“I kissed you like the prince, and now you’re all better!”
I was sick a few weeks ago, and my three-year-old son tried to make me all better with a kiss. I was, of course, touched that he wanted me to feel better, but more amazed that he really believed that he could do it. He sincerely thought that, just like in the Disney movies he had seen, he could heal the person he loved with nothing more than a kiss.
Now, your thoughts at this point probably fall between two extremes: those who swoon and think, “Oh! That is so sweet!” or, those who are horrified that I even let my child watch TV in the first place. If the former, get your head out of the clouds, because I actually want to have a real, adult conversation about princess movies. If the latter, read first, judge later. If my children don’t turn out like you think they should, you can point to this moment and blame me all you want. Right now I want to address this question: In striving to live and teach our children the Catholic faith, are the classic Disney fairy tale movies good for our children and for us to watch, or not?
The Walt Disney Company has produced a wide range of films, but are perhaps most noted for their animated features. Marketed to a young audience, there are concerns that arise as to the effects the movies have on their impressionable viewers. I’ve had discussions with countless people over the years about the flaws in these most popular Disney features. The idealism of romance, the historical inaccuracies, racism, distortion of body image, or passive role of women are just a few of the concerns I’ve heard and read. I do not mean here to dismiss those observations or concerns that go along with them. There are many aspects of these stories that are flawed, and that can be interpreted as hurtful. The thing that bothers me though, is that if that’s the only side of the story, then why would these movies be so popular? So timeless? Why would parents ever show them to their children? Why would I watch them, myself?
I think Disney can be redeemed, especially when viewing their most popular feature animations in light of Catholic teachings on love, chastity, and the Paschal Mystery. Here are some of the things that I think we need to reconsider about these classic stories, which can make them important teaching tools for our children, and enlightening for ourselves as well.
The Triumph of Virtue
There is a villain in every story. Each is depicted in a way that points out the villian’s flaw, and demonstrates how virtue can overcome it. Gaston’s arrogance and pride are defeated by the Beast’s humility and willingness to change. Cinderella’s ability to find joy though living an impoverished life wins out over her step-mother’s and sisters’ greed. Simba’s courage in facing the consequences of his actions overcomes Scar’s cowardice.
If it couldn’t be even more obvious, let’s quote one of the fairies of Sleeping Beauty, who, when Prince Phillip must fight Malificent in the form of a dragon, tells him, “Arm thyself with this enchanted shield of virtue and this mighty sword of truth, for these weapons will triumph over evil.” Does that sound familiar? Maybe give Ephesians, chapter 6 a read. Here we have a spiritual truth, presented in a fairy tale: it is not weapons which conquer evil, but virtue and truth. It doesn’t get much better than that.
We can clearly see the triumph of virtue in these movies. It might be cliché, and it might be an oversimplification of the stories, but it sure can be helpful for explaining to a child that sometimes we have to be nice and share, just like the Beast learned how to be nice and share, or that we don’t want to be vain like the queen in Snow White, but humble and hard working like the dwarves. And hey, don’t we all need a reminder sometimes that good, in the end will defeat evil? Don’t we need a reminder sometimes that the ultimate good, the love of God, has won the battle for us? I know I do.
The Beauty of Romantic Love
Disney movies have been said to provide an unrealistic and idealistic view of romance and relationships, and I think that criticism is justified. Everyone knows that relationships in real life are not dominated by the romance seen in the culminations of these classic stories. Not every man is a handsome, wealthy prince and not every woman is a beautiful princess with perfect hair. This is important to teach children as they grow and important to remind ourselves, even in our marriages, that not every love story is coated in grand gestures and accompanied by an epic soundtrack playing in the background.
Love as eros, love as desire, though, far from being inherently wrong, is a gift of God. Karol Wojtyla writes that, “Desire too belongs to the very essence of the love which springs up between man and woman.” Romantic love is a great gift, insofar as it is directed towards agape, true and sacrificial love for the other. Romance, attraction, and desire all point us towards the union of persons, which reflects the love of God. Of course, we must be sure to point out that love as desire is not an end in itself, but is meant to point us towards a higher, and greater love. That does not mean, though, that there is anything inherently superficial or unholy about swooning over Aladdin and Jasmine’s carpet ride. It can simply be the first step on a road which leads to my next point.
Disney’s “Princess Movies” are often criticized for putting too much emphasis on the romance and whimsy of their endings. There is the sense that all is not well until the prince and princess ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. There is a concern that the children viewing these movies will idealize love, and later be disappointed in their real life relationships. This concern is real, and it is one that the Church holds as well. While we can speak to the holiness of romantic love, it is only a good insofar as it is an expression of true, self giving love.
The danger of true love being overshadowed by emotion, drama, and fantasy is a real one, but, while the classic happy ending is always present in these stories, there is also an element of sacrificial love behind those endings. There is the cross before the resurrection. There is the willingness of Prince Phillip to face a dragon and death for the sake of Aurora. There are Flynn Rider and Rapunzel, who are simultaneously willing to give up their lives for the sake of the other. There is King Triton, who gives his life and power over to Ursula for the sake of saving his daughter, even though Ariel herself is to blame for all the chaos in the story. There is the free choice of Pocahontas to lay down her life to save John Smith, and the recognition of the Beast that love is not to possess, which prompts him to free Belle. Each of these acts, among others, is an example of sacrificial love to which we can give a name and a story. The kiss that heals all wounds, the ride into the sunset, the happily ever after, are all the fruits of sacrifice. How can we not see the reflection of Jesus in this? The entire mystery of Christianity revolves around the sacrificial love of Christ for the world, which results resurrection and the conquering of death.
The cynical side of each of us might roll our eyes at the happy ending and dismiss it as unrealistic, but when someone is willing to give of themselves for the sake of another, for the sake of a greater good, don’t we want them to have a happy ending? If we are truly living our Catholic faith, then we all hoping for the ultimate happy ending of eternal life in heaven, and I don’t think anyone would roll their eyes at the beatific vision. Just saying.
The real point I want to make here, I think, is that we don’t have to run from these stories to maintain and nourish ourselves and our families in living Christian values. Think of it this way: I can try to explain true, sacrificial love to my children all I want. I can tell them about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and how he died for our sins. I can tell of the the beauty of confession and of forgiveness. I can point out examples in the world of persons who are willing to sacrifice out of love, just like Jesus. I can point out people living virtue and choosing right even when it is difficult. So, why not point out those same things in these popular stories which they love, and which I do too?
I’m not suggesting replacing the Gospel with fairy tales, but why not use these stories alongside the Good News to give examples of the lessons? We ought to talk about the beauty of sacrificial love, of which we see a glimpse in these movies. Why separate the theological truths from the secular stories when we can see the beauty and the truth hidden within the stories and bring them to the light? This is one of the greatest elements of the New Evangelization: to bring the Good News to the culture, through the culture.
So maybe don’t scoff at the little girl who dresses up as a princess, or the boy who pretends to fight a dragon with a stick, which he will insist is a sword. Don’t judge the parents who tell these stories to their kids, or watch them alongside them. These may be valuable teaching moments, and glimpses of the eternal which, in the movies, are just fantasy, but thankfully for us, as Christians, is truth and life eternal.