This rhetorical analysis was written for an advanced rhetorical course during my first semester of my senior year at Western Michigan University (2013). It explores the motive of Walt Disney Pictures choosing to adapt gruesome stories into children’s movies. Going against popular criticism of Disney princess movies being anti-feminist in nature, I argue that the Disney films recognize that the original stories were fundamentally the ascent from innocence to adulthood. This is a relatively long piece.
The history, events, and structure of the feminist movement are closely related to the individuals at specific times. The movement worked and continues to work against the status quo in society. Feminism is a struggle against sexist oppression. Therefore, it makes sense that feminism is an ideology of domination that strives within many cultures throughout the world. There are many times when rhetors want to generate a call for change of ideology. Rhetors might seek to instill empathy in their audience, or incite emotions (rage, despair, happiness, etc.) among audience members to encourage their cause to be spurred forward. As equality remains a struggle throughout the world, understanding one company’s – in this case, Walt Disney Pictures — method of transforming ideologies is important.
In this essay, I explore rhetorical strategies to show that Walt Disney Pictures’ adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and The Little Mermaid from their original tales reinforces the confusion of a woman’s initiation into romance, sex, and her growing political and moral consciousness. The artifact I will analyze to understand Disney’s motives are the adaptations of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and The Little Mermaid from their original stories.
The original tales of Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and The Little Mermaid contain topics of rape, murder, suicide, and other not-so child-friendly issues. However, Walt Disney Pictures chose to adapt these violent and gruesome stories into children’s cartoons. The movie adaptations spurred millions of dollars in total lifetime gross, as well as stage adaptations, TV series, children’s books and games, and theme park specials. The movies have been spread across the globe, and it is hard to find a child within America who does not know at least one of the three movies. The question remains as to why Disney would choose such tales to adapt. Was the reason because the producers did not know the original stories? Was it because there was a lack of imagination and screenwriters had to steal ideas from other authors? Was it simply to make a scary situation into something less frightening and pure? I believe none of these factors to be the case. I argue that the Disney films, for all the criticism of them being anti-feminist in nature, recognize what the tales fundamentally are: the promise and peril of adolescence. I suggest that the reason for Disney choosing the shocking original tales to be children’s films is to demonstrate to young people, especially girls, the ascent from innocence to adulthood.
I will analyze the three Disney adaptations using ideological analysis, a method of criticism which determines a group’s interpretations of some aspect of the world through a pattern of beliefs. Ideological criticism is concerned with the ways in which cultural practices and artifacts produce particular ideals and positions for their users. This method is based on the assumption that cultural artifacts are produced in specific historical contexts by and for specific social groups. Ideology aims to understand culture as a form of social expression and how a cultural artifact specifically embodies and enacts particular ranges of values, beliefs, and ideas. In my paper I argue that these three Disney adaptations question gender politics within society and encourage young women to jump the expanse between adolescence and adulthood. Using each original story with its Disney film counterpart, I will first identify the presented elements of each artifact and the suggested elements linked to the presented. Second, I will group the elements into a coherent framework and formulate an ideology. Lastly, I will identify the functions served by this ideology. The essay concludes with an outlook on why understanding Disney’s choice to adapt such gruesome tales into children’s films is important.
The Elements of Sleeping Beauty
The original fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty was titled Sun, Moon, and Talia and was written by Giambattista Basile in 1634. The original rings of gruesome subjects like rape, adultery, cannibalism, and slaughter. The story begins with the birth of a daughter to a lord, whom he named Talia. He sent for astrologers to predict her future and it came to be known that she would suffer great danger from a splinter of flax. When Talia had grown into a beautiful lady, she saw an old woman spinning. Curious, she asked the woman how to spin and began to practice. Unfortunately, a sliver of flax ran under her nail and Talia fell dead upon the ground. Wanting to forget his misfortune, Talia’s father laid her to rest in one of his country mansions and never spoke of her again.
After many years, a king happened upon the mansion where Talia laid sleeping. After calling to her and realizing she was enchanted, the king, beheld by her beauty, crawled on top of her slumbering form and “gathered the first fruits of love.” (Basile) He returned to his kingdom and soon forgot of the incident. However, after nine months and with the assistance of some fairies, Talia delivered twins. While the children sought to feed, they sucked on their mother’s fingers and sucked the splinter of flax from beneath her nail. Awaking to the beautiful children, Talia soon took to being the mothering governess of the mansion.
