June 19, 2019

Disney's Newly Subversive Take on Love

“Love, in the world of Walt Disney films, has changed. Between Tangled (2010) and Moana (2016), the ideal of heterosexual romance has been dethroned by a new ideal: family love. The happy ending of our most-watched childhood stories is no longer a kiss. Today, Disney films end with two siblings reconciled despite their differences, as in Frozen (2013); or a mother and a daughter making amends, as in Brave (2012) and Inside Out (2015); or a child reunited with long-lost parents, as in Tangled, Finding Dory (2016) and Coco (2011). Love remains the all-important linchpin of these stories: love is supposed to bring us joy, solve our problems, and get us to our happy ending. We are told to love love, for love will always save us in the end. But over the past 10 years, we have been told to love a new kind of love.

The stories of love we find on the silver screen are not just representations of the emotions within us. They also shape our expectations of what love will be like – expectations by which we will want to abide, leading us to shoehorn our feelings into that idealised form. Just a few centuries ago, romance held a much less central position in the cultural imaginary than it does today: love was primarily a question of family allegiances and controlled reproduction. This changed with the advent of modernity, where romantic love acquired the cultural acclaim that it commands today. And if the nature of love has changed before, it can change again. Disney’s depiction of love over the past decade might be a sign of what’s to come. Love is central to the fabric of society, so any change in its ideal will ripple through all sorts of human relations: between workers and bosses, between states and their citizens, between the ideals of modernity and those who are branded as ‘ethnic others’, to name but a few.

Today, Disney no longer expects us to expect a knight in shining armour, but rather to forgive our siblings and make peace with our parents. Consider the gulf that separates Sleeping Beauty (1959) from its remake Maleficent (2014). Both are based on Charles Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant (1829), but in Maleficent the story has been updated for the times. The princess is still told that only a ‘true love’s kiss’ will end her magic sleep. The prince’s lips, however, have now lost their power. We see him kiss the princess and the music swells – and nothing happens. But when the fairy godmother then realises her mistake in cursing the princess and bends down to kiss her forehead in remorse, she wakes. The story arc is still the same as of old, but the words ‘true love’ now mean something new.”

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