’s husband-to-be slays a dragon and fights a forest of brambles, and Aladdin overcomes his street-rat origins to become “Prince Ali Ababwa,” a worthy suitor indeed. Some may view this as an encouragement to seek the best in a mate. However, even the best of men could never reach the elusive ideal embodied by Disney’s Prince Charming, and the girls who doggedly expect them to will only suffer for their misplaced optimism.
Unrealistic expectations of life and love are inherent in tales of fantasy. Disney films have done an extremely thorough job of reinforcing some of the more harmful aspects of these stories. Instilling generations of girls with the desperate need to be beautiful and the desire to do little else besides dust a room and catch a man, Disney has all but ignored the great strides towards the empowerment of women since Snow White first pranced onscreen in 1937. It is true that, with “Mulan” and “Pocahontas,” they have made alleged efforts to depict strong women. Since both these women inevitably marry their rescuer, their success is dubious at best (Maio 639). This manipulation may or may not have been intentional; entertainment organizations such as Disney - and the brothers Grimm before them - often simply reflect the values of the societies in which they interact. Other aspects of the media likely deserves more blame in the oppression of young girls. However, as Maria Tatar argues, the fluidity of fairy tales is such that they can and should be told so that “they challenge and resist, rather than simply reproduce, the constructs of a culture” (Tatar, Off 237).
Anderson, Hans Christian. A Treasury of Hans Christian Anderson. Trans. Erik Christian Haugaard. New York: International Collectors Library, 1974.
Baker-Sperry, Lori, and Liz Grauerholtz. “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales.” Gender & Society 17.5 (2003): 711-726. Sage Journals Online. 15 June 2007 http://gas.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/5/711
Behrens, Laurence, Leonard J. Rosen, Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, and Catherine Taylor, eds. Writing & Reading Across the Curriculum. Toronto: Longman, 2003.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Craven, Allison. “Beauty and the Belles: Discourses of Feminism and Femininity in Disneyland.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 9.2 (2002): 123-142. Sage Journals Online 12 June 2007 http://ejw.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/9/2/123
Gould, Joan. Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal about the Transformations in a Woman’s Life. New York: Random House, 2006. 11 June 2007 http://site.ebrary.com.proxy.ucfv.ca:2048/lib/ucfv/Doc?id=10124968
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Fairy Tales. Trans. Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes. New York: Random House, 1992.
Maio, Kathi. “Disney’s Dolls.” Behrens 634-639.
Marling, Karal Ann. “Are Disney Movies Really the Devil’s Work?” Culturefront 8.3/4 (Fall 1999): 25-8. HWWilson. 12 June 2007.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
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Weigle, Marta. Spiders & Spinsters: Women and Mythology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
Wright, T. M. “Romancing the Tale: Walt Disney’s Adaptation of the Grimm’s ‘Snow White’”. Journal of Popular Film and Television 25 (Fall 1997): 98-108. HWWilson. June 12, 2007. http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com/hww/jumpstart.jhtml?recid=0bc05f7a67b1790e9e46204822cf035489000c6ed73372ee66b3503a6eb486f2de1755c624cb2210&fmt=H
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