Disney’s Portrayal of Women and Simplification of Morals For most people, the first image that comes to mind when the subject of Walt Disney’s animated movies comes up is the studio’s popular princesses. Ever since Snow White made her debut in 1937, Disney has cornered the market on princesses. One primary topic that critics have discussed in Disney’s films is the way princesses are portrayed. The roles of the female characters are especially drawing the interest of academic critics.
Jack Zipes, author of Breaking the Disney Spell, believes that the Disney princesses have regressed. On the other hand, Libe Zarranz, author of Diswomen Strike Back? The Evolution of Disney’s Femmes in the 1990s, and Rebecca Do Rozario, author of The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, The Function of the Disney Princess, believe that the Disney princess has progressed. Another aspect of Disney’s movies that catches the eyes of critics is the moral simplification in the films.
They believe that the morals from the original fairy tales are being manipulated and simplified in the Disney films. A. Waller Hastings, author of Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and Finn Mortensen, author of The Little Mermaid: Icon and Disneyfication, both agree that Disney’s simplification of morals is giving viewers the wrong depiction of life. Disney’s portrayal of women and simplification of morals are giving viewers the wrong impression of life and women. Many critics call the process of simplification in Disney movies, “Disneyfication. Disneyfication is especially shown in The Little Mermaid. In Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, Disney retains elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale. A. Waller Hastings notes, “In the Disney adaptation, the elements of the fairy tale remain recognizable, but superimposed are typical elements of Disneyfication and a happy ending that contravenes the moral intention of the original tale” (85). The resistance towards Disneyfication is an agreement between academic writers.
Zarranz also notes, “The dramatic transformation of literary fairy tales, nonetheless, has been problematic, since Disney’s animated fairy-tale adaptations have systematically undergone a process involving sanitization and Americanizaion, two distinctive features to compound the so-called ‘Disneyfication’ of folklore and popular culture” (55). Many critics believe that Disneyfication takes out the sting and variety of the real world. In the Disney world, everything is the same, everything is happy, and everything is full of everlasting hope.
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Zipes states that, “The great ‘magic’ of the Disney spell is that he animated the fairy tale only to transfix audiences and divert their potential utopian dreams and hopes through the false promises of the images he cast upon the screen” (23). The process known as Disneyfication seems to be giving viewers the wrong depiction of life. Original morals that are shown throughout the original fairy tales are left out when they become “Disneyfied. ” The conclusion that Disney’s “watering down” of morals of the original fairy tales is an overwhelming agreement among academic writers.
Most people applaud Walt Disney and his predecessors for their creations, however many critics have found a particular flaw of moral simplification in Disney films. Mortensen notes, “The message of the fairytale is conveyed in terms suitable for a modern public but is integrated into a product that cheats its intended public of small children… ” (449). Because the morals in the original fairytale’s are seemingly left out of Disney productions, critics view the Disney films as nothing more than simplistic reproductions that give viewers wrong impressions of life.
Hastings writes, “While generally praising Walt Disney’s technical contributions to animated film, critics have been troubled by the studio’s treatment of classic children’s literature and fairy tales” (83). The producers at Disney are giving children an unreal sense of false hope. Disney films are simplified to an extreme that give viewers the wrong depiction of life. The simplistic portrayal of female characters is a specific by-product of Disneyfication. The roles of female characters in Disney movies have regressed compared to Walt Disney’s first films that featured female characters.
In Disney’s earliest movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White takes on a maternal image. She instructs the dwarves in small, everyday routines such as manners and hygiene, and serves as a mother to the dwarves. The role of Snow White is very simple compared to the princesses of late, and much more realistic. In more recent Disney movies, female characters are shown as princesses. While the female characters, such as Snow White, used to be a bit submissive and worldly, over time some critics believe the female character has progressed. Zarranz notes,”… ven though it is still a long time before we can speak about successful feminist representations in a commercial icon like Disney, recent films incorporate complex females that are worth taking into consideration” (63). Some female characters are even seen as courageous women admired for their brave deeds in their films. Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Belle from Beauty and The Beast are the start of the more modern Disney princess. Do Rozario writes, “The Disney kingdom still may seem a man’s world, but it is a man’s world dependent on a princess” (57).
