On Disney, Daughters, and Dads

by Michael J. Corso, Ph.D.

Once upon a time, in the land of Disney movies, if there was
a daughter, there was no Dad. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and
Snow White’s fathers are all more or less absent. In these popular
tales, we meet young, fatherless women who are poisoned in spirit
and body by some older, jealous witch-like woman. I have been
wondering what message these movies communicate to my two daughters
and their friends. Watching Disney’s recent feature length animated
movies also made me curious as to whether there has been an evolution
in the stories Disney is telling. These movies speak to us gathered
around glowing screens the way myths spoke to our ancestors sitting
around the embers of a fire. They represent archetypes of men
and women, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.

In that light, the tales above tell of the struggle between mother
and maturing daughter in the absence of the father. Though the
older female is usually a step, protecting us as in a dream from
direct association with the biological mother, these stories animate
an accurate, albeit fairy-tale version of the “traditional”
family. A father away from his castle, a mother in charge at
home, a daughter struggling toward independence while keeping
house as little girls should. What is most distressing about
these young women and the view objectionable today, is that each
seems powerless to improve her situation.

Sleeping Beauty is, well… asleep. Utterly passive, her
only hope is for the prince to arrive, slay the witch, and kiss
Rose into arousal. The man has female fairies helping out, but
he is clearly the hero. Cinderella, at least, is awake. She
even has a helpful fairy godmother (the good side of the mother?).
When she is imprisoned, however, Jacque and Gus-Gus, both mice
and both male, heroically get the key and free her. The prince
then completely liberates her by marrying her. Snow White, winner
of several Oscars, will perhaps not win any awards in the “Best
Female Role Model” category. Here is a woman mindlessly
keeping house for not one, but seven men. The dwarves go whistling
off to work every day and combined they make one dutiful, though
moody, husband. Snow White’s hoped for her Prince comes and,
though she is unconscious, he wakes her with a kiss so they can
live happily ever after.

Notice the girl is always unconscious or locked away–helpless,
powerless, passive. The man (or mice) of action must rescue her.
This, no doubt, was the typical view of women and men and their
respective roles.

Fast forward to the new Disney movies. Just as the improved
animation reflects new technology, the female characters featured
in these movies has improved reflecting society’s changing attitude
toward women. In The Little Mermaid, an independent Ariel rescues
the drowning Prince Eric. She strikes a bargain with the sea-witch,
enabling her to pursue and woo Eric. This time Eric is put into
a sleep like trance and though he kills Ursula, it is not without
Ariel’s help and the help of her friends, Sebastian, Flounder,
and Scuttle.

While Ariel has the help of her male friends, Belle, in Beauty
and the Beast acts more on her own. She successfully fends off
the villainous Gaston throughout the movie and saves both her
father and the Beast, each of them twice. In the climactic battle,
we once again see the support of secondary male characters–Lumiere
and Cogsworth–but fighting beside them are the female Wardrobe
and Mrs. Potts. In the end, Belle’s actions undo the decades
long spell.

The strong-willed Princess Jasmine, in Aladdin, is not at the
whimsy of her father, Aladdin, or Jafar. She is beyond even
the Genie’s control. Self assured, she will marry only when she
is ready. The transformation in the attitude toward women is
typified when Aladdin pole vaults from one roof to another as
he and the runaway princess escape Jafar’s henchmen. He chauvinistically
places a plank across the roof tops so Jasmine can follow only
to be surprised by her vaulting across with equal agility. Imagine
Snow White doing that.

What is most sophisticated and wonderful about each of these
women is that none of them are effective at the expense of her
femininity. Disney’s women have come of age. They are strong,
smart, even sexy. The change is unmistakable. These women of
action, unlike their predecessors, are out of the house, (or the
sea), confident and courageous.

Then there are the fathers. In most of the old movies, there
is a single female parent. In all three new movies, there is
a single male parent. Interesting switch. Has the depiction
of fathers as primary caretakers improved to the same degree as
the view of young women? One could argue that at least they exist!
However, in each of the movies mentioned, the father is a tyrant,
a buffoon, or both.

Ariel’s father, is overbearing in appearance and attitude. King
Trident mercilessly and arbitrarily smashes Ariel’s prized possessions.
Though he is apologetic, and in the end lets go of his daughter,
we are still left with a rather oppressive figure. Belle’s father,
though a clever inventor, is in every other way helpless. He
gets lost, imprisoned, and puts up little struggle when Belle
exchanges places with him as the Beast’s prisoner. Upon returning
to the town, Maurice’s absent-minded manner gets him bullied by
Gaston. Belle must leave the Beast she now loves to rescue her
father a second time. Jasmine’s father has power and authority,
but he is a fool. He is repeatedly duped by Jafar and spends
most of his time stacking menagerie animals. Each of these full-time
dads is as incompetent as his daughter is competent.

There are, of course, capable fathers among Disney’s characters.
Geppetto, Pinnochio’s father, is caring and courageous. In The
Jungle Book, Bagheera and Baloo team up to take care of Mowgli
and see him safely back to the man’s village; while one lacks a
sense of humor and the other lacks a sense of responsibility,
combined they make a pretty good paternal pair. My favorite father
is Pongo of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The newest Disney
dad, The Lion King’s Mufasa, is a fine feline father, at once
powerful and playful, stern and sensitive. These latter two movies
are among the few Disney families with both a mother and father.

There is an important difference between these positively portrayed
papas and the faltering fathers of Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine.
These dads care for sons. Pinnochio, Mowgli, the Dalmatian pups,
and Simba are all boys. The message seems to be that when caring
for boys, a father is competent and even heroic, but when caring
for girls, a father is bungling and brainless.

It is quite startling to realize that this is the (hopefully unintended)
story behind the stories. These are only movies, and overall,
very good movies; I hope I have not over-stated things. There
is just this evidence of two interesting trends–one having to
do with young women, the other having to do with us full-time
dad types. It is at least something to notice. Something to
bring up with our daughters and our sons. Our society has other
stories to tell about fathers and daughters. Our personal stories
speak the loudest.

Mickey Corso has a Ph.D. in Religious Education from Boston College
and is the full-time dad of Rebecca (5 years) and Elise (20 months).
His wife, Catherine, is a Senior Financial Analyst at BBN in
Cambridge, MA. He realizes this article reveals that he and his
daughters watch entirely too much TV.

This article originally appeared in Full-Time Dads, and is copyright 1995-1996 by Full-Time Dads. No reprint or other use of this article is allowed without express written consent of the author and Full-Time Dads.