Spellbound: Power, parenting and the perils of the Magic Kingdom

When stories are shared with impressionable audiences, where does responsibility begin and end?

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The fresh-faced young maiden is easily disarmed. Still, the juicy red apple does look very enticing. And the face behind it, creaking with old age, exudes warmth and wisdom.

Little wonder the angelic brunette accepts the gift. She’s been through hell, and has clearly missed the parental lecture about never trusting strangers. Naivety proves an unforgiving mistress though. For the fruit Snow White takes from the old women is laced with poison, and she is trapped in a coma from which she’s not supposed to wake.

Did the world of children’s entertainment fall under a similarly insidious spell back in 1937, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a box office smash? In the 77 years since Disney’s first animated feature, the brand has become an insatiable cultural phenomenon. Yet to many it is cinema’s wicked stepmother, a power-hungry, money-making ogre anaesthetising innocent children with its ersatz blend of superficial magic and questionable values.

The contaminated apple?

The case for the prosecution is that Disney has limited children’s imaginations, garnered a formidable track record for stereotyping races and genders, promoted sexualised, passive and impossibly perfect images of females, portrayed marriage as the ultimate end-game in happiness, and followed through on its corrupting agenda with an aggressively sophisticated one-two of make-believe theme parks and merchandise. Truly, it is the contaminated apple which every innocent yearns to bite.

To many this over-simplified view of good and evil is part of the problem: we all know the world doesn’t really work like that. Yet what fairy tale doesn’t polarise its heroes from its villains?

As father to a four-year-old girl, I used to wrestle with the Disney dilemma whenever the iconic castle sparkled onto my TV screen. Was her tender mind being subtly brainwashed into believing in a non-existent world of happily ever afters? A place where heroines can only find truly completeness by landing a man? Where such characters are always hourglass beautiful? And where there’s a Fairy Godmother who’ll magically dissolve your troubles when times are hard?

After much deliberation, I’ve decided such worries are misplaced, more projections of natural parental anxiety than any sinister plot by The Walt Disney Company to repress half the world’s population. Truth be told, the Magic Kingdom is simply doing what grown-ups have done for centuries, taking aeons-old fairy tales and revitalising them for the audiences and appetites of the day.

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Concentration of power

To many this over-simplified view of good and evil is part of the problem: we all know the world doesn’t really work like that. Yet what fairy tale doesn’t polarise its heroes from its villains, aware of how young minds aren’t ready to chew over too much moral ambiguity? Narratives like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are allegories more than anything else, bildungsroman alerting children to the world’s viciousness and reminding them they don’t have to succumb to vanity or temptation.

Like many global success stories, Disney is just shrewdly following the logic of modern capitalism which inevitably concentrates power in the hands of those who have the knack of giving consumers what they want.

Such a traditional approach doesn’t make them old-fashioned either. Indeed, you could argue such tales slyly subvert conservative values. If stable families are the source of all wellbeing, it’s truly miraculous children of broken homes like Cinderella and Tangled’s Rapunzel are so well-adjusted.

Equally, to take Disney to task for cultural imperialism is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. Like many global success stories, Disney is just shrewdly following the logic of modern capitalism which inevitably concentrates power in the hands of those who have the knack of giving consumers what they want.

And to its credit, Disney has done that for decades. When I revel in the brilliance and wit of Toy Story 3, I’m reminded how and why I came to love movies in the first place. The Magic Kingdom proved a gateway that’s taken me from Spielberg to Hitchcock to Lang. And what sane film fan would deny their daughter that?

Managed not misunderstood

As parents our job is not to let films educate our children, but to educate our children about films. When you look past the abundant opportunities for subtext in any Disney film (and any fairy tale for that matter), their central message is usually the same. Through loyalty and friendship, you can overcome adversity, take personal responsibility and use it for the collective good.

To denounce the brand is to make it a forbidden fruit, give it more power than it actually deserves and ultimately to forget that the art of parenting is one of moderation rather than control

Besides, things have come a long way since the poisoned apple. Disney’s latest snow queen is Elsa, the socially-withdrawn anti-heroine of Frozen. An independent woman in a land of ineffectual, judgmental men, she learns how to turn her curse into a blessing, taking part in the world rather than running away from it. True to herself (and happily unmarried), she ends the film with a greater sense of duty towards her citizens.

Disney has a similar duty towards its customers, just like parents have a duty towards their children. The lesson of Walt’s world is that magic powers must be managed, not misused or misunderstood. To denounce the brand is to make it a forbidden fruit, to give it more power than it actually deserves and ultimately to forget that the art of parenting is one of moderation rather than control.

So when my daughter twirls across the lounge in full-blown Elsa-mode – confident, empowered, expressing herself, happy in the moment – I remember that good cinema is good cinema no matter who made it. And that as a Dad, sometimes the wisest thing you can do is just Let It Go.

The Links

What can modern girls learn from Disney princesses? Cherry Wilson, BBC News, 22 July 2017

The controversy behind Disney’s groundbreaking new princess Tom Brook, BBC Culture, 28 November 2016

Why Disney princesses and ‘princess culture’ are bad for girls Rebecca Hains, The Washington Post, 24 June 2016

The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales Ellen Handler Spitz, The New Republic, 28 December 2015

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