If you’re a Millennial there’s a fair chance you grew up with a steady media diet of Disney. The classics of our parents’ generation: “Cinderella,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and “Sleeping Beauty” were well established in pop culture. Girls were raised to be Disney Princesses and boys were raised to be Prince Charmings. Then, in the 1990’s our beloved Disney hits were released: “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “The Lion King,” and “Mulan.” These movies gave us a new kind of Disney Princess, one who didn’t always follow the rules. One who didn’t simply wait around and wait for her Prince Charming. They told different stories for an updated age.
Regardless of which Disney movies you were raised on, if you were born after 1980, you were raised on Disney. These stories shaped our childhood. They taught us about life, love, good, and evil. They taught us the difference between lies and the truth and that good will always prevail over evil.
Of course, as we aged, we discovered that life was not a Disney movie. Good does not always win. People often lie. Men aren’t always Princes and being a Princess is not all it’s cracked up to be. Then, when we examined the movies that taught us these faulty lesson, we found them to be deeply flawed and a piece of our childhoods died.
Well, I’m here to ruin your childhood just a little more. If you take some time to think about some of our beloved Disney classics, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the premises of a lot of these movies were truly messed up and totally not child friendly.
15. The Little Mermaid
“The Little Mermaid” is my all-time favorite Disney movie, so when I finally realized how truly messed up it was I was devastated. Ariel is 16 years old, which in America means she was a minor, below the age of consent in some states. When she’s wandering far from home, completely unsupervised, she meets an unconscious guy and falls in love with him because he’s gorgeous. Without ever speaking to him, she decides to leave her family, give up her voice (a disturbing metaphor for giving up her agency and/or consent?) to an evil sea witch, and fundamentally change her body so she can be with this man.
When she’s finally meets this man again, he takes a female minor he believes he’s never met in to his home, without even knowing her name, which she cannot tell him. He falls in love with her within a few days, without ever speaking to her, but he almost leaves her for another pretty lady speaking with her voice (a terrifying metaphor for the competition between women for men?).
In the end, they get married (even though she’s only 16!) and her whole family seems content to leave her with a man she met three days prior. When you look at it that way “The Little Mermaid” seems to be about women giving up their bodies and their agency to be the property of men.
14. Beauty and the Beast
At first glance, Belle seems to be a feminist Disney Princess. She’s smart and more interested in books than boys. She wants to live a different kind of life than the life that’s being pushed on her: courtship and marriage.
But upon further examination, Belle’s story is still one of exploitation and abuse. She is taken prisoner by a cruel beast who repeatedly emotionally abuses her and threatens her with physical abuse. He also repeatedly threatens the safety of her father and her neighbors.
Despite this abuse, Belle begins to believe that the Beast is actually a kind person who has been misunderstood. Inexplicably, she begins to ignore his abuse and tries to coax out the kinder side of his personality. It appears our Princess has developed Stockholm Syndrome, a disorder where captives begin to identify and care for their captors as a way to rationalize their captivity and protect themselves.
In the end, it turns out the cruel Beast was a handsome prince after all. The abuse Belle endured is quickly forgotten and she lives happily ever after with her handsome prince. “Beauty and the Beast’s” true message is that women should ignore previous abuse as long as their prince has come.
13. The Lion King
Let’s put it right out there: in this movie, a young child watches his father get trampled in a stampede. So, “The Lion King” starts out pretty messed up and only gets worse from there. That same young child is convinced by his father’s murderer, who happens to be his Uncle, that he’s responsible for his father’s death. He runs away from home and gets taken in by two older strangers who teach him that responsibility is, like, the worst.
Meanwhile, back home, his father’s murderer has forcibly taken his father’s throne and is relentlessly mistreating the rest of the family, consisting mostly of women. He forces the women to do all the work to take care of the family, while he does nothing at all.
That young child grows up, finds out that his father was murdered, returns home and murders his Uncle in front of his entire family. His family rejoices and everyone lives happily ever after.
This one is problematic on so many levels. Of course, there’s the treatment of women. Jasmine is the only female main character and she’s literally being auctioned off to the highest bidder by her father. Her father gives her the illusion of choice by allowing her to turn away suitors, but he constantly reminds her that he will be forced to choose for her by a certain deadline if she doesn’t choose herself. So, her choice is really just an illusion. The only other women in the whole movie are seen in what appears to be a brothel. Oh, and there’s that time when Jafar makes Jasmine in to a sex slave, literally putting her in chains and taking away her ability to consent.
