I haven’t seen any of the old Disney movies – the pre-2000 movies I mean – in decades. But I had heard about them. Specifically I heard that these movies used to teach girls to be helpless princesses who need to be rescued by men, and that we needed more modern stories for our girls. That led to adventure stories like Frozen, Brave, or Moana. Now adventure stories for girls are a definitely a good thing and I have no complaints about their existence.
But being stuck at home I happened to watch the live-action Aladdin and was so annoyed by it that I rewatched the old one for comparison. And I was surprised by what I saw, so I rewatched the other ones too. It turns out that saying those movies gave a shallow and helpless view of women – or a shallow view of men as rescuers – simply isn’t true. There’s actually some interesting depth in the old ‘princess stories’ about men and women and their relationships that I didn’t consciously understand as a kid, but see as an adult.
The New Aladdin’s Lack Of Dimension
I’ll start with the Aladdin movies and I’d encourage you to watch both and compare for yourself. Watch the new one, then the old one. Will Smith is a great genie but everything else about the new one is worse. It cuts out most of the dialogue and song, and makes the characters extremely one dimensional and uninteresting. For example,
- The Sultan’s dialogue about being concerned that his daughter is happy and safely set up in life before he dies is removed. So is his generally kind and doting demeanor. In the new movie, he rarely speaks except to tell his daughter to be quiet and that women can never be in charge. He comes across as a disinterested or imperious patriarch. In the old one he obviously dotes on his daughter and is acting not just based on the law and tradition, but because he wants to work within it to do his best for her.
- In the new version Jasmine’s attitude is more one-dimensional. She is given new songs about not being ‘silenced’ and talks about wanting to rule Agrabah on her own as a woman. We are treated to foot-in-mouth messages from the men around her like Aladdin trying to ‘buy’ her when disguised as a prince. But in setting her up as more of a victim, she is actually made to appear more powerless than in the cartoon. In the cartoon, she comes across as generous, intelligent, and strong-willed, and comfortable with her own authority. She is disgusted not with the idea of marriage, but with the low calibre of men she’s presented with as candidates. She sneaks out because she wants adventure and experience for herself and isn’t afraid to break the rules. And when it goes wrong, she is not afraid to reveal herself and stand on her own authority to order the guards around. When they turn out to have orders from Jafar, she directly confronts Jafar and reminds him that he works for her. Jafar has to lie to get out of the argument because she has more authority than he does.
- Like Jasmine, Aladdin has been dumbed down in the new movie. He is made to look bumbling and awkward and even his friendliness and generosity is more perfunctory. In the original, he makes mistakes, but he is quick and confident and kind. He is also interested in Jasmine for more than her beauty and wealth – when describing his desire for her to the Genie at one point, the very first adjective he uses is ‘smart’.
The Old Aladdin’s Depth
The contrast is quite remarkable when watched close together. The new one can be seen as starring a woman who wants power for herself and doesn’t like being told no, and a poor kid who is infatuated with her. They are obstructed by a power-hungry vizier and an indifferent father. The old one is about two decent and intelligent youths making a connection despite their vastly different backgrounds and coming to respect each other. The sultan is a loving father who wants what’s best for his daughter and the problem is that they don’t always agree on what that is. Jafar is a jerk either way – though in the new one with more overt overtones about having to be the biggest man in the room (which is repeated constantly). In other words, the new Jafar is driven by his male ego more than greed for power.
What Disney Taught Us About Growing Up And Loving Each Other
That bit about the two basically good, healthy, and active young people working through their situation and their feelings for each other is what’s missing from the politically correct view of old Disney. The princesses in the old movies are not just helpless. They all drove the plot forward by rebelling and not doing what they were told when they wanted more. The fact that the stories involved romance did not make them stories about a woman ‘needing’ a man. They were stories about how people need each other, and about fighting back when someone tries to keep you down, lock you away, or take what is yours. Along the way they did a surprisingly good job of touching on the concerns of parents or of young people trying to find their way, especially with the opposite sex.
