Great Geek Debates: Disney Princesses vs. Hayao Miyazaki

Geek Culture

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.

King Triton is one center of conflict in Disney's The Little Mermaid
King Triton is one center of conflict in Disney’s The Little Mermaid

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.)

Chihiro from Spirited Away By Hayao Miyazaki
Chihiro from Spirited Away By Hayao Miyazaki

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.

Shizuku 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 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 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 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!

[This article originally ran in January, 2012.]

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17 thoughts on “Great Geek Debates: Disney Princesses vs. Hayao Miyazaki

  1. Fantastic article. My daughter is not yet 1 year old so we’re a ways off watching films yet, but we have already made a decision to try and avoid Disneyfied things as much as possible. I am so eager to share the Ghibli films with her as she gets older. Mainly because I think they are awesome and super-cute films, but you have actually solidified some things in my mind about how I want her to relate to characters in the stories too.

  2. I see your arguments and concern. One part that bothered me was your over-simplification of Belle taming Beast which was skewed to support your position. “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.” That completely undermines the foundation of their relationship. The ballroom scene doesn’t come until after they’ve already built a friendship established on trust, kindness, having fun together, and understanding. She takes the time to transform him into a gentleman by teaching him how to read and use proper etiquette, and even those things she does not because she’s into him, but because she’s making the best of a situation that she selflessly promised to remain in.

    I share to a degree the growing concern of “princess culture”, but sometimes we only see what we want to see (or in this case see what we don’t want seen). It would not be far off for somebody to read this and think this means that if their children watch Disney movies they will eventually rebel against their parents and and have warped views of their own sexuality.

    On a positive note, I’d be grateful there is “safe” content out there like Disney movies that have prompted you to have these conversations with your children. Parents would be remiss if they found nothing wrong with the media content being served to their children and then we just let media raise them and never have meaning conversations with them about life and the world around them.

  3. I loved this article!

    I would only like to point out one small thing, it might also be a good idea to use themself instead of himself in a sentence like the one below.
    “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 might seem like a small thing, but I actually think this is one of the things that will influence your girls just as much as many of the harmful stereotypes you talk about. The fact that girls and women are subtly reminded, every single day, that men are the norm for our species while we merely a second class version of humanity, does great harm to our sense of self worth.

    I know that this is a big deal, because I’ve tried to change every unmotivated version of he to she and feeling the huge effort it took out of me and feeling how wrong it sounded and felt even to me, a hardcore feminist – and even once when I was describing the rules in roller derby, where all the players _are_ women – I must assume that I still have a lot of inherited patterns to battle against. (Luckily, in Swedish we have added a third, gender neutral personal pronoun for the third person, which makes it a bit simpler – it actually feels less difficult to use that, than to use the female pronoun for an unknown person).

    1. Er, where are you from, the middle east? Obviously nowhere near Western culture, where women get their way in nearly everything.

  4. Hello, I’m a geek father, I’ve considered to rent and buy some movies for my kids (boy 5yo & girl 4yo), one of them was My neighbor Totoro, but I didn’t know if they were suitable for my kids, Thanks.

  5. I am not a parent, but I was a 6-year-old girl when The Little Mermaid was released. 8 for Beauty and the Beast. I loved both of them. Was obsessed with the TLM. I grew up on Disney’s Renaissance, though the “princess industrial complex” did not exist in the late 80s/early 90s as it does now. None of the movies had any influence over my relationship with my parents. I loved and respected both of my parents because they loved and respected me. They didn’t try to suppress or control me or my passion — they never gave me reason to resent them the way the characters in these films do. Instead I related to Belle’s and Ariel’s intelligence, curiousity and passion. And the way they were treated as oddballs by their peers (I was teased a lot for my passion and awkwardness as a kid). Miyazaki’s films are amazing, and yes the storytelling has a one-up on Disney, but your open and kind relationship with your children will have far more influence on them than any movie could.

