I adored the story of Cinderella as a child. The prospect of having a man so in love with me that he’d criss-cross the kingdom searching for my size 6 foot was heady stuff. It never occurred to me that Cindy was oppressed by the patriarchy or that she should just buy her own darn pair of shoes.
Similarly, I was untroubled by the fact that Snow White was victimized by her stepmother, or lived with a variety of short men to whom she was not married. While the scenario seemed to present a negative view of both blended families and female sexuality, my 8-year-old psyche survived unscathed.
I emerged from that Disney-centric childhood with happy memories and a deep appreciation for the power of imagination.
Sadly, the current employees of Disney must think of me as some aberration, because they have decided to provide disclaimers with their new streaming service, Disney+, which just hit the market. Whenever someone clicks on classic content, they will find this language: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
The disclaimer is aimed primarily at works that contain racial and ethnic stereotypes, like the Siamese cats in “Lady and the Tramp” and “Dumbo,” which includes a version of black face. (It’s also worth noting that Disney+ is not streaming “Song of the South,” a film that has been widely criticized for racist portrayals of black people.) Given the focus on cultural sensitivity in today’s society, it’s not difficult to understand why Disney would want to neutralize the negative impact of its masterpieces without actually tinkering with the works themselves.
In fact, Disney deserves credit for not censoring the films and cartoons, and tailoring them to meet 21st century sensibilities. John Legend and Kelly Clarkson recently recorded an updated version of the Christmas song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in recognition of the #MeToo movement and out of a desire not to offend those who said it conjured images of rape. But instead of improving the flirtatious holiday standard, they sexualized it even more by adding the line “It’s your body and your choice,” making what was a clever back-and-forth between two adults into a primer on consent.
At least Disney isn’t making Cinderella open her own shoe manufacturing company or celebrating Snow White’s sexual liberation with a scene where she distributes condoms to the dwarves.
Perhaps that cautionary language could be helpful to parents who think that some of the imagery might confuse their children, particularly in this day and age where gender is a matter of opinion, race is still a controversial subject and sexual stereotypes are forbidden.
But I can’t get my head around the idea that the stories that gave me such joy as a child are, to some people, harmful enough to warrant a cautionary warning. It’s one thing to acknowledge that we made mistakes in the past, and to seek a reckoning with our history. It is quite another to caution people at the outset that the magnificent piece of art that they are about to see is actually riddled with racist, sexist and “phobic” tropes. This sets the viewer up to actually watch out for those troublesome details, and threatens to ruin the viewing experience.
Isn’t it at all possible that the little girl who sees the handsome prince on bended knee with the crystal slipper will both sigh with delight, and one day grow up to be president? Must every childhood memory be tweaked so that it fits the evolved narrative?
Can’t we just enjoy the movie?
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.