Step into my home, and you’ll likely be greeted by the songs of your childhood.
Yes, the magic of Disney has comfortably set up shop in the Schepers household. It is a Pandora’s Box of imagination, entertainment, and—of course—some ingenious, diabolically clever marketing. And much like the Greek myth alluded to just a moment before, Disney is something of an ur-text for our culture. It’s something of a rite of passage, at least for many of us, and I’m now revisiting that journey and seeing it anew by introducing these touchstones to my kids.
To be honest, it’s a pretty good gig.
Sure, I can be choosy. I’ll shy away, for now, from showing the boys Disney’s darker ware: the sin, guilt, and ecclesiastical corruption of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the racist undertones of Peter Pan; the colonialist overtones of Pocahontas; and the occult insanity, the how-did-they-ever-get-away-with-this of Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” complete with demons, mostly-nude sprites, and Satan himself, all set to the tune of Mussorgsky. Long story short, it’s a daunting task of filtering Disney’s legacy of a not-so-great history of cultural insensitivity and laughable take on the G: General Audiences billing from the MPAA.
All that said, it’s still a pretty good gig.
Chock it up to the teachable moments. From the tricky navigating of Robin Hood’s steal-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor “ethics” to Mulan’s richly complex investigations into feminism and queerness, not to mention the family drama and strife of the archetypal “evil” step-mothers and the Claudius-inspired Hamlet-esque Uncle Scar, I’ve found multiple opportunities to answer Liam and Oliver’s pressing questions with as much grace as I can muster. Revisiting such storylines, in fact, has allowed me to view Disney films through a much less black-and-white lens (“Steamboat Willie” aside, you literalists you). Rather, for all of Disney’s problematic depictions of feminism, cultural appropriation, etc., I do what I can to instill the lessons I consider necessary for children (two boys, no less) in today’s politically nuanced and ideologically infused climate.
Am I overthinking all this? You bet I am. But what else can I do when it comes to curbing the obviously magical and influential takeaways of such stories? Speaking as someone who, once upon a time, did not seek to question the trickier aspects of Disney-fied life, the hypersexualization of characters like Ariel or Jasmine, the racial characterizations of Aladdin, the Sinophobic elements of Fantasia’s dancing mushrooms or Snow White’s Dopey and his flagrantly offensive impression during the Dwarfs’ “Silly Song” sequence, all beg the question of why expose my kids to all this in the first place.
So why do it?
It boils down to reckoning with Disney’s effective attempt to carve out this world as simultaneously more magical and more fraught than we often give it credit for. A child’s world begins in black and white, an analog that carries some truth to why infants may be especially drawn to stark dichromatic images, but the world can quickly eat away at that burgeoning absolutist morality. To be fair, I’m talking about all this while my boys are only five and almost-three years old. So much of this goes over their heads. That’s to be expected.
But what’s the bottom line for the parent(s) of these kids?
I’ve no good answer, but instead a mere anecdote.
Liam and Oliver are drawn, as they should be, to Disney princesses and other female characters. When it comes to Disney’s most complex and developed characters, leave it to the “princesses” (loosely conceived) to show what real power, real change can look like. Appropriately enough, our Disney phase began—as I imagine is the case for many younger children—with Frozen. From Elsa and Anna’s true love that flies in the face of previous attempts to define true love via heteronormative romances, we’ve ventured into the bookishness of Belle, the heroism of Mulan, the singular Lilo. And all the while our boys remain entranced.
So, the anecdote:
While grocery shopping a week or two ago, Charis and the boys were avidly discussing Disney favorites, when a woman stops the three of them to ask, “Oh, do they have an older sister?” Charis explained that, no, they did not. To which the fellow shopper says, “Oh, well, they seem to know an awful lot about Disney princesses.”
And that’s a story that I imagine has been told a million times over. You have boys? They should like Aladdin, or Simba, or Hercules, or [insert male character here].
The kicker is that all of this fascination with Disney film-lore has coincided with our teaching Liam how to ride a bike with training wheels. We found a bike he fell in love with and, you guessed it, it’s pink and princess-emblazoned. He does not yet realize that this is not what is “expected” of him, and more power to him for it. So when I’m out on the sidewalk coaching him and teaching him and encouraging him in whatever way I can, it never leaves my mind that, for everything he’s learning, for every way he’s training his body to move in motion and coordinate itself, he’s just a kid having fun on a bike he loves because he can look down at his handlebar and see the characters he’s fascinated by cheering him on as well.
And if I can help these little ones on the right track, even as they’re learning to ride a bike, my greatest hope is that, with a little coaching, the Disney lessons that enthrall them now can be questioned later, an exercise in challenging norms and expectations which may someday seem as natural as riding a bike.
Jacob Schepers (Calvin ’12) is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), a winner of the 2013 Outriders Poetry Project competition. His poetry has appeared in Verse, The Common, PANK, The Destroyer, and others. He lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife, Charis, and two sons, Liam and Oliver. He is both an MFA student and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.