The original animated Disney crew members are pretty awkwardly clad. I mean, none of the ducks wear pants. The mice wear gloves. No one is sure why Goofy has a complete outfit and Pluto is an honest-to-goodness dog…whose owner is an anthropomorphic mouse…with gloves. This means either Mickey is enormous or Pluto is tiny; probably the former considering the existence of Chip and Dale. But I digress.
Aside from the characters’ garb, much research and discussion has been dedicated to the troubling sexuality and gender issues (the repeated princess narrative and more) and/or racial elements (from Song of the South to The Princess and the Frog among others) that appear in iconic Disney films as time marched on and character choice evolved. Now, I’m not saying these topics don’t deserve targeting, but what about the idea of how these characters are related? What about family? Let’s take a peek behind the curtain and explore the family structures that these movies present to children and families.
My fascination with how Disney portrays family began once I noticed that Huey, Dewey, and Louie only seemed to have Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck as uncles, Daisy as an aunt (presumably because of her relationship to Donald) and absolutely no parents. It was fine when the cartoons were only a few-minute shorts. But as the animated world expanded to “Duck Tales” and “Darkwing Duck,” I began looking for an explanation as to why I had never seen the triplets with their mother or father. Incidentally, I learned that their father died and they were sent to stay with their uncle Donald indefinitely by their mother, Dumbella (yeesh). This kind of familial phenomenon exists in many of the other films as well. In the earlier features (prior to Brave and The Incredibles), there are many stories of orphans, step-parents, single parents, widows, and widowers. If there is a character that does come from a two-parent home, either mom or dad is sure to be brutally killed off immediately–such as in The Lion King, Bambi, and Finding Nemo–often right before the eyes of our main character. This traumatic event shatters the core of the established family unit and thus begins the quest for a new sense of identity and ultimately, a new family for the protagonist.
With both my parents present, and my particular upbringing, I couldn’t relate to many of the Disney characters in quite the same way. Furthermore, my best friend had experienced his parents’ divorce at a young age; the formidable years when Disney was prominent within his media consumption. I didn’t meet him until just before his mother and now stepfather were married. I was five. They were and are one of the most loving examples of marriage that I want to emulate in my own life. I’m thirty-three. The “nontraditional” family systems in Disney films appeared to foster abusive relationships that I simply never experienced. Leave it up to Disney flicks, all stepmothers want to kill their stepdaughters out of jealousy; fathers are the best kind of parent when it comes to nurturing; and experiencing any other culture other than your own will lead to your ultimate downfall. So as I made my transition to teenagerdom, I became more intrigued as to what message the Disney corporation was trying to send; is it possible to find a sense of belonging or perhaps reestablish a sense of “self” in a new environment? I’m not so sure.
The hard lessons that befall main characters like Simba and Ariel are traumatic. I have no doubt that watching those images as a small child affected me. I mean, watching a kid watch his father trampled to death? Seeing a curious young girl watch a ship full of people potentially burning to death or drowning? These are the kinds of situations where family, no matter the iteration, can be the rock to get you through; the support that can ease fears and soothe worries. That surely must be the ultimate lesson for these characters, right? Ariel’s head was in the clouds when she was under the rule of her father, King Triton, along with her pod (?) of sisters. She was living a double life. But Scuttle, Flounder, and Sebastian were the force to help Ariel find her “self”–or at least chase her dream. Wait. Then she marries Prince Eric and leaves all of them and her father and sisters behind (a la princess narrative, squared). What a price to pay. Sacrifice is a real thing, but is that the takeaway for young audience members watching this film?
Simba was ousted, true, but Timon and Pumba changed his entire outlook on life and provided the opportunity to create his own identity. He found freedom from the politics that was the lions’ pride (the only lions in Africa, it appears). Now, Simba’s situation is a bit more complicated because the animal kingdom is fundamentally different due to the pride family dynamic. But the idea that he is forced from his “real” family and ends up finding a new one develops into an interesting reversal that implies the nontraditional family isn’t enough. He must return to the pride and be with Nala in order to restore balance to the entire animal kingdom. I guess hanging out with two dudes in the jungle that ain’t your species just doesn’t cut it (see The Jungle Book).
When we see our characters at the point where they make the decision to change their fate, they are part of a family-like community or a blended, nontraditional family structure. Jasmine only has her father the Sultan (along with her pet tiger) and Aladdin is apparently an orphan. They both are unhappy with their circumstances and seek solace. Things seem to turn around when Aladdin has Carpet, Genie, and long-time, clepto monkey friend, Abu, to lean on, but true happiness can only come once the two lovestruck, human rebels marry. Exactly what Jasmine didn’t want. How about that? Wouldn’t you know it; all Jasmine needed was some good ol’ fashioned, mandatory, heterosexual nuptials to straighten her out and get Aladdin on the right track (because extreme poverty to extreme wealth will surely be a seamless transition for him). Any other family system is deemed “broken” and needs fixing.
Shame. The undertone of these films is a theme of “it isn’t as it should be” and it must be made right. If not, the Scars and the Jafars and the Ursulas of the land (and sea) will see the cracks in the foundation and manipulate weaknesses for their own gain. The films always end with a family-unifying ceremony (Simba and Nala didn’t marry per se, but they got down and had a cub that was celebrated with a kingdom-wide ceremony). It’s as if the story ends here, because happiness is eminent. There is a life beyond the marriage, though (as the sequels and spin-offs might suggest). Marriage isn’t an uncomplicated relationship that takes hardly any work until the rebellious child comes along. I mean, how do these princesses end up with stepmothers? The birth mother always dies. That’s the only way a marriage can end and remarrying be acceptable. Once the second marriage occurs, we’re back in an unnatural institution. Thus, stepmother = evil. Now, I’m not suggesting that all families don’t have their problems or dysfunction can’t result in abusive situations. However, Disney posits that anything outside of the “normal” family dynamic is–without fail–disastrous. Images like these are harmful. They are not representations of how diverse family systems can function productively. So we as parents, guardians, and family members who are part of the team responsible for raising children must be diligent in discussing all of the different ways in which family can manifest and be successful. We cannot let our young people grow up to believe that if they do not end up like Ariel and Eric, Jasmine and Aladdin, or Nala and Simba that they have somehow failed at life.
As an adult who may one day take my kid to a Disney film, once I can block out the background noise of children who still don’t know how to whisper, and the incessant kicking of the back of my theater seat, I will be sure to explain the moral discrepancies that I have a hunch will still exist (think you’ll see male same-sex couple as the main relationship any time soon?). These blended and alternative families are presented as more than just flawed. They are presented as the worst possible option, which is unfortunate for the audience because they/we too have been adopted into this blended family during the course of the film. Once you start singing the lyrics, you’re basically blood. Then we go on adventures and experience some of the toughest trials together. We’ve impaled the giant, black octopus with an old sunken ship. We’ve overthrown the tyranny of an evil and power-hungry uncle and/or political consultant. But once the sand and seafoam settles, we are left along the boundaries, waving at our best friends as they saunter off to begin a future without us on solid ground: happily ever after.