There’s a reason I named my blog Writing, Reading, Running, and it’s because, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, hearing stories and storytelling are my earliest loves. And now, after my first runDisney weekend, I’m examining Disney as a savvy business that responds to what its audience asks for, because that’s how it makes money. But it can do better. Remember The Princess and the Frog? A good first step, but Disney can do better when enough people want it to. Remember when Disney wanted to sex up Merida and quickly changed its mind when it realized its paying public was losing its shit? We have the power to change what’s in the media by asking it for a better story.
One of my very favorite books as a little girl was Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, which tells the story of a little girl named Grace who wants to play Peter Pan in her school play. The catch? One of her white classmates tells Grace there’s no way Grace can play Peter Pan, because Grace is black. A boy tells Grace she can’t play Peter Pan because she is a girl. Grace, however, “was a girl who loved stories,” and chose to ignore the stories her classmates told her and focus on the one her grandma told her: that she can do or be anything or anybody she wants to be. Grace ultimately wins the role of Peter Pan and knocks it out of the park, because of the power of her determination.
I loved that book as a little girl. I started reading when I was 4, when my older brother came home from kindergarten and I was so jealous and he was so excited that we teamed up and he taught me my letters. I was always a grade or several ahead of my reading level, and I remember Amazing Grace as one of my earliest favored story books. (Partly as a result, Peter Pan has always been one of my favorite stories, as well. Through Grace I learned that one of Disney’s most exciting and interesting characters didn’t HAVE to be a boy, or even, long before Princess Tiana, a white person, LET ALONE a white boy!)
As human beings, we are shaped by the stories we hear. At our basest, we are mammals, and mammals are conditioned by the patterns they experience. When we experience patterns told through stories, we come to believe them as truth. And stories come to us in all kinds of forms – from our earliest human beings telling stories aloud or drawing hieroglyphics, to micro-stories told in Internet ads before we’re allowed to read the content we actually clicked on. And when something bucks the trend, that is, when something interrupts the pattern, we’re shocked. Sometimes less so, sometimes more so, but where do you think clickbait comes from? Shock factor that a story we’re used to and expect makes us sit up and pay attention. It’s the classic underdog trope – whether it’s a homeless man we would expect to take the money and run doing the right thing, or a little black girl defying her classmates and winning the lead role, we love to be shocked.
Remember why “American Idol” was so damn popular when it first premiered?
Kinda reminds you of…
We ask for what we love. We ask to be told certain stories. And as children we do this very consciously. As little ones my brothers and I begged for the same bedtime story every night – my dad’s dog childhood dog Pepper saving the day when a burglar tried to get in their house. Every night after days filled with what we normally expected, humans being the top of the food chain, we begged for a little dog to save the lives of the humans who normally fed and housed him.
As we grow we are taught to be polite and not beg and not voice what we want. From a young age, we are taught, programmed automatically, even by the best-intentioned people, to believe that boys and girls are different. For centuries, millennia even, human beings have tried to identify reasons to support their story that being one way is better than being another way: from Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:16) telling us men > women, and Cain and Abel (Genesis 25:23) telling us one religion or race > another, to the tactics used in sexism and racism today, including WITHIN one sex or race.
And too often we don’t question it; at best we ask for a different story altogether but never question the why of the original story.
We’ve been so inundated with these patterns of sexism and racism and other strategies for discrimination for centuries and millenia that we do it without thinking, and we don’t ask ourselves why we believe it.
It’s for this deeply entrenched and ingrained history that I don’t really blame anyone who buys into it at first without thinking. But I think the fact that we are now comfortably at the top of the food chain as a species means we have the cognitive ability to break these patterns of thinking.
It’s automatic, though, at first, isn’t it?
When I first fell in love with Belle and Ariel, I was too young to understand the schism that happens when Belle and Ariel gave up their old lives for their princes. I assumed they found a new thing they loved – their princes – to replace the old – their fathers. (Notice how neither Princess gets to love a mother? It’s from one man to another.) I was content with that much of an explanation, because I was busy being happy with the gorgeous span shot of Belle’s library and the sparkle of her gown, and I had my makeshift fin from a pair of green tights, of course, so when Ariel wears that ugly cake wedding dress that was fine with me, she could keep it, in fact, I myself was ready to give her all of my dresses if it meant I got to be a mermaid. Even I wasn’t thinking about leaving my family to become a mermaid, because I was a kid, and as children, we don’t think things through. But we’re adults now.
I did, from a young age, though, have a harder time getting into Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. As a little girl sandwiched between two very gender-stereotypical boys, part of me wanted to love them because they were beautiful and girly and a break from the normal Star Wars play-acting I always wound up in, but the other part of me was entirely bored with their stories. Later, Disney’s movies got more exciting to me – for every Sleeping Beauty snooze movie, there was a lion versus hyena chase adventure or a flight trip to Neverland to battle pirates, so as a little kid, I didn’t question Disney on why the most exciting movies had a boy as the main character (Aladdin, Simba, Hercules, Peter Pan).
I am, however, a critically-thinking adult, now, and it’s time to question Disney’s repeated tropes and ask for a better story.
So how did it go at my first runDisney event, now that I’m a critically-thinking adult asking for a better story? Check it out.