Disney absolutely played a part in shaping my childhood. From Pride Rock to Grandmother Willow, Disney has taught me many lessons and has helped fuel my imagination for many years.
As a young adult, I can better understand the hefty moral messages (as well as the subtle ones) Disney inserts into its films; as a child I didn’t quite comprehend it. I do not believe Disney is absolutely evil now that I know more about it, but I do know that there are some unpleasant and frustrating characteristics it displays in many of its movies. For one thing, as a female who is much more aware of my own societal gender role and general sexism than I was as a child, it is a little more than saddening to see how Disney tends to portray female characters. Though traditional gender roles for women have been changing with more recent Disney films (such as Mulan and The Princess and the Frog), there can be no doubt that little girls dressing up as Disney princesses for Halloween are merely aspiring to be pretty and, well, not much else. Rather than values of working hard to achieve goals, young girls are taught to wish upon a star for their dreams to come true, which most of the time consist of finding true love and then living happily ever after. Instead of being portrayed as courageous heroines, most early Disney princesses/females are displayed as one dimensional characters embodying femininity, delicacy, grace or kindness. Though these are not necessarily bad characteristics, they lack the values that most of the male counterparts hold: courage, sacrifice, honor or independence.
Some of the later films, like the ones I already mentioned, do make changes in the roles of females, as reflected by the changes in the roles of females in American society. In Mulan, the main character is a female who risked her life joining the military in a country with very strict laws about women, especially within the military. In The Princess and the Frog, the main character is a female who works hard to get what she wants and has dreams of being a success in her own right. Both of these examples show a positive shift in how women are viewed as active participants in their lives rather than as passive voyeurs.
Now, as a shift from the grim aspects of sexism, two Disney movies that affected me more positively: Pocahontas and The Lion King. Both films heavily influenced how I viewed nature and, to the extent that a child can understand it, love.
From the time I was very small, I had had a sort of connection with animals. I felt a certain pull towards nature. I felt that everything around me was alive in some way, had some sort of life to it similar, if not the same as, the life I myself had. I knew that plants grew and flowers could sprout and die, and I viewed them as though they were like animals, and like me. When a flower withered and fell to the ground on our front walk, I thought that the other flowers must feel sad, must feel some sort of pain at the loss of another. I believed they could feel. I believed the trees could feel the pain of me ripping new leaves off of them, and I felt guilty every time I did. I had to apologize. I couldn’t be mean.
Upon seeing both Pocahontas and The Lion King, I became even more connected to nature. I used to run around outside picking leaves and mashing up berries in the hollows of trees. I liked to alternate; sometimes I could be human, and sometimes I could be an animal. I loved the ferocity of lions and the free spirit of Pocahontas. I wanted to have that freedom and that power. And of course, who can resist this genius? To this day I am affected by it. I want to travel to Africa and see a sun like that.
Pocahontas made me dislike white European imperialistic settlers and long to be a Native American. I didn’t know then how much I would learn about race and history, over and over again, and how much learning about these things would continually reaffirm my anger and sadness at the truth of Pocahontas’s story.
Pocahontas also, albeit historically inaccurate, introduced me to the idea of love. This connection between two people from two completely different worlds was the only one out of all the Disney films that captivated me. It wasn’t just that a princess found a handsome prince who she had been waiting for. It wasn’t just a bond between friends that grew into something more. They were two completely different people who had no intention of finding love. Sure, there was the usual “father pushes daughter to marry well-to-do man even though she doesn’t love well-to-do man and has many reasons for having no desire to marry him”, but Pocahontas was an independent character. Jon Smith also seemed independent for his part, but we saw much more into Pocahontas’s character than his (another aspect of the movie that I liked).
Of course, there is also the more obvious race difference. As a child, like many others, I did not fully understand the implications of race and interracial interactions. But I had always thought Pocahontas to be the most beautiful of all the Disney heroines. She was so connected to her surroundings and so spirited; I wanted to be just like her. I was happy that she and Jon Smith were in love, because it meant that people who looked different could be together. It meant even though I was white maybe I wouldn’t be seen as terrible and maybe someone like Pocahontas would accept me, and maybe I could fall in love with someone different from me.
Of course, I now know that these things are definitely true. But when I had no other examples to follow, Pocahontas guided me. This is not to say that I had racist parents or anything like that; it’s just an example of the power of cinema and visual representation of love and how it can truly impact a child.
Pocahontas was what I thought was the perfect unity between humans and nature, and I felt angry that no one else seemed to understand this. Still I ask myself and others, “Why do people insist on destroying the link that connects us to nature?” The theme of connection is something that has stayed with me, and not just through Disney films; through life experiences, family, friends, everything.
I still believe we’re all, in some way or another, connected to each other.