In November of 1989 Disney hit gold with The Little Mermaid, a coming of age princess story about a teenaged (mermaid) girl who is miserable living at home with an overbearing and controlling father, absent mother, a desire to see the “whole wide world” and what it has to offer, contrary to what she had been told. So, she sneaks out of the house and explores her surrounds, stumbles upon a handsome prince, falls in love, and only the boyfriend can help make the blow to her father that she is leaving home a little easier, but not really. In the end, the girl is independent from her father who comes to accept this and she is transferred over to a new man, younger man, who she is madly in love with. Of course, they live happily ever after.
Formula straight forward, right?
Disney tapped into this formula for many of their princess movies that followed: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Mulan. At the same time, these girls/princesses were shown as readers, warriors, care givers, independent, and wise. Hey, it was the 20th Century, post-1970s to be exact, so why not offer a pinch of women’s rights into the story-line mix.
Here we are 2013. I now have two little kids and probably see more kids movies than adult movies. Sitting in the theater yesterday, it hit me as we were watching Dreamwork’s The Croods: this is the same old story. Set in pre-historic times, we have a family with a teenage daughter who feels trapped and confined by her father and his beliefs. All she wants to do is “leave the cave.” So, late one night she sneaks out of the cave, drawn by some light — which happens to be controlled by some guy (his name is Guy). She follows and develops feelings for Guy and her father is angry, upset, and even jealous at times. Yes, she is strong (physically stronger than Guy), independent, adventurous, and angry at her father throughout the movie. BUT, it’s a guy who she develops feelings for who helps her to see the new world. In the end, everyone loves Guy and they all live happily ever after on a tropical beach.
As I sat in the dark movie theater I thought, “Hey, I’ve seen this before.” It’s not only The Croods that has tapped into the old Disney princess story formula. Last year’s Hotel Transylvania produced by Sony Pictures also borrowed the same story line using vampires, ghosts, and goblins. Even Disney Pixar’s Brave used the age-old princess formula to tell the story of an Irish princess, Merida, who rebels when her parents tell her it’s time for her to get married. Yes, there are more parts to the story that I am leaving out but when we strip it down to its bare bones, it’s the same formula.
The girls in the current movies are sassy, independent, and roll their eyes at their father constantly. I sit in the theater thinking, is this a ode to daughters saying go out into the world with your boyfriend and be happy. We trust you (and your new guy) in the end. OR is this the same confining message to girls to go out into the world, explore, and find your way but the fact of the matter is you still need a man with you, behind you, supporting you?
In my Media Literacy class I have a unit on deconstructing Disney. We study the critical lens of race, class, age and gender. Some of my students say, we are reading too much into the movies and others offer many examples or racism, sexism, ageism, and classism throughout the movie. One of the objectives of this unit is to teach critical thinking skills. I want my students to understand that there are multiple messages in the media that we consume and we need to be active viewers of media to understand the complexity of these texts.