Great Geek Debates: Disney Princesses vs. Hayao Miyazaki

Geek Culture

Shizuku from Miyazaki's A Whisper of the HeartShizuku from Miyazaki's A Whisper of the Heart

Shizuku from Miyazaki's A Whisper of the Heart

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)

Belle tames BeastBelle tames Beast

Belle tames 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.

Ponyo and SosukePonyo and Sosuke

Ponyo and Sosuke

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.

Tatsuo Kusakabe and his Children From My Neighbor TotoroTatsuo Kusakabe and his Children From My Neighbor Totoro

Tatsuo Kusakabe and his Children From My Neighbor Totoro

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!

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