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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

We need an end to the Disney myth in which girls are defined by their looks

From fairytales to animated films, we need to stop telling stories that reinforce the idea that beautiful people are inherently good and unattractive people are bad

Cinderella tells little girls they can't capture Prince Charming without the finery and glass slippers / Courtesy Walt Disney Productions 
Cinderella tells little girls they can't capture Prince Charming without the finery and glass slippers / Courtesy Walt Disney Productions 

It’s not been a good week for Disney princesses. First, Keira Knightley revealed that she doesn’t allow her three-year-old daughter to watch classic animated films such as Cinderella. She explained that this is because the eponymous heroine is just waiting around to be rescued by a man. “Rescue yourself,” she tells her little girl.

If that wasn’t enough, Kristen Bell said that she uses the moment when Snow White is kissed by the prince while sleeping to explain the importance of consent. That is only right. You can’t just go around randomly kissing people who are unconscious.

Of course, there was much indignation at the views of both women, with plenty of voices chiming in to say that these are “just fairytales”. It seems that people don’t want to believe that the stories many of us grew up with hold such negative messages for girls today.

Stories tell us about the world. And the ones we learn as children are embedded deep into our psyches. But the time for tales where women are defined and valued by their physical characteristics is over.

And there is a far bigger point that both Knightley and Bell have missed in their indignation: that the stories of Cinderella and Snow White are – much like many aspects of modern society – obsessed with women’s physical appearance. That’s not how we should be bringing up our children in 2018.

Beauty is the defining characteristic of almost every Disney heroine. Upon it rests her happily ever after. Cinderella’s Prince Charming can’t fall in love with her unless she is dressed in finery and glass slippers. In Snow White, the wicked stepmother asks the mirror: “Who is the fairest of them all?”, her status threatened by her stepdaughter’s good looks.

Every evil woman is hideous and deformed in some way. In telling these stories to our children, we reinforce the idea that beautiful people are inherently good and unattractive people are bad. This places pressure on young girls to live up to unattainable ideals of femininity. It also affects the attitudes that boys have towards the opposite sex.

Worst of it all, it inextricably links a woman’s worth to the way she looks and shows physical perfection to be the only route to success.

Even famous women from history have beauty woven into their myths as a way to explain their power and accomplishments.

In the commonly accepted story of Cleopatra, the ancient Egyptian queen’s captivating appearance is presented as her greatest asset when dealing with the all-powerful Roman empire.

This is despite many contemporary reports expressing that she possessed far more in the way of intellect and strategic expertise than she did in looks.

For centuries, we have been unable to envisage a successful woman who is not physically alluring. So, how do we put a stop to this, once and for all?

It’s not just about the films that girls watch or the stories they read. Many of the solutions start at home. Parents should be on their guard against society’s tendency to compliment girls for being pretty but boys for being smart and avoid dressing their daughters in pink frilly skirts while their sons get to climb trees in tee shirts with cars and dinosaurs on them.

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Read more from Shelina Janmohamed:

From Congress to cosplay, women are shattering stereotypes

Do beauty contests go far enough in empowering women?

Jacinda Ardern is a model for all working mothers

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It is possible to create strong female characters, whose worth is not based solely on the way they look. As a teenager, I recall being taken aback reading Charlotte Bronte’s idea behind the central character in her novel Jane Eyre. Bronte said that Jane was written to be “a heroine as plain and as small as myself”.

In doing so, she challenged stereotypes of women and showed that readers could could fall in love with a heroine who was not conventionally beautiful.

Jane Eyre was published in 1847. Now, more than 170 years later, it is shocking to think how little society has progressed. We don’t need nostalgia for a world of pretty princesses.

Instead, we need stories about women who are strong, capable, funny and smart, regardless of how they look.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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