It's a sad day when I step in to save the Disney princesses. It's kind of like when the most fundamentalist of Christians think Fred Phelps is crazy. I have a feminist opinion on everything, and always have had since I was a little girl. I've been called "man-hater" and any number of lovely monikers for my opinions since before I hit puberty (though back then I think it was called "cooties").
And yet, I have to say, lay off Belle and Ariel.
I've seen it all over the place, and it's beginning to drive me crazy. Not because I think the Disney women are paragons of strength and gender non-conformity, but because people are, so often, missing the point. I can passionately agree with someone's ideas, but if I think they're making them on mistaken grounds, I can't get behind what they're saying.
Let's start with Ariel.
What people say:
The "lesson" in The Little Mermaid is all about keeping quiet; it doesn't matter if you have nothing interesting or intelligent to say — and if you do, it's better to shut up, anyway — because men don't care about that. They want your looks. Your pretty face. And don't underestimate the power of body language!
Why they're missing the point:
Did that last sound familiar? That's because Ursula, the villain, actually says that in the film. In fact, her entire reprise of "Poor, Unfortunate Souls" undercuts the very societal trend that feminists are accusing the film of espousing. Ursula mocks society, highlighting the idea that men like stupid, silent women — and making fun of everyone for it. She clearly thinks Ariel's an idiot for taking the deal, because it doesn't actually work. This is what everyone tells you men like — but it's not true. Not the good ones. Not the ones who find true love.
And it doesn't work. Eric doesn't fall in love with Ariel based on her looks ("on her BODY!" one scandalized blogger spat, as though noticing someone's physical appearance is a sin). There's an entire scene, leading up to the iconic "Kiss the Girl" song, devoted to wondering why the heck Eric hasn't sealed the deal yet on the basis of Ariel's big blue eyes alone. Sebastian's advice to Ariel about "you gotta bat your eyes, like dis; you gotta pucker up your lips like dis" is for naught. Eric does lean in to kiss her in the boat, but only because the animals give him the subliminal equivalent of a sledgehammer to the back of the head. It's not enough.
The other thing is, though, that Ariel and Eric do communicate. They communicate like a mute person and someone who doesn't speak sign language, or two people without a common language. And it's not just mad flailing; while Eric occasionally misunderstands her, he responds to her as a person who is actually talking to him, not like someone making goo-goo voices to a baby or "you're so cute, aren'tcha!" to their dog. So often in movies, when there's a communication gap, people talk at the other person, not expecting a response; Eric doesn't. He waits for Ariel to react and gauges her opinion on her expressions and gestures — watch the scene where he tries to guess her name.
Yes, all right, it is lame that he falls in love with her just because she saved his life, and this is not the best basis for two teenagers (sixteen and eighteen) to marry. And yes, Ariel drastically changes her physical appearance and leaves her family in order to be with Eric, something that always made me frown even when I was five years old. I always cried at the ending, not because I was happy, but because I couldn't believe Ariel would leave her father and the ocean just for this guy. I'm not crazy. But this is why I get so annoyed at the people who focus on Ariel's silence — there are plenty of things to criticize, so why that point?
Let's move on to Belle. First, let me just say that until I came across a number of blog posts castigating her — one that even referred to her as "the worst" Disney princess — I didn't even realize there was a problem. I, a person who routinely gets frothingly angry over commercials, no less.
What people say:
Belle's story is all about living with an abusive partner, hoping that if you stick with him long enough, he'll magically change and you'll have a prince. It sets up the unrealistic expectation that abusers will stop if you just keep quiet and take it — eventually, your love alone will heal them. That's a horrible message to tell little girls.
Why they're missing the point:
We already have a Disney princess whose moral is to keep quiet about abuse: Cinderella. But that's a rant for another time.
I don't even know where to start with this. First of all, Beauty an the Beast is not about putting up with domestic abuse, because Belle does not put up with it — not once! She shouts back; she refuses to acquiesce to his demands; when he orders her to stay in her room and starve if she won't play nice, she waits until he's alseep and gets her own food; she ignores practically every rule the Beast sets out for her. She never rewards his behaviour, instead calling him out openly and clearly, rather than reacting passive-aggressively and hoping he gets the point. When the Beast changes his temperament, it's not because he was healed by her love but because for the first time in his life — he was transformed when he was 10 or 11, for goodness' sake, and surrounded by nothing but kowtowing household objects after that — someone told him his behaviour was inappropriate.
This is not what abuse looks like. If it were abuse, Belle would not have shouted back at him; she would not have "broken her promise" and left when he roared at her and broke things; she would not have refused to come to dinner; she would not have explored the castle against his wishes, even going so far as to barge in on his private sanctuary — which, when I was a kid, bothered me immensely, as I valued my privacy, and I understood why he went a little nuts.