When the king finally returned – remembering Talia after a year – he found her awake and with his two children. For some reason, he was ecstatic and declined from returning home for some time. His wife, the queen, became suspicious and found out about Talia and the babies. Sending a request to Talia under the name of the king, the queen asked for the children to be sent to the palace so he might spend time with them. Talia obliged, but when the children were brought to the queen she ordered the palace cook to make them into a feast to be fed to her adulterous husband. Soon after the queen requested Talia to come to the palace. When Talia arrived, the queen ordered guards to burn her to death. Fortunately, the king arrived just in time to save Talia and throw the queen to the flames instead. And as luck would have it, the cook chose to use lambs instead of the children to make the feast, so the unlikely family was able to live out their days with no mention of the horrific events which brought them together.
In the 1959 Walt Disney Pictures’ film, the tale of Sleeping Beauty begins with the birth of the new princess to a rejoicing kingdom. At a ceremony to celebrate her birth, an evil sorceress, Maleficent, places a curse on the princess; the curse states that she will die after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle. With the help of a good fairy’s spell, the curse no longer promises death to the princess but an ageless sleep. The princess, Aurora, is raised by the good fairies in hopes of passing the cursed day unscathed. However, the day arrives and Aurora is tricked by Maleficent into touching a spindle. Prince Phillip, who has met Aurora once in the woods and pledges true love to her, defeats all the evil spells Maleficent throws his way and kills the witch with a sword to her heart. Finding Aurora asleep in a castle, Phillip wakes her with true love’s kiss and the promise of a happy ever after.
The Elements of Pocahontas
The original account of Pocahontas is a debatable subject. Disney’s film about the scantily-clad Native American is based on falsified English accounts of the early history of the Virginia Colony. The truth is that Pocahontas was only ten years old when John Smith first made contact with her tribe, the Mattaponi. Smith was captured, but in his original account of the event he relates that he was treated very kindly. The fabricated story of Pocahontas rescuing him from execution by her father was not told until many years later.
Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela “Silver Star” Daniel share over 400 years of oral history for the Mattaponi tribe and memories of 17th-century Jamestown in their book The True Story of Pocahontas; The Other Side of History. In the tribe’s account, the true story of Pocahontas dealt with kidnap, rape, and murder. When Pocahontas was seventeen she was capture by the English and held for ransom. Her father was an uncivil warlord who could care less about his daughter and made no move to save her. On the contrary, her husband Kocoum cared enough to be killed while trying to rescue Pocahontas. During her imprisonment the young teenager was raped repeatedly and consequently impregnated. She was forcefully converted to Christianity, baptized as Rebecca, and quickly married off to John Rolfe, an English tobacco farmer, to make the pregnancy appear legitimate. In 1615 she was laced into a corset and presented to the people of London as a “symbol of the tamed Virginia savage.”
After two years in England, the Rolfe’s began their journey home to Virginia. However, before even leaving the Thames River Pocahontas became ill and began to convulse violently over dinner. Within minutes she was dead. She was only twenty-two years old. Speculation has swirled around pneumonia, tuberculosis, or smallpox being the culprit. In opposition to disease, Custalow and Daniel hypothesize that Pocahontas learned of the English intentions to obliterate the Native American tribes and take their lands. Afraid she might reveal political strategies, her murder was swiftly plotted and she was poisoned before she could return to her homeland and report her findings. This theory is shared by her Mattaponi tribe descendants to this day.
In the Walt Disney film, Captain John Smith leads a band of Englishmen to the New World in search of gold. In this “New World” a Native American tribe, led by Chief Powhatan, watches the newcomers from afar. Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, is pledged to marry the village’s greatest warrior, Kocoum. However, when Pocahontas meets Smith they fall in love. After discussing with Grandmother Willow how to act on her new feelings, Pocahontas chooses to see where love will take her. Seeing the two lovers kissing, Kocoum attacks Smith and is killed by another Englishman. The natives, thinking Smith was the murderer, capture him and sentence him to death. The execution sentence ignites both the English and the natives to prepare for battle against one another. The day is saved, though, when Pocahontas throws herself upon Smith as her father prepares to perform the execution. Moved by his daughter’s show of love, Powhatan calls off his warriors and the English soldiers follow suit. When Smith is seriously injured by a gunshot, Pocahontas and he must share a tearful goodbye as his only hope for recovery lies in returning to London for treatment.
