Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

Animated Films, Classic Movies, Disney Princess, Editorials, Film Criticism and Analysis, Rants

Why Keira Knightley was Right About Disney Princess Films

Ugly Step-Sisters from Disney's Cinderella

Ugly Step-Sisters from Disney's Cinderella

A few years ago, actress Keira Knightley announced that she refused to allow her young daughter to watch certain Disney animated films because she didn’t like the messages they were sending to young girls. Naturally, this caused howls of outrage from the usual suspects ranting and screaming about “PC run amok” and “Feminazis at it again.” Normally, I’d side with the detractors that this was another example of someone pushing their modern sensibilities onto older films, but in this particular case, I have to agree with her. Disney princess movies from the past may have enchanted all of us when we were younger, but unfortunately, many of these films also contain outdated and in some cases troubling messages that should make any parent take pause, and for the following reasons:

Ugliness=Sin, Beauty=Virtue

I remember as a kid feeling both pity for Cinderella and a hatred for her step-sisters–scratch that, her ugly step-sisters. Like everyone else, I thought, “How unfair it was for such a beautiful, virtuous girl to be treated like crap by these ugly-ass, evil bitches. And how typical, too! It’s so natural for unattractive people to be so petty, mean and jealous!”

Ugly Step-Sisters from Disney's Cinderella

Ugly step-sisters from Disney’s Cinderella

It wasn’t until years later as an adult when I finally realized why Cinderella (1950) made a point of making the step-sisters ugly. It wasn’t so much as a plot device as it was to reinforce deep-seated societal prejudices about attractiveness. If you noticed, there’s a persistent theme in many so-called Disney princess films and the fairy tales they were based on–being beautiful is synonymous with being virtuous and having positive personality traits; being ugly (or just average looking) is synonymous with being evil and having negative personality traits.

In the case of Cinderella, the step-sisters could’ve been just as attractive, right? If anything, had they been attractive, that would’ve made the scene in which Prince Charming has to choose between them and Cinderella all the more suspenseful. But they’re purposely made ugly, to underscore just how mean and nasty they are compared to the saintly Cinderella.

This theme of Ugliness=Sin, Beauty=Virtue plays out in another Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In this movie, the Evil Queen hates the main character for being the “fairest of the land” and decides to kill her because apparently, being less attractive makes you petty, jealous and spiteful. Later, when she tricks Snow White into eating a poison apple, she appears as a hideous-looking, ugly old crone. The reason why is that just like in Cinderella, the crone is made as ugly as possible to emphasize just how evil she is compared to Snow White, who is supposed to be as pure as the driven snow.

Witch Giving Poison Apple in Snow White

Witch Giving Poison Apple in Snow White

In the 1990s, Disney seemed to realize how problematic this message was and tried rectifying it in Beauty and the Beast (1991). Unfortunately, all it did was reinforce the message that Ugliness=Sin, Beauty=Virtue. For example, the message of the film is that appearances don’t matter and it’s the inside that counts, right? So far, so good.

But look at how the prince was punished. He was punished by being turned “ugly.” Again, this plays to the idea that ugliness is equal to sinfulness. The prince was ugly on the inside so was forced by the enchantress to be ugly on the outside. On top of that, there is the implication that being ugly naturally condemns you to a state of loneliness and misery, because it makes you unlovable.

You think that’s bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet! When the evil spell breaks, the prince is rewarded for being “good” by being turned back into the pretty boy that he was. To make matters worse, Belle is rewarded for being good by winning him–a drop dead gorgeous hunk–as her mate. And he’s not just drop dead gorgeous; he fits the Western Aryan ideal of what makes someone the most beautiful (blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes)– compared to the evil Gaston, who has dark hair and dark eyes.

Beauty and the Beast

Appearances don’t matter…except when they do.

What is the problem with this persistent theme in Disney films (Ugliness=Sin; Beauty=Virtue)? Well, the most obvious reason is that it reinforces the unfortunate phenomenon known as The Halo Effect. This is a problem in which people wind up making broad positive or negative assumptions about a person’s entire personality based on one particular trait. In societies where attractiveness is highly valued, people who are beautiful will be assumed to be naturally smarter, funnier and interesting than people who are not so attractive. People who are unattractive will be naturally seen as less interesting, charismatic and intelligent than they really are.

