Here I am, finishing this week’s post in a hotel room, only a ten-minute walk away from my place and I don’t know what’s sadder, that I am not travelling or that I haven’t even changed of postcode. The reason behind this is not that I’m being picky with my writing routine -I can’t afford to have a Carrie Bradshaw moment and lock myself in a hotel room looking for inspiration to finish the article. Sadly, the reason turns out to be a more mundane: a ‘hangry’ mouse at home who decided to bite S mercilessly at 3 am. This is London folks, and mice are all around us; and sometimes they are so hungry that bite humans. I guess dealing with mice is part of dealing with the culture of the city, which means soon we will be another Londoner household with a cat. That’s my silver lining of the story. That morning, high on lack of sleep, sitting at the E&A waiting room while S was getting a tetanus vaccine, I couldn’t help but thinking how lovely we think mice are thanks to a great branding made by Disney.
Shame on you, Mickey Mouse. Now I feel bad leaving mouse traps all over my kitchen.
I always found fascinating the power of Disney movies, which can play so well with our feelings and emotions that we would idealise not only the meanest animals -such as hangry mice- but also how our Prince Charming should be, playing with the expectations of several generations of girls and women during most of the XX century. Rescue, wedding, a happy-ever-after ending. The fairytale fantasy that many thought could be reality. It’s been so deep the impact these fairytales have had in our society that I couldn’t stop repeating the same question in my head:
Does sociocultural context reflect on movies or vice-versa?
If we think of the princesses from the Disney’s classic period -Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty- their expectations are as simple as waiting for the right Charming Prince. They would dream and passively wait while very bad antagonists -who happen to be women, by the way- made their life impossible. While Snow White and Cinderella had vain stepmothers who would treat them miserably only because they were jealous of their beauty; Aurora suffered from the rancour of a very resentful witch who took it too personal for not being invited to her baptism. However, despite their suffering the reason that would keep their hopes up and build their resilience was the love of a Charming Prince they met once, very briefly. Honestly, it sounds a bit disturbing that little girls can dream of that as a life goal but if we put things into perspective and consider the cultural context, at the time that was basically what was expected from women. Social events, jealousy, beauty and marriage was the cocktail served at the time. Beauty was the key for the door of marriage, seen as the ultimate solution for happiness. Most of the feminine population was convinced that their life goal was getting a man.
However, one of the things that still stroke me was how the feminine population could live such similar social expectations across countries during the first half of the XX century. I could not understand how all countries had turned the role of women to such low extent that they were considered as a second class citizen in the western world. Coincidentally, during this period family values were almost sacred and there was a very clear distinction between men are women that shouldn’t be challenged.
In Spain this situation made sense to me, as we had an ultra-conservative and ultra-catholic dictatorship which lasted 40 years. One of the main things I teach my students is how distinguished were the social roles of men and women. Women were branded as housewives and men as breadwinners. Society was designed that way because, according to the government, it was in our nature. Women had wombs which needed to be filled with pregnancies. Therefore, they should take care of the pack and the bread-winner. In the meantime, men would go outside and hunt mammoths and maybe shag their assistant during their hunt to relieve their natural pain in the nuts. Obviously, the assistant was just a tool, real women (i.e. wives) were over all those things because it was in their nature understanding and caring the man they belonged to, making them feel welcome when they arrived home after a long and tiring day in spite and above of everything. In case of doubt, we also had an book called Manual de la Buena Esposa (The Good Wife’s Manual) to instruct women how to behave and be a good wife. Through several lessons such as waking up before him and going to bed after him, in order to be always presentable, avoiding complaining, or complying to everything he wanted, the book taught women how to make their marriage go smoothly. Needless to say, if marriage went wrong blame would rely entirely on the wife’s shoulders. No pressure; the only thing we needed to do was to be perfect.
Back when I learned this during my teenage years, I felt outraged by how women were treated by society during the dictatorship, and for some time I thought that only happened in Spain. There was a sound reason which was the dictatorship, which imposed ultra-conservative values but, what about the rest?
The United States had always showed off as the most democratic country in the world, so how come social roles were as polarised as in Franco’s Spain?
The answer is simple: Post-war.
Let’s think briefly about it: who does war? men. Who stays home? women. Governments make an impressive marketing strategy to attract women to work while men are at war. In this way, industries run smoothly and workforce doesn’t suffer from the void men left by going to war. Up until here everything works fine for governments because they have workforce at home and they can send men to the battlefield. However, the war eventually ends and men are back home. But things have changed; women actually liked working and feeling independent. After years of a testosterone-only environment, wounded physically and psychologically, men need to get back to normal life and to their roles before war to restore their pride. Therefore, they needed their wives to be exclusively so, but women claimed ‘oh well why can’t I be both? I’m pretty good at my job, you know, I have been employee of the month for six consecutive months’. Men felt outraged and threatened. This becomes a social issue, so governments decide to take measures on this -again- and launch another impressive marketing campaign to take women back home. Women buy into it and decide to return to their roles as housewives so their men can restore their pride by being breadwinners and going to work. It was all about the cause.
This, in a nutshell sets the post-war era context and the expectations on gender roles. Welcome to the 1950s. Considering that WWII took place all over the world, it makes sense that the role of women was that similar across countries and cultures during the post-war years. And in this socio-cultural context is where our classic Disney princesses were born by the hands of six men along with Mr. Disney.
It is understandable that nowadays we may feel uneasy by the message these fairy tales want to send but I think it is essential to put things into context and assume that they just reflected what society thought was right at the time. However, throughout the years, I believe Disney has mastered the art of reflecting socio-cultural changes. It is therefore that I am happy they rocked the 90s with Belle and Pocahontas, because they had other things in mind than marrying, and in the 2010s with Rapunzel, Elsa or Merida, who would own their adventure and didn’t need to be rescued by a Prince Charming. I’m happier that Aurora and Malefica weren’t enemies, but best friends, to the point that Malefica would give Aurora the love kiss she needed to break the spell instead of prince Philip. Their initial stereotyping has evolved onto complex characters which give more reasons to their evil actions than being jealous. Through them we learn life lessons and I hope that they keep on reflecting our society through their movies which can serve as positive role models to further generations. Welcome to the -almost- 2020s.