One day I’m going to write a book about how the Disney empire has deconstructed classic European fairy tales, gutted them of their dark and beautiful lessons, and supplanted them with the most progressively noxious, neo-romantic tripe ever conceived.
Consider this: after nearly 80 years since Disney’s classic animated film Snow White debuted in 1937, we have 73% of Americans believing in a soul mate, according to a 2011 Marist public opinion poll. 80% of those under the age of 30 and 78% of those 30 to 44 believe in the idea of soul mates, compared with 72% of residents 45 to 59 years old and 65% of those 60 and older. 74% of men and 71% of women believe in finding the perfect partner. (You can read the source article at http://maristpoll.marist.edu/210-its-destiny-most-americans-believe-in-soul-mates/.)
I grew up wishing I had Sleeping Beauty’s hair. I prayed “God bless Snow White and the Handsome Prince” every night at bedtime, and I may or may not have made my dad and the boy next door play the part of the handsome price when I was three. I will neither confirm nor deny “Some Day My Prince Will Come” played at my wedding reception (but if it did play, everyone had the decency not to turn it into a “wedding night” joke).
Of course I believed in soulmates.
When I was in my early twenties, I dated a guy who was quite a bit older than me. He was a very decent man, rather philosophical and religious like me, and having had more time in the world than I did, he vigorously challenged my belief in soul mates. He said a soul mate is not someone you search for and find, but something you become to each other, together, over time.
He said a lot of things like that, most of which I completely disregarded because in my early twenties I still believed I knew everything. Long story short, we weren’t soul mates – not the kind you find, nor the kind you become. In spite of our differing romantic philosophies, I was naive enough to believe he was “the one” because of how I felt when I was with him. As far as “23-year-old Christy” was concerned, we were made for each other, and the fact that he couldn’t see it was a painful disappointment.
What freedom I found when I finally released my belief in soulmates and embraced his philosophy that love is a choice supported by action. It meant he wasn’t “the one.” Not only was that okay with me, it was a true relief. It meant I got to have some say in who “the one” is, and isn’t, based on our actions rather than our feelings. I got to choose. That’s not what Disney taught me.
My intention is not to bash all things Disney or romantic. I love Disney. I have wonderful memories of my childhood princess fantasies (even if they were like crack to a baby love-junkie). I’m also thrilled that Disney has produced some modern animated stories with strong female princess characters and beautifully crafted music that engages my daughters’ imaginations. If I have any complaint, it’s to protest the rampant merchandising that has all but taken over toy stores.
I also love romance; I believe otherwise healthy intimate relationships are incomplete without it. Whole industries are dedicated to keeping the spark alive, whether it’s a pseudo-religious marriage strengthening program like Marriage Builders, books like the famed “Men Are From Mars” franchise and “Love Languages” series, or a personal boudoir photography session or trip to the local adult toy store.
One of the miscalculations I made going into marriage (after I tossed the baby out with the bath water and gave up romance along with soulmates) was not fully appreciating both the importance and potential of romantic connection, or the lack of it. I boycotted my first Valentine’s Day as a married woman because I was so let down by our first few months of sharing a home together. Not one of my better choices, I admit. I was still in my ego-driven twenties. That girl was a mess.
I got my first valentine gift as a divorced woman last year from my fella (chocolate infused tea and frog tea strainer, perfecto!), and the emotional high still pays dividends. Every time I make that tea, I get warm all over. That’s partly because gift-giving is one of my primary love languages. But it’s also because I stopped wanting a man to be my perfect fantasy of a soul mate and instead started accepting men, and myself, for who and what we are, and what we aren’t. This is not the kind of storytelling formula you’ll see in a Disney film (although I think Brave and Frozen take steps in the right direction).
I have several mommy friends on opposing ends of the liberal/conservative pendulum who go to great lengths in protecting their daughters from having a princess complex. Not that I blame them. Princesses are weak, selfish, immature, love-crazed sexual objects, right?
Actually, the Disney princess is rarely any of those things, with the exception of being the object of her prince’s desire. Disney does, however, serve up some fairly predictable character types: attractive female protagonists who are socially rejected, isolated, rebellious, or don’t fit in (Aurora, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Mulan, Rapunzel, Tiana, Merida, Elsa & Anna) and male “prince” characters who are either loveable rogues (Aladdin, the Beast, Flynn Rider, Prince Naveen) or idealized to the point of stereotype (Prince Phillip, Prince Charming, Prince Eric, Captain Li Shang, Gaston, and Hans). Kristoff is the only “average guy” Disney male protagonist I’ve seen. Still, his theme song is all about being a “fixer upper.” The problem isn’t so much the message about princesses, but the messages about princes and true love. At best, the modern Disney princess films send mixed messages about accepting men for who they are yet “improving” them with just a little love.
This set-up apparently sells, probably because it reflects our American culture. Society pays lip service to admiring the strong female, as long as she’s easy on the eyes and is just enough of a victim that she needs saving or is somehow incomplete without a prince by her side. We like the underdog or victimized female because at some point in our lives most women have felt rejected, isolated, and that we didn’t fit in, no matter how well we clean up after emerging from the awkward tween years. And many of us have been emotionally if not physically abused. The Disney princess is relatable.
