The Fairest of Them All: Disney’s New Brand of Ethical Storytelling

I love fairytales. I always have. Full disclosure here, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was my favorite movie for the majority of my childhood, and by extension, Aurora the go-to princess of choice for any dress-up antics. Partially, I’m sure, this stemmed from the strangely universal and narcissistic childhood trend of idolizing characters that resemble you most. Brunette? You’re always Belle. Ginger? Easy, Ariel! As a blonde, I had a choice between Cinderella or Aurora, and let’s be real, Sleeping Beauty is a way more exciting story. There are fairies, curses, dragons, and a prince with an actual name (whoa)! And although arguably as one-dimensional a character as narratively possible, Aurora at least had her sheltered-girl-restless-desire-for-the-allegedly-dangerous-“everything else” complex going, whereas Cinderella’s meek eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-floor acceptance routine never resonated with me on any level.
My mother also tells me that I went through an early phase where I loved all the villains, Maleficent being my favorite. According to my mom’s version of the story, I did this out of a perverse desire to piss her off or at the very least, shock unsuspecting individuals who asked me who my favorite Disney princess was (lololol, I have no memory of any of this, but it’s probably partially true). Looking back, this pattern not only makes me seriously respect the strange child that I barely remember being but also makes a great deal of logical sense. Although it never occurred to me to question princesses’ largely comatose role in these films or to worry about the lack of consent in various early Disney relationships, even a young kid has the perception to recognize that villains like Ursula and Maleficent, although equally flat, possess an unquestioned power that the princesses unquestionably never did. Rootless and unattached from any familial ties and controlling patriarchal figures, they made their own independent choices. And although these choices often proved morally reprehensible, they were interesting– they drove plots, they transformed people (Ursula gave Ariel legs and she didn’t even need a magic trident to do it. Step up your game, King Triton), and occasionally, transformed themselves. Maleficent turned herself into a mother-f***ing dragon– I don’t care who you are, that’s cool.
I loved the villains, and I loved the princesses. Between the two sides of the same coin, the evil, powerful witch and the innocent, submissive princess, there existed one single, real, and complex female character. You just had to read between the lines, piece the scattered simplifications into a more whole, cohesive vision of human experience. That was the beauty of growing up with these stories- it taught you to take two extremes and reconcile them without ever realizing it. But if you couldn’t reconcile them, you had a choice. You could choose the guilt of declaring independence and accepting the consequences of a powerful, isolated life. Or you could choose to silence the parts of yourself that broke the mold of ‘feminine perfection’  and find someone else to fill the gaps you created in yourself along the way. Those were the options created by the female characters of my childhood: Snow White and the Evil Queen, Cinderella and the Evil Stepmother, Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent. There was no middle ground. You had to create it for yourself.
I still love fairytales. But now I question them too. And after reading a fascinating article about the evolution of fairytales from women’s to children’s stories, from expressions of the desires and fears of women to watered down instructions manuals on how they should act, I immediately remembered the fairytales I grew up with, the repackaging of already repackaged stories that is the Disney film. These Disney adaptations have become synonymous with the term ‘fairytale,’ and the cultural branding that accompanies them have all but erased traces of the grim originals (pun intended), often leaving names and titles unaltered only to change the algorithm of plot and message completely. There are many theories about the function of fairytales as both women and children’s tales, ranging from coded warnings about navigating society to theories of psychological development- but all agree that the primary function of fairytales, prior to the development of film, was to teach people something fundamental about living in the world. But somewhere in that process of transformation, occurring in the wake of consumer culture (and the princess industry), the fairytale began to shape the way we live in the world and the way we see ourselves in it. This is where ethical storytelling becomes more than a nicety, but rather a necessity. For me, ethical storytelling means recognizing that the stories you tell and the ways you tell them possess power and exert influence over your audience, and from there, being socially responsible about the messages you send and the assumptions you make.