The Elements of The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen tells the tale of the youngest daughter of a sea king longing to be human. Within pages, though, the tale becomes one of self-mutilation, depression, and suicide. In Andersen’s version, the princess’s reason to become human is not only to marry the handsome prince she rescued from a shipwreck, but also to gain an immortal soul which humans have and mermaids do not. Mermaids, instead of immortal souls, live over 300 years and then become sea foam. The princess’s grandmother urged the little mermaid to accept this future for her. Her grandmother pleaded that the sea is and will forever always be the princess’s home. The princess, however, wished to live forever and view heaven rather than become foam and never leave the sea. After making a deal with a sea witch, the princess’s tongue is cut from her mouth as the last ingredient for her “human form” potion. Upon drinking the potion, the princess experienced so much pain when her tail is split into legs that she blacks-out.
She awakes to the prince staring at her perfect naked body. Being brought to his castle, the princess experienced every step as if she were walking on sharp knives; but she bore the pain willingly, and stepped so lightly by the prince’s side that he and all who saw her wondered at her gracefulness. She was very soon the most beautiful creature in the palace, but her muteness made her unattractive to the prince. She became a little sister to him, his most devout subject, and he never thought to marry her.
Instead, the prince sought to marry the young girl he believed to have saved him from the shipwreck, or at least the girl who found him on the beach which the mermaid had brought him. However, it came to be that his father, the king, arranged a marriage for the prince. As the mermaid joined the prince on his journey to meet the to-be queen, it was her last attempt to earn his love, hand in marriage, and immortal soul. Unfortunately, fate would have that the pledged bride was none other than the girl who found the prince on the beach. It didn’t help that even the mermaid had to admit the bride was the most beautiful being she ever saw.
The prince and the girl were happily married one night on board a ship. As the deal with the sea witch stated, the mermaid would now become sea foam at dawn’s light because the prince had married another woman. A twist surfaces, though, when the mermaid’s six sisters come to her during the evening with a knife from the sea witch. “Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the heart of the prince; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish’s tail, and you will be once more a mermaid, and return to us to live out your 300 years before you die and change into the salt sea foam.” (Andersen) However, upon raising the knife above the sleeping prince and bride, the little mermaid decides to take her own life and runs to the bow of the ship with the sun’s first rays and dissolves into sea foam.
Disney loosely bases The Little Mermaid to the original story by Hans Christian Andersen. Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton, is dissatisfied with life in the sea. After years of collecting earthly relics (like forks, clocks, and statues), the princess longs to be with the humans above the surface. One day she visits the surface and glimpses Prince Eric’s party on a sailing ship. The ship gets caught in a storm and Ariel saves the prince from drowning. She leaves Eric lying on the beach with her beautiful singing voice ringing in his ears.
Upon finding her stash of do-whops, Triton destroys Ariel’s treasures and tells her to get over the “barbaric fish-eaters.” Forbidding her to ever go to land, Ariel flees to the sea witch Ursula in spite of her father. Ursula takes Ariel’s voice in exchange for making her a human for three days. If Ariel can receive true love’s kiss from Eric within those three days she can remain a human.
Eric finds Ariel half-naked on the beach and initially suspects that she is the one who saved him. However, when she appears to be mute he realizes it could not be her because his savior had the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. Ariel attempts to make Eric fall in love with her during her three day allowance. Unfortunately, Ursula disguises herself as a pretty young woman named Vanessa who has Ariel’s voice. Eric, recognizing the voice, decides to marry Vanessa the next day (which also ends up being the third day.) Ariel, thinking all is lost and she’ll become a mermaid again, runs away crying. Some fish and a bird have to act fast and break Ursula’s enchantment, but not before the sun sets and Eric sees Ariel transform back into a mermaid. With her plot defeated, Ursula reverts to her true form and all hell breaks loose. In the end, Eric saves the day by running the sea witch through with his ship’s splintered bowsprit. In respect to his daughter’s love, Triton transforms Ariel back into a human so she and Eric may live happily ever after.
Framing a Feminist Ideology through Role Models
Nowadays, we as a culture seem to be above the outdated coming-of-age narratives that make up the classic Disney fairy tales. Hollywood is now modernizing fairy tales under the assumption that society wants to confront the world as an “adult” and with the true view of life’s darkness and grittiness. Some examples of these darker versions are Snow White and the Huntsman or the “Beauty and the Beast” TV series. However, as I am arguing, Disney has recognized that fairy tales are fundamentally about the promise and peril of adolescence. Almost every Disney film turns on a moment in which the heroine (or hero) is required to pass through some kind of conscious awareness between innocence and adulthood. Very often, the person initiating the heroine — either with good or evil intent — is an older woman, who typically embodies all that one can either gain or lose by making the journey.
