Captain Marvel, Disney Princesses, and Idolatry of the Past

I ran into the following quote in the probably-well-intentioned-but-extremely-problematic book What the Bible Says about Child Training:

It is interesting that even with all of the women’s liberation and “politically correct” attack against traditional male and female roles, and although the majority of the boys in this survey expected their wives to work, they still believed the 1950’s marriage should be the natural order. Sadly, the girls were overwhelmingly committed to having careers, and far less so to making and maintaining a marriage. (306)

This is all in the context of a passage where he earnestly recommends that girls not go to college.

When I read this, I raised my eyebrows so high they probably disappeared into my hairline, drew big X’s all down the side of the page to signify my disapproval of his haphazard rhetoric, shrugged, and went about my day. Pretty fringe, I thought.

Why tell you this story? Because when I read the article “Behold Your Queen: The Real Conflict in Captain Marvel,” on one of the most respected and trusted Christian websites around today, I encountered phrases that struck me as forcibly similar to one of the assumptions in the above passage.

I am not here to rant, nor hate on any author. I am here to question one faulty assumption I believe is common to both.

That assumption lies in the term “1950’s marriage,” which the author above refers to as an apparent ideal, based on how he’s contrasting it with the sad present state of affairs.

THE ARTICLE

I am not linking to the newer article; again, my purpose is not to shame anyone: just to question assumptions. If you really want to read it, it’s easy enough to Google.

Here are the lines of bad rhetoric that reminded me so strongly of the maybe-not-so-“fringe”-after-all book I read:

As I consider Disney’s new depiction of femininity in Captain Marvel, I cannot help but mourn. How far we’ve come since the days of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.

Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka. Does the insanity bother us anymore?

When Cap and I read the article, we looked at each other awkwardly. “That could’ve been done better,” one of us said. We awoke the next morning to our corner of the Internet being outraged by the article’s tone. It caused such a stir that the author actually edited it retroactively to take out one of the more insulting lines.

If you want an excellent article addressing the strange and faulty logical leaps these statements make, look no further than my husband’s blog. But I’m here to address the princesses.

Belle is a 90s princess, I’m more than aware (LOVE YOU BELLE, KEEP BEING SMART). But what we all think of when we hear the term “traditional princess vibe” is those older princesses. They are from 1938, 1950, and 1959. The 1950s have showed up again! And THAT…is what this post is all about.

THE IDEAL/1950s WOMAN

When I use Disney princesses to teach my students about ideal womanhood in their respective decades, I use Cinderella as the 1950s princess: mainly because Aurora has only like 18 lines in her entire movie.

Let me be frank: I really like Cinderella. As I argue here, I think restraint, gentleness, and kindness in the face of meanies is a sign of strength, not weakness—and her unflagging hope is well-analyzed here. But she also really does epitomize what most of us think of when we think of the 1950s woman: someone in a dress of about that cut, being all domestic about cleaning the house while keeping herself looking trim and prim.

Some might have a problem with this in and of itself, but I don’t… until it starts being held up as the ideal to which we all must aspire.

I get it. The 1950s woman was the woman before the sexual revolution wrongly conflated sexual freedom with happiness. She was the woman that existed in a time when America was seen as a “Christian nation” rather than post-Christian. In the shows from or depicting that period, she is stable, calm, and dressed in an honestly timeless fashion. I wish I could feel as stable, calm, and daily well-dressed as my mental image of the 1950s woman.

So that tendency of some Christians to hold the 1950s up as a better way of life is understandable. Even secular society looks at it nostalgically: “The concept of the ‘ideal woman,’ is still with us today through film, advertisements and television
shows that reminisce about the happier, simpler times that the 1950s supposedly held” (Holt, “The Ideal Woman”).

It’s fine to admire the 1950s woman. But to hold her up as the standard to which modern women must aspire is wrong.

THE CHRONOLOGICAL SNOB STANDARD

I think the culprit is chronological snobbery, which I talk about in detail here. C. S. Lewis defines it as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age. . . . [Recognizing chronological snobbery], one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions” (Surprised by Joy, 207-208).

It’s easiest to see chronological snobbery as a modern vice, as Lewis does above. But we can also be chronological snobs for the past, uncritically accepting a past period as the pinnacle of human achievement. The more conservative we lean, the more likely we are to do so.

But those “good old days” were eras with characteristic virtues and vices, just like our era has good and bad. And implying that true biblical femininity had reached its peak in 1950s-era America feels dangerously arbitrary.

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE IDEAL

Carolyn McCulley quotes Glenna Matthews’ book “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America to look at the 1950s woman with more context:

After the privations of depression and war, early marriage and large families had come into fashion. The grim events of the preceding twenty years had made it difficult to believe in the individual’s capacity to have a positive influence on his or her society. Therefore, the home once more became a haven. . . . In an age of anxiety engendered by the Cold War and the nuclear threat, the chief quality desired of women was that they be soothing. (qtd. in McCulley 114).

So the ideal 1950s woman wasn’t necessarily a product of great biblical teaching. She was a product of how the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War shaped her society, its desires and comforts. In other words, a product of her culture.

Finally, while the 1950s may have excelled in some areas we lack, it did have issues. In the aforementioned article, Jennifer Holt analyzes ads from that era, examining the stereotypical beliefs about women they portray. One ad pictured in the article reads, “Recipe for Holding a Husband: Give him something easy to look at.” Another features a woman nearly swooning over a box of Tide.

Add to that the culture of consumerism that targeted housewives, conflating the life-giving art of homemaking with the empty business of buying the latest and greatest gadget (McCulley 113-114), and of course the not-so-small issue of, well, racism.

So when we hold the 1950s woman up as an unquestioned standard, we may be unwittingly espousing some demeaning stereotypes that we don’t mean.

GOOD WOMAN, BAD STANDARD

The true biblical standards are robust enough to let a young millennial in skinny jeans follow them just as well as the 1950s housewife–without having to imitate a lifestyle that is nearly impossible to replicate without the same cultural milieu.

No, the Gospel is astoundingly, impressively, one might even say supernaturally timeless. It isn’t just for white people from the 1950s; it is for every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout history and is still relevant, applicable, and needed today.

Referring to the 1950s as some lost era of rightness is doing both women and the Gospel a disservice. Unless your standard is possible to be embraced by Middle-Eastern women of the first century, the saints of medieval Britain, black women of the 1990s, “kids these days,” and every single woman in between–it may be an unworthy standard. “One thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42).

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life. Harcourt Brace, 1984.

McCulley, Carolyn. Radical Womanhood. Moody, 2008.

Photo Credit: Ethan via Flickr. CC

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Captain Marvel, Disney Princesses, and Idolatry of the Past

  1. Interesting theory – somehow I expected your theory on chronological snobbery to come up, and I wasn’t disappointed!

    I think what I noticed from the Christian articles, too, is they acknowledged women’s importance only in context of what men wanted, then insinuated men wanted ‘the 50s.’ I thought that a rather limiting as a perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shannon, I grew up in the 50’s, and was eyewitness to the hypocrisy of the outward “perfect image,” vs. the inward turmoil, deception, wantonness, white-supremacy, and immorality,…even in the Church of that time. There was a brewing desire to be freed from the “Stepford Wife” bondage, and to taste whatever was hiding inside Pandora’s Box….Thus, a decade later, the 60’s! And so it goes…Thank you for your article. I love reading what you have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pat, I was so touched and humbled by your taking time for such a thoughtful reply that I wanted to give a lot of thought to how I responded!…and then I forgot…..

      So I’ll keep it simple. THANK YOU for your kind words and for sharing firsthand experience that I can only imagine!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s