Here’s the part where I tentatively assert that for quite some time, Disney has failed to tell ethical stories (amongst several apologies and asides about how much I still love these movies with all my heart, of course). And yes, this claim directly relates to my feminist inclinations, but not in the ways you probably expect. The idea of princess as protagonist in no way offends me, although first-wave Disney princess trio Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora prove flatly drawn (again, pun always intended) alongside their Strong Female Lead counterparts, Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Merida. There is no one right way to be a woman. Dressing up in long gowns and high heels, being conventionally beautiful, being thin in no way makes you less of a “real” person or a failure to the feminist cause. Falling in love and getting married? Don’t have a problem with it.  Dancing around and singing with friendly forest creatures? You just do you. Am I a little put out by the relative uniformity of said princesses and their inevitable endings? Why yes, that’s mildly troubling and I’d love to chat about all the other implications of it some other time. But at the end of the day, these movies are still charming, comforting, and entertaining.
That’s the entire problem.
Talk to anyone who’s read a copy of Grimm’s Fairytales. Most people, after reading Cinderella aren’t waltzing around the living room singing a stirring rendition of “Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo.” Usually it’s something more like “WHAT IS HAPPENING. CANNOT UNSEE THIS IMAGE.” Fairytales were never meant to be stories told for comfort or escape. They were, for many centuries of oral storytelling, quite literally the voices of the voiceless meant to communicate hard truths, to convey warnings and fears, as well as to knit women together through tales of shared experiences. By removing the sex, the brutal violence, and the complex ambiguities, these films took something women used to express their otherwise inexpressible realities and edited them to fit into a more acceptable and consumable mold. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, a tale of excruciating transformation, torture, betrayal, and ultimately suicide, becomes an innocuous love story in which Ariel’s election to change herself is rewarded with a royal wedding.  Hercules conveniently ends before the part where he kills Megara and their children. The prince in Sleeping Beauty was in fact a married king who didn’t stop at a kiss- he raped her and she woke up after giving birth to twins.
Disney movies have changed both the history and the cultural definition of ‘fairytale’ into something far more innocuous and escapist. Fairytales have ceased to tell us about the world we live in, and instead present us with glamorized and simplified versions of the world we perhaps wish we could live in. Villains and heroes clearly labeled, love conquering all, perfect princesses cultivating friendships with cute animals.  It’s a beautiful vision and its fun to inhabit it for an hour and a half. It’s also undeniably true that most people would rather watch a musical cartoon about true love and happy endings rather than depressing and violent tales of murder, rape, and suicide. But as entertaining and colorful as the end products are compared to their bleak origins, they constitute very troubling acts of silencing through re-writing.
Lately however, as anyone who’s seen Frozen can attest to, Disney has somehow managed to reconcile humor and hope with the dark themes and complex moral dilemmas that have previously been elided from the modern fairytale.  Frozen created a fictional space where a hilarious talking snowman can coexist alongside the tragic irony of his self-destructive love for warmth and sunshine. Where a soaring, empowering anthem like  “Let It Go” appears alongside very real portrayals of the emotional abuse, painful isolation, and internalized self-deprecation that makes Elsa’s song so powerful and triumphant. Where self-sacrificing, self-swallowing love can exist alongside the knowledge that such an unquestioning love is deeply dangerous because people we love can and will betray us (Insert any glorious “You can’t marry a man you just met” meme of choice). Where even though love and trust can kill us, it can also save us.
But even more than the sum of its contradictions, Frozen marks a significant change in the fairytale genre and its potential to adapt. For the first time ever, in both original and animated versions, the strong, independent woman with magical powers is not out to destroy the innocent and powerless princess. For the first time in forever, there is a third option.
Although Elsa was originally meant to be the villain, the writers changed their minds when they heard “Let It Go.” Maybe because every woman I know has spent their fair share of time on the other side of that door: cold, alone, terrified of themselves and of their own power, concealing and not feeling. And every woman deserves that moment on the mountaintop where they let go of all the pain and fear and self-doubt and decide to love themselves. And that choice does not make them villains.
