- Writer and mother Jennifer Gerson has only allowed her young daughter to watch the “Frozen” Disney films since they’re empowering to girls.
- Gerson’s daughter has been asking about the classic princess films, which often contain sexist themes, gender stereotypes, and issues involving sexual consent.
- Film experts say there’s inherent value in Disney princess films, but that parents should have gentle conversations about the troubling depictions of female lead characters.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Since seeing “Frozen 2” during its opening weekend last month, my almost-5-year-old daughter has not stopped singing “Into the Unknown.” You won’t hear me complain about it, though.
“Frozen” and “Frozen 2” are the only Disney princess movies I’ve allowed my daughter to watch. Unlike other Disney films, they are mostly devoid of sexist themes and disempowering relationships. There’s no textbook heterosexual romance where the female lead awaits a prince to rescue her. Instead, the plot follows two sisters who learn to love each other and themselves.
But I can’t shield my daughter from the Snow Whites and Cinderellas forever. She’s getting older, and has already started asking about the classics.
Disney has taken steps to address issues in its films that it can’t continue ignoring. It has placed content warnings on some older movies that contain racist imagery and plot developments, including “The Jungle Book.”
That film, and others like it, bear a label that reads: “Culturally outdated content.” It’s a step in the right direction, but these warnings don’t yet extend to films that are problematic in their portrayals of women and girls.
As we start watching other Disney films, the responsibility now falls on me to point out and discuss the archaic gender roles that are glorified on the big screen.
I talked with film experts who recommended conversation-starters about troubling gender tropes and sexual consent in Disney princess films.
Here are some classic Disney films, the sexist themes involved, and experts’ advice on how to handle them with your kids.
The problem: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a classic #MeToo controversy as Gaston threatens Belle.
Belle, a book-loving village girl, agrees to be kept prisoner in exchange for her father’s freedom. Belle falls in love with Beast, her captor, while the town meathead simultaneously attempts to coerce her into marriage and killing the Beast.
Throughout “Beauty and the Beast,” Gaston threatens Belle, pressures her to marry him, and he ultimately imprisons both Belle and her father in the Beast’s castle.
“There’s this sexual predator element where you are watching Gaston corner Belle in rooms all over the village,” Ursula Burton, a director, filmmaker, and professor at Otis College, told Insider. “Watching it, you feel like it could be anyone’s #MeToo story.”
The movie supports the common refrain that if a boy treats a girl poorly, it should be brushed off because it just means that “he likes her,” according to Michele Schreiber, an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Emory University.
This kind of trope is what fosters the cultural stereotype of the desirable “bad boy.”
The talking points: Discuss Belle’s intellect and bravery, and what it means to give consent.
Parents can begin the conversation by asking their child what they find appealing about Belle. She’s an adventure-seeking bibliophile, for example.
Burton recommends then talking about the choices that Belle was faced with and what the child thinks about them, especially in regards to giving up her freedom. There’s an opportunity to talk about how if someone is being mean that doesn’t grant permission to be unkind back, and how to respond in an effective way.
You can then discuss what they might do or say if someone were trying to pressure them into a relationship or an unwanted physical interaction.
The problem: ‘The Little Mermaid’ suggests women have to sacrifice who they are to be happy.
Ariel, a mermaid princess, wants to experience the human world, but her father forbids her. She falls in love with Prince Eric after saving him from drowning, and makes a risky deal with Ursula, a sea witch. Ariel get legs in exchange for her voice and has to make the prince love her back within three days, or else she’ll be returned to mermaid form and become Ursula’s slave.
Ariel undergoes a physical transformation in order to have a chance with Prince Eric, which involves literally giving up her voice. It underscores the point that a woman’s most important life goal is to find a man to marry, and that being quiet and docile is an effective way to achieve that.
The film also emphasises an impossible standard of beauty, and the idea that “women are always in competition with each other,” Schreiber said.
Despite being a savvy businesswoman and a powerful sea witch, Ursula is considered unattractive. Ursula wants what Ariel has: a traditional and youthful feminine identity.
Towards the film’s end, Ursula uses her magic to appear on land as the svelte, raven-haired “Vanessa,” and makes Prince Eric agree to marry her. This emphasises that women’s personalities are interchangeable. The man everyone is fighting over seems to only be moved by looks, and he ultimately falls in love with Ariel, a woman who can’t talk back.
The talking points: Ask what it means to have a strong voice and to love someone who is different.
Parents can start by asking their children how it would feel if they couldn’t express themselves anymore, said Jennifer Burton, a filmmaker and professor at Tufts University. This gives kids a chance to think about what it means to use their words, and to advocate for something they care about.
Ariel’s desire to explore life on land is an opportunity to talk about what it might be like to engage with, and love, people who are different It’s also an optimal moment to talk about beauty, and what your children love and don’t love as much about themselves.
