Dangerous Disney

I recently found out one of my best childhood friends is having a baby. I’m getting ridiculously excited about meeting this kid and getting to be an “auntie.” I’m also starting to wonder what this child (whose sex is still unknown) will be like, what she will play with, what toys I will bring back for her from the UK, and whether she will enjoy the books and movies her mother and I enjoyed when we were children. 

Then I started wondering whether I would really want this baby to watch and read the same books and movies I did while growing up. Sure, there was the odd naughty Madeline and amazing Pippi Longstocking, but I remember the fictional world of my imagination crowded mostly with princess dreams and idealizations of handsome princes.

In the precarious years between childhood and young adulthood, I spent a lot of my time in an imaginary world populated by my stuffed toys and a few human “imaginary friends.” The lead man in this fantasy of mine was a prince who would one day whisk my humble commoner-self off to a castle and we would live happily ever after. Looking back, I can totally see how my daydreaming was a carbon copy of the Disney movies I was watching and the princess fairy tales I was reading.

My feminist mother wouldn’t get me a Barbie for ages. Although I begged and pleaded, this was one of the very few (perhaps only) things I remember asking for and not getting. Until I got one, that is. My mom had been in Italy for work and came back with the toy I so wanted. The Barbie spoke a few phrases in Italian when you pressed a button on her back. My Mom—true to form—decided that if she must get me the dreaded toy, it should at least have some educational value. The thing is, once I finally got my Barbie, I was bored very quickly. I soon realized that the only thing she was good for was accompanying G.I. Joe in his spy missions among the potted plants in the living room. You see, apart from princesses and princes, the other thing I was really into was spies and dinosaurs. I have no brothers and the only thing my dad really needed a son for was to watch Bond movies with him, and I happily obliged. Dad and I watched and re-watched every single Bond movie more times than I can count.

I grew up with a pretty eclectic mixture of passive princesses, spies with British and Russian accents, and dinosaurs, and I couldn’t quite make up my mind which I liked most. In my imaginary world, I was going to be a princess (enter: marriage in a long white dress to Prince Charming), but first I was a going to be a palaeontologist who doubled as an undercover agent and was a harbinger of doom to totalitarian states (which happen to also be where a lot of the dino skeletons can be found.) I kid you not, I spent my tweens imaging myself digging for extinct reptiles while overthrowing corrupt regimes and preparing to take up royal duties. Somehow, I never went as far as to think what would happen once Prince Charming and I were reunited for good.

In reality, I gave up on the whole princess thing and stuck to the palaeontology (which got me as far as grad school at Cambridge University).

When I think back on it now, what scares me is that perhaps I was a few Bond movies away from thinking I didn’t have much agency when it came to my future. That’s probably an oversimplification, but the truth is popular children’s books and films (or at least the ones I read and watched) have very few positive female role models, and it’s hard to underestimate the effect this has on children. In nearly every princess tale, there’s a maiden waiting to be saved. Sandi Toksvig, a Danish writer and comedian, recently pointed out that if Rapunzel had hair long enough for someone to climb into a tower, then why didn’t she just cut it off and make a rope? The answer is: That’s not what good girls in stories do—they wait around for rescue and pass the time by knitting. And if good girls do do something, even if that something is just taking the initiative to go after the man they love, the message is clear: There’s a price to pay. Take one example: in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel had to give up her voice, leaving her Prince Charming to fall in love with just a body.

A lot has already been written on gendered toys and the princess culture (see here and here and here). I always found this culture upsetting, even infuriating, but I also thought I was rather immune to all of it growing up. Reality check! I longed to have a prince take me away and also thought something must be wrong with me when I wanted a Transformers toy at the age of 7. I actually told my parents about my boy toy craving because I thought it would help them realize I was sick. While they told me I could be anything I wanted and play with any toy that caught my eye, a distinctly different message was reaching me from most of my books and movies. Being some prince’s chosen bride was still appealing.

So, when I think of my friend’s baby, I wonder whether I really want her to have her young mind inundated with stories of passive women whose role in life is to wait around for a kiss that will allow them to wed to a stranger and have his babies. The baby will be lucky to be surrounded with wonderful women, but there really is something to be said for the power of your favorite childhood stories. I’m sentimental about Disney movies, but I’m beginning to think there should be a minimum age for viewing them—or at least an age-appropriate introduction to gender studies before a screening.

Maria M. Pawlowska is a healthcare analyst with a passion for reproductive health and gender issues. Her articles on different aspects of reproductive and women’s rights have been published by The Maternal Health Task Force, RH Reality Check, HealthyPolicies, The European Pro-Choice Network, and The Good Men Project, among others. Maria currently lives in London with her husband. You can reach her at: m.pawlowska@gatesscholar.org and find her on Twitter at @MariaPawlowska.

Photo by Loren Javier/Flickr

Related Links: