In the event that anyone reading this somehow feels the need to take this entirely seriously, let me add a disclaimer: I am very likely one of the most sappy, romantically-minded, “happily-ever-after” loving chicks you’ll ever come across. I mean, I write romance (mainly), so it’d be pretty hard to be an entirely jaded and pessimistic person and want that gig. Plus, I may or may not have a soft spot for those cheesy Hallmark Channel Movies (more toward the ‘may’ end of that spectrum). Also, preemptive apologies, Disney. I do actually love you in all of your saccharine, idealistic, child-bride normalizing glory. So, no offense. I’ll continue to watch your movies and buy my daughters every toy version of every princess you’ve ever created.
I was recently watching “The Little Mermaid” with my daughters; a movie that I’ve seen about 50,000 times, because I was obsessed with it myself when I was young. I can still remember swimming with my sister, pretending we were mermaids and singing “Part of Your World” while practicing my dramatic hair flip as I shot out up out of the water. You know what I’m talking about, ladies, don’t pretend you didn’t try it.
For some reason-maybe because I now have ‘mom perspective’– this time it struck me how actually ridiculous the premise is. That thought caused me to think about the plots of all the other Disney Princess movies…which then triggered a mini existential crisis about what we’re all taught regarding love and relationships, including what my own daughters are in the process of learning. Yes, that escalated quickly. But, that’s how my mind works.
Our culture values ‘love’, and the idea of finding that “one true love”, above almost all else. It’s in pretty much everything we’re bombarded with from the beginning of our lives, sometimes blatantly but mostly subliminally. The easiest example being the classic fairytale stories we’re told when we’re little, which are quickly followed by: cartoons, drawing hearts on cards for our classmates-Valentines Day itself, those semi-creepy tween shows/movies on Disney, what we’re shown through our family structures, the celebrity couple-obsessed media we’re bombarded with, followed up by more movies and T.V. shows and novels…etc. The majority of which all show the flowery scenes of falling in love and living happily ever after; generally focusing on everything leading up to this budding romance and then stopping the narrative soon after it happens. Because happily ever after.
It’s why our first loves are usually so intense, so idealistic, so “OBVIOUSLY who I’m going to marry!” The problems begin to arise when what we innately expect to be true about romance and what our own romantic lives will look like, due to all of those above-mentioned things, meets reality. Now, I realize some of these first love relationships do stand the test of time. There are some people who have their idealistic expectations of romance met with something that is just like what they thought it would be, and it stays that way for both people involved. There are also some people who find out that the strange lump they’ve always had is actually the twin they absorbed in the womb. By the time most of us reach our late 20’s, both of these scenarios seem equally likely.
It is overtly ridiculous to expect a conflict-free existence when you’re trying to get two different human beings, especially a male and female who are so innately different by nature, to coexist together for a lifetime. Yet somehow, that is exactly what our society leads us to believe is the realistic expectation starting from when we are wee little idealistic people. We certainly didn’t see Cinderella and Prince Charming argue. Aurora and Prince Phillip didn’t appear to have any conflicting opinions. That being said, most people did grow up seeing their parents have arguments or disagreements, but what is more likely to be the thing that is set in our little brains before we developmentally have the ability to decipher real from make-believe? The shiny happy princess stories, of course.
We all know that fairy tales, romance novels, and movies peddle the “I know we just met for the first time but for some crazy cosmic reason I’m totally in love with you and we’re meant to be together forever” ideology. When it’s looked at for what it really is it’s laughable, in a ‘questionable mental health’ and slightly terrifying kind of way. This is the case with basically any Disney Princess movie ever made-but lets use our beloved ‘The Little Mermaid’.
There is Ariel: a generally obstinate, hormonally driven 16-year-old who starts the movie off by directly disobeying her father-despite his clearly realistic and understandable fear for her safety. (There is also her little sidekick Flounder ,who is totally that one friend we all had growing up who was a little skittish and attempted to offer ‘worst case scenario’ outcomes for what was being planned, but ended up just going along with whatever everyone else was doing anyway.) While up at the surface she see’s dreamy Prince Eric- the first human she’s ever actually seen-on a ship. During the extremely short amount of time she’s watching him (approx. 5 minutes) she decides she loves him. Mind you, at this point the entirety of what she knows about him is his physical appearance and the 15 words she heard him speak to his servant. I could go on about how she “saves his life” with literally no CPR whatsoever, but it’s Disney, so a song has the same effect.
