Everyone keeps on discussing Disney movies and their messages for girls. This debate has been ongoing for quite some time, and I don’t believe I have anything meaningful to add to the topic. However, one thing most people don’t mention—ever—is the recurring message sent to boys. It struck me recently, and I expect you’ll say: boys? Doesn’t Disney tell boys they can do anything they want?
Well, actually—no. I suppose you’re as surprised as I was when it finally clicked.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest Disney movies. I’m going to skip Snow White, because the prince hardly features. But what about Cinderella’s prince? The first time he is mentioned, it is by his father. Here is the king’s line:
My son has been avoiding his responsibilities long enough. It's high time he married and settled down.
What about Prince Phillip in The Sleeping Beauty? On the eve of Aurora’s return to the palace, King Hubert and King Stefan discuss their children’s marriage and subsequent grandchildren and Hubert, Phillip’s father hurries things along:
Hubert: Lovebirds can move in tomorrow. Stefan: Tomorrow? But, Hubert, they're not even married yet. Hubert: Take care of that tonight. To the wedding!
At least Phillip decides to stand up for himself and decides he will choose whom to marry, although he doesn't oppose marriage in and of itself.
Hubert: Oh! Y-Y-You can't do this to me. Give up the throne, the kingdom,for some... some nobody? By Harry, I won't have it! You're a prince, and you're going to marry a princess! Phillip: Now, Father,you're living in the past. This is the fourteenth century. Nowadays... Hubert: Nowadays I'm still the king! And I command you to come to your senses! Phillip: And marry the girl I love.
We find this altercation amusing, the scene is funny to adults, but what about boys watching these movies? I wouldn’t know, but if you are a man and watched these movies with your child, I’d love to know your opinion.
And you might think it has something to do with the classic princess movies. Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid receives the same pressure from Grimsby, the father-figure in his life who states the statue he gifts Eric for his birthday was intended as a wedding gift. Belle and her prince also get married, and the whole point of the Beast’s curse was to bring his ego down by getting him to fall in love and settle down from his former frivolous lifestyle.
Aladdin doesn’t escape the pressure to marry either, so it’s not just princes. Yes, all of these are princess movies, but I haven’t finished yet. What about Simba in the Lion King? He returns to defeat Scar precisely because he is ready to settle down and commit to Nala. Not even Robin Hood escapes the pressure. And let’s not forget Mowgli leaving the bliss of the jungle for those big, brown eyes.
The only classic Disney movie I can think of that doesn’t hammer home this message, is The Sword in the Stone, and frankly, I’d be worried if they had done that what with Wart being 8, or thereabouts. However, the message is woven in subtly, for when he is a squirrel, Arthur does get the lesson that love is a very powerful force.
The newer Disneys are harder. They have such a focus on the female characters, the boys are trivialised completely. Just look at Kristoffer in Frozen (reduced to the reindeer’s sidekick) or Maui in Moana (the selfish, stupid idiot who nearly gets the planet destroyed because of his hubris). Are there any others? I can’t think of any more, but I don’t watch the new ones religiously. Disney used to be very gender neutral, always having something for all spectators, but now that is changing and we have a division even in children’s entertainment what with the superhero franchises that bombard viewers with another range of less-than-ideal social scripts for men (and women), but today, I’m talking about Disney movies only.
What does all of this “settle down and get married” business tell us about our society?
For the first, we have a clear situation where pressure is put on boys to go against their promiscuous natures. They are expected to “settle down” find “the one” and “get married”. This goes counter to the claim by many feminists, that we live in a patriarchy run by men for men. If that truly were the case, our society would be geared toward the natural tendency of males to impregnate as many females as possible, not curbing their promiscuity through the social pressure to have a single mate, and take responsibility for offspring.
However, this social expectation is also putting unnecessary pressure on young men. We have a rising rate of men who live with their parents into their thirties (or like my second cousin—for life). They live coddled, comfortable bachelors’ lives without any real responsibilities. I’m not saying they choose this deliberately, but it is a feature. I imagine the picky nature of women, who only want the best—the cream of the crop, as it were—aren’t helping the situation.
The situation in the work environment means people are older before they earn a significant amount of money. This, too affects men’s ability to “take responsibility” and “get married”, because women aren’t going to tie themselves down to men who can’t support them. Rising education levels among women are also compounding this situation, meaning the large majority of women are only willing to go out with a very small minority of men.
We can see the pressure this skewed social situation is placing on young men in the rising suicide rates among teen boys. Yes, teen girls are also suffering from changes in our society which are raising rates of depression and self-harm. Boys have similar rising tendencies, but the suicide rates are going up exponentially (see stats in The Coddling of the American Mind among others), and I think there may be something to this. Boys aren’t able to see a future for themselves. The social structure of the past is crumbling because change is happening so quickly and they don’t have the support they require to be able to adapt.
Right, so we have a past situation where young men were bombarded with social pressure to get married, but then society moved on and feminism has brought in the new wave of movies such as Moana and Frozen, where the male characters are ridiculed. This is hardly helpful, and certainly not a move towards equality between the sexes. Women ridiculing men and trivialising their experiences as stupid, egotistical and unimportant can’t be a good thing. What can we do? I honestly don’t know yet, but would love to discuss this topic further. What do you think about social pressures on boys? And how what we are teaching our daughters is conversely affecting boys? How would you try to focus social change to allow an outcome where young women and men are equally able to take responsibility and achieve their potential?
Thank you for reading, and if you’d like to get an update when I post next, you can subscribe here. Please leave a comment. I would love to hear your thoughts and spark a decent debate on this situation which I find intriguing and worrying.