Disney Love Dilemma

I grew up on Disney.  The Disney Channel was one of the few cable stations my mom allowed us to watch; she was very careful about what messages we were receiving as kids.  But after my little girl picked out “The Little Mermaid,” from the library the other day, and I went home and watched it with her, I remembered my mom leaving the movie theater upset at the content.  I remember her talking about how the movie encouraged adolescents (16 year olds) to defy their parents to follow a dream (and enter into a marriage relationship as a teenager).

While at 16, in the throes of my first love relationship, I thought this was a wonderful idea, as a mother of a 20 month old, I now see that this message which undermined parental support and wisdom is really not the greatest one for small kids to internalize.  This has led to a mental review of other Disney favorites, and I am dismayed to share that the messages about love and family conveyed in some of the classics are far from pretty.  Here’s my take on the most dangerous themes:

The Little Mermaid:  Risk losing your gifts, your family, your home to pursue a man you fell in love with at first sight and use your feminine charms (Ursula:  Don’t underestimate the importance of the body language.  The men, they don’t like a lot of blather…”) to entice a man into physical intimacy after 3 days.  Sacrifice your voice for a man; if all goes well, you’ll get it back someday.

Lady and the Tramp:  Have a one night fling with the bad boy, then go home to Park Avenue.  Unless, of course, you’ve reformed and domesticated him.

Sleeping Beauty:  Your life will not begin until a man “awakens” you.  Then you belong to him.

Cinderella:  Home life intolerable?  Run as fast as you can into the arms of the first available man to GET OUT!

Snow White:  Act helpless, be a perfect housewife, and even though you die a little death, some man, somewhere will waken you from your glass coffin and your life will begin.  You have no power of your own to make this happen.

Mary Poppins:  The woman only pursues feminist ideals if her man is self-centered and neglectful of the family.  Once he starts to connect with the family, you can literally send those feminist ideals flying…as part of a kite.  ALTHOUGH, the picture of two self-absorbed parents who leave their kids’ care and raising entirely to nannies, still resonates in some circles…

As a Disney lover, one who enjoys the animation, the songs, the childhood memories, I remain torn.  I want to share the fantasy and fun of Disney without corrupting my child with unreasonable and unhealthy perspectives about love and relationships.  I’m still struggling with how to do this, short of barring Disney from our home.  Which makes me a bit sad.  So I have to think about whether the messages I give to my daughter will be enough to challenge the media onslaught and limit the viewings accordingly.  Any thoughts on Disney?  Would love to hear your comments and observations below!


17 responses to “Disney Love Dilemma

  • Niki Rudolph

    Pam, great reflection. Definitely the conundrum for many of us who were raised on these storylines and want more for our children. You also forgot Beauty and the Beast: Fall in love with an emotional abusive captor.

    • pmlevitt

      That’s true, Niki! You are right! At least in Beauty and the Beast, Belle rejects the advances of the local village lout because she is more interested in her books! But yeah, the whole kidnapping thing…ugh. The dark side of Disney!

  • PS

    I like this one, and sadly, you are correct with these examples. Now, modern day Disney is a bit better. Nemo defied his father and is kidnapped. A lesson you want your kids to learn without actually being kidnapped…The helicopter father learns to let go, but also steps up when needed. While I haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog or Tangled, I’ve heard that they are strong women (or at least stronger when compared to the examples you used).

    Now, Mary Poppins has never been a favorite of mine, but I do like the songs! However, my daughter recently watched this, and me with her. I always felt bad for the kids raised by nannies (not parents) and were told by MP that she can’t possibly love all of her charges. Ouch.

    The one that I liked until adulthood was Beauty and the Beast. Now I recognize the abuse in the relationship that Beauty stuck around for, and was happily rewarded with love and a “good” man. Not the lesson I want my daughter to learn (or my son for that matter), because in reality, they rarely change and the abuse rarely stops for good.

    • pmlevitt

      I LOVE the music. That’s the thing, you get sucked in by the lovely animation and catchy tunes and tune out the subtle msgs. I saw Tangled, and I don’t think the female lead was all that strong, but it was ok. I’d need to see again to think more critically about it. Good points re: Beauty and the Beast. Thanks for commenting!

