I don’t think Disney is as bad as people think. There, I said it. I’m not talking about Disney as a corporation – that can go burn. But the contemporary criticism and dialogue about Disney movies primarily focuses on their representations of women. For the sake of this blog, I’m only going to discuss a handful – partly because I don’t want to be here all night writing about Disney films, as a 24 year old woman in the prime of my life and all that. Also, because these are the only ones I have seen. Most of my observations are from memory so might not be perfect but feel free to criticise – but also, bear in mind, that my childhood memory is as sharp as a fucking knife so I will win in an argument of who said what, especially when on the subject of Aladdin.
The most criticised movie, in my experience, is Beauty and the Beast. Poor beautiful Belle, locked in a castle to save her father, develops a kind of Stockholm syndrome where she learns to love the man that locked her up. The problem I have with criticisms about most Disney movies is that they fail to recognise that their representations of gender relations and expectations are often complicated…and contradictory. It is easy to see Belle as a victim and as someone who was forced into loving the Beast. Yet the biggest representation of misogyny in the movie is Gaston – he barges into her house, tries to force her into marriage, talks about all the children that she will bear for him and how she will raise them while he goes off and kills animals with guns and eats eggs and other manly man things. Gaston is a hilarious and an amazing character – but the most notable thing that feminists seem to forget is that Belle, and the film itself, completely despises Gaston and everything he represents and promotes – primarily servitude and domesticity. Belle wants to experience the world and she spends her life reading, which makes her an outsider. As Robert Southey once said to Bronte ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’ Literature was the business of Belle’s life. She was happiest when she was in the bookshop, or when the Beast magicked her up a library. She didn’t fall in love with the Beast because he roared at her. When she moves in, all the women (like the cupboard and the talking tea pot) try to force her to go down and eat with him – because he invited her and she wouldn’t want to upset or anger him. But she doesn’t. Why? Because he’s horrible to her. And she’s stubborn. She actually only falls in love with him when he becomes far more effeminate and becomes more like her. Everyone remembers the scene when he holds the seeds out to the birds, dressed in a cape, and they all come and sit on him and he smiles coyly. And suddenly, she starts thinking that he’s not a complete bastard and might be someone she could love, despite the fact that he’s 8 foot tall, has bad teeth and is covered in hair. This is because he stops caring about himself and falls in love with Belle – showing exactly the kind of love that Belle showed for her father, which was the reason she got into the whole lot of trouble in the first place.
The next is Aladdin. Now I know Jasmine is seen as bad, bad, bad, because she has an unrealistically tiny waist, big eyes and is a princess who wanders around in a bikini top. But, actually, look at her as a character. She defies her father, the king, and the other patriarchal figure of Jafar. She falls for Aladdin because he is funny and kind. She is the strongest character in the film who says things like ‘I am not a prize to be won.’ And, of course she is a prize to be won, because it’s Disney and people will only be happy when they get to marry their perfectly Americanised child-man or child-woman and live in a big palace somewhere. But, just like Ariel from The Little Mermaid, she wasn’t happy with her lot. Ariel wanted to see above the surface. She is interested in learning things and gathers human collectables that drop from above. She also defies her father (who is far scarier than Jasmine’s sultan because Ariel’s father booms orders and carries a big yellow trident). Of course, she didn’t have an average size 12 figure and didn’t aim to climb to the surface to get job in publishing and learn to speak German in evening classes whilst having a modern love affair with a feminist poet. But, my argument is, she’s not that bad. She’s interested in learning – she wants more than her limited life, which is exactly what Bronte wanted and Virginia Woolf wanted and Charlotte Smith wanted.
Of course, things have got better for women in Disney and things are incomparable now to how they were. Cinderella had horrible representations of women – she was a doormat who needed rescuing and her ugly sisters were jealous slagbags who just squabbled with each other because, Disney seems to suggest, their big ugly feet mean that they are greedy, selfish and inherently corrupt – and they will do anything to get what they want. Then, one of my favourites, The Jungle Book, which I don’t actually think has a woman in it so things could only realistically get better from there! I think there’s a girl at the end wandering around with something on her head but she’s not a proper person. But it was written by Rudyard Kipling so no surprises there.
And if you really, really hate Disney still, watch Mulan. Mulan is a genuinely brilliant film and is the only movie I still like when I watch back as an adult. If you want a feminist Disney movie, Mulan is your best bet. She goes to war and saves the day, whilst maintaining the qualities which make her instinctively a woman. And there are other modern films like Tangled which is a re-make of Rapunzel – if Rapunzel was an indecisive, naïve girl who is terribly rescued by a bumbling guy who fancies himself a bit too much but is alright really.
Those are some of the reasons I think Disney is not that bad. But. This does not take into the consideration The Lion King. Which is just bad, terrible, corrupt, should be destroyed and shown only to children if the only other option is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mufasa has some serious entitlement issues. He believes he owns everything he sees and it will be passed down the patriarchal line straight to Simba (apart from the dark, shit bit of land which, un-coincidentally, is reserved for the hyenas who have African-American accents rather than White American accents, hmmm). He preaches crap about the circle of life ‘we eat the zebra and then the zebra eat us when we die and turn into grass.’ Yeah, sure, because the zebra really chase that bit of grass until its exhausted and then rip it to shreds while it’s still alive. I’m not, of course, moralising about animals eating – but he seems to be turning it into the beautiful cycle, when, really, it’s a bit of a crap-shoot for everyone except for him. Then Simba goes off on an extended lad’s holiday with a meercat and a warthog and then comes back to ‘reclaim the land’ when directed by the throaty daughter of that other female lion. We don’t really care who they are because they all just sit together, being boring and knitting or something. So he comes back and drives all the evil Whoopi Goldberg crew of hyenas from the land. It’s colonialism in action.
And that’s why it shouldn’t be shown to children.