Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Overthinking Story, Symbolism, and the Feminist Ideal

Amongst us lives a 2½ year old girl. We think she's smarter than the average toddler. She's reading a few words. Can
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count. Has a superb sense of the nature of her environment. And in the face of something off-kilter or that she doesn't particularly want to do, she replies "You crack me up."

She also has become obsessed with, and in varying order of preference, Lady and the Tramp, Lion King, and Peter Pan. All are the Disney productions. All but Lion King are the original version. Over the past few days, it has been Lady and the Tramp upon which she has focused, so much so that we have bought a toddler-level book of the same story for her to read at night.

"Story." Every human being loves story, for story both explains and expands a person's life. And so I understand that the child is focused on the story within the animated feature, but not being a child psychologist, I don't understand if the story has some sort of universal emotional appeal or if other factors are at work--something deliberately organized to have a subliminal appeal below the subconscious level that entrances a developing mind.

Of course, Disney did not come to be a multi-billion dollar enterprise without some instinctive (or scientifically determined) understanding of what appeals to youngsters. If Walt Disney wanted only to entertain, I think the corporate officers now seek to be so entertaining (I would use the word "entrancing") that the dynamic reaches the level of addiction in a young mind.

The obsession here is significant enough that we limit the child to one viewing a day, and it is significant enough that we are somewhat thankful that the films have a value system, albeit one more humanist and sometimes more ambiguous than appears on the surface. This isn't an original thought, obviously. Put moral lesson + disney films into any search engine.

Secondly, over the last several decades I have become, for want of a better word, a feminist. I have been witness to my wife's struggles as a female in the workplace. I have memories of the native wit and subtle intelligence of my mother and maternal grandmother, both of whom had little or no opportunity to expand their lives with education and career. And so I wonder at the feminist message within these three Disney films.

The character Lady is less than ideal. The character lives a pampered life; she's marginalized; she is rejected; she must be rescued by a male.

I am not one for gender-neutral parenting. In some sense, biology is destiny. While I suspect I have not overcome generational prejudices about men in traditional female occupations, I do believe that females--little girls--should grow up with the idea that any occupation is possible.

But that same generational fissure that left me to embrace feminism only in mid-adulthood leaves me bemused at the results of "female role models" revealed today by a Google quest. Ripley, the Sigourney Weaver character from the Alien movie series? No. Better Hillary Clinton or Condileeza Rice or Madame Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt. 


Ramsey Hootman said...

Try watching some of the earlier Disney classics - Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc. They're all based around the idea of needing a man to come to one's rescue. I never considered myself a femenist, but I think having children changes your view quite a bit. As an adult, you think, "Whatever, it's just one movie, it's no big deal." But then you see your little one, eyes wide, drinking up every moment of some silly cartoon, and you start wondering what impressions are forming on his/her little blank slate of consciousness. I find I'm not only more femenist (I don't want my son thinking of girls as "lesser" or "weaker" any more than I'd want my daughter to feel this way) but also much more race-conscious. The horrific amount of whitewashing that goes on in children's literature and programming now jumps out at me wherever I look. (For instance, my absurd search for a racially accurate Christmas story!) Given that we live in a racially diverse community, this has become especially important to me, as a parent.

I did, however, have a good laugh at your last line - Ripley is high on our list of potential "girl names!" In large part because strong female lead characters do not exist in classical literature.

Gary Presley said...

Oh, Nikki, don't forget The Talented Mr Ripley ...

There is this issue, about which we both speak, but there are many others as well that influence behavior. For example, the influence of advertising on commercial television, or how talk about sexual activities drive the narrative on many shows, or violence.

No matter how a person strives to teach a child more sophisticated values (role models, sex, violence, greed for the material) when the child goes out in the world, he or she mixes with children influenced by these issues -- kids planted for hours upon hours in front of the electronic babysitter and fed junk food.