Why We Should Educate Our Children with Chaplin instead of Disney
Why 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?
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
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.
Behind 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.
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