When it came to recognising and defeating emotional abuse, Disney films were not always very much help. I am an 80s kid, and so it’s the second wave of Disney princesses that I grew up with – Ariel, Belle and Jasmine . Let’s deal with them in turn.
Ariel was a 16 year old who had an interest in a foreign race/culture. When she met someone from that culture, she was attracted to him and wanted to meet him again. Her father had prejudices about these people though, and when he found out about her feelings he destroyed her collection of artefacts from the other culture and asked a member of his staff to follow his daughter around to ensure that she couldn’t see the boy any more. But in the end it was all OK because after spending 3 days with the boy unable to speak, he decided he loved her and they were immediately married and she was reconciled with her father.
Belle was 17 when we met her. Her father was abducted and held captive by a man who owned a large castle. Belle agreed to become a prisoner in exchange for her father, who was dying from untreated pneumonia. Belle remained a captive until she “fell in love” with her captor, at which point he let her out briefly to see her father. Soon after they were married.
Jasmine was only 15 when we met her, but the race to marry her was already on. Having turned down a large number of princes, her father was making preparations to have her marry his middle aged vizier when as luck would have it, she ran into a boy she’d briefly met a few days ago on her one and only trip out of the palace where she was born. In the nick of time she agreed to marry him and then they fought the vizier and won and lived happily ever after.
What lessons can we take away from the fate of the three princesses?
- It’s right and normal that fathers should control, or want to control, who their daughter dates and/or marries even to the point of spying on them and doing violence to their things e.g. trashing their room as a punishment
- If you fall in love with someone, you should totally marry them, even if they have treated you badly
- If you fall in love with someone, you should totally marry them, even if you’re barely 16 and you’ve only met them twice and that was the first time you were ever alone with a boy your age or spoke more than 5 words to one. Oh and you’re a princess and he’s so poor he has to steal breakfast.
It’s not great, is it? I admit I’m being a bit unfair. The original stories are all pretty old, and values have changed. And the age thing is a bit of a red herring – as a kid, there’s nothing more compelling than stories about people not much older than you doing stuff that adults do. And lastly, you could argue that Disney didn’t expect girls to really see any of the three protagonists as direct role models. I mean, one is a mermaid! Who can see themselves as a mermaid? Or Arab? Or French? Oh wait no, I don’t think that’s what I meant…
But let’s not bother making excuses. It wasn’t great. It’s got much better. My kids were born in this decade, and we’ve had Tangled, Brave and Frozen. Let’s deal with them etc, etc
Tangled is one about an emotionally abused daughter of a mother who so typifies NPD that there should be a picture of her next to the definition of it in future versions of the DSM. She comes to understand that her mother is abusive when she goes out into the real world and deals with all sorts of situations that she thought would be scary, but turn out to be OK when she realises that you have to judge people by their behaviour and not by their appearances. She does all this with the help of a handsome thief and although, yes, they do marry, they wait until they’ve got to know each other properly.
Brave is basically Aladdin, but Scottish. And with no bad guy, or at least not a bad guy who wants to marry a princess who’s barely of age. Because in 2012, the idea of a middle aged man wanting to marry a 15 year old girl is significantly creepier than Disney or anyone else wants their bad guys to be getting. Oh, and it introduced the world to the word “geemy”, which is just awesome in itself.
But Frozen. Frozen is the one.
Anna, as the sister of a princess with scary ice powers, experiences a lonely and cloistered childhood, followed by the early death of her parents. Starved for love, she jumps at it the first chance she gets, with a handsome prince whose emotional abuse is so standard that you could believe that when Richard Grannon made this video on the red flags of emotional abuse he was babysitting someone’s 4 year old girl and being made to watch Frozen on endless repeat. Grannon makes 5 points in his video. They’re all in the film.
- Whirlwind romance – this arse goes along with everything Anna says in order to make it feel like they are cosmically matched. It’s beautifully sent up in this song. “I mean it’s crazy, but we finish each others’ – sandwiches – that’s what I was gonna say!
- Too much, too soon – the guy proposes on the same day they met. Kristoff takes the piss out of this beautifully. “You got engaged to someone you met THAT DAY? What’s his second name?” “uh… of the Southern Isles?” “Favourite food?” “Sandwiches” “Eye colour?” “Dreamy“
- Button pushing – at the end of the coronation party, after Elsa’s powers have been revealed, Hans is… a bit off. First he says to Anna “did you know?” and she says “no” and the next thing, he gets this little pleased look on his face. And then later in the same scene Anna gets on her horse to go and save Elsa and she says “I leave Prince Hans in charge.” And then he says a thing. He goes, “can you trust her?” And the first time I saw it I was like what was that? Trust Elsa? What about trust you? She met you fucking 5 hours ago and she’s just made you the regent! But he draws focus away from himself using this piece of information he’s just gained – that Anna didn’t know about Elsa’s powers, and is therefore probably feeling a bit betrayed. It’s the only chance he really gets to push any buttons like that, as the next time they meet, he unveils himself as the bad guy in a way that has to happen in a kids’ movie and would never happen in real life. But I feel confident that had the marriage panned out, he’d have been a skilled button pusher.
- Isolation from support network – when Anna is sick, he takes her from Kristoff and Olaf, and literally locks her away in a room.
- Erosion of values: you see this more with Elsa than with Anna, where before trying to kill her out on the ice he convinces her that she has killed Anna, when actually it was his later action of putting out the fire and locking her away that almost does for her. Up is down, in is out – the victim is invited to examine herself to find blame in her own (accidental) actions and give the real villain the benefit of the doubt.
To top it all off, when Anna finally gets it together with the guy she’s supposed to fall in love with – Kristoff – he completely breaks with Disney prince/ fairy story convention and actually asks her if she wants to kiss him. Consent! And cute, as well.
I love this shit. I love love love it so much. Disney comes into people’s houses with very little filter. This shit will be playing on terrestrial telly on random bank holiday mornings for the next 50 years. Kids in the shittiest setups – and kids like me, physically cared for, involved parents, high achievers, but who’re gaslighted and controlled and fucked in the head – are going to see this shit, they’re going to see Prince Hans playing his mind games and being marked the bad guy, they’re going to see Mother Gothel playing her mind games and being marked the bad guy – they’re going to see it when they’re 4, it’s going to furnish them with a view of a world out there where people who love you don’t make you unhappy, and people who say they love you and then fuck with you are bad guys and end up turning to 500 year old dust or getting a smack in the teeth and then put in jail. It is brilliant.