Last week, Keira Knightley revealed that she doesn’t allow her three-year-old daughter, Edie, to watch the classic Disney films (specifically citing Cinderella and The Little Mermaid) because they contain dubious messages about the role of women in society.
I thought: “Entirely fair enough." I understand that children’s brains are plastic and that, particularly before the age of 7, they absorb their environment like a sponge. In our formative years, we lay down psychological programming that it’s incredibly hard to undo in later life. It’s the role of a responsible parent, therefore, to take an active interest in what their children are exposed to. I, naively, assumed that most parents do this.
I am, apparently, wrong. Well, at least according to the viewers of Good Morning Britain. In an online poll, 90 per cent said that they believed Cinderella “isn’t sexist”. Here is a sample of the typical accompanying comments (many of which were from women):
“What a load of shit! For crying out loud! It’s just a storybook with a bit of fantasy and magic for the little ones!”
“It’s a fairy tale! What is now wrong with the world that somebody has to question every single thing? Most people have bills to worry about and not fairy tales!”
“It’s all political correctness gone too far!”
If you’re anything like me, you’ll notice that these comments appear far more indignant than Knightley’s original statement. This is because we hold a special place in our psyche for the stories we were told as children and view them with a hefty additional dollop of sentimental nostalgia. In other words, the reaction entirely proves Knightley’s point.
We're still fighting sexism
The story was picked up by The Sun’s celebrity columnist, Dan Wootton, who argued during his Talk Radio show that Knightley should credit her child with enough intelligence to be able to decipher fantasy from reality. During an extraordinary rant, in which he mocked Knightley’s diagnosis of PTSD and used the word “snowflake” virtually every other word, he compared the story to a previous media debate over whether we should be allowed to quote the words of Winston Churchill and asked whether we should “ban Shakespeare”.
Most children begin to learn Shakespeare in Year 9, at the age of 13. By then, they have what psychologists call “critical faculty”, which is the ability to consider things in context. They are at a stage in their development when concepts like the sociopolitical climate at the time the author was writing will influence their understanding of the text. Primary-aged children, particularly those under the age of 8, do not have that ability.
In bringing Churchill into the debate, Wootton fails to recognise that the issue isn’t the simple fact of him being quoted, but rather Britain’s tendency to airbrush its own history. History is written by the victors and thus Churchill enjoys a pretty-much unquestioned status as a hero in our collective consciousness.
In reality, Churchill was a complex man who changed his ideologies and political loyalties frequently throughout his career. He held many views that are at odds with our modern understandings of race and gender. Neither of these detract from the fact that he was a great speaker with a quick wit and, for many British people, a wonderful leader. Yet Churchill is spoken about almost entirely with undiluted reverence. It is the fact that any discussion of his racism is met with furious accusations of “disrespect” which makes the situation problematic.
Critics of the “snowflake generation” speak as though classic Disney films are a piece of laughable, diverting trivia in a world otherwise unparalleled in its commitment to promoting body confidence and gender equality. Parents like Knightley, conversely, recognise that they represent yet another toxic media message they have to try to counterbalance, lest their daughters grow up like so many other women – with Disney princesses as their blueprint for femininity and all the disordered eating, body loathing and misguided notions about what constitutes “romance”, and waiting for a handsome prince to rescue them, which accompanies this.
I think it is Sara Pascoe, in her book Animal, who sums this up best. Stories from times gone by make us angry, not because they are so at odds with our modern ways of thinking, but because they remind us too much of the battles we are still fighting.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here