Each day this week, I’ll be posting about a Disney princess and whether the messages in her story help or hurt the fight against human exploitation.
Precursor: I don’t hate Disney movies and don’t think they should be banned or anything. This series is to help people think about the messages behind the stories we’re putting in front of the children we love.
Children can be deeply affected by what they watch. They are learning all the time from the world around them, and their mental and emotional health is affected by the messages fed to them, just as their physical health is affected by the food put into their mouths. The more I study about trafficking and exploitation, the more I see fringes spread out into our culture, small things that in themselves might not seem like much, but when combined with thousands of other similar messages, they weave into a powerful force that can guide a young woman toward exploitation because of the way she has learned to see herself or her world.
One of those fringes I see is the Disney princess concept.
This week I want to go over some of the favorite Disney princess movies and take a look at the messages in them in regard to whether they help or hurt the ongoing fight against human exploitation.
Let’s start with the classic of all classics: Cinderella.
Does this movie inspire girls to be stronger or more vulnerable? Vulnerable
The story in a nutshell:
Girl in abusive home situation
Meets handsome rich prince at a party
Lives happily ever after
Cinderella, a beautiful love story of a sweet, pure-hearted girl whose family situation deteriorates to the point that she is forced into slavery by the people who should have loved and taken care of her. Though she lives in an abusive situation, she maintains a great attitude and anyone can see that she deserves better.
Magically, a rich and powerful friend appears, gives her beautiful things, and provides a way out of her sad life. At the ball, a handsome prince with great integrity sees her beauty and recognizes the goodness within. By the end of the night, they are both in love, not even needing to have a conversation.
She has to run home. He searches the kingdom for her and finally, because Cinderella is good and good must triumph, she is found. They marry and live happily ever after.
It’s a wonderful fairy tale and the stuff dreams are made of. Unfortunately, fairy tales can be used. A man in Atlanta who trafficks girls into sexual slavery once was asked how he got the girls.
“It’s easy,” the trafficker said. “I sell dreams.”
“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” sang Cinderella. If we take a step back and look at the story from an exploiter’s position, it’s a very usable one. Girl comes from a bad home situation and desperately wants out. She longs for someone to come save her. She’s a good person, and so something good should happen to her.
In comes the exploiter, as both fairy godmother and prince combined. He buys her things, tells her she’s beautiful, that she deserves better. He offers her a way out, says he’ll help her follow her dreams, get a job, find a place to live. She thinks she has found her prince, and over time, as he removes any ties to getting her emotional needs met elsewhere, she becomes fully emotionally dependent on him. Once that happens, the exploitation begins. For many girls coerced into trafficking, because it is done through this person who now holds their heart, it is very difficult for them to see the situation for what it is, and because they have nowhere else to go – in the physical, literal sense as well as the emotional sense – it is very, very difficult for them to get out.
It would be nice if the world worked like a Cinderella movie, where plump nice ladies appeared rewarding good people for being good, where you could tell who was good and who was bad by who was pretty and who was ugly, and while we’re at it, where little mice could talk and help you out when in a pinch.
We know it’s just a fairy tale. But part of that fairy tale is a dream little girls might hope will one day come true for them.
Is Cinderella a terrible movie? No. Is there a better message we could be giving vulnerable girls? Yes.
Let’s teach them:
1. Their worth is in more than dressing up and being beautiful one important moment that will change everything forever.
2. Not to assume there are no strings attached if people appearing at their moment of despair offer lots of dreams fulfilled.
3. To spend time with a man and know his character before entrusting their heart, not to assume that if he’s good-looking, his heart must be good too.
Most of all, let’s help them not to wrap their worth up in something that will hopefully happen to them someday. They have worth right now, exactly as they are, no matter what situation they are in.
They don’t need a ball gown or a prince to make them beautiful. They already are.
Tomorrow: The Little Mermaid