“Daddy, I love him!” Ariel exclaims when her father angrily lectures her on why she can’t love a human. By the end of the movie, she will give up who she is, literally relinquishing her beautiful singing voice in exchange for a human body, to be with her handsome Prince.
Growing up in America, it is hard to escape Disney’s pervasive reach. Chances are that Disney movies were not only a part of your childhood, but you now have all of the original VHS box sets lining the bookcases of your living room of your “adult” apartment (it’s a collector’s set, thank you very much). Furthermore, it is doubtful that you have seen these movies only once or twice. Think about it; when you were a kid wasn’t there at least one Disney film you were obsessed with? One cartoon that your parents were so sick of watching they hid it away and told you it got lost just so they wouldn’t have to hear “Tale as Old as Time” for the umpteenth time? Wouldn’t it logically follow, then, that such repetitive exposure to certain films would influence you later in life?
The answer is a firm yes.
According to the journal of Pediatrics & Child Health, the influence of TV and other media on children’s psychosocial development is profound. And it makes sense; parents encourage their children to watch shows such as Sesame Street in the hopes that it will affect them positively. And they’re right. The journal goes on to explain that Sesame Street has been shown to improve reading and learning skills while educating children about cooperation, kindness, and racial harmony. That means that the Disney movies, too, likely affected us as children. However, they didn’t teach us our ABCs or how to be a good person. They instead taught our role as women.
What does every Disney princess have in common? They are all unique. They all feel different, maybe even like outcasts. They don’t fit into their stereotypical, prescribed societal roles. So they go out on an adventure. A journey that they must do in secret for fear that someone will find out and scold them for stepping out of their role. Think of Pocahontas, Cinderella, or Mulan. And no matter how great their accomplishments may be, which even include SAVING ALL OF CHINA, none of the Disney princesses end up single. They and their Prince live happily ever after.
If no adventure abounds, they are helpless, playing a damsel in distress. Think of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Belle. Inevitably, they end up falling for the person who rescued them in some sort of an I-owe-you-one kind of everlasting love, or they end up with Stockholm syndrome (looking at you, Belle). Or, worst of all, in the case of The Little Mermaid, Ariel sacrifices her beautiful voice and her entire world for the ability to live with Prince Eric.
The specifics don’t really matter, but what’s more important is the fact that none of these relationships are necessary or healthy. Basically, the message that Disney is sending is this: women need a man to validate and complete them, so partaking in an unhealthy relationship is preferable to being alone. Even if we act independently, we cannot stretch the boundaries too far. We must put a limit on how far we stray from the norm of our gender role.
Take that message and send it repeatedly to an impressionable group of young girls and you have a recipe for a lifetime of unsatisfying love and low self-esteem. You may be thinking this is a bit extreme, but take a minute to reflect on your genuine feelings towards gender roles, your self confidence, your ability to validate yourself, and romantic relationships.
- Do you feel that without the approval of others, your accomplishments are less meaningful?
- Do you ever feel shame, embarrassment, or inadequacy because you are single?
- Do you constantly flutter from relationship to relationship?
- Do you stay in relationships despite issues out of fear of being alone?
- Do you comment, even jokingly, that you’ll never have a boyfriend because of certain traits? (does eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s everyday fall into this category…?)
- If you have a boyfriend and you consider your relationship healthy, or do you still feel that he could do more for you?
- Are you worried that if you leave the relationship it will be viewed as your fault, or that you are somehow a failure?
- In other words, are you still trying to be a perfect princess, waiting for a handsome, kind, rich Prince Charming to come along, rescue you, and love you forever?
If you’re saying no to every one of these you’re either lying to yourself or you genuinely have an amazing opinion of yourself and probably some great family role models (also, can you be my therapist?). My point is that Disney has likely negatively impacted your self-confidence as well as your perceptions of love and gender roles whether you are aware of it or not.
There is good news: admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. You can’t unsee all those Disney movies from your childhood, but you can take steps to improve your self-confidence. If you are single, embrace it! Be you and be an awesome you. You don’t need your partner to validate your self worth. You are worthy because you’re here. And if you are in a relationship, make sure it’s a healthy one. Make sure you have your own interests and truly want to be with the person you’re with. Above all else, in any relationship, make sure they respect you and see you as an equal, and not as some damsel in distress.
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