Why We Should Educate Our Children with Chaplin instead of Disney

Chaplin and Mickey MouseWhy link Disney and Chaplin together in the same article? The idea of connecting these two great names came when I asked myself which movies most affected my childhood and helped shape me into the person I am today. I enjoyed both as a child, and after reflection, comparing and contrasting them didn’t seem such a difficult task. Both big names in Hollywood, both unforgettable, these giants have influenced the filmmaking industry and entertained millions of people across the world, not least each other: Disney was heavily influenced by Chaplin, often impersonating him as a child. Both created laughter or provoked tears, and they both tried to set up some sort of morality at the end of their movies. If so many things tie Disney and Chaplin together, then why do the morals of their films stand in such contrast?

Behind the Disney commercial madness that targets both children and adults, in the backstage of one of the world’s most influential companies, I find it essential to question the social power and the moral values transmitted by Walt Disney studios through its movies. Articulated around “three bad lessons Disney films have taught us”, this article tries to point out the firm’s moral and ethical conventionalism opposed to Chaplin’s less traditionalist values. Their moral opinions differ on several crucial issues, such as the relationship between an individual and his community, his role within society in the face of gender and race differences, or the appeal of physical beauty and wealth in shaping one’s identity, success and happiness.

Beauty and Status are the only Means to Happiness

Walt Disney Company has always based its cartoons’ success on the romance between young, good-looking and wealthy characters. Disney films have cultivated the “like-attracts-like” principle and crystallised it within universal consciousness. Appointed and standardised for many years, and still taught to today’s children, the rule that the princess will unquestionably and inevitably end up with Prince Charming denies imaginary alternatives and delivers false ideals about male and female’s respective images. Impressionable little girls admire gorgeous and wealthy princesses (yes, nearly all of them are princesses) with great hair and slim bodies, society’s definition of physical perfection.The princes are vigorous, muscular and handsome, and they form the absolute match for the princesses: no one could conceive it in another way. The Beast has to recover his human appearance and prince status to fully love Beauty. Esmeralda chooses Phoebus (whose original evilness in the book has been swept away in the cartoon) and leaves her dear friend Quasimodo to heal from rejection. None of the seven dwarfs attempt to kiss the beauteous Snow White, and she stays in the same deadly state until Prince Charming rescues her and takes her away from her physically deformed friends. Is this the message we want to deliver to our children?

What Disney princes teach men about attracting women

The Tramp as a Counter Argument

Through the choice of the tramp as protagonist, Chaplin not only counteracts the beliefs in physical beauty and social prestige, but shows that what we perceive as the least attractive of all men, a poor scoundrel living in the streets, can become a prominent figure in a film’s storyline and captivate millions of people. Although Charlie experiences many failures and misfortunes, he succeeds in being happy and demonstrates that access to felicity is simply based on personal will and adaptation. Though he is funny looking – very thin, pale, with an unusual moustache, strange mannerisms and a weird walk – the most beautiful women fall for his generosity, idleness and loyalty. His marks of tenderness equalize his sense of humour and charm, essential components in the art of courtesy and wooing. Whether the woman is a wealthy singer (Edna Purviance in The Kid) or a simple girl of the streets (Paulette Goddard in Modern Times) they all succumb to Charlie’s inner beauty: he is not a prince, yet he is a true gentleman.

Like in Disney movies, he encounters a demoiselle in distress and does everything in his power to rescue her, whether he saves her from physical danger in The Adventurer or from a desperate financial situation in City lights or Modern times. Yet, he does not enter the storyline “out of the blue”, kissing the princess and taking her away on his valiant horse in a happy ever after classical ending. Often the woman starts by rejecting him, and he has to prove himself. During the movie, he loses the woman, finds her again, crosses many obstacles such as unemployment, hunger and police authorities to finally be able to share his life with her, often in poverty. Thus love is not passive. It does not rely on sameness, beauty or social recognition. In truth, we own love through perseverance and sacrifices, a much more realistic and down-to-earth principle that is worth transmitting to younger generations.

Don’t Be Someone You Are Not

Sameness. Sameness and belonging to a community is a main principle in Disney’s philosophy. An individual has a certain role within society, already outlined for him by his family, his social status or his gender: he has to stick to the plan and stick with his folks. Often, Disney movies follow a lost character who dreams of being someone else and break away from expectations and responsibilities, who escapes his milieu and pursues his new destiny to finally find out he is better at home.

