Once upon a time…

As a child of the 80s, I inevitably grew up with a stockpile of Disney VHS’s by which I lived and died. A dramatic assertion, I know; but at a time when the world is a black hole of unknowns, they provided the comfort and consistency that every child yearns for: the bad guy will never really get you, there will always be a happy ending, animals are generally friendly (although they do not actually talk, which was a huge letdown). However subliminal, these were lessons that we absorbed through the whimsical storylines and integrated into the fabric of our daily lives.

I, for example, am opposed to hunting largely because of what it did to Bambi’s family unit. Similarly, my aversion to fur can be attributed more to Cruella DeVil than to PETA. I admittedly still do believe in Fairytale love (although, I don’t need Prince Charming to support me…). And, much to the chagrin of my roommates, there is a mouse in my apartment that I refuse to kill out of compassion for Cinderella’s rodent posse.

These fantasy-bred ideals seem to be innocent enough; but recent activity on the Disney front has us questioning whether these subliminal suggestions are in children’s best interest, or whether they’re setting them up for an unhealthy future.  These are just a few of the real-life health concerns that these movies pose for our generation:

Cinderella Complex

The character Cinderella was the picture of femininity, grace and compassion. She was giving of herself despite getting nothing in return, she was kind despite the cruelty she faced at home…. in short, she took a lot of unnecessary crap, and we’re left wondering why it took a magic pumpkin and a rich prince to convince her to leave. Colette Dowling attributes this to what she calls “The Cinderella Complex,” or women’s unconscious fear of independence and desire to be taken care of by others. This feeds into feminist critiques of the story as encouraging women to wait for a man before they leave home and rely on his economic security; thereby transitioning from one position of dependence (parents) to another (husband).

The Complex also touches on the deeper neuroses of women in dysfunctional relationships. Why don’t they just leave? Why are they waiting on their proverbial Fairy Godmother to give them an easy out? Heck, Cinderella had a voice that could get her a record deal and domestic skills that could easily land her a custodial job. But in reality, as in this fantasy, it’s not that easy.

If you assess the story from a psychological perspective, Cinderella probably had a lot of emotional issues resulting from the loss of her father, verbal abuse from her stepmother and the insecurities that ensued. She likely felt some sense of guilt and a moral duty to stay with her step-family after her father’s death, and her lack of self-esteem probably inhibited her from realizing her potential outside of the home. While the movie does fuel the dialogue about this issue, it certainly takes the wrong approach to treating it.

Many are worried that, aside from the film’s misogynistic vibe, it also sets a standard of passivity rather than proactivity. It could easily inspire an impressionable generation of females to sit around and wait for fate (the present-day magic wand) or a man to improve their circumstances.

Princess Syndrome

In recent years, Disney princess paraphernalia has skyrocketed into a multi-billion dollar industry, indulging children’s natural inclination toward fantasy play and exploiting our societal tendency to push gender roles (read: pink princesses and little super heroes).

In conjunction with the influx, scholars developed a diagnosis known as Princess Syndrome, which is characterized by narcissistic behavior in adolescent females (which, ostensibly, translates to narcissistic behavior in adult females). The theory behind it is that this paraphernalia encourages young girls to emulate princesses who are, by definition, privileged members of society. Even if their emulation begins as fantasy, at some point it bleeds into their own self-image and the standards of treatment they begin to expect. Princesses have servants and wealth and many material goods; by comparison, they will likely find themselves wanting, or demanding, such preferential treatment.

We are also of a culture that is increasingly more lax on children’s behavior, perhaps because of conflicting views on discipline or perhaps because parents are having fewer children so they are more likely to dote on them. The princess-focus culture encourages parents to put their children on a pedestal, and to nurture egotistical behavior by feeding this idea that the little girl is entitled. The girl will become more likely to use this excuse as justification for wanting things, deserving things or getting away with things.

Experts advise parents to be mindful of this type of behavior and encourage other types of fantasy play in addition to the princess drama.

Depression

In truth, we know there might not always be a happy ending, we won’t always find our prince or princess, and Good doesn’t always win its battle vs. Evil. But our pragmatism on these matters doesn’t always make up for our disappointment. We spent most of our childhood looking through rose-colored (Mickey-shaped) lenses, and taking them off is not an easy adjustment. Children living under the pretense of fantasy plots may develop a subconscious expectation for positivity that reality can’t meet. This could interfere with their emotional development and make them more susceptible to depression, particularly if they come from broken or unstable homes. They might not know how to cope with negative situations, which are only magnified when compared to movies.

