“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Disney princesses are a thing. A trend. A cult classic of sorts. Little ones love them and want to be them, but this mind-blowing millenial generation can’t get enough, either. I think there’s even a part of the draw in that we view them as “good.” As role models.
I know I absolutely did as a little girl! I wanted freedom from things I didn’t quite understand. I wanted to go on adventures that ended with victory and romance disguised as love and a better station in life. The stories had just enough drama to keep the goal from being simple, but were simple enough to keep it attractive.
Of course we all hit an age where we realize the Disney version of the fairy tales weren’t the original. If you were like me, you dug into the classic tales and were surprised by the differences. I’ll admit that when I was young I much preferred the Magic Kingdom versions for their lightness and simplicity.
It’s Not That Simple
But then I got older. Life’s complications become more evident, more obvious. There were complex problems requiring complex solutions. There was singing, but the songs were sad. There was unrequited love that stayed that way. But perhaps the biggest difference from reality to Disney Princess life? The dragons weren’t literally dragons.
Let’s look at that Chesterton quote again: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
My enemies weren’t sea-witches or crow-witches or mirror-witches. They weren’t evil personified in a stepmom or any other single being with henchmen. Disney had, however unintentionally, fed this conception that life was black and white, good or evil.
Chesterton, I believe, meant dragons in a metaphorical sense. His work, and the other classic, traditional fairy tales, feature enemies and heroes much more ambiguous, much more complex, than the reimagined animated versions. Chesterton knew that what children needed was more than entertainment and castles and crowns to solve problems. They needed metaphorical roadmaps.
Movies as Metaphors
Another teller of tales has also taken this tack in his fairy stories, and thankfully, he’s taken these tales to the animated side of cinema, too. Hayao Miyazaki has a repertoire that could compete with Disney’s princess line (except that Disney bought rights to most if not all of Miyazaki’s movies, an irony which is not lost on this writer). I’m hopeful that you are all familiar with at least one or two of his movies. I know many of you who are fans of the whole collection, like myself.
The first Miyazaki movie I saw was Spirited Away. I don’t remember why I asked for it for Christmas, but again ironically, it was probably because Disney had promoted it. I remember receiving it in 2003. My family watched it that day, and it was honestly a spiritual experience. I won’t go into it too much here, but that Christmas I was in a dark place but fighting my way out. I was in a sort of limbo, waiting to know when I could get into treatment – the light at the end of my tunnel, the reason I was fighting to make it.
Watching Chihiro/Sen’s journey in that movie was watching a metaphorical roadmap. Like the protagonist, I had gotten into my mess inadvertently in some ways, but with some immaturity and selfishness helping me get there. Like her, my journey was bizarre, indefinite, and full of ambiguity. But like her, I was able to find and cling to real goodness, to believe that real change is possible, and that I could be the hero of my own story, helpless as I was.
I fell in love with Miyazaki’s collection after that, devouring Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, all of them! I have realized that while Ariel and Belle and the rest of the Disney squad offered some parallels to my life, the resemblance began and ended with big eyes, lots of singing, some sass and selfishness, and a few other personality traits. Their journeys do not provide healthy expectations or examples of growth. Their enemies do not resemble real enemies. They are fantastic for entertainment and escapism, but that’s it. They aren’t role models. They aren’t heroines. They’re just characters.
This realization is all well and good, and I could end it there. However, I think learning from stories is too important to leave it with my personal moment of truth. I fear the wrath of the Mouse, but it has to be said: children deserve better than Disney.
They deserve to see dragons for dragons, and then to see how to defeat them. And since I do believe movies as well as books are effective modes of learning, I say show the kids some Miyazaki and walk them through what real problems and real journeys to solutions look like. Real life, and Miyazaki’s movies, include ambiguity, characters who change, and also heroism rather than marriage and tiaras as a reward.
When I think of the battles I’ve faced in life, perhaps the most frightening thing is how many of them started out seemingly innocent. Wonderful, even. It was like being lured into some golden glen, only to get past a point of return and realize it was all a facade. Oftentimes the motives that get us into messes are pure, but life isn’t predictable or controllable and people change and things get mucked up.
Fairy tales should mirror that. Should prepare us for sudden liftings of the mist where we realize what we thought was enchanted is actually stained. Disney tends to make it either or – wonderful or evil. You’re either safe in the cottage in the woods, or trapped in a curse. The only way through it is total annihilation of evil, restoring things back to sunshine and rainbows. The end.
