This is a question many parents struggle with, when to start telling their kids more about the adult world. Children are very impressionable, enough to the point that they mimic what they see without really realizing that they got it from some other source. As a three-year-old child I was told to “shut up” by my older brother; I then took it upon myself to stand in front of my six-foot-three father and tell him to “shub up, shub up now”, all because I heard someone else say it. If I’m that much like a parrot at that age, wouldn’t it be good to start telling me about the world I’m surrounded by?
One would think, but there’s this large countering force in the parenting community that believes in something called innocence. “They’re just children” and “let them have their childhood” are often slogans for this belief. While I think children cannot be held responsible for nearly as much as full grown adults are, I still think teaching at a young age is important. I’m not saying parenting is all about telling your children how fucked up the world is, but you have to give them more credit than what Disney gives them.
In the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly, critics of our venerated Walt Disney say the company actually teaches our children false stereotypes that are harmful to society. For instance, the female character is always portrayed as a fair and innocent creature, who gets through life with her beauty, but always needs to be saved by a man. This image of women has evolved slightly over the years, but sexist uniform portrayals of women have persisted into recent Disney movies. Mulan may have essentially won an entire war, but when she returned home to her family her feminine roles were still intact, meaning she better have a man, or she was a waste of a woman. Belle in Beauty and the Beast was treated terribly by the Beast. She was imprisoned, separated from her family and friends, and under constant verbal abuse. But as the movie progressed, she saw it as her duty to soften him. His outbursts were considered minor and were actually a sign of his inner tenderness, meant to be cured by a woman’s touch. In the documentary, children were interviewed after watching Beauty and the Beast. One little girl said it was Belle’s job to make the Beast a better person, to bring out the prince charming within. And she did as she was prescribed.
It’s become almost a joke, that “everyone knows Disney is racist and sexist.” But doesn’t this trouble people? Millions of kids are planted in front of these movies without any explanation afterward of the implications the screen gave them. This isn’t a “down with Disney” campaign, it’s simply a plea that parents take it upon themselves to explain the meanings behind the images. Instead of ignoring the fact that all of the main women characters in Disney movies are depicted as anatomically impossible, parents should have a talk with their children about why they’re depicted that way, and that it’s not a reality that women look like that or should look like that. Same goes for the racial slurs that run rampant in Disney movies. Explain to children why they’re there, and that they’re not fact, but stereotypes played upon to make children laugh. I think if they’re old enough to be conscious of what’s on TV, then they’re old enough to begin having these conversations.
As a child I watched Disney movies like crazy. I still adore Aladdin, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, and Lion King. And one may say, “well you turned out alright”, first of all, thank you. Second of all: I’ve had plenty of education that let me in on the Disney point of view. I may not have had the explanations with each singular movie at the time, but my parents taught both my brother and I about stereotypes when we were at a fairly young age. An impressionable age, I might add. Without my parents’ good influence and the exposure to the cultural knowledge I amassed from my unique set of friends of high school courses, I may have been imprinted with the Disney rhetoric to a point of no return. And who’s to say I haven’t been imprinted at all? I still automatically view masculinity as essentially male, and femininity as essentially female. I have ideas of how different races sound and act without consciously thinking about it, and I’ve had the notion of female power being earned through sexuality pounded into my brain by much more than Disney movies. The only difference I can say is that when I make these automatic assumptions now I realize it and try to correct myself.
There’s not enough sheltering in the world a parent could provide that would keep their children from these stereotypes,barring hiding them in a closet for all eternity. But talking to them about what they’re exposed to, and most importantly why, is critical to ensuring a child becomes a culturally cognizant and responsible adult. While it may seem like too much too soon, they’ll retroactively appreciate it when they reach the adult world. Children are capable of a lot more than we give them credit, and babying them does nothing but perpetuate harm and social ignorance.