Fun fact: I used to think “National Treasure” was one of the best movies ever made in the history of cinema. I mean, stealing the Declaration of Independence because there’s an invisible map on the back that leads to hidden treasure? To my 6-year-old self, that was the epitome of a high concept that truly only a genius could think of.
When I watched it again a few years ago, I realized how only an audience under the age of 10 could be impressed by this movie. Who else would genuinely be mind-blown at the idea of squeezing lemons onto the Declaration? In my canon of favorite films, “National Treasure” has now been relegated to a fun drinking game — if you drink every time someone says “Declaration of Independence,” you will not remember the second half of the movie.
It’s funny, looking back years later on the movies and shows you loved as a child and realizing how much your perception has changed. Watching a movie as an innocent and naive child is a completely different experience from watching it when you’re older. When we’re younger, we’re much more impressionable and more readily internalize the messages we watch.
One of the biggest players shaping our moldable minds when we’re younger is Disney — and not only because it now owns almost all of Hollywood. More than any other studio’s animated films, Disney’s movies are integrated into countless aspects of our childhoods, from Halloween costumes to cereal boxes. We all love the classic fairy tale that begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with “And they lived happily ever after.”
But as we get older, we can look back at these films and realize just how often “happily ever after” sugarcoats the more misogynistic messages these films hide.
There are the obvious storyline objections: The kisses Snow White and Sleeping Beauty received weren’t consensual, Belle had Stockholm syndrome, and Ariel changed her whole identity for a man she had never met. Then there are the more subtle implications of how Disney princesses and princes are portrayed, a passive reinforcement of gender roles that is shared in almost every beloved Disney film. It’s like a sexist version of the hero’s journey: The girl always embodies idealized feminine characteristics — sweet, demure, pretty, fair, soft. There is something the girl yearns for — Ariel wants to be on land, Belle wants adventure in the great wide somewhere — that is only fully fulfilled with the help of a man. The girl ends up with said man.
Even the empowered princesses in the more “woke” Disney films need male assistance to achieve their goals. Tiana works two jobs to save up for her own restaurant — but still needs money from Prince Naveen to ultimately buy it. Mulan saves all of China to gain the respect of her family — but her grandmother still wryly mentions that she “should’ve brought home a man” when she comes back. I didn’t think of the injustice of it all when I was a kid, but how infuriating is that? That woman single-handedly saves the entire country, but she still needs to bring Shang home to satisfy her grandmother. What kind of message does that send little girls?
I could spout out critiques like “heteronormative standards” and “patriarchal hegemony,” but the foundation of it all is the implied inferiority of Disney’s female characters. Many do nothing except wait for “true love’s kiss” to fix their problems, and when they do have agency beyond skills like “can sing to animals,” they don’t earn their “happily ever after” on their own. Men dictate the women’s stories. Even structurally, there is more male presence in these female-driven films — linguists found that men speak 68 percent of the time in “The Little Mermaid,” 76 percent of the time in “Pocahontas” and 77 percent of the time in “Mulan.” And these are movies in which the female protagonist is literally the title of the film!
This wouldn’t be so bad if Disney princesses weren’t the heroes of so many little girls. As kids, we see the fairy-tale endings, and we think that the only way to achieve them is to embody our favorite princesses and mirror their storylines. It’s the “National Treasure” effect, only instead of realizing how dumb a movie is, as we get older, we realize how warped certain films made our perception of female characters.
Maybe with its live-action remakes, Disney can rectify the messages it passively sent in the past. But for now, the next time you shove in a DVD to watch with your little sibling or cousin, maybe read them some of “The Feminine Mystique” or an excerpt from Judith Butler afterward. And just as with “National Treasure,” you can turn it into a drinking game (when you’re watching without children, of course). If you drink every time you see something problematic, you’ll remember nothing past the Disney castle being shown.
Julie Lim writes the weekly column on how media shapes our perceptions of the world. Contact her at [email protected]