I think Beauty and the Beast is my favorite example of this. There is a loving father who is doing his best to support their family and a daughter who isn’t happy with their situation but appreciates his efforts. There are three shallow young people – the Beast, who couldn’t see beyond money and beauty; Gaston, the conceited boy who must win every contest and claim every trophy; and Belle, the girl who introduces herself by singing about how the town isn’t smart and sophisticated enough for someone like her.
Three Flawed Young People
But when they are faced with challenges and their own fears, they react very differently. Gaston is so frightened by changing his idea of himself as the best that he moves from vanity to to terrible callousness and dishonesty to win. Meanwhile Beast is visibly going through something that most men remember.
He shows the feelings of fear and shame when you muster the courage to put yourself out there to be accepted or rejected, despite thinking you probably aren’t good enough. As part of this he has the difficulty of learning not to let those feelings translate into frustration and anger. His tale is the classic boys coming of age tale of learning to control his power and potential agression, to express his thoughts and feelings in a constructive fashion, and not to lash out when vulnerable, such as when Belle sneaks in to see the rose.
Meanwhile Belle when faces with adversity makes a sacrifice to protect her aging father. Once at the castle rapidly learns to control the situation with the Beast by confronting hime and calling his bluff and bluster, which contradicts the story about the weaker Disney princesses of the past, since he is frankly rather terrifying. But more importantly, she learns to understand things from another person’s point of view too – what she saw as disgusting she learns has value, despite it’s roughness, and she learns to respect the effort being put in by Beast. It’s an important lesson about the book and it’s cover that the girl singing about being trapped in a backward town needed to learn.
A Tale As Old As Time
The title song illustrates this point about maturing and learning to have a relationship quite succinctly. The lyrics are below. I totally missed this as a kid, but it is very explicit about the process of needing to change and grow when you are with another person. It is a song about the beautiful promise of a young woman, the rough promise of a young man, and their growth into maturity.
Tale as old as time True as it can be Barely even friends Then somebody bends Unexpectedly
Just a little change Small to say the least Both a little scared Neither one prepared Beauty and the beast Ever just the same Ever a surprise Ever as before and ever just as sure as the sun will rise Ever just the same Ever a surprise Ever as before Ever just as sure As the sun will rise Tale as old as time Tune as old as song Bittersweet and strange Finding you can change Learning you were wrong Certain as the sun Certain as the sun Rising in the east Tale as old as time Song as old as rhyme Beauty and the beast Tale as old as time Song as old as rhyme Beauty and the beast Beauty and the beast
Living Up To The Promise
What I found most interesting, though, was the culmination of the film that comes after this. It’s all well and good that they grew a little and learned to appreciate each other and themselves a little more. But they become adults from events after this song.
Belle learns that her father is in trouble and the Beast lets her go. This is a very important moment for him. She doesn’t know about the curse and how close he is to being trapped forever, and he doesn’t tell her to hold it over her. Because he loves her, he is willing to give up his happiness for hers without burdening her with knowledge of his sacrifice. It is that moment that an adult viewer realizes that he really does love her and that he might actually deserve to be loved in return.
After this, things go south rapidly. Gaston incites the villagers to attack the castle. Belle then makes the decision to go back to stand by the Beast even in the face of what the community thinks. And that is the corresponding point where adult viewers see that she also has a real, mature love for him.
The Beast then illustrates the self-sacrificing principle of an adult man again. He is not willing to kill to protect his own life and is going to let Gaston kill him, until he sees that Belle has come back. At that point he is willing to fight to the death for her because her love makes life worth living and in fact he does ‘die’ trying to reach her. Only at that point, where he has proven his willingness to die for her, does she declare her love for him and break the curse.
That’s a very powerful message about the traditional responsibility of mutual support between a man and a woman. He must prove himself not only able to control his negative emotions, but to be willing to sacrifice everything for her. She must prove herself worthy in turn – by neither ignoring this effort or sacrifice, or by expecting it as her due, but by seeing it for the treasure it is and then publicly standing by her man.
That’s a story with much more depth than ‘princess is a prize to be won’ and a message that I think is still important for girls and boys.