Not that she needs further convincing, but this encounter solidifies her irrevocable love for him. She returns home where she adds a sunken statue of Eric to her collection of all the other random human crap she’s amassed (*cough* hoarder *cough*). Meanwhile, up on land Prince Eric is now also instantly in love with “the girl who saved him”…dude doesn’t even know what actually happened, or what ‘she’ looks like, but-as he might say if he were a teenager today-“dat voice tho.”
Following another angst-fueled song, she’s manipulated (without much effort) into asking the Sea Witch for help getting her man. Short version:
Ariel: “I just HAVE to be with Eric…I think that’s his name…anyway, I don’t care what it takes. I HAVE TO!”Sea Witch: “I get it, girl. He’s a looker. Just go ahead and give me your voice, sign this illegible contract that highlights how you’ll most likely end up my life-long slave, and switch species by having your tail ripped off and replaced with legs. Oh, and you won’t be able to breath under water anymore when it’s done, so you’ll have to swim on up a few thousand feet to make it to the surface before you drown.
Ariel: “Seems legit, and a boy is obviously worth it, I’m in!”
I’m sorry, what now? So now my impressionable daughters have just seen this Princess-who they want to emulate-volunteer to give up her body parts, risk death, and potentially never see her family members again all for the chance to see if this guy who she doesn’t even know might think she’s pretty enough (that’s all he’s going to have to go off of, clearly) to fall in love with.
Spoiler Alert: He falls in love with her. Must have been the way she brushed her hair with a fork and drove his cart like she stole it that sealed the deal. The point is, they spent three days together, during which they didn’t have a conversation or learn one thing about each other, yet somehow still knew they were in love. He then decided he was going to marry a totally different girl he just met, who also came out of no where, based on the fact that her voice sounded kind of like the one he remembered “the girl who saved him” having. But no problem, that righted itself pretty quickly. Just in time for Ariel and Eric to turn around and get married in what appeared to be the same ceremony he’d planned for that other chick. Also of not least importance, ARIEL WAS 16. Nope.
Now, combine that with all the other fairytale stories that basically follow the same ridiculous relationship patterns and timeline:
These two met at a ball that she wasn’t even allowed to go to. Granted, her evil stepmother wasn’t exactly an obedience-worthy figure, but still. So they knew each other for a few hours, during which he never even asked her name let alone any other identifying information, before she took off while mumbling about “midnight” in a way that made her look like she had a psychotic break. After this encounter he went on a kingdom-wide quest to find her, forcing every other woman there to try on a damn glass shoe (that somehow never broke), because he was 100% sure he needed to marry her. Luckily for him, she only needed those few hours to know she wanted to marry him as well, because that’s what happened. Right away. Like ya do at 19. Obviously.
This crazy Prince literally came upon her laying lifeless in a glass box. SHE WAS UNCONCIOUS. But she was “so beautiful” that he just had to give her a kiss. Okay, let’s make necrophilia seem acceptable, no problem. But, “true loves kiss” was all it took to counteract the medicinal-grade poison and bring her back to life. Immediately following their first interaction with each other EVER, the prince whisks her off to live with him in his castle and get married. Oh, and Snow White was 14 years old. One. Four. Don’t even get me started on the fact that she thought it was totally fine to live with seven strange men, or eat something a random disheveled vagrant offered to her. More quality life lessons for our daughters.
Here we have Princess Aurora’s parents throwing a party to celebrate her birth, during which the fairies all bestow her with lovely magical gifts. King and Queen “forgot” to invite the bad fairy Maleficent, who crashes the party anyway, and then decides to put a curse on little baby Aurora so that she’ll die on her 16th birthday. That escalated quickly. Fast forward to her 16th birthday, when she is frolicking in the forest and chatting with all of her animal friends (re-emerging pattern of psychotic breaks) and singing…there’s always singing.
Prince Phillip happens to be nearby and resolves to find whoever is singing…because, again, “dat voice tho.” They meet, sing a little ditty, and by the end of it they’re in love. This is a slight improvement from falling in love with someone who is unconscious- but not by much. Still no exchange of personal information, or any actual conversation that contributes to the ending up “in love.” He asks to see her again, so she goes ahead and tells him where she lives so he can come see her later that night. Come on. His horse might as well have been an unmarked, windowless van. Terrible idea. After some other stuff happens he finds her in yet another curse-induced coma but wakes her up with, you guessed it, ‘true loves kiss.’ Then they have short conversation, and then they get married. Natural next step.