Let’s take Mulan: she contravenes conventions by transforming into a man. When her true identity is revealed,  her companions reject and abandon her in the mountain as a punishment. She bravely escapes her presumed death and goes to warn the emperor against potential danger. When everyone is safe and the emperor rewards her – notice that her transformation into a man is being publicly condemned yet China recognizes her bravery only as a woman, and not a man or a woman dressed up as a man – she refuses to become a member of the Imperial Council (thus rejecting a more influential political position as a woman) and states, as an excuse : “I think I’ve been away from home long enough”. How disappointing to see that after all she has done and proved, Mulan wants to return home, to a more traditional role, to the identity she is expected to perform! Disney conforms to society’s stereotypical hierarchy and hastens to bring back its deviating characters on the right path.

In The Jungle Book, Mowgli is happy in the forest with his animal friends: why should he come back to human civilization? Just because humans have to stay with humans and animals with animals? Is the mix of race, gender and specie forbidden? Same thing for Simba in The Lion King: his evasion in Timon and Pumba’s problem-free world ends as he has to return to his responsibilities and lost status as king. Individuals do not mould their own lives, they are subject to their birth.

A Multi-Faceted Outcast

Again the figure of the tramp is a perfect symbol for free-will and individuality: Charlie represents the unconventional, the unorthodox and the outcast. He is an exception to the rule, the lost sheep diverting from society’s order. Although he tries to take part within this social hierarchy, he is always unfit for it, and even when he adopts it in some way – as a worker or as a wealthy man (like at the end of The Gold Rush or in Monsieur Verdoux) – his strange mannerisms and iconoclastic nature jeopardise his attempts to conform to the norm. Against formalism and consistency, Chaplin’s character performs several contrasting roles and takes on many disguises. Though he keeps the identifiable appearance of the tramp, Charlie wears different hats: in The Great Dictator, he is both a barber and a dictator; in Modern Times, he becomes a factory worker, a prisoner, a hero, a night watchman, a waiter and a singer. In The Kid, he becomes a father.

Hence, this multi-faceted character challenges the formatting routine of industrial society and mixes with people regardless of their backgrounds, choosing freedom and uniqueness before anything else. As a vagabond, he is not tied down to any social burden or authority, and praises tolerance and diversity: he is free to become whoever he wants and to alternate between multiple entities. Homeless, he owns the entire world; lacking a family, he is not subject to his birth therefore escapes any responsibilities that could restrain his liberty. He moulds his own moral principles and defines his inner-self through personal will and strong values of justice and generosity. He truly is the example of a free, active agent, master of his fate and able to adapt to change without altering his personality.

Be Socially Adequate

Deconstructing hegemonic views on princes and princesses

To link back to the idea of community and an expected self, Disney movies not only encourage people to follow family and gender traditions, but also to take part within society and be what I call “socially adequate”. Two films put forward the figure of the tramp : the Aristocats and Lady and the Tramp. They both end on the same note: to fully love their women, the tramps conform to social conventionalism. They transform into bourgeois, perform the expected role of a gentleman, become the “princes” that we awaited. Ladies cannot leave their social rank behind and run away with scoundrels: THEY have to give up their freedom, and learn about manners and acceptable behaviour to insert society. Against La Fontaine’s story of a wolf who refuses to give up his freedom in exchange of comfort, Walt Disney moulds its tramps into well-bred subjects who deny their true self. Morality: social acceptance and conformity is the key to happiness. Material comfort comes before freedom. Love cannot be conceived outside social boundaries.

An Unconventional Beggar

In contrast, Chaplin’s tramp is far more complex and does not end up metamorphosed into Prince Charming. At the end of the day, he is still a stranger to social conformity, he still provokes authorities, and though he is unfit in social terms, he becomes a cinematic hero, loved and followed with enthusiasm. It would be wrong to say Charlie’s situation never evolves throughout the films: sometimes, he is lucky enough to ascend. Yet he always returns to his tramp’s situation, from one film to another. Charlie Chaplin has succeeded in making us love a poor vagabond, forever free from social conditioning, an image-breaker counteracting old-fashioned ideas of social stature and romance among beautiful and wealthy people. The artist has made us understand that the world is not a fairytale: poverty is real , yet it is as noble (even more noble) as any kind of richness. Real treasures are found anywhere, even in the streets, and moral values of tolerance are precious tools in life that favour the access to happiness: the happiness of others as well as personal happiness.

