Disney Princesses, Abusive Relationships, and the Young Adult Novel

Posted by on Aug 26, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

In most of the young adult novels I’ve read, a romantic man-woman relationship is central to the story. And in nearly every case, the man is dominant and the woman is submissive. This dynamic often plays out subtly—so subtly that it’s hard to identify it or determine where it comes from.

In extreme cases of this, you get an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, young adult novels that deal overtly with abuse tend to fall into traps of cliché and archetype. In my experience, they all follow the same formula, which can be broken down thus:

Setting: a typical public high school. Protagonist Jane meets Jack. Jack is older—most likely the new, cool kid at school—and Jane feels lucky that he’s even interested. Then Jack begins to display signs of mood swings or emotional instability, possibly due to a traumatic childhood. Jane feels that she can help Jack through it all. Jack and Jane form a co-dependent relationship and Jane thinks she is in love. She abandons friends and family and refuses to heed their warnings. Jack begins to abuse Jane. Jane is confused but still loves Jack, and now she has no one to go to; she’s trapped. Jack’s abuse of Jane escalates until finally he crosses a line and seriously harms Jane. Jane must eventually make the decision to break free.

The result is a novel that is entirely formulaic, with characters that play the pre-conceived roles of “abuser” and “victim.” In reality, not all abusive relationships are typical of this formula. It doesn’t allow for the complexity and multi-dimensional quality of human relationships.

So where do these notions come from?

It goes back to childhood. Not just ours, but society’s. Think about the values and societal norms have dominated literature and media for the past hundred years.

The female protagonist “victim” is a direct reflection of the damsels-in-distress of Disney classics. Disney princesses have often been accused of being one-dimensional archetypes (this is a characteristic of fairy tales, which are plot-based, not character-based), usually depicted as helpless and incomplete until they find a handsome prince. They don’t usually take action of their own accord and are instead helped by others. Think of Snow White, who would be killed in the first few moments of the film if it weren’t for the last-minute softening of the huntsman’s heart. And alas, she remains incapable of protecting herself for the rest of the film: the woodland critters help her out of the scary forest, the dwarfs attempt to save her from the queen’s poisoned apple after she foolishly bites it (really foolishly—c’mon, Snow White), and it takes a prince’s kiss to bring her back to life (talk about dependency on males, right?).

And then there’s Cinderella, who needs a fairy godmother to help her get to the ball, a man to make her happy, and the mice to save her. That movie came out in 1950, and reflected the dominant ideology of the time—that women were the weaker sex.

Even in these mythical fairy tales, we see ideologies and pre-conceived notions work their way in, and they create and perpetuate stereotypes. The idea that men are more dominant, important, and strong laid the groundwork for the stereotypical man-woman relationship we still see in films and literature today, in which the man takes the dominant role and the woman is submissive and dependent.

By contrast, we have Disney films like Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998), in which the female protagonists are strong and independent (though they both still end up with a man, re-enforcing the idea that a woman needs a man to truly be complete). Beginning in the 1970s, women challenged these gender stereotypes of the 1950s and became more empowered throughout the next decades. Progress.

Then there’s a film that is perhaps the best example of an animated Disney film plot that depicts relationship violence: Beauty and the Beast. This came out in 1991 (though it’s based on a fairy tale written in 1740). The main character, Belle, is not weak or subservient; she lives independently, takes care of her aging father, and is intelligent, capable, with dreams of living a much more exciting and adventurous life. She rejects Gaston and his offer of marriage, essentially rejecting the values of the 1950s. Marriage, children and security will never satisfy her; she desires more. And she’s brave, too: she offers herself as prisoner in her father’s place at the Beast’s castle.

But this is where things change. The Beast is frightening and controlling, with a violent temper. She is his captive, physically weak by comparison. He frightens her so badly that she attempts to escape (a common occurrence in abusive relationships; the victim usually tries to escape several times). But in the process of her escape, she is attacked by wolves and the Beast saves her life. He is injured, and she stays to help him. She realizes that he isn’t as vicious as she thought, and they begin to fall in love. Yet she is still his prisoner. He still has a violent streak and is capable of harming her. The dominant captor-submissive captive relationship is romanticized throughout the film.

There is also a subliminal message at play here: that if you give your abuser enough love and enough chances to change, the spell will eventually break and he will transform from cruel beast to handsome prince.

In real life? Not very likely.

And what about this fairy-tale like desire to appeal to the romantic spirit of the reader? Usually in these YA novels, there’s a harmless gentleman waiting patiently at the sidelines for the victim to figure out her mistake and break free of her abusive situation. Often, he’s the one who saves her. This becomes even more problematic in promoting certain ideas about relationships and dependency. Rather than making these decisions on her own, she is “saved,” and then jumps right into the next relationship. Has she learned anything?

What I have yet to discover is a novel that involves a more in-depth exploration of the psychology behind abuse through realistic characters instead of archetypes, with a strong protagonist rather than a weak one. This novel I imagine would go beyond abuse, because abuse is just a physical symptom of something much darker and more powerful. The way abusers are portrayed simply does not allow for the complexity of the human being. We shouldn’t be relying on archetypes or caricatures. Chances are, your teenage reader has witnessed a much more real version of what you have toned down and sweetened up to get your novel on the YA shelf at the local library.

Whether we idolized Disney princesses growing up or not, we all have an image in our minds about how a man-woman relationship looks. We all have an idea about what constitutes “victim” and “abuser.”  It’s time to break that idea down. Tear it up and throw it away. Start fresh. Challenge the formula. Challenge old ideologies that are perpetuated in all facets of the media. Then we’ll see the truly good stories begin to emerge.

-by Samantha Eliot Stier

Samantha Eliot Stier’s short stories have appeared online at The Faircloth Review, Infective Ink Magazine, Extract(s), and Gemini Magazine. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in sunny Venice Beach, California. Check out her website here.

1 Comment

  1. In regards to your claims of not finding a novel that accurately portrays abusive relationships, I would suggest that you read Dreamland by Sarah Dessen.

    “Love can be a very dangerous thing. After her older sister left, 16 year old Caitlin felt lost. Then she met Rogerson. When she’s with him, nothing seems real. But what happens when being with Rogerson becomes a larger problem than being without him?”

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  1. A Small-Town Princess | Failure in the Making - […] without a chance to ever explore the human world on her own. Belle, it is implied, stays with her…
  2. Disney Princesses, Abusive Relationships, and the Young Adult Novel | Samantha Eliot Stier - […] ‘Disney Princesses, Abusive Relationships, and the Young Adult Novel’ – published at Spry Literary Journal […]

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