I would like to start out by saying I am a HUGE fan of Disney/Pixar animated films. While growing up, I often wondered when I would stop enjoying cartoons. Well, that day has yet to come; however, over time as I became a psychologist and a feminist, I began to notice troubling messages in my beloved stories. Something I have noticed more and more over time is how rape culture rears its ugly head, even in entertainment designed for children. I do not blame Disney for creating or intentionally perpetuating rape culture. In fact, most of the stories involving the famous Disney Princesses are adapted from fairytales that are centuries old. I think the troubling messages that have shown up in these films over the years are a symptom of a much larger problem. Also, something as insidious as rape culture can stir up emotions in people that lead them to avoid discussing it. With that in mind, animated films can be a useful tool for making a difficult topic more accessible. Let’s discuss this problem of rape culture further and see how it shows up in some of the films that are dear to our hearts. This will be the first post in a two-part (possibly more) series on this topic.
What is rape culture?
Before we can define rape culture, we must first define rape. While this might seem like a straightforward task, it becomes complicated when accounting for the legal implications of this definition. Rape is not merely a word. It is a legal term, which can determine the severity of a perpetrator’s punishment. When defining rape in a legal capacity, it actually depends on the state (as in the United States) in which the rape occurred. Fortunately, from a psychological perspective, our definition can focus on the victim/survivor of the rape, rather than on the consequences for the perpetrator. For that reason, we can consider a broader definition than the ones found in the judicial system. Therefore, we will define rape as sexual intercourse without consent. Sexual assault is a term often used interchangeably with rape; however, it is more of an umbrella term used to describe any unwanted sexual act ranging from rape, to unwanted touching, to verbal sexual harassment. If we think of sexual assault as a continuum, then rape would fall on the most extreme end of that continuum. All rapes are sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults are rape.
Now that we have an idea of what rape is, we can take a deeper look at rape culture. Rape culture occurs in any environment that makes it easier or more likely for rape or other types of sexual assault to occur. When exploring rape culture in America three themes often emerge: consent, victim-blaming, and gender roles. The misconceptions in these three areas are perpetuated, in part, by the images we are bombarded with on a daily basis. An extreme example is the common scene of a woman being attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger in a dark alley or similar setting. This is the image that many people have when thinking about sexual assault, even though most sexual assaults look nothing like it. In this post we will explore the area of consent, and in Part II of this series we will explore victim-blaming and gender roles further.
The predominant misconception regarding consent in our culture is the idea that consent is about saying “no.” Remember our woman being assaulted in the dark alley? How do we know she is being assaulted? She is yelling, trying to escape, and fighting back. When we are presented with this scenario repeatedly, we come to believe that there must be some sort of resistance, either verbal or physical, in order for something to fall under the umbrella of sexual assault. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consent is not about saying “no.” Consent is about saying “yes.” This actually really simplifies things if you think about it. Rather than having a dozen questions regarding if, how much, and how long a person resisted; there is only one question that needs to be asked: “Did the person consent?” Consent must be given. It must be un-coerced. It must be sober. Consent for one activity (e.g., holding hands) does not suffice as consent for another activity (e.g., kissing). Your relationship status with a person does not act as consent for sexual activity with that person. For example, being married to someone does not automatically mean you have consent to have sex with that person. Finally, it is the responsibility of the person initiating the activity to obtain consent for that activity. Let’s look to a few of our fairytale friends for examples.
Two obvious examples of issues with consent can be found in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. Both princesses are awakened from a spell by a kiss. In these movies the kiss is portrayed as being the very romantic climax of the story. And within the context of the story this line of thinking is pretty logical: “There is a princess under an evil spell, obviously she wants me to kiss her in order to save her from said spell.” However, this line of thinking does not translate into say, a party on a college campus: “There is a girl passed out on the couch. Obviously, she wants me to kiss her so that we can live happily ever after.”
This idea of consent also shows up in Ariel’s story: The Little Mermaid. Here we have a character who has literally lost her voice and there is an entire song of the film devoted to all of the reasons why Prince Eric should kiss her. There are even videos showing how creepy this song sounds when sung in a minor chord. This is not to say that there are no situations in which nonverbal cues can be used as consent. But once again, this complicates things. Nonverbal cues can easily be misinterpreted. Also, in Ariel’s story, I think it is important to point out that it is outside pressure from characters other than Ariel that are encouraging Prince Eric to kiss her. This is another common theme in sexual assault. Even if Ariel does want to kiss Eric, the situation makes it nearly impossible for him to be certain that she does.
Also, the “Once Upon a Dream” scene from Sleeping Beauty provides another example of issues with consent. Prince Phillip is watching Aurora while she sings in the woods. He then comes out, surprises her, and grabs her hand repeatedly. Aurora is startled by him at first. Then she continually pulls her hand away from his as she tries to walk away. As a child, I loved this scene. They’re outside singing beautiful music surrounded by woodland creatures and they fall in love. As an adult, I want to shout at my screen “dude, let go of the woman’s hand! Oh wait, now they’re in love…” This scene taps into an important myth regarding consent: if at first you don’t succeed, pressure the person until he/she gives in. This is not obtaining consent. It is coercion. Remember, consent must be given freely without being pressured or coerced.
In part two of this series, we will dive into two other areas of misconception that perpetuate rape culture: victim-blaming and gender roles.
References and Resources
U.S. Department of Justice. 2005, 2007, 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey.
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. 2011.
Buchwald, E., Fletcher, P., & Roth, M. (1995). Transforming a Rape Culture. Milkweed Editions: Minneapolis, MN.
R.A.I.N.N. (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) http://www.rainn.org/statistics
Easton, A., Summers, J., Tribble, J., Wallace, P., & Lock, R. (1997). College women’s perceptions regarding resistance to sexual assault. Journal of American College Health, 46, 127-131.
Murnen, S. K., & Kohlman, M. H. (2007). Athletic participation, fraternity membership, and sexual aggression among college men: A meta-analytic review. Sex Roles, 57, 145-157.
Lisak, D., & Miller, P. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73-84.
Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., Conoscenti, L. M., & McCauley, J. (2007). Drug facilitated, incapacitated and forcible rape: A national study. Charleston, SC: National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center.