It seems like every country has its rites of passage. In America, saying your first word, losing your first tooth or learning how to balance on a bike are some of the childhood milestones that, with a bit of luck, your parents captured on film for you to later reminisce over at the least desirable moments.
When I was growing up, a rite of passage in our neighborhood, and even township, was going to Disney World. As a young girl, many of my friends spent winter and spring holidays in Florida’s Disney paradise. They would always come back with sun-kissed skin and T-shirt souvenirs. Some would go to a theme park in Disney called Epcot, which became a fixation for me in the sixth grade. Often called “a permanent World’s Fair,” Epcot is devoted to bringing international culture into a 300 acre park. I would pour over my friend’s photographs, looking at them tasting Dutch cuisines and then posing in front of a biergarten in faux-Germany. When I was the only kid that didn’t wear a Mickey Mouse shirt to school on Monday, like the girls in my class planned, I quickly found myself ostracized and relegated to the far end corners of my “friends” lunch table.
Like most 12 year olds, my manner of coping with this rejection was on par for my age. I sulked and complained, I compared and contrasted. My parents were adamant they would not take my brother and me, so I began scheming an escape route that involved me hitch-hiking my way south with truckers. At the time, my parents’ excuse for not forking out the dough to take a trip south had to do with saving money for college. “Would you rather have a college degree paid for, or a trip to Disney every summer?” my mother would ask, exasperated. “What kind of question is that?” I had thought. I was 12 and driving a car seemed to be in the very distant future, let alone going to college.
When I accepted that my parents were not going to cave, I began sculpting a hardened exterior where the antics of my Disney pals were babyish and overrated. I still watched most of the beloved classics like “Lady and the Tramp,” “Snow White” and “The Jungle Book,” but the stories were too simplistic; they lacked something which I could not put my finger on. I still feigned interest in the movies. Even in college, I’ve come across individuals who have cultish adoration for the princess-centered films, which were, to me, all equal in their ignorance of history and inability to write empowering lines or scenarios for the princesses. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Perhaps the most striking embarrassment for the Disney franchise is “Pocahontas.” In the movie, Pocahontas saves English settler John Smith from an ugly fate by covering his face with her body so that the Indian tribesmen are not able to slay Smith in what appears to be a sacrificial ceremony. The two protagonists, Smith and Pocahontas, fall in love. Their people, both the natives and the settlers, come together in harmony to live off of the land peacefully. This depiction of our own nation’s history could not be further from the truth.
To begin with, Smith was the only person to document this story even occurred. Of the many witnesses of the event, he alone recounted the events. It’s mysterious though, because the text in which “Pocahontas,” the movie, is derived from is all exclusively written after both Pocahontas and her father had passed away. Many scholars believe that the ceremony where Smith allegedly thought he was going to breathe his last breath was likely not a sacrificial gathering but an initiation ritual, where Smith would ultimately be accepted and assimilated into the tribe.
As for the romantic development between Smith and Pocahontas, let’s just say it’s an uncomfortable situation to say the least. It’s because of historical documents that we know Pocahontas would have only been around the age of 10 when she would have first encountered Smith. It’s highly unlikely that their relationship would have developed into anything other than something platonic. The biggest gaffe that Disney made in the creation of the film comes as the resolution. In the film, the love between Smith and Pocahontas becomes an all-encompassing love, a loving coexistence that could sadly only be found in a cartoon. The sentiment gives you “warm-fuzzies,” because that’s what makes Disney movies so beloved; they’re simplistic and loaded with naïve hopefulness.
By the end of the animation, we are deluded into thinking that this is a sincere diplomatic relation. The most gullible, and believe me they’re out there, accept this narrative as truth. When the Englishmen came over to settle America, the peace between the natives and themselves was short lived. As you may have surmised, this was not something to fault the Native Americans for, because the friction between the multiple parties involved was instigated by greedy settlers. Nearly 96 percent, according to PBS.org, of the indigenous population was decimated by disease (predominantly smallpox) and the genocidal tendencies of our ancestors. The settlers tricked these populations out of their land. They misconstrued their stories and cultural norms so as to benefit their own agenda. Whoever granted Disney the clearances and copyrights to produce such an inaccurate insult to truth is truly ill-informed or naïve, if not a combination of the two.
But Disney has royally screwed up other culturally iconic movies as well. Disney’s legacy will arguably always be its princesses. From Jasmine, to Ariel, to Belle, and Cinderella, no animated figures have likely been more emulated and revered by young girls across the world than these icons. It hasn’t been until recent years that we’ve really stripped down the intrigue of these characters to their basic tenants, because we found what we expected: a lot of ugly under all that beauty.
For instance, if you consider the waistline of all the Disney princesses, you will find that they likely all wear dresses because a pair of pants could not possibly cling to their withered, if not emaciated frames. With the exception of Snow White, who was first designed in the 1930s when a touch of padding wasn’t unheard of, all of the princesses’ body structure have maintained the obscene standard that society tends to hold women to, despite their young and impressionable audiences. I once babysat a 4-year-old who would watch Disney’s animation phenomenon “Frozen” at least twice a day, and as she curled up in my lap to watch, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was beginning to internalize the images flickering before her eyes.
It doesn’t stop there, though. From the unwarranted kissing that wakes up both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty from eternal slumber, to the subliminal message that pervades each movie that all wicked and evil characters must inherently be unattractive, I’m finding it hard to tolerate Disney and their misinformed cinematic endeavors. Perhaps the worst motif that’s a staple to most Disney movies is the notion that beauty denotes morality. The best example to observe such an occurrence is in “Beauty and the Beast.”
This movie is constructed around the façade that looks are an inconsequential factor when it comes to falling in love with someone. The movie’s premise is that the power of love transcends the limitations of physical endowments. Why then, does the Beast devolve back into his human form once the curse is lifted from him? It’s clearly implied that, had the Beast not been able to counter Belle’s appearance, they would not be able to live “happily ever after,” in their big empty castle with the exception of that one neat room that has a seemingly infinite library. One would think that with such a library, at least one of them would read-up on the psychological impossibility of love based purely on attraction. “Beauty and the Beast” is not an outlier as far as casting the misfits and unconventionally beautiful characters out of the plot is concerned: Ursula is fat, the Hunchback of Notre Dame is unworthy and the Old Woman from Snow White? Well, let’s just say her eyebrow game is not on point.
As I’m coming to the end of this article, I’m beginning to realize that maybe the Disney vacation of my yesteryears was not all it was cracked up to be. Come to think of it, Walt Disney would probably have a heart attack if he saw the way our animation has simultaneously progressed and managed to still completely drop the ball (Minion creators I’m glowering at you). Disney has made efforts to make amends with its tumultuous cinematic history, but just because you create an African American protag for “The Princess in the Frog,” it doesn’t cancel out animations that were crude, advocated classism, and instilled unrealistic ideals in some sweet young girl’s mind.
I’ll watch a Disney movie every now and then, but the lesson to take away is that we should always be fact checking our art with reality
Emma Giering is the Voices Editor for The Spectator and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org