  • Kristin @ What She Said

    Here’s my take: While Disney’s themes are notoriously old-fashioned, decidedly not feminist, and perhaps even misogynistic at times, they are, in fact, fantasy. And I think most people who watch them – including kids – have sense enough to realize that. I grew up on Disney too, and I don’t feel it corrupted me. Do you feel it corrupted you? If the answer is no, then there’s probably no reason to worry about it corrupting your own child either, or to ban it from your home.

    I basically think there’s plenty of wiggle room to both allow a little girl to watch Disney movies while also teaching her healthy messages about love and relationships without appearing to be a hypocrite (if I’m correctly understanding your concern).

    • pmlevitt

      That’s the thing about those sorts of messages, they get into your subconscious and it’s hard to tease out, over time, what has contributed to one’s understanding or expectations in love. That’s the whole point of advertising right? I don’t think any of us are completely impervious, especially if we consume a steady diet of the same message. Look at the effect that viewing multiple airbrushed pics of models has on women and body image. It is the same principle, just a more subtle version(at least subtle to kids, anyway). While I’m not one to go off the deep end and prohibit my kid from seeing all media forms, I do like to think critically about them, so I can prepare myself to talk with her about the themes. And Disney has gotten intertwined in my life enough that I can’t imagine an out and out ban in our household.

      • Kristin @ What She Said

        I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree here, because I do feel that I’m impervious to the messages of Disney. Speaking for myself, I can say, without a doubt, that Disney movies had zero bearing on any of my love relationships over the years, consciously or subconsciously. I watched the movies, enjoyed them for the fairy tales they were, and then never really gave them a second thought. I’m not saying that they necessarily portrayed GOOD messages, but I do believe they were (and still are) fairly harmless in terms of their long-term influence over young minds. I’ll certainly prepare myself to talk with my own daughter about their themes when and if the time and need arises, but it’s honestly never crossed my mind that she could grow up attempting to model her romantic relationships after those in Disney movies.

        To me, soap operas are more of a danger when it comes to portraying unrealistic and unhealthy love relationships. But that seems to be a dying genre and will likely be completely obsolete in just a few more years.

      • pmlevitt

        Yes, soap operas do this in a very obvious sort of way, which is why my daughter will not be watching these, nor will she watch most of the awful reality tv shows that are out there. That’s the good thing about not having cable, you can filter very easily. For me, it is not just Disney, but that Disney is part of a cultural phenomenon that intertwines the fantastical with love. I do believe that many young women grow up having a skewed and fantastical understanding of what love should be, and so I feel it is important to help educate my daughter on what real love looks like. Talking about contradictory messages that she encounters is, to me, an important part of that learning that I can actually influence. The rest, she’ll learn for better or worse through her experiences. And we do agree to disagree, on many things it seems! Thanks for offering a different perspective!

  • Juliana

    I’ve struggled with Disney too. Mostly because it’s too scary! There is always some evil force that is way too troubling for my sensitive little ones. I can’t leave the room when these movies are on because I’m constantly being asked to fast forward scary parts. The other thing that bugs me is that none of them have Mothers! I didn’t think she would pick up on that, but she did. She asked me about it the other day! I don’t want her to get scared that I might die. The only one whose Bio Mom is alive is Sleeping Beauty (the Queen) and of course, she doesn’t live with her during the story anyway. I haven’t seen the newer ones yet. I want to because Annalise has both the Tangled doll and Princess & Frog doll and loves them, but I won’t show her the movies until I can preview them and, honestly, a cartoon is the last thing I want to watch with my hubby when the kids are (finally!) in bed – ya know? Cinderella is the only one I feel comfortable having them watch from beginning to end without my finger on the remote. As for the underlying messages, it’s annoying, but I have to think that what we teach them is going to make more of an impact than these cartoons.

    • pmlevitt

      We rented a spin off cartoon of the Little Mermaid the other day, and I had to take it out because the shark was scaring the heck out of V. The actual Little Mermaid she loves. Why? Because she thinks Prince Eric is her dad. That’s both adorable, and on some level really confusing! As for the strength of what we teach them competing with any outside media forces; I sure hope it is enough!

