Perhaps it is a leftover from my ancient academic ambitions or the early development of my reading habit, but I tend to take stories more seriously than the average person. As a dad, I am also highly sensitive to the influence both stories and the broader culture have on my children. Young children are still developing their capacity to distinguish fact from fiction. It seems reasonable to assume they are more influenced by the stories we give them than an adult, who is better able to separate himself from the impact and message of a story. This is such a common-sense assumption that most of us take it for granted. Yet, it underlies so many of the cultural rules and regulations by which we organize our children’s lives, from the ratings on videogames, movies and graphic novels, to the vain attempts by legislators to regulate internet pornography and advertising during children’s programming.
If I keep a close watch on the adult content in the media my three daughters consume, I am no different than many parents. I mean most of us do try to aspire to something greater than the Chris Rock standard of parenting. (Warning: the link has adult language and content.)
However, what causes a small spike on the overactive parent detector is my refusal to accept at face value the stories our consumer-driven culture tries to sell my children. Many parents will react strongly to sexual content, foul language or violence, but as long as such taboos are not broken, they appear to be content to let their children consume just about any story sold to them by our corporate storytellers.
On the other hand, I can spontaneously launch into a whole list of diatribes on the failings of quality children’s storytelling in visual media with only the slightest provocation. Nothing brings a conversation among a group of parents to a full stop like launching into an impassioned plea for family films to present healthy male role models for my daughters. “Why is it dad is almost always the source of conflict?” I will ask. After a long uncomfortable silence, in which the other parents try to assess whether I just need therapy or if they need to avoid play dates at my home, someone will move the conversation along to a nice safe topic like last week’s swim lessons.
Being a parent of girls, I have an almost primal reaction to the Walt Disney princess industrial complex. The sight of a Jasmine costume marketed to my 5-year-old can cause me to break out in hives. It isn’t so much the bare midriff, although I think that does have an influence on how my 5-year-old perceives and relates to her body. My frustration comes from the quality of the stories themselves. The stories of the Disney princess industrial complex follow a formula which sells massive amounts of princess swag but can be highly problematic in what it teaches young girls about their worth and value.
My 5-year-old is just now finishing her education about the difference between real and pretend. Kindergarten seems to help. I cringe when she plays dress-up and pretends to be one of the princesses from the Disney canon. It just creeps me out, like I am watching my child pretend to play Britney or Lindsey or their apprentice Miley, all three of which got their start as child stars with Disney.
Which is why I am grateful my geek instincts led me to be a somewhat early adopter of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli anime. I have been hooked since I first saw Spirited Away, and I have found his work to provide a needed vaccine for my girls against the creeping illness of princess-itis. (Yes, I am aware Disney owns the distribution rights for the English dubs. I am not against Disney per se, and Disney knows a good story when it sees one. It works very hard to own as many of them as it possibly can. But I will note, the stories I find worth watching are ones Disney had to go out and purchase from other studios, and when that didn’t work they just bought the studio itself.)
Here is a list of the three most important reasons why I would rather have my daughter pretending to be any Miyazaki heroine over a Disney princess:
1. Archetypes versus Characters
One of the major reasons Disney princesses are so effective as marketing vehicles for children is they distill what it means to be a girl or boy down to a highly simplified formula easy for young children to grasp. Put on a princess dress and I am a girl. Wear a sword, I am a boy. Such stereotyping works really well for a 3- to 6-year-old mind which is just beginning to grapple with gender differences and their consequences. As effective as these stereotypes can be at selling princess products to young girls, these oversimplified notions of gender become problematic when you examine what a princess does.
Here there is a bit of a split in the Disney canon. Old-school Disney relied on a tried and true damsel-in-distress model, in which the heroine of stories like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella did very little to fix their situation. They weren’t often actors in their own drama, other than perhaps to cook or clean and look intoxicatingly beautiful for the prince, so he would act to save her from her passive plight.
New school Disney at least allows the women in the story to be actors in their own right. Often they act to save the prince: Ariel, Belle and Mulan are easy examples. However, such agency is deeply undermined when all the agency of the princess is used in the service of the princess’ relationship with the hero. Mulan is perhaps the exception here. Her agency is motivated not by a man but rather by service to her family and country. Yet, Mulan is somewhat the exception which proves the rule, and in the end, the final effect of that agency, what makes it complete, is the hero asking her father for Mulan’s hand in marriage. I also note she is one of the least marketed of the Disney heroines. Except for Mulan, almost all the actions of Disney princesses still seem to be defined in relationship to their man.
In contrast, Miyazaki’s female leads offer a far more complex picture of what it means to be a person. They often have agency outside of their relationships to men. In Spirited Away, 10-year-old Chihiro risks her own safety to save her parents. The romance in the plot is tangential and works alongside this mission, rather than being a central focus of her life. This is true for many Miyazaki films, from Castle in the Sky to A Whisper of the Heart, which Miyazaki wrote but did not direct.