Last one, but it’s a doozy…
Beauty and the Beast:
This one is actually my personal favorite Disney movie. Belle (17y/o) loves to read, is kind of the village black sheep, and gives zero F’s that the “hottest guy in town”-who every other girl is falling over-is interested in her. I like her.
The original story was actually written way back in the 1700’s, but the premise has been adapted over and over…and over. But no matter how the specifics might be changed, the general idea of the story remains the same. We have the man (the beast) who remains “unfixable” despite a history of various attempted interventions from countless other women/people/sources. In most versions of this tale, he’s a seemingly terrible person- or an actual beast as in Disney’s take- with extensive personality flaws and undesirable characteristics. Sign me up. This monster somehow always comes into contact with a woman who, by most accounts, is his polar opposite. Physically beautiful if he is grotesque, morally angelic if he is hedonistic, or perfectly untouched and virginal if he is a depraved sexual deviant.
Despite his myriad of issues, this “special” woman somehow manages to find reasons to stick around, all the while being on the receiving end of – lets call it like it is- basically abusive behavior. Disney’s “The Beast” assaulted Belle’s father, held him captive, and then manipulated her into switching places with him so she would become the captive. He then proceeded to scream at her while throwing things in his spontaneous fits of rage. No matter, there must be a cuddly bear in there somewhere! Perhaps if she just puts up with it long enough, or is special enough, she’ll break down that hard exterior and be his saving grace.
Another spoiler alert: that’s exactly how ‘Beauty and The Beast’ ends. She fixes him. He falls in love with her because she’s just so damn sweet and beautiful, and he literally changes from a hideous rageful animal into a handsome human prince. Because that’s how it usually goes in real life when you find yourself in a relationship with the anger issue-having “bad boy” isn’t it? But that is pretty much the exact B.S. theory that these kinds of stories serve up. Do I want my daughters growing up and thinking, “Wow, this guy is actually a bit of an ass hole…but you know what, I bet he just hasn’t met the right girl yet and I know I can be the one to change him!” More recently this story made another splash when it was re-gifted as “Fifty Shades of Grey.” In what reality would a girl be romantically thrilled if she were aggressively stalked, manipulated into agreeing to be tied up and whipped, and then told that she was preceeded in this arrangement by fifteen other girls? Yes, I said it. I don’t like that I had to, but I did. Don’t get mad at me, get mad at Disney.
In the spirit of fairness, there are a few exceptions to this insanity in the more recently made Disney movies, thank God. Take ‘Frozen’, for example. Initially you believe that Princess Anna and Prince Hans have just had the usual “love at first sight” meet-cute only to find out at the end of the movie that he was actually a lying, manipulative, opportunistic, self-centered Narcissist that was still living with his parents and was using her for a way out. Clearly at least one of the writers was grounded, because if that ain’t a true-to-life scenario I don’t know what is. Also, the ‘true loves kiss’ that ends up solving all the problems comes from Elsa, her sister, not the other male love interest Kristoff. He actually doesn’t end up really helping anything. More realism. Good on ya for that one, Disney.
Now for the flip. I love a good flip. Despite all of that realist-inspired breakdown and parental concern, I’m still going to watch Disney movies with my girls. I’m still going to take them to Disney World and let them dress like their favorite princesses, and I’m still going to read them the contrived, happily-ever-after stories. But why, you ask, after all of that am I now saying this? Well, because although I do believe “all of that”, I also believe that our world needs to have some idealist-driven, although maybe unrealistic, fantasy to aspire to. Real life is hard. Real relationships take work. The ones that end up being healthy and lasting do anyway. But my three and five-year olds don’t know that yet. They don’t need to know that yet. They just need to be able to wear sparkly dresses with tiaras, hear stories about love that have happy endings, and hold onto that idealism just a bit longer. (Not that I won’t be sure to temper all that with some truth-bombs once they’re old enough to understand.)
I, on the other hand, don’t read romance novels (I’m a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ fan, FYI) and watch Hallmark movies because I’m obliviously idealistic. I’m not currently attempting to write a romance novel of my own because I actually believe everyone gets a happily ever after. I do those things because they make me feel happy. In those hours that I’m watching a movie or reading a book it’s those worlds I’m living in, and in those worlds everyone DOES get the happily ever after.
So I guess there are a few different morals of this story (which ended up to be far longer than I’d anticipated): Make sure your children learn to differentiate between fiction and reality; strive to be a healthy mix of optimistic AND idealistic…in a realist-inspired cautious way; and, very obviously, do not look to Disney movies (pre 1995) to provide those aforementioned children with any applicable life lessons or cautionary tales.