  • Jeanette

    aaaahhh Disney. the conundrum of all moms. Do I let me daughter believe that Prince Charming will come? Or do I slap her into the reality of life when she is young. Do I fill her with hope and wonder or protect her from dreaming? First off the old Disney flicks, and many of the new ones, are based on old Fairy Tales…..thus times were very different when these were written. I guess as an adult I didn’t have a problem taking my girls to see these until as Pam mentioned we walked out of the Little Mermaid. Now the positive message of this is that she is fighting prejudice. Her father sees all humans as the same. BUT…… overall I did not like the message. However the underwater scenes are just wonderful. I honestly am not a huge fan of the newer Disney fair. Too much something in them that also is not how I want my child to behave. They border on too much humor, and back handed humor to make the adults in the audience laugh and keep them coming. It is a difficult choice, but I truly believe that as with all things, you need to have conversations with your kids. Some stuff I felt was just too over the top for children, and sorry Pam I know that left you behind some of your friends but I had to draw the line at Silence of the Lambs when you were in middle school! But other things you can watch and see, but keep the communication open so that your child can ask questions as well. Honestly as a very young mom, I think I was still “hoping…for the one I love to find me….today!”

    • pmlevitt

      I hear you, and believe me, I’m glad you protected me from seeing Silence of the Lambs; that kind of movie would freak me out even now! Yeah, in some of the new Disney movies, I think that the humor borders on inappropriate. Not always, but here and there. I’ve had to tell Val, no, we don’t do that, that’s not nice to people. I’m glad you filtered my tv watching, even if we didn’t always agree, because it taught me the role of the parent in guiding children’s viewing decisions.

  • MEL

    Good post. And imagine, you only reflected on the interpersonal relationship aspects of Disney–never mind the gross historical distortions of their other films!

    Also, how about how the protagonists are good white folk and often the villains are of other ethnic origins, or, more blatantly, turn into large black towering monsters that must by slain by the good and pure race?

    I’m glad I didn’t watch too many of these movies as a kid. And I’ll do best to curb V’s viewing of them as well!


  • pmlevitt

    MEL, interesting link! There is a lot to think about for sure! Sounds like another post for you! There is a lot to enjoy in Disney, so I hope we can find a healthy balance. After all, sheltering your kid entirely isn’t always the answer either! We’ll figure it out!

  • Juliana

    I definitely agree with your Mom about how there is something in the newer films that definitely rubs me the wrong way. This is not just true of Disney, but almost all kids movies and even many tv shows now. For one thing, the images on the screen move much too fast. There is too much action. It’s overwhelming for the senses. There is also a lot of violence. It’s not gory, but slapstick. I noticed in Madagascar there were punching scenes between some of the animals and a very old lady. Very inappropriate, in my opinion. The humor is often very mean as well. Overall, they make me cringe. When you compare the new films to something like Cinderella, it’s incredible the difference. Cinderella moves so slow and beautifully, whereas the new films I’m just flinching through most of it. It’s easy to block out now, but not sure how to handle this in the future when they get older. It’s amazing to me that more parents don’t pick up on this and raise more of a fuss. They don’t want their kids to be hyper and aggressive, yet they allow them to absorb these images for hours daily. I don’t know where the disconnect is. For me it’s so obvious. They are sponges and if this is what they are seeing, you are going to see them emulate the behavior. Great discussion Pam, and so much more to talk about on this overall topic!

  • pmlevitt

    Great observations, Juliana! I agree with the physical violence part, because I’ve seen kids emulate that sort of aggressive behavior they see in cartoons. The Cartoon Network is particularly awful; I happened to watch some in a hotel room while looking for a kids show for Val so I could get us packed up, and wow! I had to turn it off. Even my (at the time) under 18 month old looked at me and sad “Mad?” Like, “are they mad at each other mommy?” Yep, they are mad, V.

  • jeanette

    Juliana I agree with the new shows. There is almost a bullying quality to some and that is a scary thing to watch today. I have to say that yes the old Disney was racist as well, but they are trying to rectify that in some of the newer shows, I just don’t think they do a really good job of it. Lots of scary and no moms. I had bought Bambi II for John and we watched it once and it is in my toss pile and not the pile I intend to hand down to the grandkids either. that was worse than the first one with mom getting shot! oh my! you just have to be careful. as for the soaps, yep they are pretty much gone, but the evening stuff that comes on well before nine is still scary, and forget those cable channels. just regular tv is scary now. John tends to watch a lot on Discovery or History channel but even watching Mythbusters and American Pickers there is swearing and arguing and stuff. I do realize this is the real world, but I also don’t think you have to endorse bad behavior. and please dont’ get me started on video games. we didn’t have a system for ages because the only thing on there was blow someone up, steal a car or kill kill kill! ugh…raising kids is the toughest job out there!

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