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(Yasmina Martin)– We all have our guilty pleasures, whether it be watching “Gossip Girl”over winter break, reading “Cosmo” at the gym, or listening to awful, misogynistic rap and trying to ignore the lyrics (Eminem, anyone?) And then there are the books, movies, and songs that we enjoyed as children but now seem racist, stereotypical, or otherwise flawed. I could go through an entire list of childhood favorites that have serious issues in their plot lines, drawings, and depictions of minorities. Take Tintin for example. As a child I read every single one of the comics except for Tintin in the Congo, banned in the United States for obvious reasons. As a young child, I found no issue with Captain Haddock’s continual drunkenness or the stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans, Chinese people, Africans, and others as Tintin traveled around the world getting to the bottom of kidnappings and other crimes. Looking back, it’s not hard to see serious issues with the Tintin comics; because some were written during colonialist times (and by a Belgian, no less), they retain clear characteristics of the period-a latent paternalism, harmful stereotypes, and an eagerness to explore new “undiscovered” lands. Even more fascinating is TIntin’s global scope and appeal; the comics have been translated into over 100 languages, from Esperanto to Wolof to Quebecois French.
I’ve also gone through a “Disney” awakening. From its inception, Disney has been perpetuating hurtful stereotypes to our television screens and movie theatres. “Song of the South” was criticized for its depiction of a happy, beneficial relationship between master and slave, yet the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won an Oscar for Best Song in 1948. Worse yet, these issues haven’t disappeared over time. The problems with the Disney princesses are clear; they are often the “damsel in distress”, who need to have a prince to save the day, and if they can’t prove themselves otherwise, they have to “be a man” to gain any recognition for their own actions.
The changes in princess characteristics over the years highlight some shifts in how Disney represents women. Earlier princesses (Snow White, Cinderella) exhibit more apparent traits of traditional Western femininity and domesticity, relying heavily on the love of their princes and their time spent cleaning, finding glass slippers, and caring after dwarves. The “Little Mermaid” generation (which includes Pocahontas, Meg, and Mulan) moves a bit farther from this idea and introduce more complicated female characters like Mulan, who has to be both “strong” and “gentle.” These contrasting notions show a discomfort with presenting a woman as capable regardless of whether or not she has a man by her side. And when a woman is a warrior, heading on to the battlefield, she has to act as a male to win honor and respect. We have now entered a third age of Disney, the age of “Brave”, “Tangled” and “The Princess Frog.” The princesses may wear less pink, but how much has really changed? These films might be shaping young children’s ideas of what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.”
Is it dangerous for children to be exposed to these stereotypes and images at an early age? Psychiatric research has attempted to find out if these films can impose on children ideas of what is “good” and what is “evil”. A study revealed that out of 34 Disney films , almost 75% of films had some demonizing content or language that denoted a character as “evil”, “wicked” or a “devil.” Although there is no direct proof that these occurrences have any serious impact on children, the study did reveal that repeated viewings would most definitely influence how children interpret behavior and the types of demonizing vocabulary they use. When watching the films, “evil” characters are often depicted as darker skinned (Jafar, Scar, or the Shadow Man) or just oddly colored (Ursula and Hades)-in any case, they’re other-ed. By associating “evilness” with odd or darker colors, Disney greatly affects how young children react to these characters and colors outside the world of the film. These films can also cause nightmares for young children, especially when they’re trying to figure out the difference between the real and the imagined. The “Pink Elephant Parade” from Dumbo makes us wonder what they were thinking at the Disney offices when they thought it would be a good idea for children to see this:
“Brave” (2012), a joint Disney Pixar film, left the traditional formula of Princess-falls-in-love-with-prince-and-lives-happily-ever-after. In fact, Amanda Marcotte called the movie “shockingly radical for a mainstream movie.” The film focused on the Mother-Daughter relationship between Merida and Elinor, both living in medieval Scotland. Rebellious Merida (with wild, curly, red hair-definitely not an accident) refuses to get married off to some prince just to placate her father. Her story wasn’t defined by a male significant other, and it didn’t end in an unhappy marriage. The “don’t let men tell you what to do!” message of “Brave” rang loud and clear, but was it enough to combat what’s already prevalent in mainstream films, cartoons, and more? Although I found the film somewhat lacking, it was nice to see something new in the theater that wasn’t just a rehashed “Beauty and the Beast.” I feel that it’s too late to really change how young girls and children in general are affected by these glaring stereotypes, but films that follow the path of “Brave” could be part of an excellent and necessary shift. Maybe the times are changing for stereotyped depictions of women and minorities in Disney films.