While Rozario and Zarranz believe the Disney princess has progressed, Zipes strongly suggests that the princess of late has regressed. Zipes writes, “The young women are helpless ornaments in need of protection, and when it comes to the action of the film, they are omitted” (37). Rozario and Zarranz believe that the female character has progressed because of the role that has been given to the characters. However, they seem to overlook the fact that the princess role is very unrealistic.
They also seem to overlook the fact that in almost every princess movie, the female character is relying on a male character. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her entire life to be with a man. Belle, too, lets go of her former life to be with the Beast. So as Rozario and Zarranz may believe that the more recent female characters are much more strong and courageous than those of earlier Disney films, they seem to have overlooked the flaws in the Disney princess. While Walt Disney and his studios are usually praised, multiple researchers have found flaws in in their creations.
The inability to portray women in a more realistic way, and the simplification of morals that Disney produces in their films, are giving viewers the wrong impression of life and women in the real world. While Disney probably won’t take the critic’s suggestions into consideration, the critics do propose some very interesting arguments concerning the image of female characters and the simplification of morals. Works Cited Do Rozario, Rebecca-Anne C. “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom: Beyond Nostalgia, The Function Of The Disney Princess. ” Women’s Studies in Communication 27. 1 (2004): 34-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 012. Hastings, A. Waller. “Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. ” The Lion and the Unicorn 17. 1 (1993): 83-92. Print. Mortensen, Finn Hauberg. “The Little Mermaid: Icon And Disneyfication. ” Scandinavian Studies 80. 4 (2008): 437-454. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Oct. 2012. Zarranz, Libe Garcia. “Diswomen Strike Back? The Evolution of Disney’s Femmes in the 1990s. ” 27. 2 (2007): 55-65. Print. Zipes, Jack. “Breaking the Disney Spell. ” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Ed. Elizabeth Bell, Linda Haas and Laura Sells. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP 1995. 21-43.
Once upon a time, an animation studio known as the Walt Disney Company cast a magical spell, allowing it to seize control of the fairy tale kingdom and grow into a multinational mass media corporation to dwarf Jack’s beanstalk. Ever since, generations of kids the world over have been raised on animated versions of stories that for centuries weren’t even written down, let alone accoutred with costly merchandise.
Maleficent, Disney’s latest bid for box office gold, seeks to restore some of the darkness to Sleeping Beauty’s story. With a budget in excess of $175m, the live-action makeover features Angelina Jolie as the badass fairy whose nefariousness is hammered home via horns, vampiric robes and prosthetically enhanced cheekbones that could cut glass. It’s from the viewpoint of this alluringly villainous anti-heroine that the narrative is retold, describing how a pure heart gets turned to stone by a harsh betrayal.
Fairy tales began as oral folk stories. They were, maven Jack Zipes notes in his essay Breaking the Disney Spell, “tales of initiation, worship, warning and indoctrination.” As such, they’re characterised by a surface simplicity. They are pure story, unhindered by descriptive passages or interior monologues, and peopled by characters who can seem decidedly one dimensional. The good are good and the bad, bad. Their imagery tends to be unsophisticated, their descriptions almost bland: forests are deep, princesses are beautiful and so on. To quote Philip Pullman, writing in The Guardian about his endeavour to retell some of the most popular, “there is no psychology in a fairy tale.”
Tell that to Freud or Jung. There may be no explicit psychology, but peer a little closer and their psychological traits become as hard to ignore as Pinocchio’s schnozzle. Just think of the way mirrors are used to reflect their viewers’ inner selves, as in Snow White, or the use of dream states like Sleeping Beauty’s.