Walt Disney And Charlie ChaplinBehind its controversial title, this article really claims that we should not forget old masterpieces like Chaplin’s movies, and teach our children how to love them and keep their memory alive. Whereas Disney became an enterprise, still in tremendous power today, Chaplin has left no successors – his uniqueness makes him more fragile and more likely to be forgotten if we don’t pass his heritage down to future generations. Don’t forget the classics, watch them critically and reflect on the values of film and TV with your children. A more responsible and intelligent viewing of images can lead to a better understanding of media: in an era where information bombards our daily lives, we only comprehend what we see in a partial way. We often argue that children are subject to what they see on the screen, formatted by the images they absorb without clearly understanding their meaning and their psychological effects.

Disney films are surely at the origins of female representations today (tall, thin models in magazines). It has also fostered our craving for social adequacy and integration by diffusing the American dream’s values throughout the planet. Watching the classics, grasping their context and understanding their moral purpose teaches us to become active and critical spectators. Letting your child enjoy Disney masterpieces and at the same time making him aware of their limitations can enable him with essential tools in life. Stimulating a child’s sensitivity to old black-and-white comedies, still entertaining today, full of precious cinematic qualities and moral values, can awake him to diversity, curiosity and artistic eclecticism. To critically understand our cultural heritage can only reinforce our knowledge of past values; from their limits, we build new answers to social and moral questions that are still relevant today.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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36 Comments

  1. Chaplin’s work should never be forgotten and watched by all but Chaplin as a person was a complete auteur who controlled every aspect of his films, right down to the music. When directing actors, he would often act out the parts himself, expecting them to copy him as exactly as they could. A lot of people who worked for him said that Chaplin would’ve liked to play every part himself, and only hired other actors out of necessity.

  2. I hate how Disney movies just tell girls to sit and wait for a man to come along and marry them, like marriage is the ultimate goal in life, and your only ambition should be becoming a wife.

  3. Whew, okay, where to begin?

    I do not believe any film can ‘corrupt’ a child if they have a vigilant, reasonable parent ready to explain to them the division between fact and fiction. Films can disturb a child for a period of time, but with the guidance of parental figures, they can get over things and mature past them. I grew up with all of these films (and darker ones), but the only thing I ever took away from it was believing in heroes and always offering your hand to an enemy to give them a second chance.

    Having been a teacher for years has taught me something: oftentimes, what children perceive as damaging only becomes that way after an adult impresses this idea onto them. The only thing really leeching the innocence out of cartoons are the adults who pick them apart looking for subliminal mind-jiggery. Yes, every once in awhile something WILL legitimately boggle, confuse or upset a child, but there’s a lot in life that will. Making everything seem filthy or trying to hide it from them isn’t going to protect them when the world comes knocking on their front door…relax and let them enjoy what they’re going to enjoy while they can.

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      I agree with you Susan, and I did not write this article to tell parents to forbid Disney movies in the house. It was not my intention to be radically moral, and I’m sorry if you read this post in that way. As I tried to say at the end of the article, I believe parents are enough responsible to promote an intelligent viewing of the films. As I said at the beginning, I watched both Disney and Chaplin when I was a child, and I truly am a Disney fan, still today. Yet I became aware of their moral limitations and stereotypical views when I grew up. I remember my sister telling me when I was around 9 years old that Disney movies were too “conservative” and diffused wrong values, something I was really not aware of. At the time I didn’t really pay attention to what she said, but a few years later it popped into my mind again and I realised she was right.

      It doesn’t mean I don’t like Disney movies, or that they are artistically speaking unworthy – they are masterpieces. Yet I thought it would be important to sensibilize people to their conformist morality. And actually, I believe this article is more targeted at adults, and not children. It is also a way to promote old masterpieces like Chaplin’s works. I hope children will enjoy Disney movies as much as I did, and I also hope that they can enjoy Chaplin movies in parallel.

  4. Riviera Handley
    Riviera De TyTy
    0

    That was a lovely read. Contemporary society does have a preoccupation with Disney endings, though – it’s an idealistic standard we try to attain, perhaps from childhood influence. But just one note: if it weren’t for Simba returning to the pride lands, the ecosystem would’ve collapsed. Yes, he had a care-free life with Pumba and Timoen, but his mother and family we’re living in deprivation (damn, uncle Scar!) The message here is to confront – not retreat from – your problems. And, after all, we are all one in this great circle of life!

