My daughters and I have a standing date that finds us at the movies together once a month. It’s a highly anticipated event that we each look forward to with eager anticipation. Usually what this mis en scene looks like is thusly: one little lady on my left, one on my right, and one on my lap. An epic bag of popcorn gets passed back and forth, and me, in the middle, holding a larger-than--necessary bag of Nibs, pretending they’re all gone but secretly eating (then totally regretting) most of them.
It’s three little girls watching attentively, but splitting said attention between the massive screen in front of them, and their mummy’s facial expression close to them, regularly checking to see which poignant life lesson or tender moment has brought her to tears. Again. (And also shushing her when she’s laughing outrageously at a line that was so fabulously and subtly tucked into the script for the over-30 crowd. If you’re looking for a way to embarrass a six-year-old, this is it.)
Recently, this delicate balance of movie watching, cuddle sharing, and sugar snacking found us captivated in the audience of Moana, and while watching it I could barely contain myself. If it weren’t for the precarious balance of children and carbohydrates strewn about my person, I would have written this on the spot. The only way to describe that movie is “rapture.” Not only is it visually stunning and musically brilliant, but it co-stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (on whom I’ve always had an inexplicable crush); more importantly, the story line beams love and inspiration and spirituality and tenacity. It’s one of the best I’ve seen.
Throughout the film I couldn’t help but reflect on how the new kid movie heroines are radically different from the days of my youth; how inner strength is the newest iteration of pop culture feminism. Let me tell you, I am loving it.
I grew up with Snow White, and I bet you did too. Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. All English Rose-complexioned waifs, literally waiting around to be saved from their own life… and tending house while sewing and cleaning to whittle away the time.
The next wave was a little more progressive and saw beautiful and brainy Belle sacrificing her own freedom to save her father, then falling in love with the Beast at a soul level. Pocahontas, who sacrificed herself to forge cultural affability, falling in love the strapping John Smith. Jasmine, who, with her disdain for the patriarchy and Kardashian style curves, did her part to find true love… even if it came with a large dowry. It also saw Ariel, who literally changed her entire body and existence to be with a man who didn't even recognize or appreciate her after she’d saved his damn life.
Fast forward to the heroine of our kids’ pop cultural ethos and you’ll find Judy Hops in Zootopia, a seemingly sweet and tiny bunny who is tenacious AF and fights her way through all of the haters, and against all odds, lands a job on the biggest metropolitan police force. There, she cracks their toughest case to date, using only the help from a platonic sidekick (and potentially predatory) fox, Nick Wilde, fueled by nothing but the drive to do what she knows to be right.
You’ll find the awkward and lanky red headed orphan Tulip in Storks, who has never felt quite like she fits in anywhere, and demands so much of herself that she gets a job at the bottom (of a cartoon-ified Amazon), and works her way to the top. As a secret side project, she invents the flying contraption to end all flying contraptions, amidst all the naysayers who doubt her, in order to give other children a better start at life. She works platonically side by side with her stork friend Junior to go on a rescue mission (and heals her inner child along the way. Just saying).
You’ll find the happy go lucky Poppy, Princess of Trolls, who never stops never stopping, and uses her uncannily positive outlook and drive to do the impossible: save her village, and help those around her work through their “stuff,” discovering their truly authentic selves along the way. Heck, you’ll even find Elsa and Anna in Frozen, who through a journey of family dynamics find that the only love that can truly save them is that of a sister, not of a man (albeit an admittedly handsome Scandinavian man).
And lastly, Moana, the story of a coffee-complexioned, real-bodied Polynesian Princess (whose name means Ocean) who knows deep in her heart that, despite her father’s wish for her to stay on land and away from the sea, she has been divinely chosen to reunite an ancient totem with an island goddess and to save her own people from the blight they are currently experiencing, effectively ending their life as they know it.
The call for her to go on this daring, dangerous, and unprecedented adventure is so strong that she feels she can no longer resist it, tearing her between a deep love of family and a deep love of self. With the blessing of her grandmother, she takes the literal and figurative leap and sets sail, only knowing what she knows. She follows the instinctive pull and the messages along the way that she knows to be true in her gut, asking for and receiving guidance from the divine as she goes. Against the wishes of her parents and what makes all rational sense, she embarks on this wild and life changing mission that finds her supported by the loveably brash demigod Maui, ultimately saving her island, altering and bettering the course of her tribe’s future as she does.
So, “Why the deep introspection of children’s entertainment on a $5 Tuesday?” you ask. Because the messages our kids receive matter. What they see, what they hear, what they feel. It all sinks into their ether and stays with them throughout a lifetime. And if that message from pervasive pop culture is “clean and dream while you wait to be found and saved,” a part of it sticks with you. The good daughter, good wife, life begins at ever-after mentality. I’m not saying it colours our perspective entirely, nor am I saying that love can’t save the day; I’m a huge believer in love, in relationships with partners, family, friends, and self, and I know firsthand how powerful that love can be. I’m saying that what we consume in our earliest years stays with us at some level, whether we’re aware of it or not, and shapes us to some degree well into adulthood.
So, if the message is, conversely, “Honey, you know what you know to be true. You will experience conflict, and obstacles, and seemingly impossible adversity along the way. You may have to face that entirely by yourself, and yes that will be hard. And baby, you can do it, you can do those hard things. You can do anything. Believe in yourself, surround your being with people who get you and support you, and follow whatever it is in your heart, calling you to do what is right and true,” then wow. That sticks with you too. And frankly, I have to believe that the thread of bravery and inner compass strength raises a different kind of adult.
As Walt Disney himself said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” If that’s the message that is being consumed and held deep in our littles’ unconscious memory, then it fills me with renewed optimism for our own tribe’s future. To raise a generation who believes that we need do right for its own sake, and that our sole purpose is to love ourselves so fiercely that we identify our own unique strengths, then use them to serve the greater good, is to raise solid gold humans. To me it is life affirming to know that this narrative of inner strength could be the baseline of our children’s inner dialogue moving forward.
And yes, I pinky swear will use elements of my own inner strength to maybe ease up on the licorice next time.