Earlier this fall, my daughter was playing outside while I was planting a new garden bed. She said, “Dad, I’m Moana, and you’re Moana’s dad and I want you to tell me that I can’t leave the island.”
I played along. I gestured to the mulch bed and said, “One day this island will be all yours.” I leaned on the shovel. “It’s a lot of hard work but the garden gives us food and we have everything we need. Just stay away from the water, OK? There’s nothing out there for you.” I looked up and saw that she had my son stationed under the trampoline, waiting for “Maui” to be discovered.
She played along, dipped her head in despair and squeaked, “Ok.” She then went to the playset that I built (the “boat” she wasn’t supposed to be on!) and sang Moana songs.
As I got back to digging, I realized that we had just played out a theory I’ve had about Disney movies. This became evident as night after night I would read a picture version of The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. The story arc for boys and girls are mirror opposites.
Ariel lives in a fun place. It’s a constant party Under the Sea and there’s no responsibilities, except singing. But her oppressive dad is a total tyrant and stands in the way of her dreams of taking a stroll on a street or touching a fire. However, a girl’s pursuit of her dreams can not be wrong. In order to get what she wants, she has to answer a backpage ad, selling her larynx for a pair of feet. Fast-forward to an ocean-wide Amber Alert and the deaths of several hundred men on Eric’s ship, Ariel literally stands vindicated by her irrational behavior and her father sheepishly relents his harsh xenophobic position towards humans. “Daddy’s sorry he smashed all of your toys, pumpkin, here’s your legs back again. Enjoy kiddo! Eric, remember she’s 16!” From this movie, we learned a lesson and it is that there are outside forces keeping you from your dreams, princess, and you should do whatever it takes to achieve those dreams. You are free to do whatever you want in pursuit of your dreams.
Interestingly we learn at the end of this story that King Triton always possessed the ability to convert fins into legs. Were the merfolk former humans and the ‘Triton’ was invented to install fins on a certain tribe in order to escape an oppressive regime, perhaps Eric’s ancestors? Perhaps in an alternative story, King Triton would have mounted an offensive against the humans with the help of all of the seafolk leading to the overthrowing all of humanity and the instituting a new amphibious race to rule the world. Maybe we should be happy with King Triton’s restraint and the rules he placed on the kingdom.
Now contrast that story with the Lion King.
Under the shadow of Pride Rock, all of the animals dutifully perform their roles as cogs in The Circle of Life. The system is working perfectly and the sun continues to shine until Simba gets too full of himself and seemingly causes the King to die, screeching The Circle to a halt. Rather than fix the mess, Simba runs always from his responsibilities to go hang out with a couple of lowlifes in the Jungle. He runs to the fun place and is having the time of his life eating bugs, drinking, and playing video games.
Simba’s No-Worries lifestyle makes him feel invincible. He nails his ex-girlfriend, seducing her with Elton John. Life couldn’t be better! But after Nala wakes up and knocks over Simba’s bong, she comes to her senses and tells him that he a screw-up and needs to get back to Pride Rock and “MURDER YOUR UNCLE!” Simba looks up at the stars, like thousands of cameras all focused on him, all calling down at him “loser, failure!” Simba remembers his dad always said, “Big Brother is watching.” Feeling guilt and the weight of the world on his shoulders, Simba single-handedly commits a coup against his uncle’s regime. The fires subside and the sun comes back out, allowing Simba gets back to the ol’ 9-to-5 routine and hunkers down to start a family. His 401K regains value and the Circle of Life coughs back to life, with all of the animals falling lockstep into their preassigned duties. The lesson we learn is that You must do your duty, young man, in order for the system to work properly. You are not free to waste your time with selfish dreams and fun when there is work to be done.
The primary character princess’ story arc hasn’t really changed since the 40’s with Cinderella. Rapunzel, Belle, and Mulan are all charging towards their dreams, challenging the oppressive forces that hold them back. Imagine if Elsa’s dad had encouraged her to hone her natural ability instead of being verbally abusive to her, telling her she’s a freak (it’s in the deleted scenes). Elsa could have used her magic (and a loan from her family) to start the world’s first year-round ski resort. After a few years she becomes mired in the day-to-day operations of the business and loses sight of why she started it the first place. An accounting error causes her to hastily fire her CFO and lash out at the entire ski patrol staff. After a long mountain journey, a talking bear named Solveig helps her realize that she was responsible for the accounting error and mistreatment of her staff. Elsa reluctantly relents her mistakes and apologizes to her staff, bringing them all back for a huge mountain ice castle party. She turns the keys over to the former CFO and begins her own HVAC installation business. Then Disney’s stock tanks, but for the first time a girl learned a life lesson.
