Among almost everyone living in the current era, Disney rings a familiar bell in the mind of every child, youth and adult too, be it through their world famous cartoons and movies, the theme parks or the widespread merchandise all over the world. For most people around my age, Disney was an epitome of entertainment as we grew up and the memories live with us always. But here’s the catch…how exactly did Disney influence us and our childhood? Was it really the safer alternative when our parents didn’t want us watching ‘bad’ things on the television? There is a need to look deeper and you may find things that leave you as dazzled as the magic Disney brought with it. Does Disney stand for pure and innocent entertainment, or does it carry alternative motives that seem to be well-hidden from the unsuspecting public?
Disney has a way to portray certain aspects of society and culture in insensitive ways and project a picture that sticks in the minds of the young population watching. One of the ways they emphasize social vulnerability is through the portrayal of the male role as the dominant role. Despite movies like Mulan and Pocahontas, there is a disproportion of male characters that needs to be addressed to allow appropriate role models for children. The movies show men as the most influential participants, usually the heroes, the villains and the parent figures.
As the heroes, it’s the damsel who is always in distress and needs to be saved. Females lack the ability to save their own lives.
Also, besides the hero and villain roles, men seem to play the role of the dominant parental figure, where female characters in Disney are often displayed as teenage girls with no mothers. From The Little Mermaid to The Beauty and the Beast, neither is Ariel’s mother nor Belle’s mother mentioned, as they are brought up by their fathers alone. Onward still, Princess Jasmine is motherless, as is Pocahontas who bonds with her father over grieving for her dead mother and the opening sequence of Hunchback of Notre dame shows Quasimodo’s mother dying on the steps of Notre-Dame. These Disney movies do not teach the proper value of a mother or the importance of that relationship, where even if Step-mothers come into the picture as in Cinderella, they are the evil cruel sort. All in all, there is large significance to the social vulnerabilities surrounding males and females in Disney.
Not only are the genders misrepresented, but Disney has a way of subtly portraying different races and ethnicity in stereotypical views creating such mindsets in children. In the movie Dumbo, the crows shown in the movie are a fine example. The language and attire of the birds are clearly intended to mock African Americans. They are there only to help the white protagonist, and make people laugh, adding insult to injury on the already glaring stereotype. Another example is the Chinese cat from “The Aristocats”, who sings about fortune cookies with an almost unintelligibly Asian accent. Movies like Tarzan and The Lion King set in Africa lack any characters portraying an African descent. The racism isn’t limited to the Blacks or the Asians, where in Oliver and Company, the Latino characters were the “irresponsible Chihuahuas” who robbed the local markets for food and hijacked cars. The movie, Mulan, also portrays China as the most sexist country in the entire world. The stereotypical view is expanded even further where Arabs are barbarians in Aladdin, and Native Americans are savages in Peter Pan and Pocahontas. Furthermore, the song from Aladdin, Arabian Nights where they sing “where they cut off your ear / if they don’t like your face /It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”. Not only does this create such racial stereotypes, it also teaches the subconscious to view the world and people in such ways, where later concepts like Islamophobia become a reality in the minds. Whether Disney intentionally depict all this or not, the impact exists.
Besides the sexism and the racism, Disney also encourages concepts like how social hierarchy is of the utmost importance for success, where being rich and being successful and happy are put in sync. Cinderella marries the handsome ‘rich’ prince and goes from her life of unhappiness and poverty. And almost all princesses marry their rich prince, this Prince Charming, who is always displayed in glory and wealth; and in Aladdin, the law required him to be a wealthy prince to claim Jasmine’s hand. Replace Prince Phillip from “Sleeping Beauty” with Philoctetes, a minor socially-inferior character from “Hercules”. I bet most women would wake up to a kiss from Philoctetes screaming “Rape!” at the top of their voices, rather than “Let’s get married!”
And of course, how can we forget the figures and looks that Disney portrays where by displaying the Disney princesses having insanely thin waistlines, that in my head goes beyond the size zero into the negatives, they have managed to make people go into eating disorders and anorexia for such absurdity. Disney makes an unspoken statement about how much ‘looks’ matter.
The villain is always portrayed as unattractive, prompting the audience to make a connection. Female characters especially are subject to one of three of Disney’s villain characteristics. Either Fat (Ursula from The Little Mermaid), Old (Snow White) or just horribly ugly (Step Sisters in Cinderella) while if a princess, one must be beautiful, petite and young. Interestingly also, the ugly villains hate on the princesses due to jealousy and want beauty themselves as in being ‘fairest of them all’ in Snow white and the sisters in Cinderella. Disney always link a certain privilege to beauty and good looks where even the movie The Beauty and the Beast where the whole concept was about ‘looks don’t matter’, in the end, the beast turns back to the handsome prince and they get married and live happily ever after. That kind of defeats the whole theme. Or in Hunchback of Notre Dame where Quasimodo is the primary character, the handsome Captain Phoebus has to come in and marry Esmeralda instead of the protagonist, because he’s ugly.
In the end, when we look in deeper, these are just some examples of portrayals that affect our childhood, if not directly then indirectly by stripping us of true imagination and creating characters in our heads; and I haven’t even started on the love, kisses and sexual stuff. I love Disney, always have, and know almost all the movies and songs by heart, but in the end of the day, the question that remains is when adults are rushing about looking for the cause of the problems in our youth, from obvious violent and sexual television shows to blaming mundane schools, they have failed to look at what seems the least likely place: Disney.