“And they all lived happily ever after…” I mean, did they? Or do we just hope they did?
That’s what I’ve found myself wondering as I’ve learned to view romanticized love through a perhaps more critical lens. Now to start, I don’t condemn love or fairy tales. I actually consider myself a hopeless romantic, and I’m a writing major, so you might see how I might be a bit delusional at times. With that in mind, bear with me as I put your childhood dreams into a 100-year sleep with no chance of being reawoken.
Growing up, I was very much a Disney kid. I attribute this to my mom who (do not call her a Disney adult, although it might be true) has always had a special place in her heart for the world of Disney. As a little girl, I loved the Disney princesses just like many other young children. What was a young child watching loveable animated classics never should have been something I would recognize as harmful later on. By the time I was in second grade my favorite Disney princess was Aurora, but then I suddenly wanted straight blonde hair… Eight year old me had no clue that my favorite movie had such an effect on me to the point where I wasn’t happy with how I looked. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the vast majority of Disney princesses were white and this had an effect on young girls of color. While there are a few, Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana and only recently more diverse characters, it’s undeniable that minority characters are lacking, or at least were when I was a child.
To further explore the problematic implications of Sleeping Beauty, it’s important to call attention to the absolute lack of consent this movie displays. While I’m sure Aurora probably wouldn’t have loved to sleep for a century, she didn’t exactly say it was okay for Prince Philip to kiss her awake either. In fact, she didn’t. The same problem is also shown in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Consent is so important, and showing little girls that a handsome prince can simply kiss them without permission and then label that as “romantic,” is deeply concerning. When we look at society and the range of problems we face (such as sexual harassment and sexual assault) we don’t always think of the media we consumed as children as having any affect on the present. Media that depicts a lack of consent can be internalized by young audiences. Consent problems aside, the basic rhetoric that a girl needs to be “saved” takes away agency from young girl viewers… Girls are more than damsels needing to be saved.
While there is no shame in getting married to someone you deeply love, there is a problem in marrying someone you just met… sorry, Ariel. When the Disney princesses are whisked away and marry the prince, it creates the illusion that your prince will simply show up at your doorstep one day and everything will be perfect in every way. Wrong. Getting to know someone takes more work than speaking a few words (or none, I’m looking at you again, Ariel, although that wasn’t entirely her fault). Relationships of any kind are an investment. My strongest friendships have taken months, even years to develop, so when picking the person you’re going to marry… you might want to give it more than a few days. Additionally, having these movies end with marriage creates the impression that this should be every girl’s goal, or worse, that marriage is equal to happiness. While I’m not married, one could gather that the story doesn’t just end there. Now you’re married to this person, figuring out life with them, and that could invite a whole laundry list of challenges. Marriage is not the end all be all.
Perhaps this point will be a touch selfish, but I would also argue that the Disney princess films also raise the expectations of girls (even 20-year-old ones like myself). In my experience, you don’t just go wandering in the forest and meet “the one” just like that. With a vast number of people using dating apps now, it sort of takes the romance out of things. I don’t think I’d like to meet someone in the forest (a bit too creepy for my liking) but with a growing number of dating app users, I do question what role romance will play in society moving forward. Either way, I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for these films to get our hopes up that we’ll meet “the one” out of the blue one day. For some this happens, but for the majority of us, it’s not always that simple.
While Disney films have made strides to keep up with modern times and shifting ideas, young audiences, especially little girls, will continue to watch these movies. It’s important to call out the harmful rhetoric that might be picked up subconsciously by young audiences. By no means do I think we need to completely do away with Disney princess films, but rather, have conversations with children about consent, love, racism and sexism. While everyone’s happily ever after is possible, it might look different from riding a magical horse into the sunset. Happiness itself is one emotion, and there’s no way to feel happy every moment of every day. There will not be a moment in life where everything suddenly makes sense and is perfect without a touch of sadness. Life is deeper than that, and you can’t let an animated film make you think it’s not.
Mikayla Tolliver is a Junior Writing major who dreams of being a Disney Princess someday. They can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Surya Sharma.