Can we just get rid of villains in children’s movies?

by Emilie A. O’Neal, M.Ed., Education Research Specialist

My 4 year old sister is obsessed with animated characters. Right now, most predictably, they are Elsa and Anna from Frozen and Ariel from The Little Mermaid, but also Woody and Jesse from Toy Story. Ironically, she has never actually seen these movies in their entirety.

Why? Because they are scary. In her own words, because “some parts are a little scary, like when you have bad dreams.” Sounds legit.

So, being the diligent adults in her life that we are, we turn off, fast forward, skip chapters and distract during those parts of the movie EVERY TIME even as she is now probably on her 100th round of each of them.

My sister is the youngest in the family by 21 years. Yep – that’s a pretty significant period of time for us adults to forget a few things. In particular, how absolutely TERRIFYING some children’s movies are. I’m serious. I have all sorts of fuzzy nostalgia about animated films like The Little Mermaid and I remember watching it over and over again as a child. But somehow, my little child-brain had completely forgotten a few things about that movie. Upon re-watching it with my sister 20 years later, something became super clear through my adult eyes: that stuff is crazy scary. Bad dream scary – just as my sister so poignantly described.

Without even reopening the ideologically scary implications of Ariel’s decision to leave her family and be with Eric, or the assumed race and specific body-type of Ursula, or the victim silencing of Ariel with the literal loss of her voice (because those subjects have been discussed before), on a basic event level there is some jacked up stuff happening in that movie. When Ursula rises out of the sea in a blown up version of herself, surrounded by black clouds, wielding Triton’s giant trident and emitting a deep guttural laugh as she tries to drown everyone, I looked over at the terror in my 3 year old sister’s eyes and realized nothing was right about this moment. This was NOT okay.

I come from a very “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” type of family. I don’t believe in sheltering kids and I do believe that the best way to prepare for and cope with the evil that most definitely exists in this world is to confront it. But right now? While we are relaxing? At three years old? In a cartoon? It was too much. We turned it off. And we still do every time we get to that part. Or to the part where the snow monster with the “teeth like needles,” as Sissy calls them, comes out in Frozen. Or the part where Sid tortures the toys in Toy Story.

I don’t think I’m doing her a disservice or making her too sensitive. You didn’t see her face. You didn’t see the fear. I’ve seen this before in other kids, too. It’s not the kind of look an adult gets – that recognition and identification of an “ugliness” about humanity that maybe you haven’t encountered, but you know is out there somewhere. No, this look, her look, was a look of rawness, the opening of a wound, a painful surprise. Because here, in this moment, was the first time she even knew an “Ursula” could EXIST. That a person could be so mean, so angry, could inflict such pain and misery on other good people that it made her fearful to BE in that world anymore. It was a look of flight, of intention to escape from the imaginary world that minutes before was bringing her wonderment and happiness, a look of retreat back to reality where it was safe and I was sitting on the couch, arm around her, eating popcorn. It was devastating to watch.

I know these villains are created to teach children about hardships and how to overcome them through the resilience of the other characters, but have we ever stopped to think about whether or not that lesson needs to be taught in this way, at these moments? Have we ever considered that some of these villains are triggers that might need warnings attached, despite their G rating? In my sister’s case, Ursula has taught her about drowning, Sid has taught her about torture, Maleficent (in Snow White) has taught her about lying, Jafar has taught her about ownership of women’s bodies, Scar has taught her about guilt, and just about every children’s movie has taught her about death. As an adult, I appreciate the lessons those stories provide and the invaluable connection that stories, in general, create. But is that what I signed up for when we sat down to watch a movie that night? I sure as heck wasn’t anticipating a chat about the innate and inexplicable darkness in some human souls to a three year old over a snack. She was oblivious to these evils before and now here she was, looking up at me ready for answers. You can call it naïve, but I call that innocent, too, and I’m sort of interested in preserving that in the people I love for, like,…ever. So what if we just cut that stuff out? What if Ursula and Sid and the snow monster with needle-teeth just disappeared? Would the story suffer that much? It can’t be that complex. She’s 4, for god’s sake. She’s pretty easy to please. She was totally cool with sea animals playing reggae, Olaf bouncing around in his own hallucination, and Woody micromanaging the other toys. We could have hung there for another 45 and called it a day. I don’t think we need to build a children’s movie conglomerate on desensitization. I know she’s going to experience evil in real life someday, unfortunately. It’s not necessary to artificially create a scenario depicting a flawed version of humanity for her to learn about it while she’s winding down for her nap or home sick with a fever. There will be time for that, later. She’s just a kid. Maybe Ariel and Ursula are just two best friends. Less racy, I know, but I bet we will still watch it a hundred times.