I am a product of the “Disney-fication” of romance. There, I said it. I had trouble in relationships because I had unreasonable expectations instilled in me by some of my favorite movies. I still love and relish these movies today, but I could do without how they affected my life, especially on the topics of love and sex. Okay, there is no sex in Disney movies, but it is certainly implied. We’ve been cultured to know that a bride loses her virginity on her wedding night if she hasn’t done so already; either way, the wedding night theoretically ends with passionate lovemaking. The Disney princess stories always ended in marriage… which was inevitably followed by, well, that inevitable.
Disney movies and other kids’ shows dealt with sexuality, but not in overt ways. Sure, we can talk about how the princess stories were a gross continuance of gender stereotypes; they were and are very overt about that. Here, I am talking about what we were taught about how sexuality plays out in relationship styles – what defines a good relationship. But Disney, much like adults in real life, avoided addressing those issues with kid viewers. I remember as a young girl wanting nothing more than to be swept off my feet and out of a (non-existent) horrible situation by a handsome prince and led into that proverbial happily ever after. I had no idea what happily ever after meant at the time, and I still don’t really have much of an idea, at least not in the long term. Theoretically, as a princess, it meant I would be taken care of, fought for, and treated like the royalty I am. Magical kisses, grand gestures of romance, gallant recompense for any wrongs done, and unending loyalty were to be expected, too. But how does this translate to real life? To real relationships? To real sex?
The answer is that it doesn’t. I spent years combatting my internal thoughts on what love looked like, brought on by the unrealistic portrayal of relationships in my beloved movies. When I felt slighted by a partner, I would foolishly expect them to fall to their knees to beg my forgiveness, or perform some other grand gesture of subservience for the harm they had caused me. I remember thinking that it was okay to threaten to leave my partner just to get them to agree that I was right, apologize, and get made up to. I expected kisses to bring on stars and birds and dizziness every time. And I certainly expected romance: poems, notes, cutesy names, sugary emotion, the whole works. But here is the catch: I also did not want to be on a pedestal, I wanted to be an equal. I didn’t want to be a delicate flower, to be coddled and tiptoed around. I wanted honesty and authenticity. None of what my Disney-self expected or wanted really added up to that.
Now, in my thirties, I am in what I would consider to be my first truly authentic relationship. I am my most authentic self with my current partner. Part of this is life experience and learning more about my true self. Part of it is also overcoming the fantasy of being a real-life Disney princess. Not with the crown and the royalty and the talking to animals, but in terms of how relationships work and play out. In order to be equal partners, we have to give what we get, or want to get. Support, love, romance, and compassion look different from different people. How we give them is not necessarily how we get them. The important thing is that they are reciprocal. Expecting all our partners to be “Prince(ss) Charming” is unreasonable; not everyone writes great poetry, apologizes eloquently, or wants to grovel when they have done something wrong (no matter how real their love may be). Kisses don’t have to bring on hallucinations to be magical, nor does every kiss need to be the best, most romantic, most intense kiss ever. We should relish all kisses: the tender kisses, the small kisses, the stolen kisses, and yes, the passionate ones that threaten to make us swoon.
To overcome these misconceptions was a major challenge for me. I must imagine it is also a challenge for others. Images of relationships continue to be grossly misconstrued in kids’ media (books, movies, tv shows, etc.). Most parents don’t have conversations with their kids about these misrepresentations. It seems easier to let kids believe in that magic, that they deserve to be treated like a Disney princess whenever they are in an intimate relationship. However, I think the negative implications of this are high. Kids could benefit from honest conversations about the differences between people that lead to different styles of loving and reconciling. There could be conversations about how relationships take work and compromise by both parties, and how truly equal relationships have equal input and output by both parties.
The misconceptions I was socialized into overrode the cues I saw from my parents, who are in a loving relationship that does not resemble a Sleeping Beauty or Little Mermaid relationship at all. And while my parents were very open with me about all things sex-, sexuality-, and relationship-related, there was never an explicit conversation about how real life would not mimic what I was seeing in my favorite movies. It wasn’t until I started experiencing troubles in my relationships because of my misconceptions that that conversation happened, or started to happen.
This directly reflects the common mindset around education about sex, sexuality, and relationships for youth: Don’t explicitly talk about most things until there is an issue. It is time for that to change. We should be addressing the causes of issues BEFORE they cause problems. This does not just mean discussing real life relationships vs. media portrayals of them. This means taking responsibility to educate youth about all aspects of sex, sexuality, and relationships to give them a leg up if and when they face these issues. This should not just come from parents; this can come from extended family, community groups, school education programs, or whatever educated adult children feel comfortable speaking with. However, the current research indicates that children want to learn about these things at home, so parents should be leading the conversations, as aspects of sexuality exist throughout the life span and those conversations need to happen over the course of development. As a third-party educator, I can honestly say that we cannot cover it all on our own.
–Darcy Wade Oct 2017