Should I let my child watch Disney classics?

As mentioned on a previous post, small part of me dies inside when I consider that I probably shouldn't expose a young child to the majority of Disney classics that I grew up with. Films like 'The Little Mermaid' brought me endless joy (admittedly more for the songs than the story line), yet the message it sends to any young child is quite obviously incompatible with a modern upbringing. The fact that Sleeping Beauty received criticism for the weakness of its female character when it came out in 1959 tells us everything we need to know about its feminist credentials.

Yet, I am not convinced that depriving a child of the art and music of films like The Little Mermaid is necessary or even desirable.

I remember watching black and white American films with my mother, at around 6 or 7 years of age. She always spent time with me both before and after the film, to discuss its themes. Before watching 'Gone With The Wind,' for example, she briefed me on the historical context.

She remembers me being confused when Prissy is slapped across the face, and asking her why. After all, children do not just naturally accept obvious injustice. It takes time and work for prejudices to develop. 

Gone With The Wind portrayed African Americans as naturally dependent and witless, but as we watched the story unfold, it was the American society of the time and even the producers of the film that I pitied for their idiocy. Framed in the right way by my mother, I was able to view the film through my own lens.

Without her guidance, it's difficult to say what conclusions I may have come to. I'm sure that, as mentioned already, any child would recognise the injustice - but exposed to these themes in a number of different films repeatedly and without an adult to explain, may I have concluded that this was the natural order of things? 

As a child growing up and being educated in London, I had plenty to counter this, so almost certainly not. To a certain extent, however, it's what many of us grew up with in our exposure to particular types of female role model in our books and in films. This passive sexism, reinforced over and over again, eventually becomes the norm - the natural way of things, at least in stories. But it doesn't have to be this way, and we don't have to stop children from reading classic fairy tales or watching older Disney films.

Given the right intellectual framework - the tools with which to understand - our children are more than intelligent enough to see these stories as a product of their time. By drawing attention to the errors of previous times, guided exposure could even help them to become more aware of spotting casual sexism and gender stereotyping in their daily lives.

September 26, 2017 by Catherine Stowell

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