The Problem With Disney Isn’t the Princesses

The problem with Disney is the queens — or, really, the lack of queens. Ariel, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Pocahontas: they’re all motherless, I think. Disney tends to feature only absent mothers or cruel stepmothers, as far as I can tell. The few adult women who get any substantial screen-time are dark, ugly, and evil: Mother Gothel the kidnapper, Ursula the Octopus, Cruella DeVille. Young girls are the heroines of these movies, but as soon as the princess finds her prince, as soon as wedding bells ring, the curtain descends and all we get is the declaration that they lived happily ever after, with no model of how to actually live happily ever after as a wife, mother, or really post-adolescent female of any sort.

It’s not just Disney’s problem, really. I’ve been thinking lately that pop culture offers remarkably few models of motherhood.

I was thinking this because of a conversation with some mothers outside Soph’s ballet class. One mother was worried that she’s too paranoid, cutting all grapes into quarters to prevent choking, forbidding all contact with strangers’ dogs, over-protecting her child from every possible hazard. The other mother worried that she was too lackadaisical. It’s one of those many mom-binaries which we never win.

We all know about the typical binaries: high-school girls are seen as either too slutty or too prudish, too fat or too thin. Then we get to college and learn that there’s a name for this — the Madonna/Whore complex — and a whole set of feminist thinkers who have theorized ways to avoid those ridiculous binaries. In college, most of us learn to accept our own sexuality and body image, partly because we find pop-culture models that are more positive: Tori Amos or Indigo Girls (who do feminists listen to today?), Bust magazine or Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. That took me quite comfortably through my 20s.

Then I had a baby and was hit with a whole new array of ways to worry about my imperfections. Moms are either too smothering or too distant, either too worried or not worried enough. We obsess that our kids eat too much or too little, are too sociable or not social enough. There are so many binaries to get stuck on, and there is no way to be a perfect mom. There’s hardly any way to talk about being a mom without being twee.

We can theorize this away as yet another permutation of the Maddona-Whore Complex, except: where are the models of decent motherhood out there, to help us find a better way? Who are the moms who are good enough, who manage to take care of their families AND themselves, who manage to love their children ferociously (as I think we all do) while also keeping a sense of proportion, sense of humor, sense of their own fine selves?

Mom-bloggers are the only actual positive model of motherhood I can think of. Every other motherhood model in more mainstream pop-culture, it seems to me, is Octomon or Tiger Mom or Mother Gothel. Even television shows with names like Parenthood or Modern Family seem to be more about the fathers. Again and again, mothers are either evil or invisible, as if all pop-culture is following the Disney narrative. Maybe Gloria, the hot young Latina wife on Modern Family is a model? But her son is a nervous wreck and her cleavage is part of the plot-line. Really, the only admirable parents on that show are the gay dads.

The only decent model of motherhood I can think of, represented in mainstream media, is Michelle Obama.

Help me out here. There must be more, right? We can’t really be stuck in the era in which Philip Wylie chastised the momism of a Nation of Vipers. There must be models of decent mothers out there, people who are full individuals as well as mothers, people who are neither oppressively perfect like June Cleaver or aggressively imperfect like Roseanne. But who are those models?

The problem with Disney isn’t the princesses, because — despite Disney’s immense marketing acuity — my toddler daughter has other models of female toddlerhood to choose from. There’s Hello Kitty, Uniqua the Backyardigan, Dora the Explorer, Steve’s dog Blue, Yo Gabba Gabba’s aliens, Sid the Science Kid’s best friend Gabriella, and so many more. The problem with Disney is the queens, because I can’t think of any other powerful pop-culture models to choose from, to find a decent representation of motherhood.


3 responses to “The Problem With Disney Isn’t the Princesses

  1. Anonymous

    I always enjoy your blog, Elaine, and thanks for yet another thought-provoking entry.

    Mothering is so important, we understandably put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it right. But IMO we’d do ourselves, our families, and especially our daughters, a favor if we allowed ourselves more humor and forgiveness (a la Erma Bombeck in the past generation of mothers) and more clearly conveyed/modeled appreciation of our own mothers.

    Sometimes I’m discouraged by the guilt and criticism heaped by society onto mothers, but other times I feel hope. A highlight of my parenting years was hearing Malina, then a senior in high school, describe a classroom activity: their teacher asked them to write on a slip of paper–without discussion or sharing with one another– the name and short description of the person they admired most in the world.

    After reading the slips, the teacher asked the girls to predict the boys’ responses, and they correctly guessed athletes, government leaders, and historic figures. But the boys, when asked the same question of the girls, kept guessing wrong until they finally gave up. The teacher said that for the first time in his teaching years every girl in the class had listed the same person: her own mother.

    Odds are I wasn’t the only imperfect mother to rejoice that afternoon in her daughter’s grace.

    Wishing all mothers a little more appreciation, humor and forgiveness…


    • Dad

      Dear Elaine,

      I hope that I did some things right and could be a good model for parenting.

      I know that Ben is doing many things right and is a better model for parenting.

      And I know that you are doing the greatest job of all. I can relax, knowing that you are the mother of my grand daughter Sophie. If you have any doubts, just look back over your blog. It is all there–the love, the care, the knowledge, and the effort.

      Well done, kid.



  2. Pingback: Why Reading Blogs Isn’t a Waste of Time « Elaine’s blog

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