Gee, it’s been a while since I ruined people’s fondest childhood entertainment memories. Today seems like a good day to do it again. Let’s focus on Disney, shall we?
I know, I know, Disney is the easiest to hate on. It’s basically like shooting a shotgun at the side of a barn…there’s too much there to miss. And yet, there are things about Disney movies that people don’t really talk about.
Take this chick, for instance:
I saw The Little Mermaid when I was about six. I loved it. It was always one of my favorite Disney films, and the soundtrack remains my favorite to this day. But while everyone else was hung up on Ariel’s seashell bra and exposed midriff, or the anti-feminist way she gave up her voice to get a man, or the fact that said man was patently uninterested in her and at least a little gay, the Ogre was looking at something else.
The baddest mer-daddy of them all, whose teenaged daughter ran circles around him, disobeyed with a vengeance, almost got him killed, and never once really apologized. Oh sure, when she’s all found out and everything’s in the crapper she yells, “Daddy, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” In our house, we don’t call that an apology. We call that an excuse. She most certainly did mean to! She knew exactly what she was doing! Yet instead of letting her bear the consequence of her actions, Triton just sacrifices himself to save her.
Now, this would be one thing if she had learned her lesson, or if he thought she would learn a lesson, or if he even though that she was doing something kind of okay. But he didn’t. He was firmly convinced that the path she was trying to take into the human world was wrong. But after the final battle, he showed how much he loved his rebellious, self-centered daughter by giving her the very thing she wanted in the first place, the thing he believed was bad for her, because…because why? Because she somehow understood it differently? Because he had seen some kind of virtue in her, or the prince, or some kind of real compassion or love between them? Uh, nah. Probably not. Remember, Eric and Ariel still had never even had a conversation. Probably he gave her what she wanted because Disney.
“Oh, Sebastian, it’s totally okay that Ariel’s asshatery almost got me and the human prince killed and the mer-kingdom handed over to a sea witch, because she loves him” said no good father ever.
Ariel totally should have just died, with Prince Eric none the wiser, like in the original story. That would have been a good story. That would have been one I would have told my daughters. The Disney version teaches girls that if they are persistent enough in their selfish desires, have fathers who care more about making their princesses happy than teaching them to be good, and have a taut midriff, the world will give them whatever they want no matter how much damage they cause trying to get it. Well, the Ogre was having none of that. He put the kibosh on The Little Mermaid six years ago, and it hasn’t seen the inside of our house since.
Peter Pan is still a family favorite, though, because it’s awesome. And since I’m 1/32 Cherokee, I can overlook the overt and ludicrous racism, seeing as how it’s directed at my people and all. And you know, it doesn’t offend me, so that must make it okay.
I particularly appreciate how Victorian inequality of the sexes is attributed to a population who had no concept of “the angel of the hearth.” It’s so refreshing to see an Anglo-European young girl stand up to the oppressive sexism of the red man’s red woman. Squaw no gettum firewood, indeed, Wendy! Up top, sister!
Wanna talk offensive Disney racism, though? Here, watch this:
Doesn’t it just warm the cockles of your heart to see hulking, faceless black men who never learned to read or write, slaving away until they get their pay, which they will happily throw away as soon as they get it? Listen, it’s not really racism, because that’s just how things were back then, and they say they’re happy, anyway, so. It’s totally fine! There are no stereotypes in Dumbo. That’s just the way things were, right?
Why yes, all cartoon crows were voiced by blackface actors in the 1940’s. Didn’t you know that? And just because they’re crows doesn’t mean there’s any connection to Jim Crow. Jeez. You’re really stretching things now, Calah.
Stereotypes abound in Disney movies. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that every single Disney character is a static stereotype. A mere caricature of a character. I’m having trouble thinking of even one who learns, changes, or grows from what they experience.
Well, let’s think about it. If we had to sum up the lesson Aladdin learned in one sentence, what would that sentence be?
Aladdin: Unbelievably handsome yet downtrodden young thief who realizes that he doesn’t have to pretend to be a prince to be a king.
That was fun. Let’s do Jasmine.
The last few might have gotten away from me a bit, but my point is not that stereotypes are bad or that static characters are awful…sometimes they’re useful devices. My point is that’s all Disney deals in. Static, stereotypical characters.
Granted, Disney recently made some strides that were, for Disney, practically colossal.
Full disclosure: I adore this movie. I love every single detail of it, think it’s one of the best movies Disney has ever made, and rank it among my favorite movies ever.
That’s not gonna stop me from ripping the poorly-written characters to shreds, though.
