Once we label someone evil, we are very easily prone to conclude that all that’s left for them is to be punished. When we decide they have wronged us, they don’t deserve love, nor any kind of understanding. Because, when someone is “evil”, no amount of kindness and empathy will work on them, so they must be either penalized, locked away or killed. But if we like someone or they are close to us in some way, they seem to often get leave-way on this, even if they end up doing similarly “bad” acts. Classic Disney movies tend to especially perpetuate this way of thinking and behaving. Here are some movies I’d like to explore, especially since I just recently finally saw some of these cartoon classics:
The Little Mermaid
Ursula, the half-octopus-lady is presented as a straight-up mean, evil villain who is punished and killed at the end of the movie. And it is evident that she is constantly manipulating and lying to everyone throughout the movie. But let’s examine Ursula’s character more in detail. At one point in the movie, she expresses that she was cast out of the community, banished and exiled. The topic of why this happened never gets addressed. We actually don’t know what really happened. How do we know if she wasn’t wronged in some way and became that bitter and untrusting? I would in fact, love to hear Urusla’s story. Sounds like she had some amazing powers too, she “knew a ‘little magic’, a talent she always possessed”, as she points in the song she sings in the movie.. And it was helping people find love in their lives! This talent could have been cultivated and shared amongst everyone in the community. What happened? Could it be that Triton was a bit too threatened by her powers and cast her out? Maybe, just maybe Urusula was done wrong on, but no one hears her side of the story.
Instead we accept that Ursula is the evil one that needs to be punished and fought against. And then, there is Ariel who actually signs a deal with Urusula. Why wouldn’t she be labeled as “evil” and cast out all the same? Maybe she has a ticket out of that because she’s “naive” and young and doesn’t know better? Or perhaps because she’s Triton’s daughter, so she can do whatever she pleases and will be forgiven in the end regardless? Why doesn’t Ursula have this privilege? Furthermore, Ariel’s father destroys all Ariel’s belongings and naturally, Ariel gets angry and rebels against it. How do we know her father didn’t do a similar thing to Ursula in the past? Isn’t destroying someone’s property and punishing them this way an “evil” act? It sure created a major disconnect between him and his daughter. He even tried to attack Ursula at the end of the movie but he couldn’t get away with it because the contract Ariel had signed was actually valid. Yet again, Triton wanted to use sheer force to get his way. Another evil act perhaps? Don’t even get me started with the whole thing about Ariel falling in love with someone who she met for 30 seconds and what kind of a “real love” and “virtuous choices” message that one sends out. And the convenience of this fella happening to be a prince.
The Beauty and the Beast
This movie actually starts up with a prince who is “spoiled, selfish and unkind” and gets a spell cast on him by a “beggar with a haggard appearance” who turns him into a beast because he had no “love in his heart”. Of course, he is fortunate to come across Belle and finally find that lost “love in his heart” (even though if she had never made it to the castle, the beast would have had her own dad locked up in the dungeon forever). As far as I am concerned, the beast, with his behaviors is nothing but evil according to how villains are portrayed in these movies. What made the beast start becoming a “better person”? Love? On the other hand, we have Gaston, the local rich kid who is equally full of himself and wants to get it all for himself, including Belle as a bride.
What made Gaston not be able to “turn around” and become a “better person” the way the beast did? Because he didn’t get a chance to come across and experience “real love” that would “save him”? His punishment for not having this fortune? Yes, you guessed it: death. The way I see it, metaphorically speaking, these movies indirectly put out a message that if we are selfish and unkind, we turn into a “beast”, yet we always have that “magic rose” within ourselves to remind us that we can turn around and come out of all that and learn to be kind and loving again. And if we don’t, the rose will eventually perish and us with it. It sure would be nice if kids were intuitive enough to see it that way when they watch these movies, or at least that they would hear an interpretation like that from a grown up, say a school teacher or parent. It seems that instead, it perpetuates the belief that there are evil people out there that need to be put down and that some shining prince will make the beautiful protagonist live happily ever after, and anything in its way will die.
I would have also preferred an ending where the prince in the end goes and finds that beggar with a “haggard appearance”, reconciles and marries her instead of Belle. that would really sum up the “true love” that is not based on appearances which this whole movie revolves around. And let us not forget that long term habits are hard to break and I can only imagine how beast’s long term ingrained rage and selfishness would likely kick right back in as soon as the honeymoon phase is over. Would be great if the cartoon would have covered their methods of resolving those difficult patches, for education purposes.
In Enchanted they do introduce a new, cool twist, where the girl doesn’t just end up going for the prince.. She learns to date, to find out what she likes, how to resolve conflicts in a relationship and look for a person that is a better match for her. However, the standard narrative still leaves one “evil” person to punish and kill before the movie ends. Yet again, no one will ever know what Queen Narissa’s side of the story was. “Evil” seems to be a concept that is made up in our heads when our or the safety and wellbeing of the group that we associate with (whatever that may be) is being threatened.
People are so quick to blame the other side, and label them as “evil people” that do “wrong things”. My take on this is that “evil” is actually not that. There is no evil people. There are “evil”, disconnecting acts that we all do at times when we are not resourced and fail to focus on connecting. Instead, we tend to punish (Triton was punitive with his daughter, just as much as Ursula was punitive when she turned all those people into little shadow-people), we betray (Ariel betrayed her father by going and signing a deal with Ursula), we resent and manipulate (Urusula manipulated Ariel and the prince by lying to them).
When these disconnecting behaviors are all mixed up in both the protagonists and antagonists and some behaviors are not condemned and some are, how do kids learn to discern what’s the right thing to do and what is not? I don’t think they do, instead they are mean to other kids they don’t like and nice to the ones they do like, even if the kids they like are doing immoral things. Someone once told me a story about an African village (I wish I could remember the exact reference, if I find out I will post it) where if someone in the community did something hurtful, the whole village would gather. They would put the person in the middle of the circle and they would all take turns, telling that person what they love and appreciate about him/her. They would let the person know that they acknowledge their place in their community, that they believe in them and that this is one act that went against supporting each other as a community and that they are there to support the person so that they can all coexist well together. Quite a way to deal with a villain by offering them love instead of punishment, don’t you think?
Thanks for reading and enjoy your next Disney movie! 😉
p.s. Here is an hour long podcast that explores how our society is flooded with blame and different ideas how to step away from this way of thinking. http://www.radiolab.org/story/317421-blame/