At age eight, I spent three hours locked in my bathroom attempting to dye my hair red with Kool-Aid so I could be just like Ariel. I admittedly couldn’t rock the seashell bra (what eight-year-old can?) and my singing voice was less than impressive. But I thought that if I at least had the hair, I would be able to swim swiftly through the ocean, save my family from evil sea witches and marry my own dashing Prince Eric. If only life were so simple.
Twenty years ago, budding millennials only a few years older than myself were introduced to a whole new world with the release of “Aladdin.” We were ushered in the golden age of Disney that lasted throughout the ’90s, just as our impressions of the world were slowly coalescing. In Disney movies like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and, of course, “The Little Mermaid,” good defeats evil, hard work usually pays off, the bad guys are universally ugly and the heroes always have great hair.
The world of Disney is black and white — uniform in its simplicity — and much of our generation grew up revering these one-dimensional storylines and characters. While children’s movies are rarely applicable to real life, as children of the modern Disney era we were inundated with these ideas of simplicity that are no longer compatible with an increasingly complex world.
We live in a world of instant gratification, in which information, skills and distractions are constantly available. Disney characters were always single-minded in their goals — and that’s why they achieved them (that and a dose of magic, of course). We can’t work like that because success now links to multitasking, efficiency and trying desperately to beat the competition. Rarely are accomplishments as simple and gratifying as winning over Pride Rock or overcoming a witch’s curse.
Our generation faces some great hardships, and the lessons we learned from Disney have never been less applicable. Hard work does not necessarily guarantee success — and definitely doesn’t guarantee happiness. It’s impossible to classify people into groups of “good” and “bad,” and people are never uniform in their actions. To my surprise, relationships don’t occur with a swoon and a binding kiss, but require patience and compromise.
Growing up in this Disney dreamland, I was utterly unprepared to be an adult. These movies now act as a constant reminder of the chasm between my Disney perception of life and the complicated and dissatisfying world we face today.
However, Disney was not entirely useless. Yes, it may not have shown us what real life is like, but I’m in some ways grateful for that because we were able to hold on to our innocence and optimism for a little bit longer. Disney taught us that kindness is the most important quality and perseverance is rewarding, even if your goal is ultimately unmet.
“Aladdin” proved that money and status aren’t the most significant qualities a person can have. “Beauty and the Beast” showed little girls like myself that it was OK to be a reader, to be nerdy, to place importance on intellect. “The Little Mermaid” taught that it’s normal to feel different or out of place at times.
Yes, if it weren’t for Disney, I would probably be better prepared to tackle this competitive world without unrealistic explanations. But as a generation, we can still see the magic in everyday life — which is probably what we need more than anything else right now.