I honestly think this is how the creation of these two characters went down in some Disney boardroom (since this isn’t Pixar, and we all know Pixar movies are dreamed up on napkins):
Writer’s assistant (hesitating at doorway to boardroom): Um, so I know that I’m just learning and all, but don’t you think it’s time Disney created some characters who have to overcome obstacles within themselves, instead of characters who are forever inexplicably defeating the bad guy for no discernible reason other than the cartoon universe favoring the more aesthetically pleasing animated figure?
Writer: You’re fired. (enters boardroom alone while cartoon security guards escort out the befuddled assistant) Good afternoon, gentlemen! I have a proposal to change the way Disney thinks about it’s characters. The people of the world have dropped their obsession with knights and dragons in favor of an obsession with exploring their collective inner-selfness(es). So we need characters who have to battle NOT ONLY the evil without (because kids still watch these things, and kids are stupid), BUT ALSO the evil WITHIN! We need characters who have to change some major flaw in their character BEFORE they get everything they ever wanted on a silver plate. To that end, I pulled out this. (whips out THE CLIFF’S NOTES HANDBOOK OF STOCK CHARACTER TRANSFORMATIONS and lets the book fall open to the P’s, where he reads the first damn thing he sees) Imagine this: a poor little rich boy falls in love with a poor…oh, an actually poor girl. Who has daddy issues. (Looks up, realizes that no one is sold, and hastily adds) But SHE’S BLACK! And he’s some kind of ethnic Spanishey something or other, but he’s definitely NOT WHITE! And the whole thing takes place in a SWAMP IN LOUISIANA (begins to frantically fill in the blanks using ideas from last night’s Swamp People marathon) with…uh…fireflies who HARDLY HAVE ANY TEETH and a freaking ALLIGATOR who just wants to be a saxophone player! And did I mention there’s VOODOO? (Someone pops open a champagne bottle.)
Congratulations, Disney. You’ve moved from static, stereotypical characters who get everything they ever wanted for pretty much no real reason at all to stereotypical characters with stereotypical issues who stereotypically realize that all they need is love. Yeah, you actually played that card. (I’d be more annoyed by that if it hadn’t freaking worked. Damn it, Disney.)
See, I wouldn’t mind this so much if it weren’t aimed at impressionable children. I really don’t want my children to grow up thinking that anyone, be it cartoon birds or genies in lamps, is going to fix the mess they’re in. Even if it’s not a mess they created, even if they really are the victims, I still want them to grow into the kind of people who say, “Whoa, this is a disaster and it needs to be handled. Better pitch in and help.” But especially for those times when they’re up to their necks in the creek they willingly jumped into, I want them to be the kind of people who tread water until they can swim out.
Damsels in distress are only attractive when there’s a dragon to slay. After the kiss and the credits, though, there’s gonna be dinners to make, dishes to wash, and diapers to change. If the damsel keeps expecting her distress to bring someone running to do it for her, she’s gonna make everyone miserable real quick, and no one more than herself.
Street rats with hearts of gold are all well and good, until they start believing that their good intentions make them good enough to rule kingdoms. Aladdin was a great guy and all, but I can’t help but wince when I imagine the fallout from the new laws he decides to pass when the old Sultan kicks the bucket. Laws to make bread “Free for Everyone!” Being a swell guy doesn’t make up for a total lack of education and blissful ignorance of basic economics. As mean as the old Sultan was for insisting that Jasmine stick to the law and marry a prince, there’s a reason that law was written…because princes have been trained from childhood to rule countries. I’m not convinced that Aladdin could pick up the requisite knowledge from Agraba’s version of Khan Academy. Sometimes people aren’t just being big meanies when they say, “sorry, but you don’t have the skills required to fill this position.” Sometimes, you just don’t have the skills required to fill the position.
I wish Disney would make a movie about a character who has some serious flaws in their character, or huge, devastating gaps in their education, and has to work slowly and humiliatingly, day by day, to overcome those things. No great flashes of insight, no moments of clarity, just a humble drudge, humbly trying to become slightly more than a drudge. I wish Disney would make a movie about how this character never realizes their spectacular dreams, but learns to be satisfied with their tangible achievements. I wish Disney would make this movie so the kids of today don’t grow up like I did, with impossible expectations of life and other people and an entitlement complex whose sheer girth swallows up their work ethic. I wish they would make it so the kids of today know that it’s okay, when you’re a year shy of thirty and life looks nothing like your dreams, to realize that your life as it is is better than getting all your wishes granted by a fairy godmother.
But I know what they would say, the Disney execs, if I asked them for that movie.
“Have you heard of Pixar?”