Emma Teitel: When it comes to Disney princesses, we can't just let it go
Keira Knightley’s daughter wants to be a dentist when she grows up, which suits the Oscar-nominated actress just fine. Better a girl grow up dreaming of fixing teeth than dreaming of fixing dinner for her evil stepsisters while she waits around for a rich prince to rescue her. “Rescue yourself, obviously!” Knightley told Ellen DeGeneres this week on the comedian’s talk show, inspiring a chorus of cheers from the audience.
She didn’t, however, go on to explain how Cinderella, a woman of very limited means with no supernatural powers could possibly rescue herself from a life of poverty and servitude in a patriarchal kingdom without the help of a male benefactor.
What Knightley did do is tell DeGeneres that in her household certain Disney films are “banned,” among them Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, the latter a movie she admits liking very much, but one she won’t allow her aspiring dentist daughter to watch because of its allegedly anti-feminist elements — namely the fact that mermaid Ariel chooses to swap her voice for legs and a chance at love on land. Or as Knightley put it: “I mean the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello!”
This is an ungenerous reading of The Little Mermaid. Ariel wants to walk — and she wants to travel. She wants to “stay all day in the sun.” Prince Eric is a bonus. But that’s not the point.
The point is that Knightley, a Disney star in her own right (Pirates of the Caribbean) is one of many modern moms trying her best to raise a daughter who grows up knowing there is more to life than Disney princesses; who thinks for herself and who values herself. It appears Kristen Bell is walking the same path with her own kids.
Bell, also a Disney star (she voices Anna in the mega hit Frozen), made headlines this week alongside Knightley when she told Parents magazine recently that she takes issue with the fairy tale classic, Snow White. Every time she reads the story to her kids, she told the magazine, “I look at my girls and ask, ‘Don’t you think it’s weird that Snow White didn’t ask the old witch why she needed to eat the apple? Or where she got that apple?’ I say, ‘I would never take food from a stranger, would you?’ And my kids are like, ‘No!’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I’m doing something right.’ ”
Bell also objects to the famous kiss at the end of the modern version of Snow White, a kiss that is technically nonconsensual because SW is unconscious. As a result, the actress asks her kids after reading the story:
“Don’t you think that it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission?”
Of course it’s weird because the whole thing is weird: it’s a fairy tale. This appears to be the popular consensus online among people who are deeply annoyed by Bell and Knightley’s critiques of classic kids stories — critiques they chalk up to politically correct nonsense. Both actors’ comments have gone viral in recent days inciting outrage from a mostly right wing audience protective of the classics and wary of censorship.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro weighed in tweeting sarcastically, “Oh well if Kristen Bell is uncomfortable we should probably discard centuries-old fairy tales.”
But it’s important to note that Bell herself is not advocating discarding anything. In fact, it’s ironic that conservative critics are so bothered by her insistence on critiquing Snow White with her girls because the actress is doing exactly what conservatives rightly demand liberals do all the time: she isn’t censoring themes and ideas that offend her. She isn’t banning these stories from her household. She is engaging with them head-on with her kids, and where necessary, challenging them. Knightley meanwhile is banning problematic themes from her kids’ media diet — a practice that’s censorious, and let’s face it, useless. The world is full of imperfect messages. Better to receive them and critique them than pretend they don’t exist, or worse, only allow your kid to watch films that meet the highest standards of moral purity, which means depriving them of every great kids movie that came before 2016.
What’s interesting is that both actors have unwittingly presented a microcosm of the free speech debates raging among right and left on university campuses today. Bell is the professor who wants to teach the controversial book and invite the inflammatory speaker to the school — provided of course that both spur a lively debate. Knightley is the prof who wants to shun them.
Whatever your feelings about vintage Disney movies (I’ve always been partial to The Rescuers), there’s no doubt that in an age of mass misinformation Bell’s method is the better one. Girls should be critical consumers of media, not naïve ones. Besides, watching The Little Mermaid with your daughter means you can take a break from Frozen.
Emma Teitel is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @emmaroseteitel