In Sleeping Beauty, Disney presents the three good fairies and Maleficent. Behind the façade of magic, Disney has set two unique role-models for Aurora. One, the good fairies, encompass a life of choosing good and right. The other, Maleficent, shows what poor and wicked decisions may cause. Aurora is ultimately allowed to make her own choice, and unfortunately she chooses poorly and suffers the consequence of being placed into an enchanted sleep. The same could be said of Talia, who let her curiosity get the better of her when she received the sliver of flax beneath her nail. Ultimately in the end it is the good fairies which come to the rescue of Aurora and there is the hope that she will make better choices in her future.
Grandmother Willow plays the adult model for Pocahontas in Disney’s version. After a vision of a spinning arrow, the audience is introduced to Grandmother Willow, who is a spirit that helps to direct Pocahontas in her life decisions. The spirit’s advice is for Pocahontas to listen to her heart and abide by herself. This advice enables Pocahontas to allow new love in her life, show her people how to welcome new experiences, and in the end extinguish oncoming war. In a way, this description of Pocahontas portrays the true girl. The real Pocahontas chose to discover the newcomers of her world with open eyes, though her outcome was not as fantastic as Disney’s version.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid offers only an evil female paradigm for Ariel in the form of Ursula. With the music and colors and cute characters stripped away, the cartoon actually has an impacting message towards young girls. The message is that the future is unknown, and one’s choices today do not guarantee a good tomorrow. Ariel, believing she would win love and get all she wanted, chose to make a questionable pact with a wicked woman. However, circumstances did not occur the way the mermaid hoped and she almost lost her life, her prince’s life, and her father’s life. In the end, all turned out okay, but the shadow of her poor decision could have affected her entire community.
Andersen’s story provides models of both good and evil intent. The princess’s grandmother encourages the mermaid to stay in the sea and enjoy her life to the fullest. The sea witch enables the princess to act upon her deepest desires of finding love and an immortal soul. In the end, another model in the form of the mermaid’s sisters also appears. The mermaid, after acting on selfish desires, decides to end her own life rather than her prince’s. The outcome may be dreary, but the mermaid always had the option to create her own path.
The ideology being taught through all three stories is one of feminism. The tales teach girls self-worth and the power of decision-making. Through this feministic ideology it is taught how a girl has the choice to make decisions for her own life, and how those decisions will impact her future, in either a good or bad manner.
The Functions and Importance of a Feminist Ideology
It does seem as if Disney makes the central topic of its films romance. There is no denying that romance has been used to show the process of adolescence and generational torch-passing in throughout time. Just because the typical Disney princess movie tends to pair the main characters off does not mean the message sent to young girls is meant to induce anti-feminist views. Walt Disney Pictures has not set forth standards for girls on how to grow up into proper women in order to find their prince. In fact, Disney princes are usually little more than narrative devices throughout Disney princess movies. Instead, Disney allows for girls to see how choices impact their future, in either good or bad ways. This representation produces an ideology of feminism among our society that enables girls to take charge of their lives and be the decision-makers for their own prospects.
In short, modern society needs to recognize that at the heart of all fairy tales is a set of timeless metaphors for growing up. That process can be depicted in all its dark reality, such as the original tales portray, or with a sense of wonder, such as Disney wishes to reveal. In this respect, I believe Walt Disney Pictures chose to adapt the original gruesome stories into children’s films because the tales involved strong female characters going through the process of growing into adults. Disney recognized that the original stories were not about sex, male supremacy, or anti-feminist views, but about post-adolescent disillusionment and moral awareness. Downplaying the violence and putting a sweeter feel to the stories allows girls to strive to make good choices while also having entertaining fairy tales. The light-heartedness is not meant to cast shadows on the reality of life, but rather equip girls with the understanding of what it takes to become an adult through characters to which they may relate.
Teaching respect and acceptance is teaching feminism. Teaching feminism to young girls and boys is important. It can reinvigorate sense of self-worth and help children to think about the gender implications of their language and image. It shows girls that they matter, too, in an ever-battling culture of male dominance. It teaches boys to respect women. It privileges the voice and fosters the interests of all people, regardless of gender. And where feminism is being taught so are all aspects of equality: civil rights, acceptance of race, diversity in religion, etc. As equality remains a struggle throughout the world, it is a relief to see some companies – Walt Disney Pictures in this case – are attempting to strengthen our society at such a young age.