Disney princess films adds a new spin to The Halo Effect by throwing morality into the mix. According to them, it’s not so much that beautiful people are smarter, funnier and more interesting to be around than everyone else; they’re also more virtuous than most and therefore should be trusted implicitly. Unattractive people? Not so much. They are more likely to be petty, mean, selfish, prone to envy and in some cases, even devious.

The Halo Effect may not seem like such a big deal, but all you have to do is look at how it can play out in the Real World with serious consequences. For example, many rational thinking adults have fallen victim to the suave con artist, the dashing two-timer, the handsome swindler and the beautiful gold digger. In the worst case scenario, some become unwitting victims of a good-looking serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer. Why do so many people become suckers for these types? Because The Halo Effect causes people to develop an almost instinctive-like trust towards the extremely attractive. The assumption is that just like Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Sleeping Beauty and so many other beautiful characters from Disney films, beautiful people are by nature virtuous.

On the flip side of The Halo Effect, unattractive or even just average people who are otherwise decent sometimes get seen less favorably, in some cases to the point of being cruelly judged and hated even though they did nothing wrong. For example, when Arkansas government worker Paula Jones accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, instead of being believed, she became a figure of public ridicule and scorn. Late night TV show hosts and comics especially had a field day making fun of her, painting her as stupid, clownish and even low class trailer trash. And why? As one talking head put it on a TV show, she was a “dog.” The abuse was so relentless that eventually Jones got a nose job so she could go back to living a normal life again.

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If ever there were a sadder case of The Halo Effect in action and why the last thing any movie or TV show should be doing is reinforcing it, the abusive treatment of Paula Jones would be it. She is a shining example of what happens when society believes that your appearance is a reflection of your personality and character.

Prince Charming Trope

Many people assume that the Prince Charming trope, so common in Disney princess films, is basically just that–something that a few writers came up with and refined over the years. But the trope is rooted in age-old folk and fairy tales based in a specific time in Europe, when feudalism was pretty much the order of the day. I’m not going to get into a whole dissertation about what feudalism was, but suffice it to say, it was a type of political system in which people were put into three very rigid distinct classes– peasants, nobles and kings. This system was so rigid that no one could cross over into a different class. Once you were a peasant, you were a peasant, and there wasn’t a damned thing you could do about that. Not only that, if your noble and king treated you like crap, there wasn’t a damned thing you could do about that, either.

Naturally, people who were the low man on the totem pole experienced a lot of frustration, since there was very little they could do to change things. One of the ways they coped was to create folk tales to give them comfort, however small–or wish fulfillment fantasies, if you will. For example, in England people imagined a folk hero–Robin Hood–finally sticking it to The Man, so they could delight in the idea of someone stealing from their greedy overlords and giving to the poor.

Women especially had it bad during these times. They had absolutely no say in how to live their lives. Not only were they completely under the dictatorial thumb of their fathers and husbands, society dictated that they follow one track and one track only–brood mare, old maid or nun. To make matters worse, they were made completely dependent on men, as very few were encouraged to develop skills outside of child-rearing and domestic work.

Just as peasants came up with folk tales to give them comfort, women who were trapped in a miserable situation without any real future prospects came up with fairy tales, or wish fulfillment fantasies, in which they imagined that a man would come along and rescue them. I know that may seem unlikely at first, but imagine a poverty-stricken peasant woman back in the 15th or 16th century watching a procession in which a beautiful, well-fed, rosy cheeked and lavishly dressed princess is riding in a carriage next to a handsome prince or noble. Imagine a woman like that tearfully looking at the gorgeous, happy, smiling princess and seeing her whisked away to a lavish ball attended by royals, and you can see where this entire “Prince Charming” trope in fairy tales came from.

Princess Di and Prince Charles royal wedding

Princess Di and Prince Charles royal wedding

The roots of the Prince Charming trope is as good as an argument as any to object to allowing little girls to watch Disney princess films like Cinderella. Not only is it no longer culturally relevant (and hasn’t been for centuries!), it reinforces this idea that women are so helpless, they lack the resources to help themselves and must wait for a man to rescue them. Secondly, it sets unrealistic expectations; it suggests that marrying a rich handsome man will make you happy beyond your wildest dreams.

Lastly, it encourages attractive women with no real talent or skillset that their only real asset are their looks and sexuality, and that the only way to elevate themselves in life is to use their beauty and sex appeal to snag a rich man of status–at any costs. No matter if the guy in question is a douche bag or that they may have to debase themselves as gold diggers or mail order brides to snag him. What matters is getting a rich man to support them.

