Having recently finished up a science-y degree, I am obviously well qualified to thoroughly and accurately discuss the cultural impact of fairy tales. Well, perhaps not. But perhaps my fresh memories of deep dives into the murky waters of f-ratios, geostrophic balance, sediment cores, and DNA cleaning have made me hungry for exploration in waters of a different sort.
It was on some spare time that I watched Moana on Netflix (I believe it was in two or three sittings, given almost everything I was watching then was in a 20- or 40- minute episode format and I couldn’t bring myself to watch a full length movie without crushing feelings of guilt). I also found the non-cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast there as well. I loved the beautiful animation of Moana – the islands, beaches, water, sea shells – much the same way I loved the animation of Finding Nemo. And with Beauty and the Beast – I found it charming enough, and, well, hardly controversial at all. “Praise the Lord and kill the Beast!” sung from the torch-wielding mob annoyed me more than any of the subtlety of the "gay moments" I had heard so much about (moments that, I think, would pass completely unnoticed by the eyes of an innocent child).
So princesses have been on my mind. That’s not why I’ve come to this issue, however. The real reason is that I recently picked up Mere Christianity again, and was more than happy to read a brief passage from him on the subject of fairy tales, in a manner reminiscent of one of my favorite quotes from G. K. Chesterton (of which, I assure you, there are many.) In Orthodoxy, Chesterton explains how fairy tales taught him Christian truths before he had received the formal theology lessons. “Jack the Giant-Slayer” was to him a metaphor on the manly virtue that is to battle against the Giants of Pride. “Sleeping Beauty” told the story of the origin of Man: blessed at his birth, but soon after cursed with death – though that death was “softened to a sleep,” and later defeated by Prince Charming, showing the triumph Christians have over death through Christ. Cinderella vividly depicts Jesus’ teaching that “He who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11, Matthew 23:12).
Then, my personal favorite – the moral of Beauty and the Beast, that “a thing must be loved before it is loveable” (Chesterton, 1908). It is the ultimate Christian tale – while we were still sinners, God loved us enough to send His Son to rescue us. It is His love that saves us, transforms us, allows us to become more like Christ. It encourages the Christian virtue of charity, to show love to everyone, even those who are not loving to us. C. S. Lewis adds that it can act as a metaphor for a conversion, but also the Christian life. The heroine first “pretends” the Beast is a man, and he becomes one. We may not instantly turn into the perfect, Christ-like beings God wants us to become, but He “pretends,” in Lewis’ words – allows us to play dress-up after Christ – until we really are. He takes the sinner and makes him a son, as Beauty takes a monster and turns him into a man.
The damsel-in-distress story so berated today, in favor of a strong, confident, leading (rather than passive) woman, is itself the Christian story – God rescues His bride from her chains, her bonds, her filthy rags of sin. But Christianity “doesn’t sound like a fairy-tale,” said Dr. Clay Jones at a Biola apologetics conference I attended years ago. “Fairy-tales sound like it.”
Of course, not all parents are ok with Disney’s portrayal of the princess fairy tale story. Christians are concerned with magical influence of Disney – a secular company with no qualms about breaking Christian morals. Sure, there’s the “gay moment” uproar of Beauty and the Beast. But in a conversation with a sister in Christ, I heard an ethical critique of The Little Mermaid. “It’s a horrible movie for young girls!” my friend declared. “She’s disobeying her parents, she takes all these drastic measures, just to go see a guy she knows nothing about – except that he’s hot.”* I laughed in agreement. As a kid, though, I certainly never picked up on these things, including Ursula crooning, “It's she who holds her tongue who gets a man!" No, I wasn’t a very astute child. I liked The Little Mermaid because it had waves and mermaids and all the ocean creatures dancing and singing “Under the Sea.” I wasn’t thinking about the foolishness of a boy-crazy girl sneaking out to catch a hot guy's attention. I was thinking "red hair is the prettiest hair of all the hair." Then there was my young friend who adored The Sleeping Beauty. I believe the main, if not only, reason, for her obsession was that Aurora wore a pink dress. (What can I say? We four year olds make shrewd cinematic critics.)
Now, my mother let me watch these movies. But she made sure I knew that the romance in them wasn’t realistic. “And they lived happily ever after” was followed by “but that’s not how it goes in the real world. In the real world it takes work.” These comments never really shocked me that much, however. After all, I was a child. I wasn’t watching it for the romance, setting my hopes and dreams on a romantic Happily Ever After. Of the three princess movies I saw the most as a kid – Cinderella, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid – I hardly remember the Prince Charmings at all. They were never really that important. In Snow White, you could almost forget about him. If he didn’t have his one appearance at the beginning of the movie, you’d be thinking, “Who is this guy, and why is he kissing the almost-dead girl?” Instead of watching for the romance, I was watching for the friendly birds and mice, the magic of a pumpkin-turned-carriage, the antics of seven little dwarves.