Miyazaki’s worlds are brimming with magic and spirits. It’s woven into the background and foreground – an obvious part of life. They’re beyond “good or bad” somehow. His characters are aware of spiritual prevalence and seek balance. Or, to better accommodate my own worldview, while they’re always aware of the spiritual presence, they’re not overly concerned with it until necessary. And then they rely on moral codes and bravery and justice to win the fight. Darkness and light are acknowledged, but in a much more true-to-life way. Life is heavy with both, and not always in equal measure. We fight for the Light, but we rarely live surrounded by light exclusively for long. That truth and preparedness for it are what constitutes victory in reality.
When stories show how unclear situations can be, and depict the constant upheaval in balance, we can be better equipped for reality through them. It’s not just situations in life that can be unclear or changing, however. People are as well, so characters in fiction should reflect that.
The Princess Club is lacking in characters that truly change. They’re good or bad, even when they trick us at first; you think the little old lady is sweet, but she’s a witch beyond redemption. Beast may be the only dynamic character that comes to mind, and he’s a little too literal.
That’s problematic because it sets an expectation that 1) there’s no hope for the bad guys in life, and 2) good guys can be trusted implicitly. Neither of those messages are safe for kids.
Miyazaki provides characters that live in the gray zone. I know that can be fearful to parents; you want to be able to point out safe and unsafe for your kids. But as we prepare them for navigating the world on their own, we can show them a Miyazaki metaphorical roadmap to get them there much more truly than a non-realistic Disney good v bad match up.
Take the character No Face from Spirited Away. A cult classic in his own right, though of a smaller circle, his character is much debated. What is clear would be his movement from a mystery, to a monster, to a mild-mannered companion. Chihiro figures that out by acknowledging his presence, recognizing his transformation from benevolent to malevolent, and being a force in his journey to health and happiness. We learn to treat everyone with respect and kindness, while holding everyone to a moral code and at the very least believing that no person is beyond redemption, even if we have to steer clear of them.
Now, Disney is making some progress in their character development. Merida in Brave matures a great deal as she learns to accept responsibility and put others first. I blogged about the live action Cinderella, because I loved it. Maleficent was another, and perhaps Disney’s best, move towards the gray zone of reality that I appreciate, too. They are making a move towards embracing that people change, for better and for worse. I hope they continue it. And as they do, I think it’s also time Disney gave us some real heroes.
Is it heroic to get what you want? I think the easy answer is no, especially if that’s the depth of your reasoning. Yet when I look at the Disney Princess classics, that’s pretty much all it amounts to. Ariel wanted “more” and “to be where the people are” (from the song Part of Your World). She got it. Belle sang about wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” And she got it, in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty all wanted princes and marriage. Missions accomplished. Are these the goals we want for our daughters? Yeesh.
Miyazaki’s protagonists vary in their initial goals, but most of them find their hopes changing as they grow as people throughout their journeys. Because that’s how life works. We may start out wanting to wear a crown in a castle, but realize as we trudge forward that nature needs our help, the poor need our help, and people who are hurting (ourselves included) need to be addressed.
Disney takes kids on a journey from “poor me” to #blessed. Miyazaki shows them life – sometimes more clearly resembling their own than others – and invites them to see the world as it is. To see that the situations we face aren’t always good OR bad. That our world is living and responding to our actions. To see that sometimes the dragon was walking beside us the whole time, and we can’t just run away or kill it.
Life and its problems and its blessings are varied and complex. So many stories are written to reflect this truth, and to help children and adults alike navigate it. I know I’ve made this piece a bit of a compare/contrast, but it’s because I really do want to see the next generation growing up with more solid role models and metaphorical road maps.
I will still watch the Disney classics and feel a bit flattered when told I look like Anna or Ariel. I will always sing those songs. If I have kids, we’ll watch those movies and laugh and cry and be entertained.
But I will turn to Miyazaki and others like him when I need to reflect on actual life circumstances, and if I have kids, we will watch those movies together and talk through the metaphors. I’ll even admit, I hope they will pretend to be Nausicaa or Pazu instead of the better known Princes and Princesses. I hope they will learn how to beat dragons.