  6. This was an excellent topic to discuss; it is the discussion that’s just as important as the media. As a kid, I’m sure I watched a lot of influential entertainment that could have skewed my perception of all sorts of things, but my parents always talked about it. We didn’t just silently watch a movie then go to sleep. You asked your girls to come up with what romance was really about and that’s the step towards “adult” thinking. I’m glad you provided some alternatives to Disney movies. The same issues exist in books. My children (boys and girls) are still too young, but I’m looking forward to reading The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald with them. I think its a tale that demonstrates the relationship of men and women, whereby they are individuals and can both be heroic. It’s a heroism that doesn’t depend on one sex demonstrating superiority over the other as is common in these Disney tales (i.e., Mulan being a better warrior than her male counterpart).

  7. Great topic! I found your parental perspective uniquely refreshing regarding the parents in Disney movies. I’d be interested in hearing your perspective on the men of both Disney and Miyazaki. I’m guessing you won’t your daughters bringing the boring, needs to be fixed, will never ask for help, but it’s okay because he’s tall, dark and handsome guy home that is typical of Disney. I’m not as familiar with the Miyazaki movies so can’t make any generalizations there.

  8. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on Disney’s Frozen, seems to be a bit of a deviation from the traditional Disney version of princess relationships?

  9. para mi que fui niña y ahora adolecente… vi casi todas las peliculas disney pero jamas senti algo como cuando miro las peliculas de miyazaki por que su imaginación , sus diseños son de otro mundo … cada pelicula es hermosa y cada pelicula te deja una gran enseñanza . y disney ultimamente tiene peliculas que no llaman la atencion y lo digo por que mis primitos mas pequeño ya ni le gustan…
    peliculas como ponyo y mi vecino totoro tiene nostalgia , valore , amor , y sobre todo tiene respeto . para los que no conocen las creciones de miyazaki tiene que darle una oportunidad por que no solo le llega a los niños tambien a los adultos 100% mejor que disney en todos los aspecto…
    algo que me encanta de miyazaki es que en sus peliculas vas a ver algo que no vas a volver a ver 2 veces son unicas .
    una ultima cosa 🙂 tengo 18 años pero cuando miro las peli de miyazaki vuelvo a ser una pequeña .
    hayao aplasta a disney

  10. I have watched only a few Gibli/Miyazaki movies (I’d love to watch more when I have the chance) but with what I’ve seen, there’s no doubt for me, Miyazaki is a master, as an animator, as a storyteller and as a filmmaker, no comparison with anything Disney have done. And on your points about the influence of Disney movies on children, I agree, the values are somewhat wrong, specially on portrayal of female characters… There may be some influence, but I have to say, first, that kids and young people are often much smarter than most people is aware they are, and second, that unfortunately those values are not just Disney values, they are values of a big portion of western society, so Disney is only a reflection of that. I have grown up watching most of the classic Disney movies, and yet, my respect and general view of women is, I’d like to say, quite good. What I mean is that if you educate your children teaching them to think on they own, then they will be much harder to get influenced by anything they watch, and I think in that case, watching certain material that many parents would not consider appropriate, can even be enriching But of course, tender stories with good values as in Miyazaki films are undoubtably very enriching too.

    Anyway, getting back on topic, what I meant is that the movies and other cultural material kids watch is certainly part of their education, but it’s a small part, so if your kids have certain attitudes and values as those generally portrayed by Disney, probably there are more things to blame than just the Disney movies.

    And there are more exceptions to what you mentioned. Pocahontas is a mild exception, in the same way as Mulan or the Little Mermaid, the female character is strong but romance ends up being almost everything to her anyway. But then there’s Toy Story, which is of course Disney-Pixar, but it is in terms of story-telling, fun and also cultural values, probably one of the strongest ever Disney Movies. The Lion King is quite remarkable too. But of course, those are two movies where the main characters are not female, they are not even human.

    That’s why I want to point out to a (recent) Disney movie that is the antithesis of everything you pointed out about classic Disney movies. I am talking about Brave, which even watching it now, at the age of 23, has become my new favorite Disney movie (my love for Scotland and Scottish culture may have something to do, but that’s certainly not the only reason). In Brave we have a sort of Mulan-ish princess, and yet I find this is a much more memorable movie than Mulan (I could explain why, but I’ve already driften too much in this coomment). First, we have a female main character that is strong, intelligent, and yet a teenager, and as a teenager, she is stubborn and makes mistakes. But when she makes the big mistake, she doesn’t rely on a prince or anyone else to save her, she takes care of the situation herself. No romance at all, rather the princess is trying to avoid an imposed marriage because she doesn’t feel she is ready for romance, that’s a surprisingly mature decision for a teenager princess. And there’s the relationship with the parents: yes, the main plot is about a conflict with her mother, but it is presented in such a human way, the mother is strict but not a bad mother and in the end we see how both the girl and the mother make mistakes, but they learn to overcome the conflict and end up in a healthy and loving relationship..