That being said, Christians are much more critical of Disney itself than fairy tales in general. The world of princesses and dragons, or of Narnian creatures, or any other site of whimsy leads to imagination of being in a world like that. Almost – a desire to be in a world like that. In one parent’s words, “they are really longing for Heaven, and in desiring the magical, imagined land, they are exhibiting their desire for fulfillment in union with God” (Spencer, 2015). Fairy tales capture children’s imaginations in powerful ways. But rather than escapism, they can teach morality in ways that realistic stories cannot. In the real world, good doesn’t always win. Justice isn’t always served. But in fairy tales, children learn that goodness and justice is ideal, even if it is broken in our everyday experience (Rigney, 2011).
Besides, fairy tales go far beyond the plot of damsel in distress. The Ugly Duckling and the Frog Prince were the tales that first taught us not to judge by appearances. Little Red Riding Hood reminds us that evil exists not just in the obviously wicked forest, but that it can creep into homes and take you by surprise (Wann, 2017). The Emperor’s New Clothes puts another of Jesus’ teachings into fairy tale form: to gain the Kingdom of Heaven, you should make yourself as a small child. There is a wisdom to young children that tends to get slowly weeded out through the difficult and often awkward process of learning to be an adult.
While there may be wisdom in shirking some of a secular company’s interpretation of classic fairy tales, there is also wisdom in bringing these fairy tales to our children. Although, I might add, there is a time and a place for the depiction of our culture as it is – rather than glorifying it, why not be educated about it? Another parent argues, “We must raise alien children – children who are not surprised by or afraid of this culture, but who know how to impact it for the gospel” (Wallace, 2017). Movies can be a safe way to introduce such conversations – whether it’s about homosexuality or honoring one’s father and mother. Of course, parents know their individual children best, and I respect the informed decisions they make for their own families. At the very least, I’ll say, "It didn’t damage me." That’s my experience, anyway (but then, you needn’t bother with my experience. I was not the girliest child, and I even managed to spend time playing with Barbie dolls – Gasp! – without developing any body image issues or ultra-feminist worldviews).
But Christian parents aren’t the only ones with concerns about the influence of Disney princesses. Christians may be concerned about idealism, escapism, secularization, or the development of boy-crazy girls. Christians and secularists are concerned about raising girls to think marriage and stereotypically feminine traits are the end-all-be-all of a woman’s existence. Not to mention body image issues. Or pre-feminist, stereotypical ideals. Although one study bewails that Disney princesses idealize “beautiful underweight damsels” (Stover, 2013), another shows that the young girls watching these movies are not likely to be affected by media when it comes to body image (Hayes & Tantleff-Dunn, 2010). This study confirmed a rising concept that young children “adopt the persona of attractive characters with whom they identify,” whereas older ones start “comparing themselves to the characters” (Hayes & Tantleff-Dunn, 2010). It is this comparison that leads to low self-esteem. (By the time they’re older and more likely to start comparing themselves to role models, they’ve likely moved on from their Disney princess infatuation.) Interestingly, the young children unaffected by media (including princess movies) still could have body image issues. If not from media, where are they getting that from? Friends? Older siblings? Mom? – food for thought.
According to social studies of the history of Disney princesses, there are three categories of princess movies that Disney has produced.
The Early Princesses includes Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Of these, Snow White is the most stereotypically feminine, with some describing her as “exemplify[ying] Hollywood’s trend toward passive, childish figures” (Stover, 2013) – at least, what Hollywood’s trend was in the 30’s – and others describing her as emotional (why is she terrified of sticks in the woods? Just because it’s dark?), always under the protection of men (the Huntsman is her first rescuer, then the dwarves watch out for her, then the prince rescues her), and perfectly content with domestic tasks (which is apparently a bad thing, at least according to secular studies) (Davis, 2014). Cinderella also continues with the domestic chores setting, and is victimized by her stepfamily before her prince saves her. Then there is Sleeping Beauty, who struck me as less passive than Cinderella, but let’s be honest – the girl has 17 minutes of screen time (Davis, 2014). She’s asleep for most of the movie. There’s also the continued focus on relationships for ultimate happiness: the fairies, who nobly turn her death sentence into a sleep, ordain the curse to be broken by True Love’s Kiss. From the onset, it could be argued, Aurora is set up to be dependent on a man.
