How Disney Hasn’t Messed Me Up (Where Christianity Has)

With the popularity of the movie Frozen, new vigor has been injected into the strangely common conversation in Christian circles in regards to the influence Disney movies have on children and/or adults who watched them as children.  Some of the opinions I have read seem to praise Frozen for introducing new, positive concepts to Disney movies. While I strongly disagree that any of these concepts are “new” for Disney–and doubt these authors’ personal familiarity with Disney’s nearly 80-year history–I am more concerned with the other set of opinions.  This other set of opinions continue to accuse Disney of trying to push some kind of social and moral agenda and condemn the movies as damaging our children.

Here is the essence of what I would like to say: Disney never ruined my views on relationships, morality, femininity, or anything else.  Disney told me stories–fairy tales–and never represented themselves to me as anything else.  Disney never told me I was required to do or not do anything… including watch their movies.

Christianity, on the other hand, has taught me quite a few unhealthy paradigms I have had to unlearn, mostly through therapy.  These paradigms were represented to me as truths, and I built my life on them.  This is not to say that I did not also learn some wonderful, foundational ways of relating to God, to others, and to the world.  Those lessons are as wonderful and dear to me as the others are terrible and painful.  The wonderful and the terrible are on the same scale of significant life influence.  However, I believe we need to be much more concerned with harmful teaching about the formation and direction of one’s life and relation to God than we are about debatably questionable ideas represented in animated movies no one is forced to watch.

Let me begin with a little personal context.  When I was growing up, my family moved around quite a bit, and carried just a few movies with us.  One of those movies was Cinderella, which my grandmother had somehow recorded onto a blank VHS tape.  Coming from a big family with busy parents who lived on three different continents within my first six years, entertaining oneself was part of the deal.  So, I watched Cinderella.  A LOT.  At some point I encountered Peter Pan, and he was one of my first imaginary friends (a fact about which my sisters still tease me).  My family lived on an island (Okinawa, Japan) around the time The Little Mermaid came out, so I spent quite a bit of time pretending to be Ariel.  To say the least, I am very attached.  I will not pretend to be objective.  However, having watched several Disney animated movies throughout the course of my life (and many of them more than once), I also believe I have enough actual experience to speak on them.

Having essentially always identified (and yes, still identifying) as a Christian (see About Me), I also cannot pretend to be objective about the Christian faith.  However, having grown up in several evangelically-minded churches (plus Sunday School, camps, Bible studies, etc.,), I also have a vast amount of experience from which I am speaking.  It’s only my personal experience, but it’s my experience, nonetheless.

I’d like to do a little comparison between positive ways Disney movies have influenced me and the way harmful Christian teachings have influenced me.  First, I’d like to list some of the helpful ideas represented in Disney movies.  Again, remember that these were movies I chose to watch (or my parents chose to let me watch).  Also, these were not concepts I was encouraged to build my life around, so there’s a different scale of impact involved here.  This is far from a comprehensive list, and mostly includes the films with which I am most familiar.  I tried to get a good sampling from 1937 until now.

Positive Ideas from Disney

  • Kindness is a better reaction to injustice than bitterness (Cinderella).
  • There is a time when we all have to grow up (Peter Pan)
  • Help the poor. (Robin Hood)
  • Care for strangers. (The Rescuers)
  • Family is what you make it (The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch)
  • The time comes when a child sacrifices for the good of the parent. (MulanBeauty and the Beast)
  • There are reasons for the rules parents set. Decisions have consequences. (Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King)
  • When life is cruel, that doesn’t mean you get to leave it–or your responsibilities–behind. (The Lion King)
  • People are different, not better or worse. There are different types of knowledge. (Pocahontas)
  • Teamwork and sharing are much better than selfishness. (The Emperor’s New Groove)
  • Hiding who you are can be damaging to yourself and to others. (Frozen)

There are certainly potentially harmful ideas represented in Disney movies (and some most definitely harmful ideas, mostly in terms of racist portrayals… and creepy Siamese cats).  It’s a parent’s decision if and when to watch which movies and which conversations they are ready to navigate with their children.  Regardless, Disney movies are stories, and they never claimed to be anything else.

Next, I’m going to list some of the negative ideas communicated to me in the Christian (American) world (primarily evangelical).  These were not “optional” concepts and, again, these were ideas my life depended upon.  You’ll note I call refer to these ideas as coming from “Christianity,” not from Christ.  This list is far from comprehensive, also.

Harmful Ideas from Christianity:

  • Becoming a Christian means you have exclusive access to joy and truth.
  • Your access to joy and truth are maximized when you memorize Scripture and pray.
  • People who believe or behave differently than you don’t have any joy or truth.
  • You can and should achieve a sense of certainty about your faith.
  • There is a one right way and a lot of wrong ways to follow Christ.
  • Your salvation is secure, but if you make a moral misstep, we will doubt whether you are really saved in the first place.
  • Preach the Gospel to everyone, but, well, stay away from people who swear, drink, or watch movies with sex scenes.
  • Help people who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged, but only if you can determine they didn’t do anything that led to their situation.  And only if your help is going to lead to a direct opportunity to tell them about Jesus.
  • It’s not ok to celebrate or appreciate your skills or anyone else’s.
  • Marriage is your goal in life.  If you don’t want that, or don’t “achieve” that, you’re strange.  And possibly sinful.
  • A woman’s identity is tied to a man’s.  This is how God wants it.

I know it is lopsided to compare only the positives of Disney with only the negatives of Christianity (when there are absolutely negatives of the former and positives of the latter).  The key, again, is the scale of impact these ideas have on an individual.  All of this to say: I could do with a lot less pontificating about the influence of a fanciful franchise and a lot more self-examination of the significant life-directing concepts we purposefully communicate.

Related Posts: The Dangerous Lie That We Tell, Freedom From Devotions, Our Idolatry of Marriage, Realizing You Don’t Have To,  If Faith Made Sense It Wouldn’t Be Faith

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