But in traditional tales, it does. As Gilbert and Gubar write of Snow White’s Evil Queen in The Madwoman in the Attic, “The cycle of her fate seems inexorable. Renouncing ‘contemplative purity,’ she must now embark on that life of ‘significant action’ which for a woman is defined as a witch’s life because it is seen as so monstrous, so unnatural.” As told by women in a world where these two dichotomous extremes are the only options, these rigid, extreme roles were both facts and warnings.
In a lot of ways, we still live in that world. But Disney has finally used their powers of revision and imagination to say that now, just maybe, it doesn’t have to be that way. That instead of internalizing fear and perpetuating oppressive structures by punishing other women for our own pain, powerful women can use their anger and their love to save and support each other. That instead of resenting and blaming Elsa for the loneliness of her childhood and abandoning her to save herself, Anna jumps in front of a sword for her. Can we talk about how radical that is? Not even just the sheer self-sacrifice, not just the fact that an act of true love proved platonic and not romantic- the fact that instead of fighting to kill and destroy each other, two female protagonists actively love and save each other in a popular children’s movie. There is now a story in which fear, repression, and self-doubt are the true enemies, not empowerment and strength, and that changes everything for the better.
One movie, however, does not a pattern or moral vision make. But then came Maleficent, the controversial, live action re-telling of Sleeping Beauty. Although equally denounced and celebrated by many feminist media sources for various, valid reasons, in my opinion, it is an important and ethical film that actively questions the same tropes that Frozen tackled. Opening with the friendship between the powerful and charming fairy, Maleficent, and a young King Stephan, Maleficent gives the villain a voice, a story, and a redeeming ability to adapt and change in accordance with experience and circumstance. In this version, Stephan returns, takes Maleficent out into the woods for a romantic stroll, drugs her drink, and saws off her wings with his dagger out, quite literally out of an entitled desire to power. For those on whom this thinly masked symbolism is lost, Angelina Jolie has issued a statement explicitly declaring that she acted the scene with rape in mind. Never has the phrase “two sides to every story” rang more traumatically true- Jolie squeezes every last ounce of pain, agony, and betrayal out of her awakening and discovery, and of course, the bloody CGI stumps on her back add to the overall effect. This is by far the darkest, most emotionally traumatic Disney fairytale film ever made (it made me cry more often and more intensely than The Fault in Our Stars). It’s also the most hopeful, poignant, and redeeming depiction of female power lost and regained that I’ve ever seen.
Many #NotAllMen inclined individuals have taken issue with this portrayal of Stephan as a villain, a man who commits overt violence against a drugged woman, instead of the sad, victimized, wise king father figure of the earlier animated tale, claiming that it makes the film misandrist. Aside from the various sarcastic responses I just crafted in my head, I think this claim glosses over a few very fundamental details that set the film apart from its predecessors. Now before I collapse into a tearful ode to Maleficent‘s portrayal of female friendship and internalized patriarchy, can we talk about the prince?? Let’s talk about that moment when Princess Aurora’s lying unconscious on a bed and his first response to the idea of kissing her is “This doesn’t feel right,” making him the first Disney prince to even pause to consider the idea of consent. Seriously, WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THIS?! Instead of feeling entitled to the body of a girl he exchanged two sentences with in a forest, he stops to reflect that hey maybe i should like not kiss this unconscious woman because that’s sexual assault, and idk it just feels weird. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. With that one phrase of dialogue, Disney has created a whole other set of possibilities for more complex and morally responsible princes that break the molds cemented for masculinity in fairytales, while still holding other male characters accountable for their horribly destructive decisions.