    1. “First, we have a female main character that is strong, intelligent, and yet a teenager, and as a teenager, she is stubborn and makes mistakes.”

      Heh, you just described every disney princess ever. The classics as well- more so. they are FAR more realistic than almost any of these newer ones.

      and hey, if you think a bratty teenage girl giving her mom a magic cake without know what it’ll do is better than three respectful, kind, obedient, strong girls who try to do their best, that’s your choice to think, but you may wish to think that logic over. Merida making mistakes doesn’t make her a good role model- at all. Merida quite wonderfully owns up to it and tries to fix it but that doesn’t really make up for her overall rebellious selfishness.

      also, nobody “relies” on a prince. funny though, these overrated modern princesses need rescuing more than anyone, especially Merida, who constantly needs to be saved from problems SHE gets herself into.

      I’m quite tired of all these Classic Disney critics who have very obviously never watched a Disney movie pre-Beauty and the Beast.

  11. Interesting your point about the lack of parents, or supportive parents. I actually wrote a sub-thesis about how there are so many orphans in children’s lit, how the lack of parents means the children have a lot more agency than they could have otherwise, and makes them much more interesting characters for children to look up to. Them imagine how they’d cope in the world on their own, forced to be autonomous and in some cases protectors of the adults around them.

  12. I’m the mother of a three year old son, and Miyazaki movies are great for boys, too! I want my son to see good female role models, too! I want him to see functional, loving, supportive families, and boys not reduced to meatheaded conquerors. Another great aspect of Miyazaki films is that they are not frenetically paced, and encourage paying attention and sustaining attention. And no massively marketed, omnipresent product tie-ins! It’s a point of pride for me that my son knows who Totoro is, but not Lightning McQueen (other than ‘that wacky car with a face’).

  13. wow, nice victim blaming. Or maybe not knowing much about history. Cinderella had no choice but to work for her only family, lest she be beaten, given harder chores, maybe even sold to a whorehouse. Snow White the same- but she is quite proactive and finds shelter, protection, and immediately dominates the male household. Aurora would make a perfect queen with her choosing duty over her heart and generally showing wisdom and obedience in her actions. All three show FAR more wisdom, humility, kindness, and especially strength, than the newer ones, who are so politically correct it’s not even funny (with the exception of a few like Elsa, for one, who is delightfully similar to Aurora and Cindy).

    If you refuse to actually WATCH the wonderful movies you criticize, then your really have no business criticizing them, no? I’m sorry, but I am so sick of people blindly bashing three actually good female role models/characters without even seeing the movies, just because it’s the “cool” and politically correct thing to do that everyone else on the internet does. Disney critics seem to lack perspective and take all Disney movies and characters at face value and do not even try to analyze them. It’s intellectually lazy.

    Also note, none of the old ones “waited” for a guy (not that you would know, never having seen their movies). Cinderella was never in dire trouble, Snow and Aurora were, um, under spells. Do you lot truly expect them to somehow get themselves out of that?

    Oddly enough, the modern heroines needed far more saving. Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, and especially oh-so-feminist Merida constantly got themselves into trouble that they needed someone, especially one of those icky men, to save them from.

    Besides, what’s with all the criticism of women needing a man’s help? How sexist. And as that’s coming from a guy, that rather sounds like some internalized misandry.

    All right, I apologize for how long that was (I’m not good at just summing stuff up) and getting OT considering this post was half about Miyazaki movies. which are good, yes, but I was never particularly enthralled with any of the characters save for Howl. I did however like how Sophie Hatter wasn’t the typical heroine, but was meek, mousy, and did need Howl to save her 😉 very refreshing and much more realistic than a teenage girl wielding a sword.

  14. I am so interested in this article for my dissertation in university…can anyone link me some more articles about this confrontation disney-ghibli?? 😀 It’d be lovely and you’d save my life 😀

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