When I went to see Disney’s new movie Maleficent I was expecting to be able to let my inner child out and float in the fantasy world for a couple hours. What I didn’t expect was a dynamic story about a woman who was both villain and hero and the strength of female relationships. I was pleasantly surprised. From Brave to Frozen to Maleficent, Disney is evolving the stories it tells.
* Spoiler Alert * Stop reading if you don’t want to hear any plot points of Disney’s movies Frozen, Brave, or Maleficent.
Bye, Bye Damsel in Distress
There is a new trend among Disney movies of valuing female relationships. The most recent Disney princess movie, Frozen, clearly highlighted the strength of sisterly love rather than romantic love. It is Anna’s act of love in throwing herself in front of her sister that breaks her curse and shows Elsa how to control her power. Similarly, in Maleficent, Aurora is awoken from her deep sleep by Maleficent’s motherly kiss on the forehead instead of by the handsome prince. No longer do we see the same helpless damsel trope saved by the prince portrayed over and over again. Disney even pokes fun at its own past history of telling those ‘true love,’ boy-saves-girl stories.
Disney toys with the idea of ‘true love’ in both movies. Frozen, in self-deprecating style, repeatedly pokes at the ridiculousness of the Disney princess tradition of marriage between princes and princesses who have just met one another. In Maleficent, Stefan insists that he loves Maleficent and they share, as he tells her, “true love’s kiss.” But Stefan is drawn into the greed and power games of his kingdom and abandons and betrays his love. Maleficent comes back to curse Stefan’s newborn daughter after he is king, mocking his promises to her by declaring that her curse can only be broken by “true love’s kiss.” Maleficent no longer believes that such a thing exists. As Aurora grows up and Maleficent watches over her, she grows to love her as a mother loves a daughter. Ultimately, Maleficent saves herself from her loneliness and anger and Aurora from her curse by discovering another type of true love – motherly love.
Disney’s Brave also featured a story about mother-daughter love. Despite their differences and mistakes, Merida and her mother Elinor fight for each other and learn just how much each needs the other. I love that little girls are finally seeing this type of relationship valued in Disney movies, and not only for those growing up in happy, traditional families. Maleficent offers an alternative for those children who do not grow up with loving biological parents. She is a mother figure who loves and protects Aurora and it does not matter that she is not her biological parent. For children who are adopted, living in foster care, or growing up in broken households this message of non-biological parental love is important.
Keep the Ball Rolling
Disney movies often featured women as protagonists (in the form of princesses), but rarely before did they feature relationships between women or any relationships at all aside from romance and marriage. Speaking as a woman who grew up on Disney princess movies, I find this shift refreshing and encouraging. Women’s lives include many important relationships and experiences besides romance. It is important that little girls are told a variety of stories, valuing a variety of relationships. While romantic relationships are a meaningful part of life, not all female ambitions revolve around finding “Mr. Right.” Children need to see that the beauty of life and love is multi-faceted. Love and meaning can be found in many ways and in many places. I applaud Disney for including stories that value a variety of female relationships. Next step: Disney, please give us a variety of princesses and female characters. All of the movies I mentioned feature all-white casts of main characters. Better represent all of the children who enjoy your movies. Keep the progress coming.