Today I read that Keira Knightley has banned her 3 year old daughter from watching certain Disney films. And I have to agree with her.
Before I had my daughter, now 5 1/2, I didn’t really give much thought to the messages within a Disney movie, or a fairytale story book. I’d been raised on them, most of us had been raised on them, and I like to think that many of us had turned out ok (which is a phrase that the ‘whatabouters’ like to throw around: didn’t have this political correctness malarkey in my day and I turned out ok. The ‘whatabouters’ being those people who say things like, “International Women’s Day? What about International Men’s Day?”). But I felt life had turned out pretty well: I could vote, I could work, my choices were mine, I lived a good life.
Then in 2013 I gave birth my daughter, and started to think about the world she’d been born into, and wondered what life would be like for her. I’ve said before that it felt like my eyes opened for the first time as it struck me just how unequal everything still was (is!); how society favoured men above women, and the word of men over a woman’s; how much a woman’s value was still measured by her looks, her ability to be deemed attractive, ladylike, and how rife and engrained everyday sexism really was. And once my eyes finally had opened, I couldn’t help but see the 1000s of messages that are fed to us, men and women, and our children every day, telling us we’re not really equal, that our gender will most likely determine our role in life.
I realised that though I can tell and show my daughter that she’s strong and capable of anything she sets her mind to, and worthy of her space in the world, I became aware of the many messages telling her otherwise. And the source of some of those many messages? Fairy tales, story books and classic princess movies. And just like Keira Knightley, it struck me that Cinderella waits to be rescued, and that the prince, who claims to have fallen in love, doesn’t even recognise her when she’s in daywear. That Ariel gives up her voice, and her family, everything about her whole world in fact, for a man who doesn’t know who she is (and who then almost marries a sea witch). That the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty while she’s asleep, a non consensual kiss, yet she wakes up and marries him. And Aurora, having been happily singing to herself in the woods, pulls away from Prince Phillip not once but four times, but still he pursues her, and eventually does get the girl.
I have said before that I think there’s nothing wrong with a princess dress, the colour pink, playing with dolls etc and I stand by that. I don’t want to flat out ban my daughter from playing something, or watching something (unless we feel it’s not age appropriate). So in that sense Keira and I have taken a slightly different approach as is our choice as parents. And so we do still watch these films from time to time, but we talk about them as we watch. I see them as a conversation starter, to allow children to start to think for themselves about what is right and wrong.
Because kids tend to watch these films over and over again throughout childhood, so the hidden messages have plenty of time to drip drip drip into young malleable brains and help form a child’s view of the world and their place in it.
In 2015 I decided to start rewriting the stories. I began with Cinderella: in my version (Ella and the iPhone) the heroine leaves her phone behind at a party, and the popular guy has to find the thumb that unlocks it, whereupon Ella turns down his proposal in favour of being friends and going to uni. I loved re-working this classic tale of girl sits and waits to be rescued by boy, and thus began a new career: writing rhyming children’s books that have messages of equality, acceptance of oneself and each other, and which will hopefully inspire young minds (male and female) that their gender does not determine their role in life, and they really are each others equal.
Let’s hope our children, and our children’s children will not have to ride a 5th wave of feminism, and will learn about those passive princesses only in history books.