Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Good and Bad Messages of Disney Princesses

What lessons are your novels teaching and can they be interpreted differently?

I’ve seen a number of blog posts lately that have been a little hard on the Disney movies we all grew up with, particularly the Disney Princesses. So I thought I’d take a minute to look at the ways different people interpret messages in a story differently. In every book we write, whether we intend to or not, we end up saying something, we include symbolism and meaning behind (hopefully) every page. Sometimes though the way we intend a message to be taken is interpreted another way. So here are the good and bad interpretations of some famous Disney princesses. Hopefully in understanding how these opposing viewpoints can be found in the same stories we can better appraise our own work and make our messages clearer.

Snow White

Bad Messages:
If something bad happens just wait around for a man to come along and save you. - Snow white’s stepmother tries to have her killed because she’s prettier than her. So, she hides away in a cabin in the woods, cooking and cleaning for dwarves until the handsome prince comes along to make everything better. 

Good Messages:
Other than the overarching theme of good conquering evil, I feel like this story has a strong message about friendship. When Snow White stumbles upon the Seven Dwarfs they take her in and look after her and she does the same for them. She doesn’t need to be in some big castle to be happy she just needs to be surrounded by good people.

What Would Make the Good Message Clearer:
The majority of this movie is Snow White escaping from, or hiding from her evil stepmother. She never really does anything to help save herself. If we had gotten to see more of Show White’s strengths, skills and personality, she might not have seemed so two-dimensional. By giving Snow White better character development and depth she wouldn’t have seemed like such a bystander in the story.
How to Apply to Your Writing:
The damsel in distress bit is overdone. Not that you can’t have a female character being saved by a male character, just that there should be more to who the female character is than “the girl that gets saved”. Give your characters dimensions. Furthermore readers like to see main character be active in the movement of the plot and resolution to conflict. If you have a female lead and the story ends without her even having a part in saving the day, your readers may feel cheated.


Cinderella

Bad Messages:
Makeovers and money fix everything. – Cinderella is basically treated like a slave by her ugly stepmother and sisters until one day her fairy god mother dresses her up and sends her to the ball where she meets the handsome prince who then rescues her from her miserable life.

Good Messages:
Some argue that Cinderella’s meeting with her fairy Godmother, who dresses her up and prepares her for the ball, symbolizes that to get the guy all you have to do is dress pretty. I however would argue that Cinderella teaches that beauty is fleeting. After all at the stroke of midnight everything Cinderella’s fairy Godmother changed turned back (except for the glass slippers of course). Cinderella’s luxuries were temporary, and at the end of the story, when the prince comes to find Cinderella, he still loves her even without the pretty dress and pumpkin coach. Cinderella is ultimately a good person. She’s treated horrible by her stepmother and step-sisters, but she doesn’t seem to resent them for it. She doesn’t plot against them or hate them, and at the end of the story it’s the fact that she’s a good person that lands her the prince.
What Would Make the Good Message Clearer:
Giving the prince more than five minutes of dance time to get to know Cinderella before she runs out of the ball might make it easier for critics out there to believe that he went looking for the mystery girl in the glass slippers because of who she was on the inside and not just how gorgeous she was in that blue dress.

How to Apply to Your Writing:
Insta-love relationships are cheap. Your readers want to see your characters get to know each other, and they want to understand why your prince is so in love with your Cinderella. Otherwise their emotions come off as lust rather than love and the attraction seems vain.




Ariel


Bad Messages:

It’s okay to run away from home, drastically change your body, and trade your best talent for a guy. - Ariel is so unhappy with her life as a mermaid princess that she trades her beautiful voice to become human so she can be with a guy she met once.

Good Messages:
The Little Mermaid has a wonderful sense of adventure. She wants to see the world and experience new things. Does she make some bad decisions, absolutely, but learning from your mistakes is part of growing up, and so is learning to appreciate who you are. There is a message of “be careful what you wish for” here, as things don’t turn out perfectly with the contract Ariel signs. After all she does ironically give away the one thing Prince Eric remembers of her from when she saved him in the storm – her voice. This nearly allows Ursula to steal him away from her. I also think it’s important to note that the thing the prince fell in love with Ariel for was not her looks but her voice, this was something Ariel had to learn to appreciate about herself instead of taking it for granted. She had to learn to value her talent and that it was important to be more than just a pretty face. Also I would like to point out that at the end it's Ariel's father that turns her back into a human allowing her to marry Eric. I think there is a message here about accepting your children for who they are and that this shows that Ariel should have gone to her father in the first place. She may end up leaving her family in the end, but there is still a positive message about being honest with your parents even though this was something Ariel had to learn.

