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Disney Finally Steps Up in The Game Of Love
By Kate Hickey
If any name carries alongside it the definition of True Love, I doubt anybody would argue the name Disney. They’ve been selling True Love Conquers All since 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and people around the world have eaten it up just like the Wicked Queen’s poisoned apple. And unfortunately, that’s sort of what the concept has become: poisoned.
Disney films are incredibly influential when it comes to forming children’s ideas about how the world works. These films are simplistic and formulaic, but they try to instill ideas about morality. They teach the things that we can’t really explain, including concepts like forgiveness, loyalty, determination, and love. But for decades, they have really only told one type of story. Disney has defined true love as something inherently romantic, and children really do pick up on that. All the way up from Snow White and Cinderella until more recent films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, the plotlines of these movies have all relied heavily on this long-standing sexist, classist, heteronormative “true love” narrative.
Even films like The Princess and the Frog and Mulan are examples in this field despite their excellent messages to young girls. These heroines are smart, resourceful, and brave. They work hard and dominate their narratives by acting rather than being acted against. But despite physical prowess, mental acuity, and personal agency, they fall into the same romantic traps as their less progressive counterparts.
However, Disney seems to be taking a turn. In last year’s hit Frozen, the writers turned this trope on its head by redefining true love. After spending the entire film focused on romantic love, Princess Anna saves herself by acting on her feelings of love for her sister, Queen Elsa. Rather than being saved by her initial love interest, the villainous Prince Hans or the underdog romantic boyfriend Kristoff, Anna saves her own life with an act of true love. And, for the first time in anybody’s memory, the true love in this story has nothing to do with romance. Or even men.
While the idea that true love and romantic love are not mutually required is a surprise to exactly nobody who lives in the real world, it is a big deal that Disney chose this plotline. Because while the adults in the theaters could see this ending coming a mile away, many children could not. Young kids are taught this stuff incredibly early. They are taught exactly what to expect from a Disney movie as soon as they’re old enough to watch them. For the little ones, making true love mean something other boy-kisses-girl helps them think outside of the culture box they are brought up in.
The next Disney film to hit theaters after Frozen was Maleficent, an alternate retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story with Maleficent as an anti-hero. From an analytical standpoint, this film deals with incredibly dark material. Maleficent is metaphorically raped and magically curses her abuser’s daughter, Princess Aurora, in order to exact revenge. But since she keeps the growing Aurora safe from harm, in order for her curse to unfold, she softens toward the child of the man who harmed her. She regrets taking out her anger on this girl who had nothing to do with the event, so she tries to recall her curse. But she can’t.
The curse itself has one caveat: It can be broken by true love’s kiss. Maleficent believes such a thing cannot exist, but she brings Prince Phillip, a boy whom Aurora clearly liked, to kiss her and save her from eternal sleep. It doesn’t work. His kiss does nothing. In fact, he even mentions that it’s awkward and strange of him to kiss her while she’s asleep and incapable of responding.
Instead, the kiss that saves her is a muted kiss on the forehead from Maleficent, a mother figure. Again, Disney takes true love tropes and not only inverts them, but also utterly mocks them. Within the fantastical universe of this film, the most realistic facet is the interpersonal relationships of these characters. Love at first sight is an unlikely thing, if indeed it exists at all, but a foster mother? A foster mother who is a survivor of abuse? A woman with regrets and unresolved anger and a deep longing for closeness with others? That is a character profile of someone you walk past on the street. That is a character profile of a huge number of people. And this true love’s kiss breaks the curse forged in vindictive hatred.
Again, it’s impossible as an adult to watch this film and not see these “twists” coming. But for children, who already know the Sleeping Beauty story and have already internalized the dynamics of these characters (and character tropes), this alteration in what they know gives them the opportunity to explore new ideas and new perspectives. It helps them redefine true love to themselves and apply it to others around them. If true love can mean three things (boy-kisses-girl and sister love and motherly love), why can’t it mean four? Or five? Or even an infinite number of valid true love scenarios in life?
In the context of Disney’s history as a company, the transition to this romanceless true love is actually a huge step forward. Not only does it teach children about the multiple types of love in the world, it reminds the adults that all of their love-based relationships are just as meaningful and powerful as the romantic relationships in life. In our romance-obsessed culture, we might need this reminder more often than we care to admit.
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