What is Disney Telling Our Daughters?
Not long ago, my daughter was ill and stayed home from school for a few days. One of those days, she asked to watch The Aristocats while snuggling with stuffed animals and blankets on the sofa. My daughter and I have watched The Aristocats before (we own a copy). I agreed that she could watch the movie.
I joined her on the sofa and, this time, I noticed things I had not noticed before. Instead of a sweet, sometimes silly animated story of a cat and her kittens trying to return to their home in Paris (after being cat-napped by the butler and left in the country), I saw some startling gender stereotypes and messages.
It started when I heard Marie, the female kitten, say to her brothers, “Ladies first,” as they raced to get through a cat flap in the front door. Not too bad, I thought, and began to watch Marie’s roles vs those of her brothers. Duchess, the mother cat, is trying to raise her kittens with manners befitting ladies and gentlemen. Comments on Duchess and Marie by humans focus on their appearance, their beauty.
When Duchess and her kittens meet Thomas O’Malley the alley cat out in the country, he mentions her beauty. Eventually he agrees to help them return to Paris. O’Malley saves Marie’s life twice – she falls off of a milk truck, and she falls off of a bridge. Her brothers manage not to fall. When the cats finally reach the rooftops of Paris, O’Malley is carrying the exhausted Marie on his back, while her two brothers plod slowly along on their own four paws.
Marie is beautiful, needs to be rescued, and tires more easily than her brothers. Duchess is beautiful, tries to protect her kittens during a storm, and needs O’Malley to show them the way home. Do the young girls watching this Disney movie notice? Do they absorb these messages?
Luckily, my daughter doesn’t think Marie is the best character. My daughter favors O’Malley, Scat Cat (a musician cat), and Toulouse (a spunky kitten – one of Marie’s brothers).
Disney released The Aristocats in 1970. Certainly attitudes have changed?
But what about the Disney Princesses – all beautiful, most needing to be rescued. Is Disney telling our daughters that what matters is how they look? That what matters is their appearance? That they need to let the men take on the more challenging aspects of life? That to be a girl means to embrace this way of thinking and being?
We’ve avoided reading books about silly princesses who need to be rescued. I’ve made a point of finding books with a different twist – these main character girls (or princesses) are the ones who leave their safe castle to go live with dragons, or who rescue the witch from the prince.
I understand that the Disney Princess movies (and associated items for purchase) are very popular with young girls. And, some little girls love pink and want to be princesses. Do they outgrown this? Is it just imaginary play, or does that message of appearance mattering most, and of pleasing others, and of being weaker than boys come through?
And, if my daughter rejects the ideal of the pink and pretty, does she chose not to be friends with girls who embrace pink and pretty? Do they reject her?
Or, is it just a movie? Or just one company retelling fairy tales to entertain families?