It’s a bit more difficult to find primary male characters to apply the same test. A majority of recent animated Disney movies don’t feature a male primary character. Prince Charming is a flat mindless character driven by the duty of chivalry with no arc whatsoever. Arthur enjoys being several different animals with Merlin until he assumes his duty with the Sword in the Stone. Tarzan enjoys swinging in the Jungle all his life until a lady comes along and the savage changes. Peter Pan doesn’t want to grow up until Wendy and friends get captured and he realizes he has to be responsible for them. Then he flies to London in a ship so he can become businessman Robin Williams. (Robin Williams flips the arc over when Peter learns to have fun again in Hook.)
Males mostly fill in their duty as secondary roles in animated Disney movies. Maui, Flynn Ryder, and Kristoff all live a care-free, self-centered lifestyle until a dominating woman comes along and conscripts them into her fantasies which prompts them to realize that they need to grow up.
Over and over, men are selfish and they need to cast off their selfishness to redeem themselves in the audience’s eyes. This is the Beast’s story arc, meanwhile Gaston doubles down on his selfishness which causes his destruction. Selfish women, such as Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel, are also properly villainized. But we rarely see a selfish woman overcoming herself for redemption. Women that are dreamers and can do no wrong. They only need to overcome the outside forces at any cost in order to be redeemed. Am I missing any male primary character that are do-no-wrong dreamers or primary females that overcome their selfishness?
Aladdin is about the only diamond in the rough of Disney plots. He’s one of the few characters that assumes his duties and fulfills his dreams. Initially his natural skills allow him to generally live carefree in a city that oppresses the street rat thieves. The ladies swoon over him, but he dreams to live in the palace. However, outside forces (the caste system) and self-pity (himself) prevent him from improving his station in life. Aladdin redeems himself by overcoming himself with the help of a new encouraging magical friend. With new found self confidence and sense of duty, Aladdin is then able to overcome the outside forces (both Jafar and the caste system) without the immediate help of magic. Aladdin earns the things that he’s always wanted. Aladdin is an all around multidimensional hero.
I found this article, that speculates that Disney hates boys. I’m not interested in guessing Disney’s motivations nor saying that their films are right or wrong. They just are. And despite their excellent quality and standing power, the stories are all arguably derivative and formulaic. I grew up with and loved these movies in the 80’s and 90’s and my kids are growing up with them now. Disney is not responsible for my kids’ upbringing. I am. I’m definitely not going to teach my daughter to mindlessly pursue her dreams and that everyone is out to get her – that’s recipe for years with a psychiatrist. Nor am I going to singularly teach my son that he has an inherent selfishness that must be overcome by becoming an unwilling cog in the machine of life. A balance of duty and dreams is important for every girl and boy.
I’m a dad (and a multidimensional character too) that reads & watches these stories over and over again and can’t ignore these patterns. It’s up to your imagination if you want to believe Disney’s stories reflect a representative real life male/female stereotypes or if they’re just repeating the formula that works. I was encouraged after reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. which is about the founding of Pixar and a guide for creative management – and explains a bit of why Pixar’s stories are a arguably more complex. “Getting the story right” is important at Pixar and it has to be rubbing off on Disney since the acquisition over a decade ago.
When my daughter came back to me after singing on her boat, I asked her if Moana left the island. She said “No”. Wait, WHAT? I didn’t know what was going on in her 5 years old head, and I’m aware that I’m definitely over thinking it, but my guess is she wanted to play out the story and needed me to play the oppressive father to put more emotion into her singing. But she apparently was too conflicted to disobey her father at this point in her life, even when pretending. Or maybe she’s not ready to disobey yet. Perhaps I should be concerned in the future… over her love of the stars… a precursor to her 2035 announcement of being on the first one-way manned flight to Mars. Maybe I’d have good reason to draw the shades and tell her to stop looking up at night?
I stooped down and made sure she understood we were playing and that she will be free to live her life how she wants when she gets older. My son was still hiding under the trampoline, waiting for Moana to set him free. I told my daughter she better go free Maui so they could go on an adventure together. She said, “OK!” and ran to play with her brother.