Nor does this film entirely absolve Maleficent of her own destructive decisions. And by raising questions about Maleficent’s actions, the film examines the mechanisms behind the female villian and female victim relationship that is so common in fairytales. Ursula has some issues with King Triton? She attempts to harm Ariel. Maleficent wants to take out King Stephan? Curse his baby daughter. And in the context of the added backstory of relationship violence in Maleficent, this instinctual attack of men through inflicting similar pain and danger upon the women in their lives explores the darker connotations of the “she’s your mother, your daughter, your sister” mentality.  The question ‘how would you feel if this happened to your daughter?’ is at the heart of Maleficent’s motivation- to make Stephan understand the horror he inflicted on her through re-enacting a similar cycle of pain and powerlessness on his daughter. Aurora, as it turns out, is a person with value of her own, and Maleficent herself eventually realizes that she’s guilty of perpetuating a harmful and oppressive system in which women become bystander causalities in the struggle for the power that they are not supposed to possess for themselves. Perhaps it’s because Jolie acts the hell out of this role, but every time she interacts with Aurora or silently observes her carefree wonder, joy, and curiosity I swear you can see Maleficent remember the ghost of her younger self and foresee the ghost of who she’s doomed Aurora to be- a woman who navigates the world with fear and anger, a woman who has a reason to want revenge, a woman who, like herself, looks for that revenge in all the wrong places. The moment when she stands by Aurora’s bedside and says “I will not ask you for forgiveness. What I have done is unforgivable” is one of the most powerful moments in the film. It’s the moment where she recognizes that in her quest to right wrongs, she has committed some wrongs of her own. It’s the moment where her dual roles as fairy godmother and dangerous witch fuse into one, and she becomes a healed, emotionally whole person. It’s the moment when the cycle of fear and anger and violence ends, when wrongs can be righted by two women standing together and saying hey girl, let’s fight the system, not each other.
This is something even the original tales, with all their complexity, never quite achieved. Fairytales like Frozen and Maleficent are once again giving voice to the voiceless experience, shading in the gaps left by history and by edited stories. But even more importantly, writers of the Disney revisions are also adapting their powers of imagination to envision a future that includes new, empowering possibilities and breaks old and vicious cycles by casting love and solidarity as more effective weapons than fear and hatred.
It’s the sort of introspective, self-reflective storytelling that makes me remember why I love stories and why we need to tell them. Our culture has become extremely comfortable with the idea of comfort at any price. But glossing over hard truths or photoshopping them out of the picture altogether doesn’t make them go away- it simply makes it harder for people to talk about them. Stories, at their best, break those silences, disturb comfort, make the unseen seen, and are able to handle these themes with responsibility, whether they choose to tell them with levity or gravity.I love the stories that can both acknowledge reality and question it, and I admire the writers who can create a space of hope and laughter out of these questions. I love the stories that tread softly, because they realize the power that they have over our dreams. I love the stories that look pain in the eye with an un-adverted gaze and prove that that pain does not diminish the transformative power of love. These are exactly the stories that Disney has begun to create and I hope to see more of them in the near future. These stories become the love they want to see in the world. They heal. They make new realities possible.



3 responses to “The Fairest of Them All: Disney’s New Brand of Ethical Storytelling

  1. Wow – that sounds brilliant! I had a phase when I was fascinated by fairy tales, and a (much later) phase of exploring feminist retellings of fairy tales (starting, obviously, with Angela Carter). Haven’t seen the more recent Disney efforts (my son’s not quite old enough to sit through a whole film) but now I have to watch Maleficent…

    • I just got a copy of “The Bloody Chamber” and I can’t wait to read it- I’ve heard some fantastic things. Jeanette Winterson also explored some feminist retellings of fairytales in “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” Such a fascinating subject! 🙂

  2. I was on the fence about watching Frozen, and especially skeptical about Maleficent, but this analysis guarantees that I will be watching them both soon. As a guy, I never paid much attention to the slanted messages of previous Disney films (a shame), but in retrospect they do certainly create unfortunate expectations in the young girls who watch them.
    I have heard that Frozen’s story is a thinly veiled story of a gay woman coming out of the closet and being shunned by her community. This alone makes me want to see it. But the other messages of platonic love, using power for the greater good, and of standing up for–standing in front of a sword for–those who feel abandoned…honestly, whatever hope I had lost for Disney has returned. They still have some excellent writers in the company and are obviously not just out for a cash grab (though I’m sure they’re getting that too).

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