As a child care worker I am interested in children’s media and am often increasingly horrified by what passes as children’s entertainment. After watching the latest Disney Princess movie, Tangled, it really got me thinking about the construction of female/female relationships in children’s movies and entertainment. From what I’ve seen this is a fairly easy to research issue as female characters are hard to find, blink and you’ll miss the 20 seconds of SEXXXAY fish in A Shark’s Tale, for example (yes, SEXXXAY fish in a movie for children). The exception to the rule is of course the Disney Princess movies which are some of the only children’s films to feature females as central characters.
Having watched most of the Disney Princess movies more times than I would care to admit… there is a really disturbing common theme through most of them of mother/daughter conflict and ultimately matricide.
In Tangled, we see a young girl, Rapunzel, who is kidnapped while still a baby by an *evil* witch. The witch raises her as her own daughter, loving her (insert overprotective mother stereotypes here), teaching her about the dangers of men, etc. Rapunzel, is rescued from this evil witch by a dangerous man, Flynn Rider. Together Rapunzel and Flynn slaughter the Wicked Witch and her destruction, her love and her labour disappear into dust. The mother/daughter bond is necessarily severed so the heterosexual bond, and Flynn’s power as a man over Rapunzel, can be cemented.
In The Little Mermaid we meet motherless mermaid, Ariel, who loves her Daddy very much, but in a fit of rebellion turns to the sea witch Ursula for help in snagging another man she loves, Prince Eric. Again, Ursula is not Ariel’s biological mother, but she is a stepmother figure, a woman who has had some kind of significant relationship with Ariel’s father and who cares for her and aids her in her distress. Ursula’s influence over Ariel is depicted as evil and a little maniacal. Again Ariel enlists the help of her prince to bring about Ursula’s destruction. In a scene with very clear rapist and phallic imagery, Ursula is slaughtered by the splintered prow of a ship, which Prince Eric drives deeply and maliciously into her gut. The dismembering resolution of The Little Mermaid is Ariel rebonding with her ‘loving’ father and cementing her relationship with Eric by gaining legs and becoming penetrable.
In Snow White we have another evil stepmother, a vain and wicked Queen, who is envious of Snow White’s beauty and orders her stepdaughter’s death. Snow White escapes to the forest and is ‘protected’ by seven comical males who all love her very much. When the ‘wicked’ queen finds out Snow White is still alive, she tracks her down and poisons her with an apple. In revenge the seven little men destroy the Queen. And a prince comes along and wakes her from her poisoned sleep with a kiss.
In Aladdin, Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast the female characters have no mothers, only doting fathers. Their unexplained miracle births remain unquestioned and unexamined. The mothers and hence the mother/daughter relationship and bond are completely erased and effectively obliterated. Pocahontas has a nice relationship with Grandmother Willow (a talking tree)… but no actual human female who has given birth to her or nurtures her ever appears.
In Cinderella, we not only have an ‘evil’ stepmother but ‘evil’ stepsisters too. Cinderella is more ambitious than the rest; not only going after the mother/daughter bond but also the sacred bond of sisterhood. The ‘ugly’ stepsisters, so described, are competing with Cinderella over the prince which the ‘wicked’ stepmother encourages. Although the ‘wicked’ stepmother is not destroyed… she is thwarted, and her ambitions for her daughters are the reason she is depicted as wicked.
In Mulan, despite the fact that the female character has a mother (and even a grandmother) who is represented in a mostly positive light, it is Mulan’s relationship with her father which is prioritised and centralised throughout the scenes which show her interacting with her family. The rest of the movie is dominated by male characters, Mulan is the only woman of note in the entire film, and it is her validation from men that she craves and risks her life for. The supposed point of Mulan is her standing up to male supremacist society by refusing to conform to the role of a perfect daughter and escaping gendered traditions by dressing as a boy and joining the army. But the movie effectively blames women (who can forget the ‘horrible’ woman in the matchmaker scene) for imposing oppressive traditions on each other, no mention is made of the fact that these traditions serve to enslave women to men.
Sleeping Beauty actually does have positive depictions of the mother/daughter relationship with Aurora being cared for by three good witches. However, this is kinda undermined by the fact that there is a fourth witch who is ‘evil’ and turns into a giant dragon which the Prince slays in order to ‘free’ the princess from Maleficent’s wickedness. In true rape culture style, the prince penetrates the woman/dragon with a large sword, sexualising her annihilation even further.
In the movie The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s mother is present and nice and it is the father who is dead, which is a first for the Disney Princess genre. However, although the father is physically absent, he is depicted as spiritually and emotionally present to both the daughter and the mother. He is centralised, even posthumously, in his daughter’s narrative. Tiana’s quest to run a restaurant is living out her father’s dream. The mother, who is both alive and present, is decentralised by the father’s spiritual presence in the narrative!!! So despite the mother being alive and depicted in a positive light, she is still negated by being overshadowed by the father and the prince.
Mother/daughter relationships are depicted in wholly negative or negated ways within Disney Princess movies. As the main object for the Princess is to cement a relationship with a prince and in doing so negating herself, the mother must be destroyed or nonexisistent. If the mother is destroyed, it represents the slaughter of the daughter’s Background Self as she is taken in marriage by the prince. If the mother does not exist in the first place, the daughter is already a non-existent entity in waiting for a prince to come along and actualise her; she becomes substantial by becoming his. Ultimately the destruction of the mother and negating of the mother/daughter bond is a symbolic representation of the devaluing of women’s Background Selves. In erasing or destroying our Backgrounds, our maternal histories, they create a female who is not a person but a thing, an object for men, to be used and taken. She is represented as being formed and created by them.
And this is the message that is being internalised by our daughters as we subject them to the indoctrination inherent in Disney Princess movies (along with myriad of other destructive and woman-negating ideologies). The mother/daughter bond, a human relationship with the most potential for significance, the birthing of a female child from a female person, is also one that is targeted by males for elimination. The princessification of little girls is a deliberate strategy by males who are invested in their supremacy. Princesses do not need mothers but they do need a prince.