When I was little, my mom used to call me “Princess Fiona,” and I never asked why until one day my curiosity got the best of me, and I finally did. Her answer surprised me. She said that growing up, my favorite princess had always been Princess Fiona, and when she’d asked me why, I’d responded, “because Princess Fiona loved Shrek even though he was green and grumpy and people called him ugly.” That’s when it all made sense.
So I began to fill in the blanks for myself.
In the end, I decided that no matter how false, misleading, or stereotypical we accuse DreamWorks, Pixar, and Disney of being, their movies do have value. I get it. Times are changing, and we’re seeing the flaws of older animations: the impeccable, almost unattainable beauty of the princesses; their “anorexic” figures; the (“totally false”) riding into the sunset happily ever after endings; the list goes on…
But before turning right to Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind to prove me wrong, I’d like to suggest that children, no matter how perceptive, don’t see the world the way that we do unless (or these days—until) they are taught to. Their thinking just isn’t as complex or self aware; they’re children! I was a child. All of us were once children. We should know.
I know I didn’t feel beaten down, disgusted, or shaken up after watching a Disney movie growing up. My six year old mentality was entirely void of doubt, wariness, insecurity, and all those other “emotion monsters” that often try to get to us. Nope, I always saw the hope in a happy ending, the power of true love, the magic of real friendship. And none of that prevented me from growing up to realize that life and love take hard work and sacrifice. I get that happy endings are often destined to be redefined over and over again, and I know that life can take us by storm when we least expect, but what truly matters is that by the time I learned all this, I was resilient enough to accept it all and still marvel at the good in my life, in the world.
The rainbows and unicorns from my childhood are what have and will always allow me to do so— to believe in second chances and happy endings (or beginnings). The Disney movies that many people now claim to be foolish and silly and too good to be true have protected me from cynicism and pessimism and the terrible tragedy that is practicality. While I know the difference between faith and wishful thinking, between what’s real and unrealistic, I’m not afraid to dream, to push the limits, to go on a thrilling adventure.
And more important than anything, everything that I know now, I mostly had to figure out for myself. My parents never told me what to think. They guided me just enough so that I could learn how to. They weren’t afraid that I might fall victim to the “stereotypes” and “untruths” of the world around me and knew that if I ever did, they’d be there to help me through. They gave me the chance to make up my own mind, and they let my judgements be mine.
I guess they always knew that interfering more than they should would hijack my sense of the world, of morality, of humanity, of how to think, and of what to feel. They didn’t want to deprive me of the right to develop the kind of resilience and awareness that I’d have never had if they kept handpicking everything that I saw and heard. That's why I now believe that all children deserve the same courtesy.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that we’re developing a cultural, moral awareness that’s positively influencing mainstream media and pop culture (for the most part). I just think Disney movies never had the intentions that we’re now making them out to have. We’re so quick to discredit them that we’re not trying to objectively understand the morals of the stories being told. We’ve done it so many times to so many different things—culture, tradition, even the past—that it’s becoming a trend, and these elements that make us the people we are have been gradually fading into nothing.
We choose to forget that Cinderella is kind, that she has a big heart, that she’s never vengeful, and that the prince loves her for her—rags and dirt stains and all. Morals like “the protagonists sometimes lose,” and “you don’t have to wait for prince charming or be a damsel in distress to get your own happy ending” are purposely absent from the story. Though we can try to explain that to children, they deserve to have their magic first because it isn’t false.
Besides, it's not reasonable to blame a movie—an animated film, no less—for a child’s potentially misconstrued views when we, the living, breathing human beings in their lives, can shed more light and be more of an influence than any fairytale. Are we not the ones who should be held accountable?
Blame is weightless. It’s no use. There’s no perfecting the “imperfectible,” and that goes for everything: a movie, a moral, and especially a childhood.
Of course, I would never say that these movies and their messages are perfect—they’re not. I’m just saying that they’re not as ill-intentioned as we think. And just because something fits a certain stereotype doesn’t make it intentional. Stereotypes themselves aren’t even conscious generalizations all the time. If they were, we’d be over them by now. In truth, they, too, are victims of their time.
I guess I mean to say that it’s best we come to terms with the fact that we can’t influence children in only the ways that we believe to be right. Watching a Disney movie is not "scandalous," and there’s little risk of the experience exposing children to what they don’t even know to look for. Again, who are we to censor their childhood and tell them that it’s all false?
Would it really be any better to destroy a child’s optimism and faith by telling them that happy endings might not be for them? Or that they’ll never find their "prince" or "princess?" Is it necessary for us to instill in them an awareness that they’re not ready to be aware of at once? An awareness that isn’t even entirely true? We can’t help having our own perspectives, but while it’s natural for us to be subjective, it’s also unfair.
There’s a reason we don’t learn about Columbus’s treacheries and about the earliest white settlers’ mercilessness towards natives in elementary school. It’s because our teachers want to ease us into reality and instill in us the hope that even when we eventually learn that reality is one way, we can still wish for it to be another and fight for it. That’s an invaluable lesson.
It takes courage to believe in happy endings, so we should be teaching children to be brave. Our mistake is telling them not to get their hopes up for fear that doing so might set them up for failure. We have no right. First, we teach them to hope for the best. Then, we teach them to prepare for the worst.
Some people are so scarred by life that they want to shake the shoulders of anyone they see and tell them that life’s a sham, but it’s not! Though I don’t know that I won’t be one of those people one day, I know that I’ll do everything in my power to never become like them because there are enough cynics and critics in this world. We don’t need another.
Children, however, NEED to dream because one day their dreams will become their shields. That means we must let them believe in all of their fantasies and decide for themselves which ones have the best chance of coming true. The last thing we should do is scare them out of taking chances and building strong enough defenses for when life gets real and tough.
Every child deserves the chance to grow up believing that no matter how dim reality might be from time to time, they can be a light, and they can always choose light. Even when no one else sees it.