Some people are not taught how to behave; the Beast certainly wasn't. Of course we don't date these people, hoping our love will change them — Belle doesn't do anything of the kind. If anything, she takes on the role of stern teacher, and shows not even a hint of romantic interest until after he realizes he's been behaving badly and attempts to change.
In fact, the movie gives us a distinct contrast in the way that potential abusers can react to being brought up short on their behaviour — Gaston. Remember: the Beast behaves badly, and Belle tells him so; he falls back, reconsiders himself and his actions, and decides to better himself.
Now take Gaston. He behaves even worse than the Beast, in my opinion — while the former has the excuse of being sequestered away in a tower, turned into a hideous monster, and never told the word "no" by his entire entourage, Gaston has nothing. He's dismissive, disrespectful, physically threatening (notice how he's always inserting himself into Belle's space, and attempting to initiate contact while she expressly refuses). His dream marriage is one where his wife is a combined mother, housekeeper, and sex slave — not unlike the marriage ideal of our society.
Belle calls him out on it. Repeatedly. She even uses small words when she realizes he's not getting it, just like with the Beast. But rather than realize that his behaviour is inappropriate, Gaston responds in the creepiest manner ever — becoming more attracted, and resolving to break her, even if he has to isolate her from her family and loved ones in the process. The Beast does the same, but not out of sexual intent; Gaston does. Gaston wants Belle, not because she's particularly beautiful, but because she's a challenge — and his ego can't handle a challenge. Nothing would please him more than seeing this fiery, intelligent girl massaging his feet.
And so, rightly, Belle rejects him, because he does not change. Later, she ends up falling for the Beast because he does change. This is not a weak woman who knuckles under to abuse. Belle ignores the Beast when he's having a tantrum, smacks him when he's out of line, and doesn't fall for him until he grows up. To accuse her of being an abuse victim misses the point so entirely that I can't even come up with an appropriate metaphor.
The fact that these bloggers write off the Beast for having a temper — one to which Belle never capitulates, but challenges herself — bothers me to no small degree. In a way, what these women are suggesting is that the only men we're allowed to marry are, in fact, the personality-less Ken dolls of Disney movies past. No personality, no faults, no temper. As if no one could enjoy verbal sparring, when in fact I know several couples who use fighting as foreplay. If we flipped the gender switch, would these bloggers argue that a woman should not be allowed to have a temper? I think not.
Again, like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast does have its own weird mixed messages. After all the emphasis on falling in love with someone regardless of appearance, the Beast gets turned back into a cookie-cutter prince who, strangely, loses all his originality and appeal. With some thinking and twisting you can find ways to look at it that aren't disturbing — that, for example, this isn't Belle's reward, but the Beast's, as now he can marry without having pitchforks thrown at him, and his servants can stop being, well, tableware — but at first glance, it's definitely puzzling. So why, again, stoop to the false premise approach?
Unfortunately, there's an even bigger problem at work here. More than one blogger expressed distaste for Disney princesses, and either refused to buy them for her daughter, or sighed and capitulated but gritted her teeth in secret. Why? Both these approaches are flawed. In the first, the daughter won't understand the reasons, and will just think her mother unreasonable; in the second, she won't ever learn that her mother is upset. There's a better answer here, and wait for me, because it's a radical one –
Talk to your children.
No. Really. If a child is old enough to absorb unhealthy messages from the media, then she or he is old enough to sit down with a parent and talk about these messages.
When I was a child, my mother banned several things she thought were inappropriate. For some of them, she gave me reasons; for others, she just said "because I said so". In the cases where I was given a reason, I was able to consider whether or not I agreed with her reasoning, and decide for myself whether it was worth it to break her rules. Sometimes I ended up agreeing with her; sometimes I thought she was worrying unnecessarily, as I wasn't getting the message she feared I was. But in the cases where I got no reason, other than "it's inappropriate" or "it's not funny", I honestly didn't understand, and generally was angry or bitter about having something taken away. When we didn't have a meaningful discussion about why my mother disliked me watching or reading something, I took nothing away from it.
No one can force a parent to let their child watch Disney films. If said parent really, really hates the Disney princesses with a passion but has a child who loves them, then why not make it a teaching point? Why not counterpoint the "bad values" that the Disney movies espouse with positive ones, as contrast? Ask the child questions: "Do you agree with Ursula? Do you think girls should be quiet if they want boys to like them?" or "What should you do if the person you love shouts at you?" and see what they say. At worst, the kids will think exactly what the parents are afraid they're thinking — at which point the parent kicks off a discussion — and at best, the parent fosters the desire to think critically about the messages presented in the media from an early age.
Either way, in the words of that youtube guy whose name I don't actually know, leave Belle and Ariel alone!