The Washington Post has published a new article on Researchers have found a major problem with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and other Disney movies. It follows the usual path of “girls are oppressed” and here is some feminist theory to demonstrate this.
Unfortunately, the central premise of social constructionism is deeply flawed. Scientific studies have shown that sex differences manifest “in the pre-socialization stage of their cognitive development”.
This continues throughout childhood and is tied to the development of the brain.
There is also a simple problem with this theory. It’s all based on the simplistic idea that representation creates reality.
The basic thesis is this: Girls watch Disney. Girls learn how to behave.
Excuse me? You mean that their mothers and their friends have so little influence on their psychological development that little girls grow up passive, narcissistic and helpless?
There is a strong strain in Western culture of blaming representation (theatre, novels, comics, films, tv, video games) for what is perceived as aberrant behaviour in children, which has never been borne out.
This is the same strain of argument which argues that video games make for psychopathic killers (Jack Thompson) or woman-haters (Anita Saarkesian). It is a monomaniacal obsession with trivia, ignoring the far-more important effect of family and parenting.
This same argument has been tried with children’s toys (Sex-Specific Toy Preferences: Learned or Innate?
). This does not hold up because it is an unscientific belief, rooted in a wish-fulfilment fantasy where the power of mind rules over the body and the human soul is plastic and subject to the will of the guardians of society.
These Disney films are very popular with young girls because the age group is already intensely gender-defined, which happens by the age of four. This process defies parenting wishes because it is a natural (yes, I’m using a signifier) outgrowth of normal development.
Did anyone else notice the choice of films studied? I notice that Wreck It Ralph was ignored, as was Toy Story (in any of the versions produced) or Big Hero 6 etc? No. Because those films are not princess-films. Disney produces more than just princess-films because it caters to a wide audience. Aladdin is the exception and Aladdin is a hero-tale aimed at all members of the family. The others are, broadly speaking, romance-tales and romance tales appeal to women and girls more than men and boys and is amply expressed in the market.
So why do the stories compliment girls on their looks?
Well, good looks attract attention. This is not just true for girls but for boys. A handsome boy has charisma amongst his friends and attracts female attention. It’s a simple part of sexual attraction and competition within our species. Good looks give pleasure to the viewer and praise for good looks gives pleasure to the possessor. This is well attested in the ancient sources, as we can see in the myth of Narcissus and the numerous beautiful girls pursued by amorous gods.
Conversely, ugliness repels. Again, this is attested in the ancients, such as the story of the Spartan princess, who born ugly, was taken to the shrine of Helen at Therapne. The divine Helen touched the girl-child’s head and prophesied that the girl would grow into a beauty (Herodotus). Women prize beauty because it is the quickest way to high value in the sexual market place – this is not just a pleasing appearance. Beauty indicates fertility and thus the probability of plentiful and healthy children. There is a great deal of truth, I believe, in the phrase “Built for the Stone Age”.
This sexual competition takes place primarily amongst women. One of the best measures against cruelty towards losers in this competition to counsel girls not to be cruel to girls who are not closest to the ideal. No one is crueller to girls than other girls.
So to return to my question: why do the stories compliment girls on their looks?
Because every girl wishes to be beautiful and noticed for her beauty. Yet the stories do not end with “what a pretty face”. The princess must also be kind, gentle and considerate of others. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. A woman who beautiful may bear healthy, good looking children but if she is cruel and selfish, not only is she likely to be unfaithful and endanger the family relationship, she will a bad mother to her children.
Note that this does not mean women who have strong characters are ipso facto bad mothers. Such would be a straw-man distortion of the argument. Strong characters in mothers are often desirable, the ancients again attesting to this. Coriolanus’ mother imploring her wronged son not to attack his own city. The famed strength of character of Aurellia, mother of the Gracchii. The biblical expression “the price of a good woman is above rubies”.
All these point toward the necessity of moral education of girls. We educate all children in Western society not to be cruel toward others because this is an altruistic end. The princess is not just beautiful but has a strong, well-balanced character, though the expression of this character changes with time. So, the ideal in the 1950s was the house-wife (an ideal is not an always expression of reality but often an aspiration). So the modern Disney films have princess-characters who are also invested with moral agency.
Belle chose to protect Beast, because she recognised his worth and saw through Gaston’s veneer of heroism. Gaston was a braggart and a bully, where as Beast had a noble heart hidden beneath his pride and suffering.
In the princess-tale, the beauty of the princess is an outward recognition of her noble character. It acts as a visual signifier yet does not complete the story. Often the princess has to overcome her own pride, usually because the hero is of a lower status than herself (see hypergamy). Other times, this dynamic is reversed, where female hypergamy is recognised in the heroine’s desire to marry the prince, who must overcome his pride because her character becomes essential to his completion as a hero and a man (as opposed to a boy).
The prince/hero in the tale is complimented for his achievements because men compete for status through ability. Yet still the hero must also demonstrate good character if he is to succeed. It is no good to compliment the hero on his looks – this would just inflate his self-regard and sabotage his abilities, thus his position within the group.
Why don’t we praise girls for achievements? Actually we do (Mulan is a great warrior; Anna in Frozen is brave and courageous to the point of recklessness). But in the sexual market place, achievements compliment the basics of the heroine. The vulnerability of women is child-bearing and rearing. Here the hero must act as the shield and this is implied in our requirement for the hero to achieve and show good character.
In all princess films, the father figure is weak. I note that this article did not pick up on this aspect of the tale. When the father is weak, the princess is placed in danger (sent to live with Beast, kidnapped, exiled or hunted) or has to leave the role of princess and behave as a hero, the key is the disruption of the family. In the latter sub-role (inversion of social role), the heroine discovers herself and self-reliance (she grows into a woman). In the former role, she is rescued by the hero (who has to become a man by doing so).
Where is her mother in these tales. Either ineffective, dead or acting as the voice of reason to a weak father. Again, here the parental influence on the princess is weak or at an end.
This points to a fundamental tenet of the princess-tale. The growth from child into adulthood. which is a symbolic act of rebirth, marked by the presence and danger of death (both physical and spiritual).
These tales appeal, not because they are instructional on how we should present ourselves but because they are moral tales, like Aesop, on how to be a good person.