By Jonathan Reed
Video supplied by Associated Press©
“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”
These are the iconic words sung to a starry night sky by Geppetto, the Toy Maker whose wish for a son came true in the shape of his puppet, Pinocchio. It was a touching story that became a universal hit for film maker Walt Disney and stamped a heart-warming tone of innocence and a daring nature to dream across his world-renowned brand.
Fast forward 90 years and who would have guessed that in 2019 these warm and virtue themes would become ‘toxic’, or at least Disney critics would deem them so.
Now, it would be unfair to state that the whole Disney brand has faced criticism, the modern-day magic making empire seems to get off much more lightly. However, travel back across Disney’s ‘Golden Era’ and the tones and textures of his movies are much more fiercely debated. And whilst some are justified, (Song of the South anyone?) others seem unwarranted of the condemnation.
This is no more evident than with the movies, Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast and Sleeping Beauty – can you see the running theme amongst these titles? Each one features an iconic Disney Princess, or if you were to listen to the feminist critics, women who teach young girls that hoping to fall in love with a Prince, or sacrificing your voice for the man you love, is dangerous to their development from young girls to women in the ‘real world.’
What is hard to admit, is that to an extent, the critics are right. Yes, you can argue that Cinderella transforming into a glamourous Princess for one night only in the attempt to catch the eye of a rich and handsome Prince, or Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, being held prisoner in a formidable castle by a hideous Beast who she eventually falls in love with, could condone systemic abuse or the need to change who you are to find happiness. But the point with which each of these critics miss and fail to raise, is that these young girls are much more level-headed than they are given credit for.
Most look at the World through eyes, tinted with the freedom of incorruptibility. When they watch Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’ trade her voice so she can become human to be with the man she loves, they don’t see a woman desperate to be beside a Prince. Instead, these young girls see a Mermaid who falls in love with a handsome Prince and is tricked by an evil Sorceress. Yes, it’s that simple.
We can go one step further with ‘Cinderella,’ however. Here we have a young woman who is abused by an evil Stepmother and rotten Stepsisters, hidden away in the bowels of her parents’ home, both of whom, are dead. Yet throughout the numerous outlandish and cruel requests by her foul stepfamily she remains kind and hopeful. She may well fantasise about a castle and a Prince, but as her Fairy Godmother transforms our desolate Cinders into a stunning Princess, those criticisers state that only Cinderella in expensive clothes and beguiling jewels can catch the attention of the man.
Again, most young girls don’t feel this. Here they see a young woman rewarded for being kind, a life lesson that so many youngsters could do with being taught.
This plays to the biggest theme Disney have always applied to the world of Princes and Princesses, castles and Dragons, magic and love; they are make-believe. They never profess to be anything more, and what is ironic about the detractors of Disney, is they miss the whole point, it is they who only look skin-deep.
When you analyse these women, Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, they are in fact strong female characters. Cinderella overcomes the cruelty of her stepfamily with kindness, and in the end is accepted by the Prince whilst placing on the glass slipper in her cleaning attire. Belle goes toe to toe with the Beast, outmatching his intelligence, temper and common sense. It is she who in the end saves the Beast. Ariel defeats Ursula by impaling a Ships mast into her stomach, thereby saving the day. These women become the heroes, not the men.
Also notable is the gender of most of the villains – female. Cinderella is imprisoned by her step-mother, forced into the role of slave. The Beast is cursed by a Sorceress. Ariel is stripped of her voice by a Sea Witch, and yet each and every one of them overcome the malice and villainy of these characters.
The argument isn’t that difficult when you scratch beneath the surface and see these complex characters as more than just a ‘disgrace to women.’
Yet, what is truly saddening about this debate, is this simple argument continues to go unnoticed, most notably by celebrities.
Stars such as Keira Knightley and Kristen Bell have both openly chastised the movie studio, which many would credit as bestowing successful careers. Knightley starred in the hugely popular and lucrative ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, and Bell was the voice of Anna in Disney’s billion dollar juggernaut ‘Frozen.’ And whilst both are free to criticize, there arguments add nothing new to the long-running debate.
Knightley recently stated in an interview, ironically for Disney film ‘The Nutcracker,’ that her daughter is banned from watching Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. She said that Cinderella “waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don’t! Rescue yourself. Obviously!” and Ariel in The Little Mermaid should “not give her voice up for a man.”
Kristen Bell made similar arguments, though hers regarded Snow White and the apparent theme of consent, or lack of it. She stated in an interview that after watching the iconic animation, she asks her daughters: “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!”
Whilst the arguments seemed the same, the response was not. Both, with Bell specifically, faced immense backlash with many stating that both were purposefully finding faults with the stories. Bell hit back, tweeting : “I find the outrage annoying and misplaced as well. I’m a mom who wants my girls to possess critical thinking and ask a tonne of questions.” While there is no harm in what Knightley or Bell are doing, what is damaging is the characteristic Hollywood patronising nature of their critiques.
What many parents who responded to both interviews felt, was the needless shaming of allowing girls to watch these movies and, god forbid, enjoy them.
One such celebrity who fought back against the comments by Keira Knightley and Kristen Bell was Holly Willoughby. The ‘This Morning’ presenter branded the critics as ‘insulting’ to think women can’t differentiate between a Disney film and real life. Willoughby finished her argument stating that Disney has taught her to be an ‘independent’ and ‘empowered’ woman herself. With these comments, it pushes two questions to forefront.
When did it become such a bad thing for young girls to look up to a Disney Princess, to hope, dream and be kind? When did the innocence of a child’s imagination become so dangerous that we as a society have to remove any outlet for it?
The unfortunate conclusion to this debate is one we see far too often when it comes to children nowadays. They can no longer be children. We remove any stimulating channel for a child’s imagination to flourish. For this to happen, it can no longer be amongst the traditional capacity of a Prince and Princess falling in love and living ‘happily ever after.’
But, secretly is Disney fighting back against this? It is no coincidence for the recent influx of live-action versions of Walt’s most prized classics. Cinderella, staring Lily James became a phenomenal blockbuster hit, with thousands of young girls desperate for a certain blue butterfly dress. Beauty and the Beast, did one better, generating a larger audience and money haul. With Aladdin on the horizon, Mulan and rumours of a ‘The Little Mermaid’ remake in early development, is seems that no matter how much these celebrities disapprove, these timeless classics still generate enough thrill and imagination to draw mass audiences.
This is why Geppetto describes it best. If like Cinderella, or Ariel or even Belle, you simply want to wish upon a star, fall in love, meet a Prince or just be kind, for now let our young girls believe that ‘your dreams really do come true.’