Then there’s the stereotypically white portrayal of the Middle East. Everything is portrayed as ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ even though the story is supposed to take place in Arabia. All of the women are dressed like ‘harem girls’ out of “1001 Arabian Nights” instead of wearing hijabs as they probably would have. The genie even calls the country “barbaric” in his opening song.
11. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
This one is old, so I guess there’s some allowance for messed up because the culture was different back then, but still. The entire premise of this movie is that a woman is willing to kill a teenaged girl because the girl is younger and more beautiful than her. This says so much about how women are taught to relate to each other. The Evil Queen wants power and she can see her power waning as she ages. She perceives that this younger woman is out to usurp her power, so she wants to kill her to maintain her power.
This older woman also sees her beauty fading. She knows that she lives in a world that values women for their appearance, so her power is also tied to her beauty. She sees a more beautiful woman in her kingdom, and again, sees this as a threat to her power. She must destroy this younger, more beautiful woman in order to maintain her power.
10. Sleeping Beauty
The moral of this messed up story can be boiled down to two words: agency and consent. Aurora’s agency was stolen from her the day she was born. An evil witch threatened to kill her on her 18th birthday, because this older woman sees another female presence as a threat, so Aurora is sent away from her family to be raised in isolation. Since she’s a baby, Aurora has no say in this decision, and as she grows up, literally no one ever tells her the truth.
When she accidentally stumbles in to the exact situation that was prophesied to kill her, she falls under a sleeping spell which can only be broken by true love’s kiss. Of course, she’s never really met a boy in her life, so in this case true love’s kiss means being kissed by a total stranger. And of course, she has no say in whether or not she gets kissed because she’s passed out.
So a man she’s never met kisses her, she wakes up, and then she marries this perfect stranger who kissed her without asking.
9. Alice in Wonderland
And then there’s the substance induced hallucination that is “Alice in Wonderland.” Where to even begin on how messed up this one is? Well, maybe start with the fact that there are multiple items of food and drink that say “Eat Me” and “Drink Me” which make Alice grow larger and smaller. Then there’s the world of brightly colored mushrooms. And the hookah smoking caterpillar. The references to illegal substances are pretty much endless in this movie. Then there’s the Queen of Hearts, who beheads anyone who displeases her.
So, a young child, maybe eleven or twelve years old, ingests an insane amount of illegal substances and hallucinates an entirely different world where she ends up at the mercy of a tyrannical, homicidal regent. Disney wraps it up nicely by concluding that it was all just a dream, but what kind of kid has dreams like that? And how is this LSD nightmare a children’s movie?
8. 101 Dalmatians
A lovely family adopts two dogs that fall in love and end up having puppies. A fashionista with a penchant for fur decides that she just loves the look of Dalmatian fur and that she must mass produce Dalmatian fur jackets. So, this fashionista decides that she wants to literally murder puppies so that she can get her dream jacket. Take a minute for that to sink in. Disney has made a movie where the premise is literally murdering puppies.
The puppies are kidnapped by the cronies of the evil fashionista and their parents have to go on a harrowing mission to find and rescue their children before they are murdered to make a coat. When they rescue their own puppies, they find 99 other puppies that the evil fashionista was planning to murder, so they convince their humans to adopt all 99 of the puppies. And a man and woman living in a London flat suddenly have more dogs than they can actually fit in their home.
“Hercules” is another Disney movie that appears to give us a feminist heroine, but upon further examination Megara’s storyline is just as anti-feminist as all the other Disney women’s. Meg is a slave to Hades, to whom she sold her soul to save the life of her former lover, who ended up cheating on her. Meg has been abused and exploited by every man in her life and his continues as Hades forces her to deceive Hercules and work toward his demise.
Meg ends up sacrificing her life to save a man yet again, when she pushes Hercules out of the way of a falling pillar, under which she is crushed. Of course, Hercules regains his strength and saves the day, and the girl. Meg gets saved by her prince and falls head over heels for him. In Disney’s world, no matter how strong willed and seemingly independent a woman is, she will always need saving and she’ll always end up falling for the guy.
Disney has a real problem with parent child relationships. Bambi is essentially raised by a single mother as his father, The Prince of the Forest, is too busy being responsible for the entire forest to raise him. Bambi spends more time with his friends than at home, learning about the ways of life from kids his own age instead of his own parents.
When Bambi is still relatively young his mother is brutally shot, and killed. Bambi’s father doesn’t really reenter the picture, and Bambi essentially raises himself.