It was this life strategy that James Cameron famously attacked in Titanic (1997). In the movie, the main protagonist, Rose, learns from Jack that she doesn’t have to marry her abusive fiance for the money to live a better life like her gold-digging mama wants her to; she can just pull herself up by her bootstraps and live the life she’s always dreamed of–all her own.

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“I Can Change Him”

When I first read negative reviews of Beauty and the Beast at the IMDB, I thought they were so over the top that I started howling with laughter. I saw stuff like “Stockholm Syndrome” being brought up repeatedly and was, like, “Seriously? Stockholm Syndrome? This isn’t Patty Hearst getting kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, fer Chrissakes! This is a Disney cartoon!” But then when I mulled it over, I started to understand where the critics were coming from.

You see, I have an old vinyl record that retells the story of Beauty and the Beast that I assume is true to the original story, and there was a significant change in the Disney version that unfortunately led to a lot of disturbing real world implications.

In the original story, the Beast is not a jerk at all. He’s simply a nice guy who was the victim of a nasty witch’s spell. Not only is he sweet, he’s kind of a self-pitying sad sack desperately begging anyone who will to love him, even going so far as to offer them lavish gifts. When he has Beauty at his castle, he couldn’t be more hospitable. He says pretty much, “Mi casa es su casa. Have the run of my mansion, have anything you want; it’s all yours. But please, will you marry me?”

Beauty is nowhere near as open-minded as Belle in the Disney movie. She’s an immature brat who basically says, “Thanks but no thanks. You’re so ugly, you’re way out of my league. I could never marry someone as gross as you.”


The Beast begs him to love her by intoning her to “see with the eyes of her heart,” but she refuses, snarkily replying, “Hearts have no eyes.” Over time, what happens is that The Beast is so loving towards her that Beauty comes to see him as beautiful and eventually falls in love with him.

In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, this entire dynamic has been flipped on its head. In the original story, Beauty has to overcome her revulsion over the Beast’s appearance to finally see the goodness in him. In the movie, the opposite is the case. Belle couldn’t care less about The Beast’s appearance; she has to overcome her revulsion to his angry tirades and abusive behavior to find the good in him.

The problem with this new twist on the Beauty and The Beast story is that it plays to a myth that so many women unwittingly fall into when they meet a guy who winds up being a complete and total jerk and in some cases, an abuser. It’s the I Can Change Him Myththe idea that if you love a cruel, abusive person long and hard enough, you can not only fix him but make him the man of your dreams. This myth is the reason why you’ll see certain women stay with a horrible boyfriend or spouse no matter what he does. It’s not that they don’t know what colossal dicks these men are. It’s that they’re holding out hope that with enough love, they can be changed.

The Happy Couple (I Can Change Him)

The Happy Couple (I Can Change Him) | Credit: Toby Tripp

That Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is fueling the I Can Change Him Myth is all the more disturbing when you see parallels between Beast’s behavior and that of real life abusers. Years ago, I was witness to domestic abuse; a neighbor would beat the crap out of his girlfriend at least twice a week. You’d think the victim would’ve left him, but no matter how much he attacked her, she clung tenaciously by his side day in and day out like a doting puppy. The reason why is that every time the guy was confronted about this behavior, he’d break down sobbing from remorse and shame. This wasn’t an act, either. You could really tell that he was legitimately ashamed and filled with self-hatred.

Because he was sincere, I am guessing the girlfriend felt there was a tiny bit of humanity in him that could be reached. But being abusive by nature, it didn’t make a damned bit of difference whatever momentary lapses of guilt and shame he had. He was what he was,  and as sure as rain, as soon as he got over these feelings, he went right back to beating her up as if nothing had happened.

In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, we can see something similar taking place. In certain scenes, Beast will fly into these terrifying rages, looking like he’s on the verge of tearing shit up, only to stop himself and have a look of remorse.


These moments are meant to convey to the audience that just by virtue of showing some kind of guilt or shame, there’s still hope that Beast can be changed. However, realistically speaking, people who are that far gone in terms of rage and abusiveness are usually beyond hope and could never, ever be turned around with merely “love”. People like that are so far gone, in fact, that not even years of intensive therapy can change them. Yet this is what the movie teaches–that if an abuser shows even a glimmer of remorse, shame or guilt, he can be saved.