  5. David K
    0

    Disney has always bothered me a bit since I was a little kid – they were always ruining my favorite fairy tales, and I found their stereotypes puzzling. However, looking for actual, deliberate corruption in their movies (esp. classic cartoons) is a bit of a stretch (I’m not saying you are doing this but I have seen theories online…). When the goal is entertainment, and making money to that end, you can always expect some exaggeration.

  6. Bennett Rust

    Very apt on the Disney ideologies, and I love how you’ve counterbalanced it with a more down to earth set of morals in Chaplin films. This instantly made me think of an article I read a while back that compared animated films of the last decade and the peanuts movies from the 60’s and 70’s, in reference to how they portray the concepts of failure and success. I think it’s right up your alley:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/08/you-can-do-em-anything-em-must-every-kids-movie-reinforce-the-cult-of-self-esteem/278596/

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading this, and thank you very much for the link! The article was a lovely read, and the comparisons with A boy named Charlie Brown absolutely relevant. I think my next article will again look at animation movies. I believe they are not simply movies for children, but hold far more complex meanings, and they truly are works of art.

  7. Jeannie Hunter
    0

    As much as I agree with the author of this article, I still would like to mention that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Disney movies as a child, and I don’t recall seeing anything bizarre or bad in any of them. Perhaps that’s because, as a child, I didn’t know of these bad things yet.

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      I agree with you Jeannie and I feel the same way: those things are noticeable only at a certain age. I still enjoy watching Disney movies, but I am now more aware of their moral limits in today’s world. It is important to replace them into context, especially the classics as they appeared in 1950s-60s America (time of conservatism and conformity).

  8. Thanks for this. I’m going to watch The Circus right now and I will watch The Kid soon… Still haven’t seen a Chaplin performance that isn’t one of the very best film acting performances of all time!

  9. Rosa Cook
    0

    To really appreciate Chaplin I always recommend going back to his earlier films, the 12 short films he made for the Mutual Film company in 1916-1917 are some of his best.

    But for me the greatest performance and the one that hooked me forever on Chaplin is “The Kid” – when he runs across the rooftops trying to get to the truck that has his son in it, it is full of so much passion, when he gets the boy back and they are both crying, I could watch that scene endlessly, I truly feel he was reliving his own experience as a young boy being taken from his mother.

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      “The Kid” is my favourite Chaplin film! It’ so powerful and moving, and his performance is breathtaking. I agree with you about the Mutual films: Chaplin himself has said it was one of his finest work and that he experienced some his happiest times, where his cretaivity was limitless.

  10. Justin Wu

    While I don’t like Disney shows that much in general (with the exception of Donald Duck; he is just adorable), I don’t think children will be able to understand the morale of Chaplin’s movies. His movies seem more appropriate for teenagers to watch, as they are more capable at deciphering the messages behind Chaplin’s acts.

  11. Most Studios, paints a rosy picture of life and events in Movies. That’s why we watch it.

  12. R SANDERS
    0

    i think it was a good thing that disney made beast from beauty and the beast turn back into a human because then belle would be commiting beastiality (check my spelling please) and we dont want little kids having intercourse with dogs.

  13. Monica Willis
    0

    Very nice article but as a child I never watched a Disney film and after wanted to marry a prince,have a high social status or be beautiful and skinny. Mostly I just wanted some food and to go play in the garden.

  14. Siobhan Calafiore

    Disney does repetitively reinforce ideas of beauty, wealth, royalty and materialism, and I don’t disagree that there is an issue with these superficial ideals being drummed into kids. But it isn’t just Disney, it’s the film industry in general. How many famous ugly actresses are there? Kids are more likely to pick out a dvd with a beautiful princess on the cover than an ugly, poverty-stricken child. Kids watch movies to escape reality and enter into a fantasy world – and fantasy worlds usually comprise of all things beautiful and magical. While Disney has its faults, each film offers an important message/life lesson for kids to take away, and I think its these messages that kids are more aware of when watching the films.

  15. Emily Lighezzolo

    I love this feminist article! Every Disney movie has women represented in passivity… except for Mulan, who was only able to be an active protagonist due to her guise as a man.
    However, you’ll find Disney is softly changing their portrayal of women, though. In Tangled, we see the “Rapunzel” stereotype cast aside, as the protagonist takes control of her own protection and dreams. It was refreshing.

