Once upon a time in an internet not so far away, you could have read headlines like this: ‘Petition For Plus-Sized Disney Princess’, ’14 Disney Characters As Modern-Day College Students’, ‘Disney Princesses Dressed In The Style Of The Year Their Movies Came Out’, ‘9 Unretouched Photos Of Disney Princesses That Disney Didn’t Want You To See’ and ‘Disabled Disney Princesses’. Using Disney characters as a conduit to discuss topics of identity and the way women are treated in the media is a phenomenon of 2010s internet culture that can be summed up by comedian Megan Amram’s tweet:
Once again, the Disney princesses are back in the news, not because a budding graphic designer decided to depict them as as jihadi brides, but because two prominent Hollywood actresses - who’ve both played princesses in Disney films have, post-#MeToo, explained their consternation at introducing their kids to some Disney fare.
Kristen Bell, who voices Anna in Frozen, a modern fairytale of the enduring love between sisters, and overcoming grief and trauma, said: ‘Don’t you think that it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission? Because you cannot kiss someone if they’re sleeping!’
She added, in an interview with Parents magazine, ‘Every time we close Snow White I look at my girls and ask, ‘Don’t you think it’s weird that Snow White didn’t ask the old witch why she needed to eat the apple? Or where she got that apple?” I say, “I would never take food from a stranger, would you?” And my kids are like, “No!” And I’m like, “Okay, I’m doing something right,”’
And Keira Knightley, who once played Robin Hood’s daughter, an archer heroine in another Disney film, 2001’s Princess of Thieves, has banned her daughter from certain Disney fare, namely Cinderella, who, she told The Ellen Show, ‘Waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don’t! Rescue yourself. Obviously!’ And The Little Mermaid, ‘I really like the film… I mean, the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello!’
Disney stories, especially those based on hundreds-years-old fairytales, tend to be morality plays, stories of goodies and baddies and decisions made in dire situations. They’re a fun way of introducing kids to the meaty concepts of ethics in practice, to prepare them for growing up and navigating tricky futures. Outside of Cinderella, who needs talking mice to get her to find liberation from what is, essentially, slavery, and hasn’t got much of a choice as to what she does outside of that, kids get to try out the characters’ tricky questions for themselves: do you take the apple or do you not? Do you give your voice away, or do you not?
What Kristen and Keira have both noted, though, is that sometimes the foundations for a Disney story’s morality is skewed in favour of prevailing ethics. In 1937, when Snow White was made, consent wasn’t discussed as it should have been, and so kissing a sleeping person wasn’t considered such a problem, or symbolic of a wider, more awful societal problem of male entitlement to women’s unwilling bodies. In 1950, when Cinderella was made, its creators didn’t have a feminist hat on. But now, well, you’d expect better, and kids - and their parents and loved ones - have been given better. So we’ve had films like Frozen and Princess of Thieves (and Maleficent and Moana and Brave) which place the focus onto women who do stuff, women who aren’t dependent on men, women who have agency, rather than winsome petals who must be attended to.
Yet still, the live-action remake of Cinderella in 2015 was basically the cartoon version of it, updated and polished. Same goes for Emma Watson’s Beauty and the Beast, released in 2017. There were opportunities for modern re-tellings, filmic versions of those ‘We gave this Disney princess facial hair!’ articles that do so very well online, in which, say, Cinderella secretly learns the skills to evaporate her evil half-sisters (who had context showing why they became so evil) and step-mother (ditto), or Belle realised the Beast was essentially taking her prisoner and escaped her provincial town and its gross men once and for all, but they weren’t taken. The stories were simply re-hashed. A pretty, simple woman needs a man to save her with his love. Falling in love isn’t a horror story, far from it - but how often do we tell little boys that their only savior is romantic love in the shape of a beautiful woman? The imbalance is stark and grotesque. In light of the knowledge that Disney, just like culture and society and politics at large, can sometimes take two steps forward and then two steps back, Kristen and Keira are looking out for the ethics that culture imparts to their daughters.
Criticism of Disney classics - from women who’ve made money at the helm of Disney - has ruffled some feathers amongst the sorts of people who think men shouldn’t carry their kids in slings, because, apparently, Keira and Kristen’s very separate yet very similar parenting choices have a direct impact on us and our parenting choices. They’re not banning all Disney films, they’re not ordering all dusty VHSes of your fave cartoons are burned in pyres. They’re just questioning - as we all should - the morality of these old, new, and sometime lazily re-told stories. The response from certain quarters is a suggestion that Keira and Kristen are being snowflakes and wishing to re-write history, and indicates that we apply the same requirement of being a role model onto grown women as we do onto fictional Disney characters.
The difference is, we’re adults, and have a capacity, and our entire plural-decaded life to have formed a set of well-oiled ethical tools that can help tell us whether we want to simply copy what Kristen and Keira, feel offended by it, or just see it as something interesting that’s sparked a debate. Kids, however, don’t have those honed ethics yet. And if the ever-popular and formative stories of all Western children’s growing up has fallen out of step with the bold new future they should be growing into and thriving within, well, you’d try to avoid that like you’d try to avoid one of Ursula’s tentacles, or Gaston’s fists, or yet another one of those articles where Disney princesses are meant to say something deep about grown women, wouldn’t you?