When I was growing up, Disney movies were so simple. The princess would find herself the victim of an evil witch or wicked stepmother, and then Prince Charming would come along, kiss her, and save the day. Boy, have Disney movies changed!
In the last two Disney movies I’ve seen, Frozen and Maleficent, the would-be “Prince Charmings” turn out to be villains while the women end up being the heroines. As a female empowerment writer, I am all for the concept of not needing a prince to come to your rescue. In that respect, I think Disney princesses have evolved and are much more interesting and empowered than they were once upon a time. However, although I enjoyed both of these films tremendously, especially Maleficent, I do hope that their very similar storylines won’t be the model for every Disney movie from now on.
What I found disheartening is that in both Frozen and Maleficent, one of the central female characters becomes a victim of romantic betrayal. In Frozen, Princess Anna falls for a prince who only pretends to love her just so he could take over the family’s kingdom; and if that’s not malicious enough, he tries to murder her sister, Queen Elsa. I told you these Disney princes have changed! Thankfully, Anna does end up falling for a man with a good heart, but in a very sweet surprising ending, it is actually her act of true love towards her sister that saves the day.
Although, at the time, I did find it surprising a Disney princess actually sang about how she didn’t know if she was “elated or gassy” (How could she not know the difference? And who sings about having gas?), I didn’t give much thought to the fact that “Prince Charming” turned out to be shady until I saw a common theme in Maleficent this weekend. In this film, Maleficent is a fairy who falls in love with a human boy, Stefan. Stefan commits the ultimate act of violation when he drugs Maleficent and cuts off her wings, leaving her unable to fly. The scene that follows where the wingless fairy, played by Angelina Jolie, wakes up face down in the dirt and can barely walk feels so raw and disturbing—I’ve even read several reviews that liken what Stefan did to a metaphorical rape. Later on the phrase “true love does not exist” is dramatically repeated at least twice, which I personally felt was a bit dark for a kids’ movie. Such a cynical perspective on romantic love concerns me because not only are thoughts and words very powerful, but little minds are extremely impressionable. I know, after seeing Frozen, my five-year-old niece was singing “the cold never bothered me anyway” all winter long back home in Chicago. Not to give the ending of Maleficent away, but it turns out that there is such thing as true love; however, just as in Frozen, true love doesn’t come in the form of a romance.
I understand Disney wants to show little girls that life isn’t always like the fairy tales. Maybe the old-fashioned Prince Charming did create unrealistic expectations of love for women of my generation. However, I worry that these new Disney films are planting seeds in little girls’ minds that it’s not okay to love or trust men. One of my girlfriends recently tweeted, “Just saw Maleficent. The moral of the story is never fall in love with boys.” I hope that’s not what little girls are taking away from this film as well. The good news is that my very imaginative niece, who highly recommended Maleficent, left the movie wondering if fairies do yoga, and later, in the same telephone conversation, randomly told me that she’s in love with her boyfriend, Jimmy. Although I don’t normally approve of the fact my five-year-old niece has been in a relationship for the last two-years (at her age, she definitely should be playing the field), I was happy to hear she still believes in true love.
Just to be clear, I thought Maleficent was an incredible film from an adult perspective. Angelina Jolie was as captivating and powerful as ever. In my eyes, she is the closest thing we have to a goddess and saint here on Earth and can do no wrong. My questioning the story’s theme is not a criticism of the movie itself, but rather, a commentary on how fairy tales have changed and the message they are sending to the children watching them. If I were to write a fairy tale for my niece, I would never cast the heroine as a jilted lover or woman scorned—I don’t see the empowerment in that. I would make my fairy princess a girl who has the princes of all of the kingdoms falling at her feet but is too busy saving the universe to care about any of them, and she definitely won’t be so easily duped. One of my favorite Disney princesses is Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who was the most beautiful girl in town but always had her nose in a book, which reminds me of how my dad always told my sister and me to “forget the boys and hit the books!”
As a feminist, I applaud Disney for creating strong female characters who are capable of saving themselves. I also think they are on the right track, emphasizing familial relationships over romantic relationships; these are kids’ movies after all! However, if Disney is going to include romantic relationships in their kids’ films, I hope they don’t continue this theme of romantic betrayal. Of course villains can still be men, (or women); evil does not have a gender. However, what’s the world coming to if even fairy tale princesses are getting used and abused by the men they love? Fairy tales are meant to be whimsical, so why don’t we create the highest, most wondrous possibilities for our girls?
One of my girlfriends commented that she likes this new formula better because it’s closer to real life, which is sad she (or any other woman) feels that way about men. Of course, most grown women can empathize with heartbreak and betrayal, but I’m not sure these are lessons little girls with pure untainted hearts need to be learning. And we have to give credit to the men who are getting it right. I understand a girl has to kiss a few toads before she meets her prince, but it would be nice to see Prince Charming resurface, even if it’s only once in awhile. Take it from someone who knows how fun it is to believe in the fairy tale.