Don’t misunderstand; this isn’t a rant against romance. My two very favorite Miyazaki films are Howl’s Moving Castle and A Whisper of the Heart, both of which are classic romances that follow the formula to a T. However, the two heroines in these films, Sophie and Shizuku respectively, both have interests, a life, and a personality beyond their relationships with men. But it isn’t just a question of romance or not. As I was thinking about this piece, I couldn’t figure out why, but I knew I really didn’t like Disney’s vision of romance, and for some reason I really enjoy Miyazaki’s. It took a conversation with my daughters to define what bothered me.
2. Attraction versus Relationship
After talking with my girls, we finally came up with the following definition of how a Disney princess is romantic: both old-school and new-school Disney princesses have physical beauty and charm which powerfully attract men and cause them to seek out the princess for a wife. In every film from the Disney princess industrial complex, romance is based upon the laws of attraction, dare I say, based upon sexuality.
More frustrating to me as a Dad, a Disney princess’ sexuality is a powerfully transforming influence on the men around her. Think about movies such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Tangled. In Disney fantasyland, sex makes guys better people. Uhhhh…. Yeah, right. I am a man. I know better, and I won’t let them try to sell that to my daughters! I don’t want my daughters to grow up thinking, “Hey, if the guy throws my dad in prison and takes me hostage in exchange, that isn’t a real problem for me. All it takes to transform him from a beast to a gentleman is my gorgeous body in a low-cut dress plus one little dance in a CG room, a snowball fight and a kiss.” (Beauty and the Beast)
It sounds absurd to me when I say it that way, but I know too many women who go into relationships with creepy men thinking they can change them based upon the man’s sexual attraction to them. I don’t plan to let my daughters grow up to be among them, so I try not to feed them stories which teach such nonsense. To be fair, this is a cultural problem, not a Disney problem. Disney wouldn’t sell it if we didn’t buy it.
The contrast with Miyazaki’s vision of romance couldn’t be any greater. Sexual attraction certainly plays a part, but it is only one component of relationships between men and women. More often than not, the relationships between romantic leads are created by forces other than just physical attraction, and friendship is always a component behind the relationships.
Yet there are several Miyazaki films in which physical attraction isn’t even part of the romance in the film, and the films are romantic. This broader definition of romance liberates Miyazaki’s storytelling. For instance, in the American romantic context Ponyo would appear more than a wee bit creepy. The story is Miyazaki’s version of The Little Mermaid. Yet the mermaid Ponyo and her romantic interest are preschoolers. At the end of the film, Ponyo is transformed into a little girl by her mother, the goddess of mercy, and goes to live with the little boy and his family. Yet, before this happens, the little boy makes solemn promises to the Ponyo’s mother to take care of Ponyo and treat her with respect. It is a kind of oath-taking which somewhat resembles a marriage. Yet it is devoid of all sexual attraction and, in that context, is a beautiful picture of loyalty, commitment, friendship and romance. That is the kind of guy my 5-year-old can pretend to marry all day long.
Now don’t misunderstand; I want my daughters to grow up to be healthy adults who enjoy sex. The point is, in Miyazaki’s films sexual attraction is not a substitute for relationships nor is it a means to transform anybody, and these traits make his romances far superior to anything in the Disney canon.
3. Untrustworthy parents versus high-functioning families
Finally, in almost every movie from the Disney princess industrial complex, the parents are either absent or the problem in some way or another. From repressive fathers to evil step-mothers, bad parenting is often the problem for a Disney princess. By the end of the film, rebellion from these constraining forces always proves to be the liberating and correct answer for a young princess. Sigh….
It isn’t the rebellion of the child that bothers me. That is a healthy part of becoming an adult. Rather, I can’t stand the portrayal of parents as always resisting change for a growing daughter or woman. I am the parent of a 12-year-old. I have sat down with her recently and had several conversations about how I want her to rebel against me in healthy ways. We talk about what these things might look like and how not to compromise her character or future in the process of rebelling. I have reminded her: It is her life, and if she wrecks it just to get one over on Dad, it will only damage her in the end. I have encouraged her to see rebellion as a natural part of the process of becoming an adult, and I want her to see me as an ally not an enemy in the transition. Can’t I be an ally in the process of my children growing up? Can’t I enjoy the process of watching my daughter become a functioning, independent adult? I mean, after all, that is what I am raising her to become, right?
Miyazaki’s films have their share of untrustworthy families. Chihiro’s parents certainly are not wise. They are shown to be self-centered and greedy at the beginning of the film. Chihiro’s quality as a person and resilience in a crisis are shown to exist in contrast to their failings, but this kind of dysfunction is an exception for Miyazaki. Howl’s Moving Castle would be the other example of a dysfunctional family that comes to mind. In most cases, whether present or not, parents provide a positive influence on their children in Miyazaki films. Films in this genre include: Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, A Whisper of the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, Naussica and Porco Rosso. If you want your kids to grow up respecting your influence in their life and appreciating you as a parent, you might find these films to be better stories to feed them than Disney’s.
The Final Verdict:
If my 5-year-old wants to pretend, I am much more excited when I hear her playing Kiki’s Delivery Service than if she plays Tangled. The Disney princess industrial complex — smacked down by a better storyteller Hayao Miyazaki! Miyazaki using Disney to send American children better stories and role models — double smacked down!
[This article originally ran in January, 2012.]