Are Disney Princesses setting a bad example?

Is Snow White a positive role model for young girls? (source: Carlos via flickr)

By Sarah Harris

As a child born in the late 90’s, I was pretty much raised on Disney films. The magical worlds of Disney characters such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Bella seemed enchanting. Favourites of mine were Pocahontas and Mulan. I mean, who doesn’t love a film about badass female heroes who somehow saved their entire country? Yes, Cinderella, Ariel and Aurora were great too but even as a kid, their stories seemed somewhat predictable and cliché. I remember my parents getting me a Mulan costume for my 8th birthday. I was ecstatic. For a long time, I genuinely believed I was a princess like Mulan. I thought that I would conquer the world and on the way befriend a magical dragon and even find a handsome prince. Obviously, as I grew up a little, I realised that there was no chance this would ever happen.

American singer and actress, Alicia Keys recently made headlines when she stated in an online interview that she does not let her 3 year old and 6 year old sons watch classics Disney films such as Snow White. “It’s totally sexist, misogynistic – she’s cleaning for seven dwarfs. There’s nothing wrong with a woman who chooses to stay at home with her family, it’s a hard job, but it’s the way it’s spoken about,” said Keys. The singer feels she has a duty to teach her children about stereotypical gender roles and how they do not need to conform to them. “I feel like it’s by design that I’m raising boys.”

Since the release of the film Snow White almost 80 years ago, there has been a huge shift in gender roles and ideology. Snow White was the first Disney princess to be introduced when the film was first out in 1937. In recent years we’ve been introduced to new princesses who unlike those before them, play the heroin of the film rather than being saved by a male character. Like I said earlier, as a young child, it was somewhat inspirational for me to watch films such as Mulan and Pocahontas. I’m sure young girls who watch Disney films such as Brave or Frozen feel the same way today. It was a big thing -and still is- to see a woman saving the world or just taking control.

As a generation (and particularly as kids) we are bombarded by fictional male characters who are both driven and strong. From Superman to James Bond, there is no shortage of fictional characters for boys to look up to, so it’s nice for women to have more inspirational role models too. Particularly when they are as strong, brave and heroic as their male counterparts.

Despite the many victories of gender equality, made over the last century, there are still other areas which we need to progress in. So the question is, are children’s films misogynistic and sexist? In my personal opinion, the gender ideologies in children’s films have changed and developed over the years so it’s hard to give a simple yes or no answer. Traditionally, it was a woman’s role to tend to her husband and act as the homemaker. This is something feminists fought incredibly hard to change and in many ways have successfully done so. So yes, Disney characters such as Snow White and Belle are questionable, as they somewhat undermine women’s independence by representing female characters who cater towards the needs of the male characters.

Times are changing and the conventional gender roles represented in films from over twenty year ago are breaking down. Film star, Megan Fox, caused controversy online this week as images showed her 3 year old son in dresses and skirts. When asked about it she said, “Noah wears dresses so there are no rules – you can be whoever you want to be in my house!” I for one support the approach Fox is using to raise her children with. Having a brother who was just a year older than me, I often would dress up in his Spiderman costumes or watch countless episodes of Power Rangers on repeat with him. With this in mind maybe we should consider that children can absorb children’s films and shows whether they are made for boys or girls.

While I think what Alicia Key is doing is perfectly understandable and respectable, I for one would not stop my future children from watching the classic Disney films. As a feminist, I agree that the films were somewhat patriarchal and sexist. However, if a women chooses to stay at home and be a house wife then that’s something we should admire as, just like Keys said, it is a hard job. So long as a parent explains to their children this is not the only future path for a woman and that a man too can fulfill this role I think it is fine to let children watch them. I guess in the end, it comes down to the individual and their own approaches on raising their kids.

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