When I was a teenager, neurotic about my weight like most female teenagers in America, I noticed how disney princesses (and my beloved Barbie dolls) promoted an unhealthy body image (what are those, negative 4-size waists?) and of course, a stunning made-up face to match that perfect body. The message is a woman needs to be thin and beautiful to be loved (and don’t forget the make-up!). Even more alarmingly, these movies carry a deeper, more dangerous message about a woman’s worth and potential. That is, a woman’s value, salvation, and in the cases of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, her life depend on a man’s interest in her. A woman’s male-dependent value is obvious enough, as is the take-home that she needs to be hot and tiny. What I want to focus on is the toxic message these movies send about what a woman deserves from a man – turns out it’s not much.
Check out our disney men. Now, I grant they are all good-looking as well. So the unrealistic standard of beauty imposed on women is also there for men. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the damage is the same for both genders. The most obvious reason is young boys don’t watch these movies as often as young girls, and if and when they do, it isn’t with adulation – they don’t yearn to emulate the male leads (How many boys want to dress up like Prince Charming? Now, how many little girls love their princess dresses?). Even if boys do emulate the way the men of disney look (granted, they are pretty built with handsome features), there is an important difference in the message that a young girl and a young boy internalize.
Compare the contradictory messages here. The male characters’ looks didn’t get them where they are. As for the leading ladies, their looks were necessary to score their men and the great life they provided them. “The Little Mermaid” is a story in which the man falls in love with the mermaid, who doesn’t even speak because she traded her passion for singing for a pair of nice human legs. What I take from this plot is a woman should be seen and not heard, and furthermore, what she has to say doesn’t even matter – looks are enough. She gives up her whole life and changes who she fundamentally is (mermaid to human transformation) just to be with this man. A romantic act of love? That might be plausible if in any of these movies, the man ever once gives up anything so valuable as the girl does. “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” could be seen to endorse date-rape. (Okay, I’m not really concerned with that being a message a young girl would actually internalize, but technically we have a sexual act, albeit just a kiss, without the woman’s consent. I will say what I like about Snow White is the dwarfs did all the cleaning; but Disney had to kill my tiny feminist victory with her cooking for all of them.) In all three of these movies, the woman’s salvation depends on receiving a “kiss of true love.”
“Cinderella” was the original “real housewife” marrying for money and a better life (and that is an understatement, as she was basically a slave). Then there is “Aladdin,” where girls learn to tolerate some serious lying from men. I’ll let the theft go because he was destitute and hungry – he was stealing apples not BMWs. The most interesting case of anti-feminism, because it is the most subtle, is “Beauty and the Beast.” The graphic nails it. The message is love someone for who they are – it’s what’s inside a person that counts – oh unless that person is a woman, in which case she needs to be attractive. I’m not denying that personality matters for the woman in order to win the man’s affections – it certainly does. There is a difference though. Men can be valued for just what’s on the inside; women are expected to be a package deal (oh, except brains aren’t a priority, she just has to be sweet).
This double standard is prevalent in our culture. We see it a lot in the music industry. Have you noticed that in order to be a successful singer, a woman 9 times out of 10 has to be hot and talented, but the man can get famous just by his talents? Yes, you can find a famous and talented unattractive female singer, but my point is that’s really an exception, not the norm. It seems there is a pretty even split between attractive and unattractive male musicians, which just enforces my point that looks don’t matter as much for the men. Picture these famous, talented female singers: Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Joan Jett, Grace Potter, Gwen Stefani, Joss Stone, Bjork, Amy Lee (lead singer of Evanescence), and the list of beauties goes on. Here are some famous male singers of comparable talent but not looks: Mick Jagger, Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), Joey Ramone, Thom Yorke (I’m sorry, I love you Thom!), Adam Duritz (same apology!), Steven Tyler, Ronnie Van Zant (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Bob Dylan, Elton John, Seal, Peter Cetera, etc. If you think I’m wrong, try to name so many as three comparably famous and talented, yet homely, female singers. (It doesn’t count if they are just unattractive “now.” If they were cute when they got famous, this enforces my point that looks got them in the door.)
Back to our disney suitors! While these guys are attractive, relatively intelligent, and competent, contemporary television goes in a different direction, an arguably more offensive one. Following classics such as “The Honeymooners” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the leading men aren’t saviors anymore – in fact, they are losers.
Popular sitcoms such as “According to Jim,” “King of Queens,” “Everybody Loves Raymond”, “Family Guy,” and of course “The Simpsons” present married couples where the woman is attractive, thin, intelligent, and productive, while her husband is much less attractive, often overweight and much worse, always dim and lazy. These men drink beer and watch television, constantly screw up as husbands and have parenting skills that leave much to be desired.
I feel sorry for men being portrayed this way on television. I’m not claiming they don’t suffer offense watching these fuckwits, but I’m not as concerned with it. Men aren’t being asked to give up anything in their mate. The suggestion for women is we ought to have low standards and that a fuck-up husband is adorable! Let me ask, where are the sitcoms featuring a gorgeous man and his homely fat wife?
So what do we make of all this? TV and film (don’t even get me started on film) have some very anti-feminist messages for us. I’ve only scratched the surface here. It is important to recognize these dangerous messages so we can be sensitive to what young girls are internalizing about their potential and worth. We need to combat such messages like a woman is incomplete without a man by raising young girls to be independent thinkers. We must impart upon them the importance of working hard in school, and the tremendous value of pursuing her own career and aspirations.
I’m not saying don’t let young girls watch these disney movies – as I said at the beginning, they are delightful. However, we ought to be vigilant to temper the disturbing messages in these movies with empowering ones. We must ensure young girls are presented with positive female role models: women who are strong, smart, independently-minded, and ambitious.