A Disney Education for Better or Worse?

The Disney franchise is one loved by both adults and children, welcoming all to come and escape to ‘The Happiest Place On Earth’. Despite being transported to fictional, animated lands, where animals can talk and spells are cast, we are never too far away from home. ‘The Lion King’ teaches about loss and facing your fears, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ champions the value of reading beneath the surface, and ‘Aladdin’ proves that wealth has no place amongst true desires of the heart.

Being the pinnacle of children’s film for almost a century now has left us with plenty of time to watch and re-watch our favourites. But, with each re-watch, we return older, wiser, and more vigilant, causing these beloved stories to change before our eyes: sometimes to enhance our enjoyment, and sometimes to question it.

Recently, Sarah Hall called for her son’s primary school to remove the tale of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from their classrooms. The mother-of-two from Tyneside expressed her concern for its “inappropriate sexual message” in its seemingly questionable absence of consent.

As we all know, the classic fairy tale resolves itself with the Prince bestowing a kiss upon the sleeping Aurora to break the spell and live their happily ever after. Yes, this is all very romantic and typical Disney, but, as Sarah has pointed out, her being asleep sends out the more subtle teaching that anyone can go around kissing anyone. This is only a toned down adaptation of the original. The 16th century version sees the princess fall asleep, only to be raped by a king and awaken to fall in love him. Considering the impressionable nature of younger children and in the wake of many ongoing sexual harassment scandals, now, more than ever, there is a necessary importance to trace back and investigate any possible contributors to this total misconception of what is appropriate behaviour.

How can we condemn non-consensual acts in reality, yet reward them elsewhere?

James Baldock from The Metro has written a piece countering Hall’s perspective, dismissing the need for such an extreme ban due to the innocent outlook and very nature of children. He argues that “your average six-year-old is not going to see a story about consent. They will see a story about a handsome prince who awakens a princess with a magical kiss”. Are we investigating too deep, beyond what a child is capable of detecting themselves?

We have already established that Disney is not just for children. There are those too young to understand the concept and there are those older, more socially aware and thus, more aware of the issue. What happens in-between? Literature is an education and must hold a responsibility in helping children cross this gap. Hall does not want to take the narrative out of circulation completely, but inject it directly into this space. She has talked of it being an invaluable resource for older children. No child is as sleepy and passive as the princess they read of, as the intelligence and capabilities of younger generations are often underestimated. They delight in the ability to question. But there is something to be said for the development of confidence with age, enabling a more investigative evaluation of circumstance and to spark a more productive discussion. There is not just one simple answer to solve a question about society’s many causes for concern.

For Badlock, Hall may be cast as one of those parents taking it upon themselves to act as “cultural warriors fixated on policing language and media content” and “the small stuff”. But, with each new generation, it is language and media that is increasingly becoming the big stuff. Books, television and film are all mediums through which most young children will first encounter issues such as this. Therefore, they are the prime platform through which to spark a discussion.

This current innocence Baldock argues will eventually fade away, as children inevitably become disillusioned to the darker sides of reality in learning to observe the world around them. The question is, how will they encounter these subjects? Through a possible online miseducation from a vast and foreign platform, or through a familiar mode that upholds an approachable front? Disney is the comfortable and familiar creator of our childhoods and for its few and now recognised narrative flaws, it can also be spun as an example for correction.

Whilst many aspects of its fantasy seem desirable, these lessons to be learned can serve to improve our world, where Disney’s has failed.

Image credit: Disney

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