Did Disney sell us a lie?

If you were born after 1980 chances are you were brought up watching Disney movies as a kid.

The first movie I ever watched at the cinema was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, when I was four or five years old.

Like most little girls, I absolutely adored them and fell in love with the various Disney princesses – Aurora, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, etc. I wanted to be them, and play time would often involve arguments about who got to be Esmerelda or Ariel.

These days, we often hear the claim that Disney is responsible for selling girls like me unrealistic ideas about relationships; that your main focus in life is your own “happily ever after” (i.e. marriage), which will be blissful and endlessly romantic, once you’ve found your own prince. This, in turn, has affected our expectations of men and marriage.

But is this really a fair analysis?

I think the answer is both yes and no. Allow me to explain.

Being a naturally romantic person myself, there is no doubt that watching Disney films played on this and warped the importance of finding love and getting married in my mind. Even as a kid, the importance of this was greatly exaggerated for me.

As I grew up, I daydreamed constantly about the moment I would receive my first kiss; I planned out my wedding day; I got far too excited about boys far too soon, and generally ran off with my imagination – fuelled by the likes of The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin.

However, most of the Disney movies I grew up watching were based on fairy tales, and of all the fairytale tropes, none is more emblematic than they lived happily ever after. So can we really blame Disney for following the same pattern as its source material?

Yes, you could argue that Disney over-romanticises stories that were a lot more brutal in their original renditions (The Little Mermaid being the obvious example), and I think that’s a valid argument. But does Disney really deserve the sole blame for ruining the expectations of little girls the world over by feeding them hyper-romanticised versions of marriage as the primary priority in life?

I just don’t think that’s fair. I think Disney bears some of the responsibility, perhaps even much, but there have been a lot of other films and studios responsible for doing the same thing.

Most children’s stories and fairy tales end in some version of “happily ever after”. Even films I adore like The Princess Bride (which I’m well aware is a satirical take on the classic fairy tale) end this way. And while Princess Bride does poke fun at the prevalence of ‘kissing movies’ in the family film genre, it still incorporates many fairy tale tropes unironically. (By the way, I think the fact that this movie blends the farcical and the sentimental so well is part of its genius.)

I’m not saying ending a story with a “happily ever after” is a bad thing. I think it’s often how most of these stories have to end. After all, fairy tales became part of our cultural fabric to teach children important life lessons: don’t implicitly trust strangers or anyone on face-value alone; inner beauty is more important than outer; stay true to your values even in the face of betrayal and tragedy; taking the easy road now will only make things harder in the long run.

I think for the most part classic Disney films do hold true to the messages of their sources (The Little Mermaid aside), even if they are delivered in an over-romanticised way. Disney may even have generated this unhealthy prioritisation of men and romance in many women, but I don’t believe this one studio can be held entirely to blame.

You need look no further than your average romantic comedy or the Twilight franchise for evidence of this. And as much as I loathe to mention it in the same paragraph, even Jane Austen’s novels could be considered partly to ‘blame’ for the over-emphasis on marriage – although I would argue that Austen’s novels are complex and measured enough that the end-game of marriage does not make up the sole or even the primary focus of the story. Usually, they are about the heroine overcoming whatever faults she has at the start of the novel (including over-romanticisation, funnily enough) to learn and grow as a human being.

And while Twilight and rom-coms fall more in the teen and adult category, I can think of several family films that included a strong focus on romance/marriage; Ever After, Little Women, Willow, even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to an extent. I’m not denigrating any of these movies – I love each and every one of them. But I also hold them partly responsible for my own obsession with falling in love and getting married.

Nor am I arguing that movies, even family movies like these, shouldn’t end with a and they all lived happily ever after. The reason so many movies end this way is because it works. It makes sense.

And the reason this message sticks is because it speaks to the core of women’s hearts: the desire to love and to be loved for who we are.

However, a lot of the romantic notions I gleaned from many of these films, as well as books and music, had to be dispelled – sometimes in very brutal ways.

For example, I’m no longer convinced by the concept of “the one”, or that because the man in question says or does something you’ve always dreamed about, it must mean something – it’s often just pure coincidence.

