The jig is up: Old Disney movies like “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “The Little Mermaid” have been ruining generations with their subversive morals and sexist characterizations. No less an authority than 33-year-old actress Keira Knightley has said so.
Why actresses like Knightley speak out on movies’ messages when they also contribute to the moral and aesthetic rot of modern entertainment (see “Domino“) is a question for another day. What is more important is whether this argument that these movies teach bad lessons is valid. Should parents stop showing them to their children?
Not at all. In fact, this insistence on movies having an agenda and teaching a lesson accounts for the sad decline in children’s movies in recent decades. Instead of telling stories and developing compelling characters, children’s movies today prefer to promote boring feminist and anti-family propaganda. In particular, this can be seen in the most recent princess movies: “Brave,” “Tangled,” “Frozen,” and “Moana.”
Out of this list, “Brave” was probably the worst offender, not only because Pixar ruined a streak of amazing movies by creating it but also because it defies the traditional morality of princess movies. The movie is about a spoiled princess who flouts her responsibilities as a role model and prospective heir to the throne, curses her mother (who is magically turned in a bear) for saying something about it, and finally sees her mom apologize to her for not being more progressive. To top it off, it doesn’t even have catchy music to soften the edges of its feminist rage.
Who does the title “Brave” refer to? The daughter, apparently, because she refused to marry and grow up. As the many trailers advertised, she was “brave” because she decided to choose her own fate. Translated, this means she wanted to shoot arrows and dump all her angst onto her mom. The mother, who almost dies saving her daughter and spends her time holding the kingdom together (since the king is an negligent imbecile who also dumps his problems onto her), is only a judgmental buzzkill.
While “Brave” probably was the worst offender for promoting naval-gazing feminist morality at the cost of story and character, the last three movies direct from Disney have likely influenced the most kids: “Tangled,” “Frozen,” and “Moana.”
First of the princess movies to move into the third dimension (two years before “Brave”), “Tangled” retells the story of Rapunzel so that it fits the moral criteria of people like Knightley and other progressive mothers who recoil from the original story of a girl locked up in a tower only to be saved by a man. What results is a predictable tale of a young woman learning to be her own savior, not fall for man-children, and not trust her mother.
“Tangled” is remarkable in just how forgettable it is. Everything about the film feels recycled: the plot, the characters, and even the music and artwork. A person, even a young child, watching it will feel like a it’s mishmash of all the ’90s Disney movies. “Didn’t they have this scene in ‘Aladdin?’” “This song sounds very similar to the one in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’” “Okay, I’m positive I’ve seen this character in ‘The Little Mermaid.’”
“Frozen” goes a little further and makes a bigger splash in pop culture. Even though it has the same message—women are strong and men are either deceitful or stupid—it goes further by validating evil. Everyone loves Elsa, the princess who is blessed and cursed with the power to freeze things, even though she is the actual villain in the story. She freezes the kingdom and puts many lives at risk because the people are (rightly) scared of her. The movie’s catchy anthem “Let It Go” is not a happy song; it’s all about her celebrating her newfound freedom from her family and caring for others.
The movie strongly suggests it’s okay to harm others if you’re a woman who has suffered. It doesn’t matter that it’s wrong—she’s an empowered woman expressing herself. Militant feminists have every reason to draw inspiration from this movie, and it would be quite fitting that Elsa be a lesbian so that she can let go of heteronormativity in addition to everything else.
The latest Disney princess movie, “Moana,” is more of the same: more female empowerment, more man-children, and more boredom. To its credit, it has the best music (although parents who’ve been forced to listen to it for more times than even the “Frozen” soundtrack might feel differently) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But this still doesn’t cover up for the profound sadness that permeates the film.
“Moana” is a lonely kind of movie, both in its substance and style. The protagonist has no real friends, no love interest, and no meaningful purpose outside of her mission of giving back the enchanted green stone to the earth goddess. She has a batty old grandmother whom no one respects, narrow-minded parents who’d rather die a slow death with their people than leave their island, and a knuckleheaded demigod acquaintance who, in the end, only cares about himself and his reputation.
There’s something existentialist and dark about the whole thing. Sure, Moana’s goal, challenges, virtues, and lack of personality are crystal clear like the computer-generated water on which she sails. Yet the movie forces the viewer, young or old, to wonder: What’s the point?
Moana wants to save her village, but so what? It’s not like she wanted to live there anyway. Maui wants to win honor and be the good guy, but what then? It doesn’t seem like he’s learned anything. Moana goes on an adventure and proves to be a valiant heroine, but what normal person could identify with her? Nothing about her personality changes, and she doesn’t really make mistakes. She suffers other people’s mistakes, saves them anyway, and all is well again.
Stupid or weak as Snow White, Ariel, or Cinderella are, they are at least relatable, and their stories are interesting. Their patient suffering and ultimate redemption give hope to the kid who compulsively watches the movies again and again. Seeing these women become princesses after dealing with evil witches and marry a handsome prince is gratifying. Seeing the sisters in “Frozen” hug it out and leave the stupid men behind is empty. Seeing the mother in “Brave” apologize to her bratty daughter is revolting. Seeing Moana drift alone on a raft is depressing.
Some might object to people taking their children’s movies so seriously (even though more people probably have an opinion on this topic than any political race), but they neglect to see just how formative this entertainment has been for people growing up in the past 70 years. Even though Knightley and others misinterpret the meaning of some classic Disney movies, they are right to wonder what their kids learn from them. It’s not a stretch to say that the skewed morality and unrealistic expectations of modern feminists are influenced by Disney’s stories, nor is it crazy to think that boys pick up on the weak males that contrast so unflatteringly with the heroine of these movies.
Indeed, parents should follow Knightley and Kristen Bell‘s examples and take greater concern in what their kids are watching. Not because they learn the wrong lessons that happen to coincide with the fairy tale, but because they may learn the ones that Disney wants them to learn.