You all remember the original Disney classics, don’t you?
If you were born before the Twenty-First Century you most certainly will, as they will have been your first forays into the world of Walt’s creative vision, whilst you were growing up. It’s been years since I’ve watched any of them, being caught up, as I have been, in both the releases of and hypes surrounding “The Princess and the Frog”, “Tangled” and “Frozen” (for the purposes of this article, I’m excluding anything made by Pixar, such as “Brave”).
Recently however, having been seduced into purchasing subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Now TV – I’ve had the chance to view all those Disney classics again, this time, through an older, more ‘enlightened’ eyes of a twenty-four-year-old.
When it came to Disney, as a child, I always preferred the films where the stories revolved around talking animals and their many adventures and magic, that didn’t involve a Prince or Princess, in search of the seemingly elusive “true love’s first kiss”.
In that age bracket, I couldn’t have told you specifically why I felt that way, other than my belief that films such as “The Sword in the Stone”, “Robin Hood”, “Peter Pan”, “101 Dalmatians” and “The Black Cauldron” had more to offer plot wise, than say, “Cinderella”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty”.
Looking back however… I think I knew that there was more to it; I simply wasn’t old enough to comprehend what it could be.
It was this unanswered question that motivated me to watch the latter ones first, in my recent bought of nostalgia; it has been by doing so, that I have finally been able to put my finger on why these Disney Princess films hold little to no interest with me, ergo, the point I intend to make and explore in this article:
– It is the portrayals of Cinderella, Snow White and Princess Aurora/Briar Rose, which were a direct result of their characters and plotlines lacking in substance, thus making them, the main characters, the most boring elements of the films –
Let’s begin with “Cinderella” (1950).
On the surface, a tale of how dreams really do come true and that true love really does conquer all. In reality, a rather (in my opinion) grim account of how a young girl loses her family very early on, is subjected to a life of toil and misery, all the while making no attempt to stand up for herself but instead, believing her only way out of the situation is to marry a handsome man – and it wouldn’t even matter if she barely knew him, as is evident later on.
Arguably, one could say that Cinderella had gained enough domestic skills to leave her step-family of her own free will and set herself up somewhere on her own, having proved, through years of maintaining the cleanliness of a large household and learning how to cook for a family of four (counting herself, but not counting the various animals they kept), that she would be more than capable of looking after herself.
Given that this film was made at the dawn of the 1950’s, the expectations of women during that era are illustrated perfectly in Disney’s portrayal of the character of Cinderella: Be domestic, be virtuous, never disagree with your superiors and make a point of looking as pretty as a picture at all times, for all these factors will be instrumental in finding yourself a husband, on whom your entire future wellbeing will depend.
However, for the film’s young, impressionable and (again, for the purposes of this article) female viewers of the 21st Century and the last few decades of the 20th Century, when the concept of gender progression had had a chance to further evolve, the portrayal of this particular Disney Princess did nothing but perpetuate unrealistic expectations of romance, achieving long-term goals and of how a girl/woman should conduct herself in life. And of course, the obligatory mention of how “Cinderella” set generations of girls up for disappointment, when each of them realised how truly impossible it is to secure one’s hair with a ribbon. Oh, Disney; you make it all look so easy!
As was the case when I watched “Cinderella” as a child, as an adult, the only part of the film I find truly entertaining, are the antics of the mice as they battle the cat, make the first dress for the ball and come to Cinderella’s aid, after her stepmother locks her up. Apart from that, I’d conclude that Disney’s “Cinderella” is a rather misogynistic, depressing tale, which teaches young girls that as long as you look pretty, take it on faith that all things come to those who wish and manage to land yourself a Prince, you will want for nothing more in life.
Had Disney’s Cinderella been created to take a less linear approach to life, opting instead to take the path of self-sufficiency as previously described, she would, at least, have been more interesting to watch. Even if she did persist in singing every five minutes.
In terms of character portrayal, a very similar approach is taken in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).
Disney’s Snow White holds the same values as Cinderella, particularly in how wishing is the only legitimate way of fulfilling one’s dreams. Incredibly, Snow White’s character is even less substantial than Cinderella’s. She sings more than she speaks and spends the entire film either doing housework, cooking, screaming or crying out in surprise and alarm and lying in what is, essentially, all magic connecting to “true love’s first kiss” aside, a coma. Possibly not the best role model for a little girl to aspire to.