It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of adapted films do a disservice to the stories they’re based upon by, again, overemphasising marriage and romance to the detriment of other important messages.

I feel I need to clarify that I don’t support Disney’s recent 180 in films like Frozen or Maleficent, in which the House of Mouse seems determined to upend its traditional focus on romantic relationships and happily ever after via marriage, either. This new direction just seems too forced and part of Disney’s increasingly left-leaning stance, which appears opposed to tradition and classic familial norms, period.

Generally speaking, I love Disney movies; many hold a very special place in my heart and always will. And yet I must acknowledge that they played a significant role in my rose-coloured view of the world, in giving me unrealistic ideas about marriage, love and over-romanticising things in general.

However, I picked up this message in other movies shows, books and songs as well.

So what’s the solution? Don’t show our children any romantic films? Never read them fairy tales?

Obviously that’s extreme. However, I do think parents should be mindful and even restrictive of how much on-screen (G-rated) romance children are exposed to. So far my nieces (6 and 4) haven’t seen any full-length Disney films other than Mary Poppins, which is probably a very good thing.

While I loved watching all those movies as a little girl, and then as a teenager, there’s no doubt the unrealistic notions they imparted caused me no small amount of suffering when I was old enough to be in relationships.

In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t started thinking about all this so soon – getting excited about the idea of boys so early took away some of the childish innocence I might otherwise have had.

And while not everyone is as romantically-inclined as I am and might not take all of this so much to heart, it is apparent that enough young women and girls have over-romanticised ideas about what marriage, love and relationships actually are that there seems to be a problem.

Is Disney to blame for this? Absolutely.

How much? Unclear – but it seems unrealistic not to take into account the swathe of other films, TV shows and cultural influences as well.

5 thoughts on “Did Disney sell us a lie?

  1. I take your point Anna, but fairy tales and fantasy also have as a key function stripping away some of the noise and brokenness of everyday life to reveal higher truths in a clearer light. A lot of these higher truths are explicitly Christian in origin. Sure, Disney never showed us Belle and the Beast handling finances or Snow White and her prince arguing over who’s turn it was to do the laundry. But selfless love really is redemptive nevertheless, and can pierce through our profound ugliness, and a story about an innocent girl doomed by a lethal temptation (an apple, a spindle etc.,) and rescued by the intervention of the man she is promised to marry practically counts as plagiarized from the Bible (it’s not a coincidence that Disney’s oldest movies were more comfortable with these themes.) At some point yes, there is a sense in which young people need to learn to draw a distinction between fairy tales and the fallen world we live in now. But I think it is likely more dangerous in some ways to reject the idea that fairy tales can still be true in a deeper sense (C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton are both great on this topic.)

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    1. I hope I haven’t implied that I’m rejecting fairy tales altogether. I adore fairy tales and agree that all children should be raised on them (preferably in storybook form). What I’m trying to diagnose is whether the accusations many make against Disney being responsible for selling young girls over-romanticised and unrealistic ideas of what marriage is are justified. Looking back on my own experience, I wish I hadn’t seen so many “kissing movies” in general until I was a bit older – say 10 or 11, compared to 5 or 6 years old.

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      1. The problem is a lot of these fairy tales have been bastardized to fit modern sensibilities. If you look at the original stories, it ain’t that nice.

        A lot of the Greek and Roman myths have much more realistic themes. Heck, that Bible book we’re supposed to read has some pretty direct stories that aren’t “over-romanticized”. Yet why do we seem to forget them?

        That reminds me, I’ll need to read the books of Ruth and Esther to my son in the next couple of months…don’t want him to get any wrong ideas about women from Disney…

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    2. To build on that, Kyle, I believe it was G. Roland Murphy who made a pretty forceful argument that, when the Grimm Brothers collected assorted fairy-tales and gave us the versions through which some of our modern renditions derive, the Grimms intentionally adapted them to express what the Grimms believed to be their proper character as Christian fables (see Murphy’s The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales).

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  2. The above picture reminds me of “Easter” for some reason, is it my imagination,but isn’t Mini mouse being rather assertive!

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