Our society also glorifies the handsome ramblers who are “diamonds in the rough” and just need the love of a “good woman” to polish them up. Or, on the flip side of that coin, we expect our princes to live up to impossibly high standards. I’m surprised more men aren’t offended by the portrayal of their gender in Disney films. They should be.
The Disney plots follow a formula, too. Princess and Prince fall in love; the rogue or royal proves himself worthy by doing battle against a foe who is usually the personification of anything that would separate the two lovers; there is some sort of deception on the part of one of the lovers which must be brought to light and forgiven; but after a successful battle with the forces of evil, they live happily ever after with singing birds and magical rainbows.
We who grow up with that storyline repeated season after season carry this expectation into the lifelong commitments we make with the opposite sex (or maybe the same sex; I don’t know how it works for gay and lesbian folks). Women get married believing their men will change, and men get married believing their women won’t change. It’s a modern joke too true to be funny. We equate marriage with unconditional love, while at the same time equating love with feelings that are in fact capricious and conditional, dependent on the actions of our beloved, who is human. And if he’s a “diamond in the rough” variety, in real life he’s likely to be a heartbreaker. Literally.
If you hunt down the source materials for the most of the Disney princess fairy tales, you’ll find stories that bear little resemblance to their animated versions. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was not wakened by true love’s first kiss; she was raped in her sleep, gave birth to twins as a result of that union, and awakened when they sucked a poison flax seed out of her finger. Rapunzel was all but abandoned by her biological mother to the witch, who in turn abandoned the young woman in the wilderness when she naively became pregnant while locked in the tower. Snow White wasn’t awakened by love’s first kiss, either; the prince tripped while he and the dwarves were carrying her glass coffin, and the piece of poison apple dislodged from her throat. And Cinderella’s father may well have been an accomplice in his daughter’s abuse, along with his wife and horrid stepdaughters.
Protesters were voraciously vocal when Disney reinterpreted the Pocahontas story and turned it into a romance. Where is the defense of the brothers Grimm?
Beauty and the Beast is subtlety and exceptionally different from its Disney counterpart. The Disney version plays right into the modern American myth that the love of a good and beautiful woman can transform an ugly and difficult man into the prince hiding within. In the real story, the beast is indeed physically ugly, but he is unfailingly kind, and a bit dull, and it is Belle who changes from someone who judges those closest to her based on superficial appearances to a discerning soul who learns the hard way to see things as they are and to appreciate loyalty and affection over her unrealistic expectations. The story is the epitome of what it means to become soul mates over time.
My favorite, though, is The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. Disney’s re-entry into full length animated moviemaking was a charming and beautifully crafted romantic tale with a happy ending. The real story is a layer-after-layer, heart-rending tragedy about unrequited love. And although the ending offers redemption, it comes at great personal sacrifice. The Little Mermaid is the antidote to every Disney storyline. Even though it is fantasy, it gets closer to the truth of what often happens when mismatched people become fixated on an illusion of what they think they want.
Like the animated Ariel, the little mermaid does save her prince in the storm, and does trade her beautiful voice for legs. What the Disney version leaves out is that when she uses those legs, it is like walking on knives. The prince adores his “little foundling” as he calls her, but he loves her as a sister because his heart is in love with the woman he mistakenly believes to have saved him – a temple girl who he never expects to see again. Without a voice, she cannot tell him the truth. The little mermaid is willing to endure excruciating pain, not to mention exile from her family under the sea, and settles for a platonic relationship with the prince until he discovers that his “temple girl” is actually the princess to which his parents have betrothed him. He marries with great joy while the little mermaid awaits certain death when her prince marries, because she did not win true love’s kiss. Her sisters in their great compassion trade their beautiful hair for a knife that the little mermaid can use to kill the prince on his wedding night and thus rejoin her family under the sea. She can’t do it. She would rather sacrifice her own life for his happiness than kill him to save her life. But at dawn, she discovers she has not died, but has become like an angel, a “daughter of air” who can earn a soul and immortality because of her act of selfless love.
Romantic love was only what the little mermaid thought she wanted. What she truly wanted was to have a soul. And mermaids don’t have souls. They can only get a soul by winning the love of a human. Like so many of us, she believed romantic love would be the means to satisfying her deepest longing, and like many of us, she was completely wrong. She abandoned her greatest talent and gave up her very identity, just to win a hopelessly unsuitable man’s affection. He wasn’t bad, just dense. Yet her choices and her sacrifice ultimately won her heart’s true desire – a path to immortality. I doubt Disney could pull that one off, and I don’t fault them for not even trying.
I can’t wait to share the real Little Mermaid with my own “daughters of air.” And the other tales as well. They may not be as palatable as their Disney counterparts, but the original fairytales give us soul-guiding lessons about love and life that we need now more then ever.