He falls in love with a beautiful doe and in an ultimate display of toxic masculinity, Bambi gets in to a physical altercation with another male in order to ‘win’ the affections of this beautiful doe. When he wins, proving his alpha male dominance, he gets to take home his prize and she gives him children. Bambi then takes his father’s place as “Prince of the Forest” and presumably becomes an absent father to his own children, thus repeating the cycle.
This movie’s messed up nature is even more relevant in light of the fact that elephants are no longer used in large circuses. This movie certainly contains its fair share of scenes where animals are mistreated by their human masters, but the plot itself is also pretty messed up.
When Dumbo is bullied for his deformity, his mother attempts to physically protect him. As punishment for protecting her son, Dumbo’s mother is separated from her son and locked in isolation. Dumbo is then shunned by all the other elephants and left to fend for himself, even though he’s still a small child.
He is repeatedly exploited by different acts in the circus. He is mistreated by animals and humans alike until they discover that his deformity allows him to fly. Once he is discovered to have a unique talent, this talent is immediately monetized and he is forced to perform constantly. His exploitation continues and his value is only assessed by the money he can make those who own him.
A young girl is taught her whole life to believe that the only way to honor her family is by marrying a good man. When she fumbles her meeting with the matchmaker, her entire family is dishonored and she is disgraced. When war breaks out in her country and the draft is instituted, her father is forced to go to war because he has no son to go for him.
The girl dresses as a man, runs away from home, and risks her life to go to war. In the training camp where she is assigned she is repeatedly told that she and the other recruits are repeatedly told they are not ‘man’ enough to go to war and they are fed a constant diet of toxic masculinity. On top of that, the girl must listen to all the other recruits talk about the kind of women they want to marry, which does not include smart women who speak their minds.
That girl ends up saving her entire country from a Mongolian invasion, but instead of the movie ending there, she still has to fall in love with her commanding officer, who thought she was a man for most of the movie. So, according to Disney, women can only be successful if they adopt masculine traits, but still manage to be feminine enough to attract a typically masculine guy.
3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
A disfigured boy is taken in by the government official who accidentally killed his mother because the official is scared that his crime will be discovered. That disfigured boy grows up in complete isolation as a slave of the man who killed his mother.
That same government official has a run in with a street performer (which is as close as Disney will get to portraying sex work) who challenges his authority. He is overcome with rage at his authority being challenged by a woman, but at the same time is overwhelmed with lust. He imprisons her in the cathedral.
When the disfigured man also imprisoned in the cathedral helps the woman to escape, the government official literally burns down the city trying to find her so he can destroy her for defying him. He also attempts to wipe out an entire group of people, the gypsies because she is one of them.
In the end, they kill the government official and everyone lives happily ever after, except for the disfigured man who doesn’t get the girl, even though he risked his life for her on multiple occasions.
A young girl has been locked away in a tower for her whole life by a repressive woman she believes is her mother. This woman uses fear to intimidate this girl in to believing that the outside world is an awful place, but her real intent is to keep the girl imprisoned.
One day, a criminal with multiple offenses under his belt, invades her home. He sweet talks his way in to her good graces and assists her in running away from home. After she’s abandoned everything she knows to follow this guy she’s never met, she discovers that he’s not who he says her trust is broken. Later, she discovers that the woman who has been pretending to be her mother kidnapped her from her real parents and actually been stealing her magical hair in order to stay young.
Even though this young girl has been lied to by everyone around her for her entire life, she somehow finds it in her to fall in love with the criminal who deceived her and live happily ever after. In the world of Disney, lies and betrayal are par for the course, to be forgiven by any good princess.
Also known as the story of how white people see colonialism. A young Native American woman feels the pressure to settle down and become a member of her community, but doesn’t feel as if that is her path. She repeatedly pursues her own whims and rebukes the advances of the successful warriors of her tribe.
Enter the white man. Though he understands nothing of her culture and his people intend to destroy her people and her land, she falls in love with him. She tries to teach him about the value of the land and the ways of her people, but educating him is not enough. The white men he came with declare war and kill a highly respected warrior of her tribe. In the battle, Pocahontas puts her life at risk to save the white man she loves. The white man reciprocates by protecting her father.
Somehow this small gesture redeems all the white men in the eyes of the Chief and he gives them his blessing to return to the land. In other words, the most white interpretation of interactions with First Nations ever.
So, when you take the time to actually think about it, most of the movie you loved were totally messed up and actually not appropriate children’s movies at all. Sorry if I’ve ruined your childhood, but it needed to be said.