The early princesses can be said to “helplessly find themselves in harm’s way” (Davis, 2014) – with a Prince Charming to the rescue for each.
The Middle Princesses began with The Little Mermaid. Sure, she’s a princess still set on true love and getting a man, but she’s much more active, and much more ready for adventure. Aladdin’s Jasmine is also one of the Middles. But the three strongest women of this group are Belle, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Of course, Pocahontas and Mulan are the strongest of those three, and one commentator laments that their “strength and leadership . . . were inconceivable in the depiction of the traditional white, well-groomed princess” (Stover, 2013). Furthermore, their autonomy was still not good enough for feminists: “Disney’s rhetoric shifted from any prince to the right prince” (Stover, 2013). Still, an important step, no doubt; plus, this overlooks Pocahontas’ non-traditional happy ending: she doesn’t go sailing into the sunset with John Smith at the end, but stays home happily without the romance.
Finally, the Modern Princesses include Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Rapunzel from Tangled, and Anna and Elsa from Frozen. The heroines of Brave and Moana also make this list. These women are taught – or teach their viewers – that romance is secondary or not necessary at all. Which is absolutely a positive for young girls to hear! Tiana models hard work and diligence. Rapunzel is almost manipulative with the control she holds over the man in her life, and while he helps her accomplish her goal, she also helps him, which is a big step up from the passive princess singing “someday my prince will come” (that is, Snow White). And Frozen shows two strong female leads, where men are not needed at all for them to do the rescuing and plot-solving all by themselves (Davis, 2014).
This evolution of character and plotline certainly reflects changing cultural norms. And there is value in depicting women with goals in life outside of “I need a man around.” But again, the romance is often secondary to children anyway – and not just to me personally (Pham, 2015). I see no problem with remodeling the princess into a stronger and more independent lady. But are the stereotypically feminine traits of the above princesses really so bad? As listed above, the story of princess getting rescued by her prince can be a metaphor for Jesus rescuing His bride – but the secular interpretation is that it models passivity in our women. In the case of Snow White, I didn’t walk away from it – as a movie, or as a bedtime story – having learned lessons of "women are emotional and childish" or "women need men to rescue them" or even "marriage is the end-all of human (or woman) existence." The lesson I drew from Snow White was simply, "Don’t accept food from strangers." Especially ones with eyes like Marty Feldman. (I might add that, despite my already admitted poor interpretation skills as a child, I was always somewhat startled at the closing scene of Snow White – is that castle in the clouds? It looks like heaven! Is it supposed to look like that . . . ?)
And here is where Christian and secular criticism diverges. The Christian sees Cinderella and notes her humility, the love she shows her cruel stepsisters, and her hard work and happy nature under trials. Snow White is not seen as an emotional train wreck, vulnerable and gullible, and demonstrating that a woman’s place is cooking and cleaning. She is, quite simply, a sweet girl – and her beauty surpasses that of the Queen’s because of that sweetness (at least, that was implied in the bedtime stories. Whether implied in the cinematic version I can’t remember). The stereotypical damsel in distress is not necessarily a victim of her circumstances, waiting for her prince to rescue her – she makes the best of the circumstances thrown at her, she is virtuous and good and kind despite her circumstances, and she is loved because of that beauty and goodness. Christians aren’t afraid of beauty – especially beauty and goodness thrown together. Because the Christian knows that “beauty” is really code for “good.” Everyone knows that a good girl becomes more and more beautiful as you get to know her, regardless of your first impressions of her beauty. Everyone knows that, in the everyday world, virtue builds up to beauty in a greater dimension than the attractiveness of outward appearances.
But what am I saying? Everyone most certainly does not know that! Everyone today is convinced that beauty is a manicure, a current hairstyle, flawlessly applied makeup, full lips, long eyelashes, and a trendy outfit over a perfectly sculpted body (and one that can be sculpted to fit your definition of “perfect” – whatever that is – thanks to the wonders of modern technology). Our modern culture has lost sight of the truth that beauty stems from goodness; beauty and goodness go hand in hand. So instead, they’ve replaced it with the emptier notion that beauty is sexiness. Beauty is how many eyes follow you when you walk into a room. Beauty is power. Beauty is knowing that your body is yours to flaunt and use however you please.
