When we talk about Disney films as adults, the conversation tends to center around how these films affect young women — and not without reason. The ridiculously proportioned princesses have contributed to our societal standards of beauty, and gendered tropes have set up impossible expectations for generations of women. But we don’t spend nearly as much time discussing how these fairy tales affect young boys growing up. Make no mistake, Disney movies have plenty to teach young men about masculinity, and not all of the lessons are good.
I loved watching Disney movies as a child. Full of catchy songs and colorful characters, the films were just long enough to keep me out of my mom’s hair for a while, but short enough to hold my attention.
Generally speaking, I think Disney films are a lot of fun. But their unrealistic, overly simplistic, largely heterosexist worldview has the potential to shape young minds in a lot of negative ways. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning a lot from Disney about how men and women relate to one another, how love works, and most importantly, what it means to “be a man.” Here are some of the problematic lessons I learned.
All Men Are Attracted to Women
I was aware of my attraction to men from a pretty young age, though I would not come out as gay until my late teenage years. I didn’t see any positive, realistic gay relationships in the movies I watched growing up. It was confusing. At times, I felt very alone. "Where are the boys who like other boys?" I thought. "I can't be the only one." But that is exactly the message young gay men (and women) have received from Disney for years.
To date, Disney has yet to put a gay relationship front and center in one of their films (though there may be a sly nod to a gay couple in last year's Frozen ). Sadly, most Disney films are built upon a solid heterosexist foundation — boys chase girls and vice versa, case closed. In Disney’s world, there is little room for variation. And when there is, well, the characters aren’t exactly cast in a positive light.
Case in point: Kuzco, the emperor from The Emperor’s New Groove. Kuzco is single and has no interest in finding a woman to share his life with. Consequently, he is portrayed as a selfish, self-absorbed terror who thinks that the world revolves around him (as evidenced by the film’s opening song, “Perfect World”). The movie’s message is clear: a “good” emperor (or prince, for that matter) would be itchin’ to get with a woman.
All Men Want to Get Married
Just as gay men don’t really seem to exist in Disney’s world, men who don’t want to get married don’t really seem to exist, either.
Most Disney films end with the triumphant marriage of the hero and the heroine. Heck, Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid is so desperate to get married, he agrees to marry a sexy Ursula-in-disguise within just a matter of days.
Anybody who isn’t married in Disney movies ranges from selfish brat (the aforementioned Kuzco) to evil mastermind (the spindly Jafar from Aladdin). Disney teaches us that there’s usually something wrong with single men — they’re either jerks, or they're not to be trusted.
True Love Will Find You
Ah, love at first sight. We all know that it doesn’t work that way in real life, right? Right. But as a little kid, I had no idea.
Thanks to Disney, instantaneous love seemed like a fairly reasonable thing to me. “That’s just what adults do,” I thought. One day, I’d be strolling through the supermarket when I’d spy a beautiful princess with large, expressive eyes and a slammin’ body from across the aisle and BAM! By next week, we’d be husband and wife! Prince Charming falling for Cinderella the very first moment he lays eyes on her at the ball? Totally plausible! I mean, did you SEE those puffy sleeves?
And don't worry guys — she'll probably show up at your house one day, so there's no need to put any work into finding her.
Men Need to Rescue Women
As the singing, dancing men of the Chinese army tell us in Mulan: “What do we want? A girl worth fighting for!”
Disney movies are chock full of damsels in distress: Snow White and Princess Aurora are both stuck in comas, awaiting “true love’s kiss;” and Meg from Hercules needs the superhuman Herc to rescue her from Hades’ evil grasp. Disney teaches young men that women are powerless to overcome the obstacles in their lives, and that they need to be "saved."
Growing up, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t interested in saving girls — I spent enough time fighting with my older sister to know that girls were the pits. (Don’t worry, I’ve since revised my position.) But the “damsel in distress” character is so ever-present in Disney movies, it’s bound to give some boys the wrong idea.
Good Men are Buff. Anything Else is Just Laughable…or Evil
You won’t find much variety when it comes to body types in Disney movies — all of Disney’s heroes are exquisitely handsome physical specimens with bulging biceps and chiseled abs that would make Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino green with envy. Just look at Hercules, Prince Eric, or even John Smith!
Most supporting male characters in Disney movies, however, fall into two distinct categories: those who are built like roly polies, designed to make us laugh (usually at them), or tall, pointy villains who we’re supposed to despise.
For the clowns, look no further than Lefou, Gaston’s shrimpy sidekick from Beauty & The Beast. There’s also Chien-Po, the overweight Chinese soldier who is incapable of thinking about anything other than food from Mulan.
As far as evil villains go, there’s bony sorcerer Jafar from Aladdin and the lanky, angular Doctor Facilier from The Princess and the Frog. According to Disney, good men are all incredibly handsome and strong. Anything else... you just don't want to mess with.
Fathers Are Scary. (Or Harmless, If They're Fat.)
Disney has always kind of had it out for moms and dads (the shipwreck that kills both parents in Frozen is just further proof), but when a father figure is present in their stories, he has a tendency to be... well, a controlling ogre.
Take King Triton, Ariel’s father from The Little Mermaid. King Triton is one scary dude . His towering physique! His booming voice! His flowing white beard! He is a buff, domineering Santa merman. He's also emotionally abusive.
It's almost as if Disney is trying to give kids an anti-dad complex. If dads aren't downright terrifying, then they are short, stout guys who need to be rescued — like Belle's dad, or the sultan from Aladdin.
Women Will LOVE You Even If You’re an ABUSIVE Asshole
The Beast from Beauty & The Beast has had a rough go of it. I get it — dude’s been dealt a tough hand. But when the Beast’s first real chance to find true love presents itself (a gentle, kind Belle), he spends half the movie treating her like dirt!
Belle is the Beast's prisoner. He is constantly screaming at her. He denies her food until she agrees to dine with him! Still, this human woman is drawn to the slobbering, oversized monster. The Beast doesn’t show any real affection toward Belle until the movie is practically over, but don’t worry, he still gets the girl.
While Frozen has been called "the most progressive Disney movie ever," there's still a lot of work to be done. Can we please, please see a prominent gay relationship in a Disney film? For once, can heterosexuality not be assumed? Can we have an effeminate male character who is not the butt of every joke? Those are the kinds of movies that I wish I had growing up. Maybe I would've felt less alone.
Not to mention, real, complex, and emotional men are so much more dashing.