Movie Muses: Disney Princesses Have Sucky Home Lives

The last two weeks have been about new movies, and as much as I’d love to use this series as an excuse to continue to watch a new film every week, time and money are not on my side. One thing I had intended to do this month, though, is talk about a couple of older movies that I rewatched.

Before I do that, I want to say that nostalgia is a very dangerous emotion. We reflect on places, experiences, books, movies, etc that we once knew and loved and they become an ideal in our mind – the most perfect of perfect places/ experiences/ books/ movies/ whatever – and if we ever dare to return to that about which we feel so nostalgic, we run a very large risk of being disappointed, or at least disillusioned in some way. The fact is, we change and so our tastes and interests change; we mature, and what we loved when we were younger does not always come with us into maturity.

Fortunately, this is not always the case and many times, when we return to something we loved, it is just as lovable, if not more so, than when we left it. But sometimes, it looks just a little different.

When I decided to watch some old Disney movies, I was feeling especially nostalgic.  The two that I watched were The Little Mermaid, which has been my favorite since I was very little, and Beauty and the Beast, which comes in a close second. I’m a fan of the princesses who actually have some courage, some intelligence, and some personality (aka, I really don’t like Cinderella or Snow White).  Ariel and Belle have always been my favorites.

little mermaid ariel tritonWatching these two movies was an experience.  First of all, I wasn’t sure whether to be more disturbed or pleased that I knew nearly every song, word for word.  Second, I was startled to find that both princesses looked quite a bit… well… younger.  When Ariel pointed out that she was “sixteen years old – not a child!” I felt a little weird. After all, she gets married at the end of the movie… at sixteen!!!   And as I continued to watch these movies (and I did enjoy them!) I began to realize that there were some aspects of them that Younger Me simply did not pick up on. (Did you know that Flounder isn’t actually a flounder? All of my illusions are shattered.)

One defining aspect of both of these films is the lack of a stable home environment, something that is a common factor among all Disney princess movies, actually.  Now, I’ll say right now that the point of this post is not to claim that Disney movies are evil and children shouldn’t watch them because I like them and I have no problem with them in general.  What I want to focus on is the interesting pattern that these stories follow and to ponder the how’s and the why’s.

First of all, in the usual way of Disney fairy tales, neither Ariel nor Belle has a mother.  In their cases, they do not have to deal with evil step-mothers, which is a plus, but they have very interesting relationships with their fathers instead.  Watching this as an adult, one thing I realized, which is obvious now but would not have been to a child, is that the parents are not made to be admired.  We are supposed to root for the princess and so her parent is set up as an obstacle or complications in her rise to greatness.

little mermaid ariel ericAs a child, it never really occurred to me that Ariel was doing anything particularly wrong when she followed her dreams (come on! following dreams is what princesses do!), but when I watched the movie, I realized that she literally forgets or ignores every single thing her father asks or tells her to do, from attending a major concert as the lead singer to fraternizing with those evil fish-eating humans.  Her reason?  She’s sixteen!  Clearly old enough to make her own decisions.  Her father comes across as tyrannical and while he loves his daughter, he just doesn’t understand her.  The ultimate resolution to this tense relationship comes when he finally gives in to her wishes.

Okay, so maybe I’m moralizing just a little bit here, but I do think it is a little strange that our instinct is to rejoice in this reconciliation. The father is wrong about everything and Ariel gets everything she wanted with no apparent consequences.  There is no acknowledgment of mistakes on both sides, just a new “understanding” on the part of her father.  He now recognizes, as Sebastien points out, that “Children should be free to lead their own lives.”

beauty and the beast belle's fatherIn Beauty and the Beast, we have a much better relationship between the father and daughter in that each wants to save the other and there is clearly genuine love and affection.  But what we end up with in this story is a scholarly, clever, independent daughter who is left defending the actions of her old, foolish father.  He may be an inventor, but he’s not very bright.  The movie portrays him as a loving, but silly man who mostly just needs saving.   And, once again, because he is clearly the lesser intellect between the two, Belle does not listen to him and does not let him sacrifice himself for her.  Instead, she makes the decision and stays with the Beast.  It was very, very noble!  But when you think about it, it is a little backwards.  (Jasmine relationship with her father in Aladdin is a very similar example – and he’s in charge of an empire!)

belle-father-locked-up-300x249For both of these movies, the important child-parent dynamic is between the daughter and the father, in one case a matter of rebellion against a parent who just doesn’t understand and in the other a case of father who needs saving from his own foolish decisions.  In neither of these movies is the missing mother mentioned.  Whether she is dead or gone doesn’t appear to matter.  I find it interesting as well that neither daughter looks remotely like her father.  Therefore, these girls must take after their mothers, and yet those mothers are nowhere to be seen.  These films portray powerful, independent, clever young ladies whose bravery and self-sacrifice are admirable, but they utterly lack relationships of mutual respect with even the parent who is left, and the one with whom we presume they might most identify is absent.

Fairy tales with missing or abusive parents are quite normal, of course.  The hero(ine) needs something to overcome or needs to prove him/herself.  Children in healthy, supportive two-parent homes just don’t strike us as needing to improve their situation quite so much.  They don’t gain our sympathy right away.  They also don’t have an immediate motivation to go out and leave their perfectly nice homes to seek their fortunes.  A bad home is a concise and simple way to kick the child out the door and set them on their path to greatness. In the process, however, a somewhat negative stereotype has formed.

