Disney, 50 Shades, 13 Reasons Why: The New Age of Controversy

The effect of movies and TV shows on young minds has been analysed for years. Most famously, the documentary “Mickey Mouse Monopoly” deals with the underlying racism, sexism, and idealization of violence in Disney movies. Some say these ideologies, while present, do not harm children; it’s only upon deep reflection at a mature age that they become glaringly blatant. Others disagree and criticize companies, directors, actors and writers alike for creating and putting out such shows. The truth of the matter is that big media companies have the freedom to show what they like. This does not mean they are exempt from any and all responsibilities. It also doesn’t mean they are solely responsible for the effects it has on their audience. In essence, parents, teachers and the society around children and young adults share the responsibility with these companies to educate them. Neither parent nor media corporations are excused from their roles and responsibilities in shaping their lives.

In the past few months, I have heard many complaints about the controversial and sensitive content that lots of movies and shows seem to focus on nowadays. This argument is by no means new. Many people and groups in different societies have questioned the need to focus on sensitive subject matter; the conversation has only been revived. In the past, the focus rested on the underlying ideologies in children’s books and movies: primarily Disney movies, and the message they did or did not send to children. The problem lies in the mere fact that Disney holds an immovable monopoly over children’s culture, not only in the Americas, but all over the world. Their admittedly narrow representation of femininity, masculinity, morals, and social roles are depicted globally, and furthermore these ideas are cemented through Disney’s far-reaching franchise. Disney owns several big media companies who undoubtedly broadcast their ads; they partner with big brand toy manufacturers and slap their latest movie’s heroes and heroines on every available piece of merchandise. This isn’t necessarily the problem: it’s the monopoly they have while still presenting a relatively narrow point of view. It’s the fact that they are so heavily woven into children’s pedagogy. They have more responsibility than most.

There are many Disney princesses that are depicted as strong and powerful like Pocahontas, Mulan or even Belle. Belle can be seen as empowered because she reads but Dr. Gail Dines, an expert in women’s studies in the documentary says: “In reality, it’s just a pseudo-feminism, because ultimately in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ [the point] is that she marries a batterer.” This comment made me reflect on yet another touchy subject in mainstream media today – 50 Shades of Grey. The trailer for the third movie came out not too long ago and people are still asking the same questions that came with the first: is the main character in an abusive relationship? And furthermore, what message are both 50 Shades and Beauty and the Beast sending? Dr. Carolyn Newberger summarizes: “The whole thrust of the story is that she excuses him, she reinterprets his rage and abuse as temper, reinterprets his personality as tender and vulnerable, and then she falls in love with him. This is a movie that is saying ‘overlook the abuse, overlook the violence, there’s a tender prince lurking within and it’s your job to kiss that beast and bring the prince out.’” I see a strong correlation between the two movies, and I wonder if 50 Shades is only a continuation of an ideal that is ingrained in us from a young age. An analysis like this presents a level of uncertainty as to whether or not this is too deep a reading into a movie that is ultimately for children. Then we are reminded of the subconscious and the effects underlying ideas have on young, impressionable minds, but in the case of 50 Shades, a movie catered towards adults, the same cannot be said. The target audience is presumably mature enough to digest both the movie itself and all it implies. Children, however, need the help to weed out potentially negative ideas and reassert realistic ones. If parents choose to show their children such shows, they also have the responsibility to correct any misgivings or unrealistic ideals. Disney does not and should not raise children, parents should.

Young children and toddlers aren’t the only groups that are susceptible and easily influenced. Teenagers struggle constantly with the stream of information that they are always bombarded with. The last time I heard “they shouldn’t show that” was in relation to Netflix’s serialization of “13 Reasons Why”, then with their movie “To the Bone”. Although 13 Reasons was first a YA Fiction Novel, many saw the series as a dangerous idealization or glorification of suicide. But why doesn’t the book get the same judgement? Creating a show like 13 Reasons means turning it into easily-consumable media. Furthermore, when reading, the reader has full autonomy over how they visualize, interpret and imagine what they read. The show by comparison can be seen as grotesquely or unnecessarily graphic. Like any debate, there are two sides: one questions if a detailed depiction of suicide is a trigger or if the show romanticizes suicide. The other reminds us that suicide is not pretty, and anything but the ugly truth downplays its weight; many who share this view are also against censorship. I stand somewhere in the middle of this argument. Suicide, amongst several other topics, have been too controversial for too long. It has become normal to skirt around hard and potentially emotional topics, primarily because it is uncomfortable to see (in movies and shows) and talk about. In my opinion, shows like 13 Reasons Why and To the Bone are crucial to opening conversations about controversial topics, in this case, suicide and eating disorders. Like with Disney, it should encourage discussion. Teenagers are still vulnerable, maybe even more so than children, and need guidance interpreting what they consume visually.

The right to freedom of expression, comes with heavy responsibility. However, not all of it should fall on a company’s shoulders. In Netflix’s case, their responsibility is to stress the difference between fiction and reality, to highlight avenues for those who need help. They have no legal obligation to do this, but rather a moral and social responsibility to ensure their show isn’t taken out of context. They can do this by having an actor or actress speak out of character addressing the issue seriously, adding trigger warnings to the beginning of each show and prevention hotlines at the end. Doing this, in my opinion, is being responsible. Where their responsibility ends is where ours begins: us as a society. Parents and teachers need to stay abreast of the various media that kids consume and open candid discussion around it. Whether or not to allow kids to watch such shows is another argument entirely.

With Disney, 13 Reasons Why, To the Bone, and 50 Shades, the point is this: there is always an underlying message in all movies and shows; it exists whether or not we like it; it can affect us whether or not we acknowledge it. The way to combat the possible negative effects is to open candid discussions and stop labelling complex or uncomfortable topics simply as controversial and refusing to talk about them. This doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t educate, doesn’t raise awareness. Instead we rob ourselves of growing as a society, and what plagued the generation before us, and many before them, will continue to plague us for many more generations. End the cycle by opening the discussion.