Last night, following the excesses of two successive nights in Jesters, I stayed in with my housemates to watch a film. Someone (not me) decided to put a Disney film on. I’m not entirely sure why but it was probably something to do with that strange nostalgia for your childhood that seems to hit at 21 like a quarter life crisis. I would usually have argued and tried to nod the group in the direction of something grown up. But it was late, I was hungover and secretly, I was pretty keen for a bit of Disney. So I slumped back on the sofa, ate some crisps and prepared to be enchanted by those 2D Technicolor cartoons that brightened up many a rainy weekend in my childhood.
Only this time around, I was far from enchanted.
The film we picked was Peter Pan. Here are a few observations I made, viewing it as a cynical, 21-year-old politics editor not a bright-eyed, naïve child.
Firstly it is loaded with stereotypes drawn along racial and gender based lines.
Wendy is a girl who longs to be a mother. Naturally caring and doting, she is a young domestic goddess and evidently, in the eyes of the producers, everything a girl should be. Tinkerbell on the other hand is jealous and bitchy. The other side of the female character through the eyes of a 1950s director. She is malicious, hot-headed and commits attempted murder and betrayal. But we shouldn’t blame her. After all, she’s not really capable of thinking like a man.
The lost boys are all controlled by their primal hunter gather instincts, and most of the time just grunt and hit each other. Why? Because they don’t have mothers of course.
Hook’s dastardly crew are, to a man, foreigners. I counted Irish, Scottish and generic Arabic. Because obviously, a noble Englishman would never join a Pirate ship. Well, at least, if he did, he’d probably be Captain.
But worst of all are the “red Indians” (or native neverlanders as they should probably be called). Alternately backward, violent, uncivilised and lecherous, they are referred to as savages, hunted for fun by the lost boys and sing a song called “what made the red man red” which explains how their funny skin colour can be explained by the fact that they are always lusting after women.
So far, so 1950s you may think. What’s the harm? Some of you have probably stopped reading this by now and gone off somewhere to moan about how political correctness has ruined the country. But consider my second observation. The scenes from the film struck me, incredibly strongly, as familiar, not just from childhood memories, but as the setting for recurring dreams I have to this day. The only explanation? Walt Disney buried himself in my sub-conscious all those years ago and is still hiding there somewhere today.
So if skull rock and flying out of the upstairs window of an Edwardian London mansion made it into my mind, what else got lodged in there? A view of the role of women perhaps? The reason why I have to remind myself, even today, that women aren’t born wanting to be stay at home mothers and that saying something like “girls can be such bitches sometimes” is definitely sexist? The reason why it took me such a long time to accept that Native American culture was different but not necessarily any worse than the European’s, and that going over there in the name of civilising them was no justification for genocide? All possibilities.
We are, I believe, socialised into our gender and racial roles. The colour of skin and the type of your chromosomes has no effect on you as a person. But society labels you as something because of them, and then gives you certain roles that you have to fulfil as a member of that group. When people flaunt those rules, even today in our post-modern world, we find it strange. But where are they learnt? From parents? Peers? Or maybe, just maybe, from those rainy Sundays when Walt Disney’s cartoons would beam across your living room?
Peter Pan was made fifty-six years ago. But how much has really changed? Look at the media with a cynical eye and ask yourself what is that telling me, or my children, about the role of women. Or black people. Or Muslims.
Perhaps all the time its rich, white men who own the media certain views will be propagated by it. And in fifty-six years some things don’t change. Rich white men still own the media.
If we don’t get children to question the things the TV tells them they won’t. And years later they may look back and realise that while they were enjoying their favourite film, someone was very subtly, very carefully dictating their dreams for years to come.
The strapline for the original Peter Pan was ‘it will live in your hearts forever’. Let us just hope it won’t.