Is Disney truly anti-feminist or is our feminist lens limited?
Disney: a name that fills us with dreams and rage, with courage and fear, and with love and hate. It has long been criticized for bringing in place and perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards, stereotypical representation of non-white characters, and blatant sexism. And while most of what is held against the company are unerring, it is important to understand the role we play in bringing these criticisms to a full circle. Disney is not blameless, but neither are we, the consumers.
The traditional Disney princesses have been called poor feminist icons, women who’ve been damsels-in-distress, waiting for their princes to come to rescue them. However, by holding onto this belief, we also narrow our feminist perspective and the way it shapes us and our ideas. Most traditional Disney princesses grow up in circumstances where their power is snatched from them at a very young age, leaving them powerless. They are abused by those in power. By calling these princesses damsels-in-distress, we are blaming and impractically asking the survivor to fight, rather than holding the abuser responsible for their abuse.
Moreover, to see these women purely in passive roles and as people incapable of fighting
their abusers, we are refusing to acknowledge how they manage to stay alive, keep sane and still maintain kindness and optimism in the face of cruelty and adversity. It is unfair to
dismiss their use of agency to bring about a change in their situation. In fact, in Beauty and the Beast, it is Belle who saves the Beast from not just Gaston, but himself as well. She portrays that all the power in the world is ineffectual to be truly happy. It takes courage, kindness, and true knowledge of the self to achieve that.
Princesses such as Snow White and Cinderella possess conventionally feminine qualities,
such as kindness, caring, and perseverance. Both these princesses use their vivid imagination as a coping mechanism and a way to hold onto the hope that things will change for the better. Their dreams are all that they have power over, in a space where they have no choice or power otherwise. It is their escape. They do not use conventionally masculine ways to be free, such as outrightly fighting back or making a physical escape plan. Snow White escapes purely by chance and the goodwill of the huntsman. By dismissing their dreams as idle daydreaming and portraying their perseverance and kindness as them being pushovers, we assign more value to masculine aggression and fight than to feminine patience and hope. Moreover, it is important to not forget that they do not dream of a future with princes, but a future of freedom, hope, and fairness. Cinderella’s fairy Godmother is an embodiment of her dreams, a subtle declaration of her
determination to mother herself the way she never was by Lady Tremaine. The glass slipper is a manifestation of her dreams, which are delicate and nearly too otherworldly, yet existent and seen. Lady Tremaine’s breaking of the glass slipper signifies the cruel act of her physically crushing Cinderella’s dreams, yet Cinderella having the other glass slipper proves that there are dreams inside of her that cannot be taken away or broken. It is those dreams in the form of the slipper that set her free, in this case getting her married to a prince in a state where she can truly practice her creative and loving agency. Snow White may only have accidentally swallowed the apple, but the love that she manifests in the form of the prince ends up saving her from the jaws of death.
In Walt Disney’s own words: “Snow White was a kind simple little girl who believed in
wishing and waiting for her Prince Charming to come along. Now Cinderella here was more practical. She believed in dreams all right but she also believed in doing something about them. When the Prince Charming didn’t happen to come along, she went right over to the palace and got him”. Perhaps, it is time to shed the Disney lens and wear THE Disney lens.
To see that we are not truly powerless in situations that we may imagine, but capable of
facing adversity head-on. To see that there is power in what appears powerless. To see that not only big muscles and kingdoms and treasures are power, but so is a big heart, a lot of emotional strength, and a large will to give.
- Shubhra Tripathi