Dear America, Can We Just Chill and Watch Disney Movies?

By Monday, February 01, 2016 , ,

I'm taking a plunge into a conversation where there are always a lot of opinions. Disney movies are a source of constant discussion and interest in popular culture, and I’ve been considering this topic for a while because overall, I love Disney movies. I grew up watching many of them and appreciate them even more now than I did as a child. So I’m irked when I hear them heavily criticized. They get heat from secular skeptics and conservative circles alike, and none of it sits well with me. Here’s what I often hear. 

A secular film critic will harp on how Disney movies teach young girls to be a pushover and that they need a man to rescue them. This cynical type of critic says to avoid fairytales because they encourage an unrealistic outlook on life. On the other hand, a conservative critic is often concerned that Disney movies encourage rebellion in children and tell them to embrace secular ideas like “follow your heart,” even if it means hurting others or ignoring your responsibilities. 

Now, any of these messages taken to an extreme are a problem. But when it comes to Disney movies, I think cynics and conservatives alike are upset about all the wrong things. Movies and art are powerful and we should certainly be discerning about what we put into our minds and our children’s minds. But so far, I’ve not encountered many Disney movies that I think are worth the concern expended over them. Obviously, I’m not a parent, but so far, I can’t see the harm in allowing an average, thinking child who can talk with his parents to see most popular Disney movies. In fact, I think there’s benefit to be gained from many of them. I’ll explain why with a few questions.
Photo Credit: Wall Sticker Outlet
1. In general, what are the Disney princesses like? 
Kind. Compassionate. Strong. Brave. Loving. Hopeful. Those are a few words that come to my mind. Cinderella doesn’t let her stepmother’s cruelty break her spirit and remains hopeful that better things are ahead for her. Belle sees past the Beast’s rough exterior and has compassion on him. Ariel risks her life to be with Eric and to save him. Tiana courageously chases her dreams when the odds are against her. Rapunzel is willing to sacrifice her freedom to guarantee the safety of the one she loves. Aren’t all of these good talking points? Isn’t there benefit to be had from watching main characters with these qualities? I’m not saying they’re all perfect. There are drawbacks to some of them, and parents should be discerning about how their particular child might handle a certain movie. I wasn’t allowed to watch The Little Mermaid until I was a little older because yes, Ariel is disobedient and has some wardrobe malfunctions. But those were talking points with my parents when I did watch it. The spiritualist themes in Pocahontas were also discussed and explained when we watched that one. But overall, Disney movies have great characters in them that can teach us a lot about sacrifice, love, and courage.

2. What’s the point of a fantasy story? 
There are a lot of possible answers to this question, but I don’t think many people would say, “To portray reality” or “To show people what real life is like.” Fantasy is meant to be just that – fantasy that offers a fun story to excite the imagination. When I watched Cinderella as a 4-year-old, sure, I would then proceed to marry the prince via playacting about 20 times a day, but I never actually believed that the perfect prince would show up in the future. Disney movies are clearly not based in reality – magic and songs and talking animals make that obvious, and any smart child should be able to figure out that this is pretend. And I’d argue that there’s value because it’s pretend. Actress Cate Blanchett, who played the wicked stepmother in the 2015 live action Cinderella, said in an interview that she purposely reads fairytales to her sons. Smiling, she said that modern stories for children often avoid conflict and sadness, but fairytales make clear that the world isn’t always a nice place and that you will face difficulties. It’s true too! In almost every Disney movie, the main characters have to overcome great obstacles. The acclaimed fantasy and apologetics writer C.S. Lewis also wrote in staunch defense of fairytales, saying they are beneficial and necessary for children. I love these excerpts from On Three Ways of Writing for Children

“Fairy stories do awaken desires in children, but most often it’s not a desire for the fairy world itself. Most children don’t really want there to be dragons in modern England. Instead, the desire is for ‘they know not what.’ This desire for ‘something beyond’ does not empty the real world, but actually gives it new depths. ‘He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.’” 

“Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Just because Beauty and the Beast is my favorite :)
3. Is it wrong to believe in love and hope? 
To that, I answer with an emphatic no. As previously mentioned, excess obviously shouldn’t be encouraged. If a 12 or 14-year-old is still pretending to marry the prince and entertaining fantasies about how a man will one day rescue her from everything boring, then yes, it’s time for an intervention. If a grown woman pins her hope and happiness on marriage, self-examination could be in order. But why encourage a cynical, bitter outlook on life? The harsh secular culture already strips us of our innocence quickly enough, so why quell the imagination and the belief in some goodness? Maybe we need to ask why we’re such a cynical culture in general. Just step back and consider why Disney movies are usually such hits. People flock to them. Doesn’t that say that maybe deep down, we want to believe what they’re telling us? That hope and true love and beauty are real and are worth fighting for? Though they give imperfect pictures, I think they do show us just a taste of what we were made for – unadulterated joy, perfect love, and happily ever after. Paul Miller wrote in his excellent book, A Praying Life

“Disney is right. Because of the intrusion of a good God into an evil world, there are happy endings.” 

And that happy ending is coming. And in the meantime, I don’t think there’s harm in watching a Disney movie that shows us both the difficulties of life and an ending that gives us a tiny glimpse of the best ending that’s in store for us. 

“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

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