  16. As someone who has suffered from the negative effects of how Disney portrays young women–which I believe skews young girls’ ideas of self-worth–I truly appreciated this article. Although I agree with other commenters that it doesn’t stop at Disney, I can’t think of a more influential animation studio that fears themselves towards young girls. I found it quite interesting to think of the negative affect the prince/princess portrayal has on young boys.

    I would like to perhaps complicate the idea of Mulan’s return to a more “traditional” role. Although the film is riddled with racial stereotypes and is very racial insensitive, I can’t help but see Mulan as having some agency and a complex figure of empowerment. I can see her feeling forced back into the domestic realm, but it is also completely possible that she chose to return to her previous home life, just as she chose to embark on that adventure in the first place. I think it is important to note that a woman choosing to live a domestic life is not oppressive and can be just as empowering as a woman who chooses to join the imperial counsel. And of course this all goes into how you read the film, so perhaps it’s up to an informed adult to help a child decipher Mulan’s (and the rest of the Disney characters, although some of them are blatantly misogynistic and I would argue more detrimental for children than magical) choices in a positive way.

  17. Felix the Cat was an animated character who exhibited some similar characteristics to Chaplin – they even included a scene of them together in Felix in Hollywood (1923). He is often an eternal victim in a cruel world, in fact his tail becomes a detachable and adaptable tool in a parody of Darwinistic existence. And yet sometimes, as in Felix Doubles for Darwin (1924), the films show contempt for hegemonic, white cultural views. To some respect, animation could have gone Chaplin’s way in an alternative history.

  18. Zujaja K
    1

    While I take issue with the claim that Disney films reinforce gender conventions (Mulan, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled come to mind), this is an very enlightening article! I did not grow up with Charlie Chaplin and was only introduced to him in my late-teen years, but your comparison here sheds some interesting light on his work. Might have to take a look at some of his stuff!

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      Thank you Zujaja K, glad you appreciated it, and I’m happy to see that this article encourages people to extend their knowledge of Chaplin’s work 🙂

  19. A thoughtful article, although albeit perhaps a bit reductive. I think it’s certainly important to look at things through a critical and conscious lens, but it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that opinion is subjective, and the most important role of an entertainment medium is to entertain. People can take many different things, both good and bad from Disney, and I’d vouch that at its core, it’s neither inherently good nor bad.

    I love both Chaplin and Disney, thanks for the read!

  20. Thank you for your well-conceived and articulate opinion piece. I’ve generally detested Disney films, and am now as an adult discovering Chaplin’s genius. Now, I have a much better “general idea” of why my attitudes are so.

  21. LovelikeChrist
    0

    ok the Disney “brainwashing” young girls to be with rich men only is not true.. Animated Robin Hood, Tarzan, Flynn from Repunzel, and the Ice guy (cant remember his name from Frozen). Im sorry but youre reading too much into it.. Yes I agree we need to be careful what children watch (Hunchback of Notre Dame yes) but most Disney films can influence great morals opposed to corrupted ones.

    • Rachel Elfassy Bitoun

      Your examples are valid but very recent….only recently have they started to change their morals as they became conscious of Disney’s old-fashioned views and moralistic reputation. The films you cite are the first steps towards it, although The Princess and The Frog did not take that step and its morality is questionable. These theories are not new, everyone is aware of Disney’s conservatism. And we don’t live in a black and white world – of course some endings promote happy morals and values of friendship/love etc… but some are also very negative, especially if you look at their context and the time period in which they were created. As much as I love Disney (and believe me, I LOVE IT!) I am aware of their flaws, like many other people, and even the studio is aware which is why they evolve and change. Admitting one’s flaws is the best way to innovate and improve.

  22. ggorman
    0

    What a wonderful, thoughtful and accessible piece! You did a great job of being clear and concise in your comparisons and contrasts between the Disney characters and Chaplin’s and your main point is well made, as is your summation about the importance of media literacy. This would be an excellent piece for educators, especially English and Art. I wish more parents would be critical of the blind adoration their little girls give to Disney’s princesses!

  23. I think we should teach our kids both, and in case someone didn’t mention it or it was mentioned in the article (i could have missed it) Walt was himself INFLUENCED by Charlie! and they both deal with the important things we need to have in life, Fantasy, imagine, wonder, and creativity (Disney) and kindness, compassion, and laughter (Chaplin, although Disney does do it as well (laughter i mean). Both are great influences.

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