Published: November 15, 2012
“My childhood is ruined,” replied a shocked freshman to Eden-Renee Pruitt, Professor of Psychology, to a packed audience who laughed in accordance with his sentiment in her standing room only Diversity Day workshop. Pruitt has just elaborated the original ending to the popular fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” which ended not with the wolf eating Red, but raping her.
If not ruined, many a childhood favorite tale was re-evaluated in her Mickey Mouse Monopoly workshop, which drew upon the documentary of the same name, beginning with a screening of a section of the film focused on gender stereotypes as the catalyst for the discussion.
The session was one of the few Diversity Day workshops which was actually able to go forward at Simon’s Rock on Wednesday, Nov. 14. Pruitt’s student co-host of the workshop, Karishma Jani ’11, was not in the classroom with Pruitt, but outside, a signatory to the petition by a group of students protesting this year’s Diversity Day.
Run annually, the Diversity Day screening of the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly and the workshop that follows is always popular, but it was perhaps particularly crowded this year with so few workshops running, as many of the students facilitating the workshops were participating in the student boycott of Diversity Day.
Pruitt brought both an academic, as well as personal spin to the workshop, which aimed to analyze how “media messages of race and gender have the power to shape how we think, feel, and act.” Those messages were considered in reference to how the images to which we were exposed during childhood may or may not affect us in the present.
The discussion started with students introducing themselves: by name, and a favorite childhood generic toy. For the boys, Legos, GI Joe, and Transformers were popular. For the girls, Barbies won in a hefty margin, though My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, and Beanie Babies were also met with fond oohs and aahs from the reminiscing adolescents present.
But such memories would quickly turn sour. The gender section of the film was screened, following a discussion of Disney’s framing of female characters as hyper-sexualized, damsels in distress, incapable of happiness without a man.
Even the so-called progressive Disney films of the ’80’s and ’90’s with stronger female protagonists such as Mulan and Beauty and the Beast were pointed to for a subtle sexism, which was perhaps worse. Returning from the war, a clip from Mulan is played in which her grandmother asks, “she brings home a sword, she couldn’t have brought home a man?” When her handsome suitor appears in the village asking for Mulan however, all is forgiven.
Some students questioned whether the documentary was entirely fair. The emerging consensus was that Disney was not the entire problem: it reflected wider societal issues by perpetrating these stereotypes, and particularly making them attractive to children.
The counter-argument was raised that Disney was merely artistically representing stories which had been around for generations. Disney’s plot and direction choices could be seen as inconsequential, merely serving an entertaining film which would do well at the box office.
This was met with much criticism from the other students present, who shared the view that the choices made were very deliberate in pursuit of a certain agenda. The Little Mermaid ended with Ariel marrying her Prince, but the original version instead sees him wed Ursula, who goes as far as to murder Ariel. The Little Mermaid was further called into question for Ariel’s relentless pursuit of Prince Eric: first defying her father for the only acceptable reason in the Disney-verse, “true love.”
Ariel’s obsession with Eric, and willingness to sacrifice everything, including her own voice, was likened by the workshoppers to another problematic book/film of the more recent era: Twilight. Warned Pruitt, “Don’t get me started, that will be a whole other workshop!”
Particularly with this voiceless Princess Ariel, Disney reinforces the idea that women should get what they want by manipulating the men around them with their bodies and sexuality. The unrealistic Princess ideal: big boobs, tiny waist, handsome and rich Prince to save you, was met by many students with the same sentiment outwardly expressed by one participating workshopper, “Now I know why my parents didn’t let me watch Disney.”
Recounting the challenges of choosing a decorating scheme for her soon-to-be-born baby boy’s room, Pruitt received support for opting for a Star Wars theme, praising her own parents for “raising her on sci-fi,” which she hoped to replicate.
As the conversation evolved, Disney was not the only childhood entertainment called into question. Things took an interesting turn beginning with one student’s fond memories of Pokemon shared by many in the room brought into perspective as, from workshop leader Pruitt’s psych perspective, potentially advocating slavery and animal cruelty.
Students more invested in various fandoms were keen to address issues in, as well as defend their favorite series, in the sometimes damning analyses of Pixar, Anime, Marvel Comics and Harry Potter that followed.
On the whole, the students attending the workshop learned much from each other. Drawing upon many varied respective childhood experiences, the common entertainment forms which united us served as a productive jumping off point into a much broader conversation on gendered and racial stereotypes. Certainly, many left the session questioning the messages in their favorite childhood entertainment forms.