What Would Make the Good Message Clearer:
I think what most people are upset about in this story is that in the end Ariel gets everything she wants without any lasting consequences. That can leave people wondering if she really learned her lesson. The original Hans Christian Andersen tale has a much sadder ending, and the Disney version loses a lot of what the story is about by changing it. In the Hans Christian Andersen tale the little mermaid truly has to make a sacrifice for the greater good and the ending isn’t a happy one, but the overall feel of the story is more complete. 

How to Apply to Your Writing:
Actions have consequences. Happily ever after may work for Disney, but your reader is going to feel cheated if your character makes a poor decision with no real consequences. They’re also going to feel cheated if things work out too easily for everyone in the end. It’s not always fun to write a sad ending, but sometimes that’s what necessary to make a great story.


Belle

Bad Messages:
It doesn’t matter if a guy kidnaps you and is abusive to you; you can change him just by loving him. – Belle is kidnapped by a hideous monster who is horrible to her, but just by loving him she’s able to change him into a decent person.

Good Messages:
Belle has a lot of good qualities. She’s smart, likes to read, and rejects Gaston’s cheesy advances. She gets some slack for staying in what some call an “abusive relationship” with the Beast, but they seem to forget that she does so in order to save her father. She sacrifices her own freedom so he can leave. Furthermore, the Beast does set her free, and she leaves. He does actually change and become a better person. It’s only then that Belle returns to the Beast knowing that he has the ability to be a good person. Belle shows the Beast kindness, I think this story is more about being kind to all people, even if they appear ugly or seem mean, than it is about trying to change people. It may be a little idealistic to say that there’s good in all people and they can be good if given the chance, but that’s still a positive message.
What Would Make the Good Message Clearer:
In the beginning of this story the Beast becomes the literal monster he already is. He’s not just misunderstood he actually has a dark heart. He didn’t become this grumpy recluse because he looked scary. He became a mean, violent animal because he was this stuck up, vain, rich guy. Had The Beast been turned into this creature by mistake somehow, or if it had been a curse unjustly put upon him, it might have been easier for the viewers to see the good in the Beast that Belle does.

How to Apply to Your Writing:

Romances today often include a rugged and crass bad boy to play opposite the female lead, but writers be careful not to make your bad boy too bad. There is a fine line between rebellious and misunderstood, and abusive. You want your readers to understand why he’s “bad” and to know that deep down there already is something good about him. And, if your bad boy does display some negative traits make sure your female love interest reacts appropriately, and that she doesn’t interpret abusive behavior as love.

Jasmine

Bad Messages:
You can get anything you want by using your sexuality, and seducing men. – Jasmine, locked away behind the palace walls and forced to get married uses her looks to distract people and turn things in her favor.

Good Messages:
Jasmine is often criticized for being too sexy, but she has a lot of good qualities too. Jasmine is strong willed and free-spirited. She fights to make her own choices refusing to marry someone just because she’s told she should. She’s unimpressed by Aladdin’s wished riches and shows us that you should be with someone because you love them and not because of what they can give you. She’s often been criticized for being shallow, but I’d argue against this point remembering the scene where she nearly has her hand chopped off after giving a child an apple. It seems obvious to me that while Jasmine was pretty and knew it, that wasn’t what was most important to her.
What Would Make the Good Message Clearer:
This was a tough one for me, maybe because it’s one of my favorite Disney movies, but in the end I simply have to disagree with the criticisms of Jasmine and give Disney two-thumbs up. Jasmine to me was like Shakespeare’s Portia, beautiful and sought after but also independent and strong. And, while I think you could still argue that maybe some of her sexiness (like when she kisses Jafar to distract him) could give young girls bad ideas about how to get what they want in life, I think overall this storyline was great.

How to Apply to Your Writing:
A sexy lead character is great, and having a character using her looks to her advantage can be an interesting element to a plot, but be careful not to overdo it or your character could end up coming across as shallow, or slutty.

Giveaway

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Unearthed After Sunset by Lauryn April

Unearthed After Sunset

by Lauryn April

Giveaway ends November 05, 2017.

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