All of this isn’t the worst part of Beauty and the Beast’s perpetuation of the I Can Change Him Myth. When you think about it, it actually romanticizes the very type of abusive relationships where the myth most often comes into play. According to Disney, it’s not that the violent and mentally cruel boyfriend or spouse is an abuser; he’s just a misunderstood soul lashing out at the world because no one ever loved him enough to help him get over his pain. And oh, how romantic is it for the woman he is terrorizing to overcome her fear of him, finally see him for what he is and nurse him back to becoming a well-rounded, happy, healthy individual!

On top of romanticizing the abusive relationship, Beauty and the Beast teaches young girls that since Belle is a role model, they should look to her as an example of how to deal with an abusive person. After all, if Belle is supposed to be the epitome of human selflessness, kindness and patience, to walk away from an abuser or just plain mean person after one slap in the face or abusive insult too many would mean being the opposite of Belle. It would mean being cruel, unselfish, unloving and not willing or patient enough to see the good in people.

All of this isn’t to say that Beauty and the Beast will brainwash every girl into becoming a doormat for domestic abusers when they get older. But it could help reinforce tendencies in the types of girls who are susceptible to the I Can Change Him Myth.

“Ugly Duckling to Swan” Trope

Not to beat up on Beauty and the Beast too much (it’s the film I saw most recently and can therefore recall most clearly), but there’s a very mixed message in the movie when it comes to Belle. Initially, we’re supposed to fall in love with her because she’s so quirky, unpretentious and brainy. She reads books and couldn’t care less about hooking up with attractive guys or dressing to the nines for them. That’s part of the reason why she falls in love with Beast–she is the perfect unpretentious person to take a chance on a hideous-looking beast.

But then in the pivotal point of the movie (the ballroom scene) and at the very end, Belle appears all dolled up, with beautifully coiffed hair, makeup, jewelry and hair. If she had started out being shown as the type of character who loves glitz and glamor, this wouldn’t have been such a problem. But because she wasn’t, this transformation has shades of a trope you used to see back in the day–“Ugly Duckling to Swan.”

This is the trope in which a socially awkward, dowdy nerdy character (usually female) is told that she’s beautiful just the way she is or we, the audience members, are told that she’s beautiful precisely because she’s unconventional. After the movie spends so much effort building her up as “beautiful on the inside” and not needing to change, it will suddenly shift gears. Via a contrived plot device, the main character will undergo an extreme fashion makeover (usually via music montage) to attend a glamorous event, win a competition or win the affections of the leading man. By the end of the movie, she not only triumphs (becomes the belle of the ball/wins admiration of mean girls who’d made fun of her/gets the leading man/is offered a lucrative modeling contract), she loses all traces of her former nerdiness and becomes a conventional image of feminine beauty.

What’s wrong with the “Ugly Ducking to Swan” trope? It’s a very sneaky, insidious form of bait and switch. At first, young girls are told, “It’s okay to be smart, quirky and unconventional as long as you have a great personality and are good at heart!” But once it baits them, they’re told, “But…you’re so pretty, though! Wouldn’t you rather not be so plain? Wouldn’t you rather be beautiful? Look at how admired you’d be, how attractive you’d be to the opposite sex! So, drop the frumpy clothing and forget your books. Get a manicure! Learn to put on makeup. Start wearing frilly clothing. Look like something out of Vogue or Elle Magazine!”

In the case of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is presented as a plainly-dressed brainy woman that should be admired for not being a stereotype of feminine beauty, only to do a switcheroo and transform her into a “pretty princess” who becomes the very definition of a conventional beauty and is rewarded for it by achieving status and winning a handsome mate. Because of this, the girls watching the movie who identify with Belle as a brainy Plain Jane in the beginning will naturally find themselves wanting to follow in her footsteps and go from unconventional Plain Jane to Barbie doll.

You Go, Keira!

Just because people grew up watching a beloved movie when they were children doesn’t mean that it’s sacrilegious to not allow their children to watch it. I supposed it’s this feeling of sacrilege that had people having conniption fits over Keira Knightley deciding to keep her daughter from watching stuff like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella.

I personally applaud her actions. While many of these films are charming and delightful, they push dated tropes and send terrible messages that far outweigh whatever joy could be derived from them. And besides, with so many other great films to choose from, it’s not like kids are spoiled for choice. Parents can do better–and should.

1 Comment

  1. nancy

    hey just saying i love your movie takes and you are not afraid to take down stuff. read half of your blog already.

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