After my recent viewing of this film, it occurred to me that if there was an ounce of common sense in her personality, Snow White could have spent a significant portion of her life in the castle before being forced to flee, in a very productive manner. She had always known that her stepmother, the Queen had been jealous of her blossoming beauty, fearing that one day, it would rival her own, as this was the very reason – stated at the beginning of the film – why Snow White was put to work as a servant and dressed in rags. Theoretically, it would have been impossible for Snow White not to have been aware of the Queen’s envy and how it motivated her to treat her young stepdaughter. Therefore, it must have occurred to her that it would only be a matter of time before the Queen’s cruel jealously would drive her to acts of violence.
By factoring in any homicidal act possible, Snow White could have spent less time “wishing for the one she loved” and more time honing her intuition, developing self-defence skills and immunity to poison and, by defying the laws of time and Henry J. Heimlich, discover and practise the Heimlich manoeuvre.
In summary: Why sing to every woodland animal and wish into a well, when you can discover a medical manoeuvre thirty-seven years early, that will most likely save you from fruit getting stuck in your throat, especially if it happens to be poisoned.
I personally believe that the best parts of the film revolve around the Seven Dwarfs. They’re funny, endearing, surprisingly brave and heroic when the situation warrants it and I always enjoyed watching their escapades. That aside, I can think of nothing else about the film to comment on. I could go into the two infamous scenes which have been deemed some of the most terrifying moments in cinema history, these being Snow White running through the forest and the Queen’s transformation. However, given the subject of this article, I really don’t feel that they hold any relevance.
And so we come to the final film on our list: “Sleeping Beauty” (1959).
Let’s begin with the gifts given to her by the three Good Fairies. When a child is born, their personalities begin to develop very quickly, providing them with all the unique assets they will need for the rest of their lives. In Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”, this is displayed through the personality traits being bestowed upon the baby Princess through means of magic. These three Good Fairies could have given her anything. They could have given her the gift of wisdom; of compassion; of humour; kindness; mental and/or physical strength; the gift of intuition, or of independence. They could even have provided her with the gift of immunity against sharp objects. But no. Out of all the gifts they could have bestowed upon her, they choose the gift of beauty and the gift of song.
In order to communicate to you, dear readers, my levels of exasperation and disbelief, I am going to repeat part of that last sentence. The gift of BEAUTY and the gift of SONG.
So, what does that teach those aforementioned impressionable female children watching this film? That the highest priority in a girl’s life is to be beautiful and that by singing sweetly (and constantly), everyone, including every animal you encounter, will like you.
A small insight on the subject of the gift of beauty: If, in a world where magic exists openly, beauty is something that can just be given manually to a person at birth, surely the baby would have to have been born ugly, or simply plain. So technically, by presenting the baby Princess with the gift of beauty, the three Good Fairies would have been implying, right in front of the King and Queen, that their baby was ugly and could only be beautiful by their improvement, therefore publically scorning the Princess and her genetic make-up.
Like our previous two Disney Princesses, Aurora/Briar Rose has (surprise, surprise) no real substance to her character. Like Cinderella and Snow White, she is all radiance and no core. The only thing which sets her apart from the other two, is that she appears to have much less screen-time than them, despite being the main character. She spends the first half of the film singing and dancing in the woods, falling in love in less than a minute, but without bothering to instigate an introduction, crying over the prospect of never seeing him again (to reiterate, a man she barely knows) and the second half, locked in an enchanted sleep, waking up and having a kiss and another dance before the film ends.
While Aurora/Briar Rose may not differ much from Cinderella and Snow White, “Sleeping Beauty” would have to be my favourite out of the three, because of the Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather (despite the appalling gift-giving abilities of the first two). Prince Phillip may have defeated Maleficent and given the kiss that would break the spell, but the true heroes of this film are the fairies. Merryweather gave the gift that provided an antidote to Maleficent’s curse; all three fairies sacrificed their magical powers to protect the Princess for sixteen years; they braved Maleficent’s dark castle to rescue Prince Phillip and if it weren’t for them providing him with the weapons he needed to defeat her, he never would have done so.
All in all, despite Disney’s dull, linear portrayal of women in his films throughout the 20th Century, I feel I can commend him for creating a trio of female heroines, chock-full of substance.
To conclude, I feel I can hardly blame myself for preferring Disney films such as those listed above, over the classic Disney Princess ones.
They are just the same stories that perpetuate the same values over and over again. You may as well just watch the same film on repeat. My advice would be to choose “Sleeping Beauty”, though; at least you could make a game out of seeing how many flaws you can find in the plot!
Written by Aifric O’ Neill