I don’t want to end with a generalizing statement claiming that I don’t think Disney films should be watched (I still love them!), but the environment characters are placed in is something to consider when you read or watch or write a story.  Where are the parents?  What role do they play?  Do they really need to come from a broken home, or could the hero(ine) just as easily be drawn into an adventure with both a mother and father watching anxiously from the window?  When a book or movie portrays parents (or adults in general) as cruel or foolish or absent, it does allow the children to rise up as the heroes, which for a story about children or young people is important; however, it might also perpetuate a view of adults as being generally cruel or foolish or absent, and as being not worth listening to.

What are your thoughts on these stories?  How much should we read into the parent-child relationship and what can we learn from this in regards to our own writing?  How should adults be portrayed in children’s literature or in fairy tales?

And the all-important question: Which Disney film is your favorite?


About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on November 20, 2013, in Children's Literature, Disney, Fairytales, Film, Humor, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Beauty and the Beast gets my vote too, for a feisty leading lady. Mulan and Pocahontas try just a little too hard in the gender department, but still a step forward from the dewy-eyed princesses waiting to be rescued in some earlier Disney movies.

  2. This is why I encourage the reading of the original fairy tales, not just the Disney-fied versions. In the original Little Mermaid, Ariel dies at the end. Little children, the moral is that chasing your dreams is dangerous, selfish, and WRONG! You shouldn’t do it.

    Also, listen to your Uncle Walter: “”They all died, young lady. Horrible and most likely painful death. You see, when you open new doors, there is a price to pay. Now imagine… tonight, you look under your bed, and, lo and behold, you find a monster! And you’re immediately eaten. Now, if you hadn’t looked for the monster, you wouldn’t have found it and you’d still be happy in your beds, instead of being slowly digested in the stomach sack of the creature. But, with any luck, your sister or your brothers might have heard your screams, and your endeavor will serve as a valuable lesson to them.”


    • The originals are fascinating and I like that the storytellers of earlier days were not squeamish about death, violence, and sadness when it was necessary to tell a good story.

      I wrote a story once about the monsters in the closets and under the beds. It actually came out pretty creepy. They’re THERE!

  3. I always wondered about Belle’s mother. Also, I do like Mulan in the sense that she did have a fully intact family, mom and dad, who remained intact at the end of the movie. She had a grandmother, even. Of course, my absolute favorite Disney movie is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Quasimodo has a completely sucky home life, given that Frollo murdered his mother, nearly dropped him down a well, and then raised Quasi himself on the off-chance the guy might be useful to him. Yipes.

    • Yes! I should have given Mulan credit where credit was due. She had two perfectly sound and sensible parents, plus an adorable grandmother, and she came back to them in the end. I think Mulan’s story goes to show that it is possible for a stable home environment to actually be just as motivating to the princess as the lack of one for going out into the world.

  4. I agree with your reasoning as to why such adventure stories usually include missing or broken family lives (or the loss of home at the beginning, as with Star Wars). I’ve no objection to the practice so much as to the rarity of the alternative.
    That is why I found Pixar’s Brave to be very refreshing. Sure, the father in that is rather foolish (though loving) but there is an actual living mother! And an actual exploration of a mother-daughter relationship in which both parties learn from one another and change. I was astonished, simply because that kind of story is so rare.
    So, sometimes the path-well-traveled is the right one for a story, but I do think we need a little more of those less-traveled paths.

    • I did really like Brave (although a large part of that is probably because I’m so partial to Scotland!), and I liked that it was daughter/mother rather than daughter/father that formed the central tension and resolution. I do wish that Merida had been just a little less bratty, but in a sense, she is probably the most realistic of the princesses as a result of her attitude!

      Flouting convention just for the sake of flouting convention is dangerous because that’s not quite enough of a reason for a story, but I do really like when stories take a stereotype and play with it, just to see what would happen IF… Some really creative stories come out that way.

      • Merida’s brattiness would have bothered me a lot more if she hadn’t learned a valuable lesson through the course of the story. Gaining respect and understanding for her mother, and repairing the bond between the two of them, is what saved her as a character.

        Ah, the first part of that sentence was as important as the last. I do not suggest flouting convention simply for the sake of flouting it. The story needs what it needs, and I really do not like reading tales where the need to be “different” makes the story feel forced.
        What I advocate is thought. Noticing the conventions and patterns, having an awareness of them, is the first step in thoughtful narrative choices. I also love stories that take known patterns and stereotypes and play with them, and that is the mode I generally take in my own writing. The most important thing for me, tough, is what the story and the characters need. In that regard, I usually just let the characters tell me, but sometimes I do look at a situation and think “that stereotype, at least, I can avoid and it will make the story more interesting.”

        I’ve been meaning, for a long while, to write a post about this. Maybe it’s time to do so.

        • I agree about Merida. I liked her as a very strong character and perhaps a lot more real than many of the others because of her brattiness. I mean, how many girls do we know who have to overcome that character trait in their teen years? And she does so, which is nice to see.

          And you should write a post about stereotypes! It’s a pet peeve of mine. I’ve written on it off and on. I love writing stories that play with stereotypes to see what happens when we turn them inside out or upside down. In our recent anthology release, I have a story about the “chosen one in high school” cliche.

  5. My favourites too! I love Disney.
    sadly though, both Belle and Ariel are
    totally codependent female
    Characters. They feel the need to save people in their lives or feel bound to conform.
    Unfortunately, in reality, the beast never changes into a prince no matter how hard you try. Many relationships fail for this very reason.
    Belle and Ariel’s codependence is of a different nature with their parents. They are bound to their parents and don’t feel free to lead the lives they wish and end up looking for disfunctional men or unavailable men as partners. Unlike reality, Disney provides the happy ending.
    That’s what fairy tales are for though it would seem. To aid children and expose them to adult issues in a magical and non threatening way. Although perhaps Disney enforces the problems rather than warns of the problems as the original fairy tales do.

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