While the secular critic complains that a little girl’s princess obsession results in a “desire to dress like her, to emulate in appearance and not in action” (Stover, 2013), Christians show less concern at their daughters taking an interest in dress-up. The secular critic declares that this princess-fueled focus on looks as a child leads to adult women who pour their money into beauty products, beauty surgery, and generally finding worth in her sex appeal. But Christians may instead argue that a lack of princess stories as a child fuel the adult woman to find her worth in her sex appeal. The Prince falls in love with the princess because of her beauty and goodness. The feminist ideal says that that kind of princess is weak. So . . . women should instead be sexy to capture men’s attention (Pham, 2015). Or consider the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, who must slay a dragon to rescue his princess. Instead of exhorting our boys towards strength, courage, and sacrifice, we imply that the hero is an affront to a woman’s independence. Sleeping Beauty, after all, is a cringeworthy representation of passive, wimpy womanhood. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t need a man to rescue her. So with heroism out of the picture, boys use “superficial displays of testosterone rather than true strength and selflessness” (Pham, 2015).
The strong, independent, adventure seeking princess certainly has its place in children’s literature. But so does the damsel in distress. They can teach different lessons, different truths, to our children. And again, issues of concern are always up for discussion for a concerned parent with their kids - whether you need to address the idea that it’s ok for girls to wait around until true love arrives, or that it’s somehow wrong for boys to protect, serve, and sacrifice. If those are the lessons your children are getting from the fairy tales they are reading and watching, they are the wrong ones to learn!
I’ve focused a lot here on fairy tales including princesses. What of the fairy tales of Narnia, Neverland, Middle Earth? Here we have a place of eternal youth, perhaps reminiscent of heaven (Neverland); a world in which “a King brings peace and redemption to a broken land” (Wann, 2017; Narnia), whose King reminds so many of Christ; a place rich in symbolism where the good fights back against the evil (Middle Earth). Realms of magic and whimsy are wonderful places to depict truths about good and evil, sin and redemption, beauty and strength, virtue and justice. “The greatest thing by far,” wrote Aristotle, “is to be a master of metaphor.” It is metaphor that fairy tales excel at, and their symbolism has the power to captivate the imagination of children and incite spirited dialogue and debate in adults. That is, they interest all ages, and are very much worth the discussions they might arouse. Those conversations may include a confirmation of the truth interpreted from the fairy tale; they may involve a discussion about the folly of anti-Christian ideals or poorly modeled stereotypes.
Another set of tales similar to the fairy tale format involves the myth of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The movie Camelot mainly gave me the impression that adultery stinks. But we also read lots of the little tales of his knights together, my favorite of which was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This one, conversely, shined bright with the positive, converse message: adultery kills, but faithfulness brings success, glory, joy, and honor.
There are also, of course, the ancient myths. Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology all have played their influence on the literature of the Western World, and other global myths to their respective literature. Perhaps the Disney Princess depictions can be seen as myths of our own time, to discuss, interrogate, appreciate, and learn from the way we would the stories of ancient mythology.
Regardless of your family's favorite version of myth and fairy tale, they not only captivate us, teach us, and reveal truth; they can, whether from film or book, inspire engaging conversation that can be so lacking - and so needed - at today's typical family dinner table.
*Paraphrased my friend here. Don’t recall exact wording. ;) Same for the quote from Dr. Jones.
Aristotle. (330 BC). The Poetics.
Chesterton, G. K. (1908). Orthodoxy.
Davis, M. M. (2014). “From Snow to Ice: A Study on the Progression of Disney Princesses from 1937 to 2014." Film Matters. http://www.micheleleigh.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/snow-to-ice.pdf
Hayes, S. & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2010). “Am I Too Fat to Be a Princess? Examining the Effects of Popular Children’s Media on Young Girls’ Body Image.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1348/026151009X424240
Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity.
Pham, E. (2015). “Disney’s Princesses Gone Bye-Bye.” The Christian Review. http://www.thechristianreview.com/disneys-princesses-gone/
Rigney, J. (2011). “Three Objections to Fairy Tale and C. S. Lewis’s Response to Them.” Desiring God. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/three-objections-to-fairy-tales-an…
Spencer, S. (2015). “The Important of Myths and Fairy Tales for Christian Children.” Crisis Magazine. https://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/the-importance-of-myths-and-fairy-t…
Stover, C. (2013). Damsels and Heroines: The Conundrum of the Post-Feminist Disney Princess.” Claremont. LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&conte…
Wallace, S. (2017). “Why Christians Can Calm Down About Beauty and the Beast.” CrossWalk. https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/why-christians-can-calm-…
Wann, L. (2017). “The Magic of Fairy Tales.” Fathom Mag. https://www.fathommag.com/stories/the-magic-of-fairy-tales
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