Note: I originally wrote this piece years ago for a contest writing site. I didn’t pick the title but had an easy time coming up with examples of terrible lessons in Disney movies. Particularly in the classics. I reshared it on my blog years ago and have kept it around because I still think it’s true. Though Disney films have gotten much better!
Colorful characters and catchy songs capture the imagination, but there are some terrible lessons in classic Disney movies. I’m not suggesting we toss out the classics. Though… maybe make sure kids are getting a bigger serving of Disney’s more recent films. Or skip the nostalgia until they’re old enough to have a chat about why these messages are terrible.
5. Mothers are Expendable, Stepmothers are Evil
Mothers in Disney movies are a means to an end. If they don’t die on-screen, there’s a good chance they’re already dead or just won’t be mentioned at all. If a stepmother is introduced, she will be the jealous villain of the movie.
Missing mothers may gain sympathy for main characters, but, time and again, Disney movies paint an absent mother as an easily surmountable obstacle. (If she is mentioned at all.) Fathers are sometimes missing as well (because orphans are even more lovable?), yet when they do appear, we get memorable single dads who are doing their best like Geppetto, Maurice the inventor, and The Sultan of Agrabah.
In Disney’s worlds, both mothers and stepmothers need to get out of the way for the hero to live happily ever after.
4. A Woman’s Life Purpose is to Find Her Prince Charming
Every Disney princess is matched to her ideal prince. The quest for true love is a common theme for many films. Even more so for classic Disney stories where the prince has to rescue the princess, too.
The earliest Disney princesses–Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora–were classic damsels in distress. They were in danger until their princes came along. Later princesses–Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine–had definite ideas who they would or would not marry. Yet, in the end: Prince Eric defeated Ursula, the Beast defeated Gaston, and Aladdin defeated Jafaar. The princesses may have helped, but it was the princes who saved the day.
While Disney’s latest heroines have been stronger, they still are not complete without the prince of their dreams.
3. Deals with the Devil Pay Off in the End
If you can’t get what you want on your own, make a bargain with an evil sea-witch. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel dreams of leaving her underwater world to live on land with the humans. Particularly with Prince Eric.
Instead of understanding the inherent problems of a mermaid/human union, Ariel make her fateful pact. She trades her own voice for a chance to become human for three days and win Eric’s “kiss of true love.” It all leads to an epic battle, with both King Triton and Prince Eric stepping in to save our little princess.
Did she learn anything? (Like in the truly twisted Hans Christian Anderson original story.) Nope. King Triton uses his own magic to make her human. Apparently, if you want something bad enough to make a deal with the devil, you must deserve to have it.
2. Physical Beauty Equals Good; Unattractiveness Equals Bad
Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston may be the villain but his attractiveness has gained him the respect of the village. Unlike his bumbling, short, fat sidekick. Cinderella is beautiful, while her evil stepsisters are awkward and unattractive. Even in The Lion King, Simba’s evil uncle is named for the scar on his face.
Disney princesses are all drawn to the impossible standards of tiny waists, attractive figures, and beautiful faces. Their princely companions all have trim, muscular physiques and striking good looks. In keeping with this tradition, villains are typically old, ugly fat, scarred or otherwise unattractive. The Queen in Snow White is initially beautiful but she becomes an ugly old crone when she decides to kill the princess.
In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one might argue that the unattractive Quasimodo is the hero, but does he get the girl in the end? (Actually, I’ve never seen that one because a Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an absurd idea. Um, did anyone actually read that novel before deciding to Disney it up with some singing gargoyles?)
1. An Abusive Man Just Needs a Good Woman to Tame Him
The message in the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is that you should not judge someone by their appearance. Yet, the Disney version makes an important change that shifts the entire meaning of the story.
In the fairy tale, the Beast is kind to his captive, despite his monstrous appearance. In the Disney movie, the Beast treats Belle (and everyone else) horribly. He roars at her and intimidates her with a clear threat of physical violence. When he attempts to restrain his violent temper it is only as a self-serving means to seduce Belle into breaking the curse.
The message is clear in the Disney narrative: It is the woman’s role to look past a man’s abuse and bring out the prince within. And that is the same message that traps women in abusive relationships.