I have always loved Disney movies. My mom absolutely hates them. She says they build unrealistic expectations of love (they do). Yet somehow, at 25, I have my own blu-ray collection and Spotify playlist of all of my favorite Disney classics. I have been told that my favorite movies as a very little child were The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast but I graduated up to the animal focused features as I got older. Robin Hood, Lion King and 101 Dalmatians got quite a bit of screen time. Then came the Aladin, Pocahontas and Mulan pre-teen phase. Even now, The Princess and the Frog holds a very special place in my heart.
People love to use Disney and a punching bag. A giant, heartless, corporate stooge, out to turn your children into self-loathing, thoughtless drones. I take great exception to this. We like to take the grey, fuzzy, overlapping edges of every argument and turn them into stark black and white assessments. Life just doesn’t work that way. You can’t have the good without the bad or visa versa. Sure, Disney is notoriously historically inaccurate and the female characters never hold up to feminist scrutiny. That doesn’t mean they should be thrown out with the bath water.
I consider myself to be a feminist. Plain and simple. I want equal opportunities for everyone and I don’t want anyone pre-judging me or forcing me into a box because of my gender. My friend recently posted an article that she found on Facebook that spoke to her experience as a woman. I read it and I understand why it meant so much to her. She and I have had very different life experiences and this article was a lot closer to hers than to mine. It got me thinking about how being a creative opens you up to new arguments and issues.
I think I found it hard to identify and agree with the article because I have no frame of reference for her feelings. That doesn’t invalidate them, I just have a much different life experience. I think that you have a lot more control over life than the author gives us credit for. Of course women are portrayed from a male perspective when men are doing the writing. They can try as hard as they want but it’s up to women to truly fill that gap. I wouldn’t dream of writing from the perspective or a transgender man or woman without extensive research and thorough oversight. I can’t live both their lives and mine and I would never want to portray a character disrespectfully. We write what we know and if we want our views known we have to speak for ourselves.
We have the responsibility and emotional and societal freedoms now to make our own impact and do our own creating. Men have quite the head start and women like us, who hate being categorized need to produce the work we want to see. You’re only a secondary character if you allow yourself to be. I appreciate that my friend took so much from the article because that’s what all creative works are for. Helping and connecting with others.
What bothered me about her article the most (other than the drastic mischaracterization of Doctor Who) was how she gave up her own power. I have known more than a few women who have had a rough go at childhood and I am well aware that not everyone made it through quite as unscathed as I did but I don’t like assigning blame away from myself. If I become a secondary character to anyone it is because I allowed myself to be. I am in control of me and I will never give that up. That’s a tough stance to take and it doesn’t stop me from pointing out gross injustices when I see them. Nobody’s perfect.
That being said, I never had trouble identifying with a male lead character. I read the entirety of Harry Potter from Harry’s shoes. Gender doesn’t define feeling. It never really occurred to me to separate male/female perspective in my head. A tip for any male creatives that may be reading this: your male characters could very easily be female. The only thing that honestly separates us is how our bodies function and how society reactions to us have shaped us. We try to separate ourselves and categorize ourselves but in the end the parts of us that really matter are all the same.
That’s why I am so protective of Disney. I honestly owe a lot of my self-confidence and empowerment to Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Ariel (and now Tiana). I watched these young women reading obsessively, singing loudly, running around without shoes and putting aside their fears to stand up for what is right. If you look at anything hard enough you can pick it apart. I am sure the author of that article would say that all of these women were motivated by trying to be the peacemaker because society had conditioned them to be the caretaker and soother for all men. But all I saw as a child and all I see now are young women who are smart, strong and passionate.
I’m sure that I got plenty of negative messages from these stories as well. You can’t have the good without the bad. I would never trade how those characters made me feel. I have had and always will have the power to think for myself. Critical thinking allows me to learn both good and bad lessons from everything. The important thing is to look at everything you consume and choose what you let influence you. We are capable of that at any age.
So, lay off my Disney, lay off my Doctor Who and never, ever, ever tell me that these characters are taking away my power. Only I can do that.
Disclaimer: This is only my personal opinion. Everyone’s experiences in life are different and valid. I want to voice my opinion in hopes of setting a good example for any other young women and men that can identify with what I am saying. I’ve had some amazingly strong and intelligent students over the last four years and this is for them. I hope that anyone struggling with stereotypes and misconceptions will have someone to talk to and empower them. If you don’t, my inbox is always open.