These films might also contribute to our unrealistic expectations of love and relationships. Our society is so insistent on the existence of “fairytale love” and finding our “Prince Charming” or “Queen” that we might lose sight of the more practical components of healthy relationships. While romance is important, it is just one part of what makes a couple succeed. What’s more, when we realize “happily ever after” isn’t as easy as it appears, we tend to make the assumption that we’re not with the perfect person instead of considering that love just is not always perfect. As a result, we become dejected, perpetually on this futile flight of fancy.

Unrealistic Weight Expectations

While it has not been a consistent trend through the history of their films, Disney just made a controversial push to discourage obesity by having their villains pack on some pounds. A recent campaign called “Habit Heroes” enlisted the help of health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield to create a series of characters that exemplify bad health habits: poor hygiene, gluttony, laziness, stress, and snacking on sweets, etc. While the campaign had good intentions, they received a fiery backlash accusing them of “fat shaming.” Although many of these habits may ultimately lead to obesity, critics say it’s unfair to make all of the characters appear overweight. Their argument is that the depiction stigmatizes overweight children and fosters bullying.  The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance issued this statement:

We’re appalled to learn that Disney, a traditional hallmark of childhood happiness and joy, has fallen under the shadow of negativity and discrimination. It appears that Disney now believes that using the tool of shame, favored so much by today’s healthcare corporations, is the best way to communicate with children. Disney, in partnering with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, has taken the side of the bullies.

While I don’t think we should make excuses for or sugarcoat the issue of obesity, I recognize their point. I would argue that many Disney “villains” are extreme representations of both ends of the weight spectrum, ranging from the potbellied Ursula in The Little Mermaid to the tall and lanky Jafar in Aladdin.

But one thing remains consistently stereotypical: that princesses and heroes are always thin. While some may say this sets a healthy precedent, others would argue that this is a child’s first introduction to weight insecurities. Even a young girl who is not at risk of obesity might never have the cinched waste she sees on Sleeping Beauty or Belle. Tracing back through the filmography, there has never been paunchy princess. This might set an unrealistic standard for children who are obviously emulating these characters (see above).

Separation Anxiety

Children’s need for their parents is both biological and conceptual. Your mother is your first food source, so there is an instinctive connection there; but children also become emotionally reliant on their parents to be a source of comfort and nurturing.  It is our natural inclination to want to stay with them, and our natural reaction to feel anxiety when they are away.

Disney movies have a tendency to exploit this fear at every opportunity. Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Cinderella… They all convey the loss of a parent and the subsequent turmoil that the child must then face. Usually, they are left alone in a world full of villains and challenging situations. While the little protagonist ultimately finds his way, it is a dark and complicated message to send to children. The films suggest that many parents never come back. This might heighten their innate fear of separating from a parent, which makes real-life scenarios like going to school, having a babysitter, or going through a divorce particularly hard for them to cope with.

Children may also develop general anxiety from films with particularly violent or scary content. Critics refer to some of these G-rated films as “horror movies for kids,” capitalizing on their fears and then magnifying them with graphic imagery and powerful music. Austrian child psychologist Dr. Peter B. Neubauer was one of the first to point out the negative impact of this violence on the child psyche, condemning the Wizard of Oz for depicting Dorothy’s neighbors in alternate roles of terror and creating excessively tense situations. Children might not have the emotionally maturity to separate themselves from the characters that they bond with during the film, and they may either develop anxiety as a result or become calloused to these emotions.

These conditions do not suggest that Disney films are at the root of society’s problems, or even that our children shouldn’t watch them; but they do suggest that we need to set a context for these plots to differentiate fantasy from reality. Impressionable children can easily slip into that purgatory where the real world and Disney World overlap; so explain the storyline, diffuse tense situations and insert your own lessons where applicable. By monitoring our children’s behavior and making sure they spend some time away from the films and fantasy play, we can minimize the negative influence and see these films for the positive life lessons they provide… like sharing, making friends, and always coming home before the clock strikes midnight.

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