View image of The Sleeping Beauty. The Miracle of Love. (Prisma Archivo/Alamy) (Credit: Prisma Archivo/Alamy)
And that’s barely the beginning where this particular story is concerned. The virginal princess, the pinprick of blood, the thorny briar hedge that springs up around her and blooms for the prince: it positively oozes psychological symbolism. If the spindle symbolises penetration, then the spilled blood suggests menstruation and the bush is, well, a vagina. A vagina with teeth, no less, that will emasculate any prince who tries to breach it too hastily.
The stories that are best known today were collected and set down by enthusiasts like the Brothers Grimm, ETA Hoffman and Hans Christian Andersen. In so doing, they codified tales that had always been in flux, passing from teller to teller, acquiring and losing details as in a game of telephone. But once they existed in written form, they became texts that scholars could parse, and for Freud and Jung, they were as productive as the goose that lay the golden eggs.
Both men had their theories as to why these narratives resonate so profoundly in the human psyche. For Jung, their characters are archetypes, and the reason they might seem one-dimensional is that they each represent different facets of our personalities. For Freud, fairy tales stemmed from the same place as dreams, and motifs like forests and thorns indicated repressed desires and wish-fulfilment fantasies. Freud being Freud, these are frequently sexual in nature.
His thinking strongly influenced psychoanalytic theorist Bruno Bettelheim, whose book The Uses of Enchantment became a hit in the late 1970s. In it, he describes how the forest in The Two Brothers “symbolizes the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through; where uncertainty is resolved about who one is; and where one begins to understand who one wants to be. Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.”
Bettelheim, who also found Oedipus and Electra complexes in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, suggested that Jack and the Beanstalk was about masturbation, and saw penis envy and castration anxiety spotlighted in Cinderella.
View image of Snow White (Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy) (Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy)
Since his suicide in 1990, former patients’ accusations of physical and psychological abuse have cast a shadow over Bettelheim’s views but fairy tales remain popular in psychoanalytic circles, where shape-shifting – transformations from frog to prince or from girl to bird – is cast as an allusion to multiple personality disorder, and the impossible tasks that protagonists face – spinning gold from straw, say – as examples of the double-binding found in dysfunctional families. And that’s to say nothing of fairy tales’ daddy figures, who are ineffectual, ogreish or merely absent.
Adaptability is one of the fairy tale’s secrets of survival and there are feminist readings (Beauty and the Beast is a parable about women’s self-sacrifice in a patriarchal society), Marxist readings (Snow White’s seven dwarves epitomise the peasant classes, surviving by dint of hard work and solidarity), even Nazi propaganda readings (the prince must wake the sleeping Aryan beauty from the dense hedge of Jewish and Communist conspiracies). But it is definitely possible to do too much delving, which is why it’s refreshing to see these time-worn tales used as a jumping off point for new stories, of which Maleficent is just the latest. Earlier this year, Helen Oyeyemi, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, retold Snow White in her mischievous fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, braiding themes of race, gender and ethnicity without sacrificing any of the magic that we associate with the form.
Meanwhile, Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, references Hans Christian Andersen in the title of his new novel, The Ice Queen, which is all about a struggling musician, his gay brother and his dying girlfriend. His next book, due to be released next year, is a collection of short stories that retell fairy tales.
View image of Beauty and the Beast - The Courtship. (Walter Crane/The Protected Art Archive/Alamy) (Credit: Walter Crane/The Protected Art Archive/Alamy)
“They’re various but the overriding notion is, what was really going on there? Those of us who were raised on the Disney versions are sometimes shocked to see the kind of murder and mayhem that was excised from the animated stuff. Fairy tales are dark and intense and strange,” Cunningham tells me.
If returning to the originals can be disturbing, the sources that inspired them should probably come with trigger warnings. It’s Charles Perrault who is responsible for much of what we know about Sleeping Beauty, but he drew in turn on an Italian tale called Sun, Moon and Talia, in which a fair maiden falls into such a deep sleep that a passing king rapes her and impregnates her with twins to whom she gives birth, all without waking. She’s roused only when one of the infants accidentally suckles on her finger rather than her breast. It’s enough to put a hapless reader into therapy.
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