I understand why my six-year-old daughter loves princess stories, but that doesn’t mean I’m thrilled when her pretend play involves falling in love with a prince, getting married, and living happily ever after.
I don’t want to ruin her fun, but I do try to turn tales of true love’s kiss into teachable moments about why it’s important for girls to take care of themselves (and I try to steer her toward the more empowered princesses, such as Moana and Mulan). When kids see outdated gender stereotypes portrayed over and over in media, it can affect the way they think about themselves and their beliefs about what they can grow up to be.
As much as we love sharing classic movies with our kids, they tend to have plenty of old-fashioned gender roles. Before you push play, be sure you’re ready to have a conversation with your kids – both girls and boys – about the messages these films are sending. (And if you want some strong-women alternatives, look here.)
- “Annie Get Your Gun“: It’s fun and upbeat, but this 1950s musical hinges on the idea of the main character downplaying her skill as a sharpshooter to win her – naturally – macho, competitive fella’s heart (as the song lyric says, “You can’t get a man with a gun”).
- “Beauty and the Beast“: While bookish, independent Belle usually gets a bit more credit than some of her fellow Disney princesses, pompous bad guy Gaston is a walking stereotype of what makes a man “manly.” The movie mocks him for it, but it also doesn’t really supply any alternatives. And the jiggly barmaids fawning over him add fuel to the fire.
- “Carousel“: Darker than most Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, this musical deals with domestic abuse – and implies that feelings of love can overcome a woman’s physical pain.
- “Cinderella“: She’s stuck in a life of thankless cooking-and-cleaning drudgery, and her circumstances only take a turn for the better when the prince (who’s little more than a rich, handsome stereotype himself) falls in love with her at first sight and whisks her off to his castle. Hardly empowering. (For a twist with more girl power, try “Interstellar Cinderella.”)
- “Grease“: It will always be fun to watch on summer nights, but don’t forget that Sandy basically changes everything about who she is to increase her appeal to Danny … and it works. She and her girlfriends also are the subject of plenty of objectification, and Danny feels like he has to lie to his friends about having sex with her for them to think he’s cool.
- “The Little Mermaid“: Feisty Ariel falls in love with handsome Prince Eric on sight, then gives up her home, her family, and even her voice just to get the chance to be with him. Why isn’t it Eric – another prince who’s loved basically just for his looks – who should want to live under the sea?
- “My Fair Lady“: While grumpy Professor Higgins learns some important lessons about treating people with compassion and humanity, his treatment of Eliza can be pretty appalling – and she doesn’t even seem to mind that much. And then there’s his “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” number.
- “Oklahoma!“: Will Parker gets to go check out the bright lights of Kansas City (including the “bur-lee-cue” – aka “burlesque”), while Ado Annie, who’s presented as so endearingly loose that she MUST want everyone’s kisses, just “cain’t say no” to anyone. Plus, women are auctioned off to the highest bidder – well, their picnic baskets are, anyway – and Curly is a traditionally strong, protective “man’s man.”
- “Peter Pan“: Often cited for its racial stereotypes, this Disney classic has many of its female characters (particularly Tinker Bell) caught up in jealous rivalries over Peter’s affections. And Peter even says, “Girls talk too much,” at one point.
- “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer“: The girls wait at home while the boys head out into the wilds. And when Clarice and Mrs. Donner (who doesn’t even get her own name!) do try to help, they almost immediately get captured by the abominable snowman.
- “Sixteen Candles“: Girls don’t get a lot of respect in John Hughes’ beloved 80s comedy: Boys pay to see Sam’s underwear, and in one scene it’s implied that a guy had sex with a girl while she was passed-out drunk. And why is Sam so fixated on Jake, anyway? He’s not all that much more than good hair and a nice car.
- “Sleeping Beauty“: Poor Aurora falls in love with her prince (another rather one-dimensional handsome Disney hero) after one meeting but then doesn’t even get to follow her heart. Instead she’s packed off to the castle to marry someone she’s been engaged to since birth, with no say in the matter. It works out OK in the end, but she still barely knows him before they say “I do.”
- “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs“: After being kicked out by a jealous stepmother who cares only about superficial beauty, Snow White ends up cooking and cleaning for seven men while they’re off at work. And despite the fact that she’s been warned of evil, she’s easily tricked by the witch in disguise – and then (of course) gets saved by a man.
- “Swiss Family Robinson“: The female characters are a bit too dependent on the stereotypically strong, capable boys and men in this classic adventure story. Mrs. Robinson is most excited about her fancy tree house kitchen, and the boys immediately start fighting over Bertie/Roberta when they discover she’s a girl (rather than a “sissy” boy).