Likewise, Ariel’s decision to defy her father is a chance to ask a child how they feel when an adult tells them they can’t do something, and how they can manage those feelings. There’s room here to acknowledge Ariel’s courage and her curiosity as she collects and studies objects like an archaeologist.
“Ariel is very brave – she goes to the sea witch!” Ursula Burton said. “She wants adventure and experiences.”
The problem: ‘Cinderella’ suggests that a woman can only escape a desperate situation with a male rescuer and that women shouldn’t express anger or sadness.
After Cinderella’s father dies, her stepmother and stepsisters make her their servant. A fairy godmother makes it possible for Cinderella to attend the palace’s ball – but only until midnight. The prince falls in love with Cinderella, but she leaves before he learns her name, and she loses one of her glass slippers in her hurried exit. The prince then searches the kingdom for the one woman whose foot will fit the tiny, delicate shoe.
“This film is ‘ground zero’ for the princess mythology,” Schreiber said. “Cinderella cannot save herself and needs the help of a magical force, and then needs to be rescued by a man who will save her through marriage.”
The impossible expectations also preclude Cinderella from expressing how she really feels about her desperate situation.
“Why do women still have to be beautiful when they are angry?” Burton said. “When they are frustrated or sad, they should look like that.”
The talking points: Explain why no one has to wait for a ‘prince’ and why bullies can’t harm your self-worth.
Parents can ask children how they would feel and react if they were victimized like Cinderella. This can spark a discussion on everything from how to treat people in your family to how to handle teasing.
There’s also an opportunity to praise how Cinderella doesn’t ever question her self-worth. Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer of Disney creative studios, often credits Cinderella as having taught her that if someone is tormenting you, it is not a reflection of the victim, but of the bully.
If your children have seen “Frozen” or “Moana,” then “Cinderella” also offers a helpful prompt to talk about what it means to save yourself from a challenging situation, as opposed to relying on someone else to make your problems go away.
Whenever discussing prince-saving-the-princess tropes, keep in mind that it’s just as important to have these conversations with your sons as well. You can emphasise that women’s stories can exist outside of the context of being coupled, whether to a man or a woman. It’s also an auspicious moment to teach your children to question any story that insists on certain roles for boys and girls.
The problem: ‘Aladdin’ indicates that a woman can only obtain power and strength through marriage to a man.
Princess Jasmine is told that she must find a prince to marry so she can eventually assume the throne. But Jasmine does not want to marry for any reason other than love. While disguised as a commoner, Jasmine meets Aladdin, a street thief, who falls in love with her. Aladdin meets a genie who grants him three wishes, and he asks to become a prince so he may marry Jasmine.
Towards the end of the 1992 animated version of “Aladdin,” Jafar, the conniving advisor to the Sultan, captures Jasmine and makes her into what can only be conservatively read as a sex slave.
Jasmine is stripped of all autonomy in both versions of Aladdin. She is not allowed to rule the kingdom on her own. In the 2019 live action remake, she is at least given a song, “Speechless,” to vent her frustrations and insistence that she won’t have her independence taken away.
The talking points: Emphasise that only your child gets to decide who touches them and praise Jasmine’s resistance.
While a discussion about sex trafficking might be premature, Jennifer Burton said that “Aladdin”could prompt an age-appropriate conversation about the idea of “owning” another person and why forcing someone into doing something they don’t want to do is never acceptable.
Much like “Beauty and the Beast,” there’s also an opening to introduce the idea of consent, even in a way that does not explicitly refer to sex. This comes up with Jasmine’s enslavement, and the genie’s lack of freedom.
There is also a chance to talk about Jasmine’s impressive resistance.
While Jasmine is “scantily clad” for a Disney heroine, she was able to wear pants, Burton pointed out, which was something no female Disney protagonist had ever done before. A simple gesture allowed viewers to reimagine a princess who may not ascribe to a traditional standard of femininity.
Even when forced into being a sex slave, Burton noted that Jasmine always “maintains a sense of herself.” She remains centered, proud, and never acts afraid.
Disney’s classics are still valuable for children, especially when discussing the princesses’ undeniable strength and potential.
Sure, some scenes are cringe-worthy, but there is merit to revisiting classic Disney princess films.
These movies offer ample opportunity to discuss the strengths of the princesses and how they might have navigated certain situations using their talents alone.
Our job as parents is to deconstruct certain associations that they might make.
“For instance, beauty does not have to equal passivity,” Schreiber said. “Vulnerability does not have to equal helplessness.”
Since seeing “Frozen 2,” my daughter and I have taken to endlessly discussing how you are always the one you have been waiting for. No matter what, princesses are capable of compassion, surviving difficult trials, and of saving themselves.
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