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Animated Beauty as Metaphor? A Theology of Beauty

Miguel Benitez Jr. contemplates the potential connection between Disney’s artistic rendering of beauty and moral formation in princess stories. Acknowledging some criticisms concerning Disney’s princess portrayals, he offers a lens of redemption for parents wishing to teach children healthier interpretations of beauty using Disney lore. Whereas physical beauty is only skin deep, he contends that Disney princess tales depict real beauty as lying within. He believes these characters are purposefully drawn to signal that we are meant to associate a sense of virtue and holiness with them, and that their story involves a journey to becoming beautiful. A princess’s true beauty (her character) is formed by each choice along her journey. After arguing that (1) beauty is objective, (2) beauty is not primarily physical, and (3) beauty is connected to holiness, he surveys three tales of moral formation and the acquisition of a beautiful soul.


"Two common biblical uses of holiness deserve attention. Holiness can refer to a “separateness” or being set apart from the common. In this way God is said to be holy in that God is completely separate or distinct from his creation. Humans can also be separate or set apart by their deeds, by the life that they lead. Beauty sets apart, separates things from the common. [Theologian John-Mark] Miravalle argues, both order and surprise are important aspects of beauty, yet the quality of order, or fit, receives more attention than the significance of surprise. That said, considering beauty is associated with words like “wonder,” “amazement,” “breathtaking,” and “speechless,” surprise seems to play a key role in making beautiful objects stand out. Similarly, beautiful people—people with beautiful souls—stand out or “surprise” us through their virtue and conduct."
....Girls in Mulan’s culture are taught that the greatest way to bring their families honor involves conforming to society’s ideal of a good wife: “A girl can bring her family great honor in one way, by striking a good match and this could be the day.” Mulan’s meeting with the matchmaker is disastrous due to her clumsiness and her “lucky” cricket. The matchmaker screams that Mulan may “look like a bride,” but that she will never bring her family honor. While the matchmaker condemns Mulan’s seeming inability to conform to what is expected of young women in her culture.... Mulan proves to be a princess of great virtue by the end of the film. As Cardinal Newman states, “There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.” Mulan exhibits these various aspects of beauty as she grows and changes as a person. After her disastrous meeting with the matchmaker, Mulan and her father sit outside where he observes the beautiful blossoms that surround them. He points out a single blossom, not yet fully bloomed, and states that when it does, it will be the most beautiful of all. This foreshadows Mulan’s “blossoming.” Note that Mulan’s father is connecting the idea of her growing in character, maturing as an adult, increasing in virtue with becoming beautiful. Mulan’s becoming beautiful is not a physical change, but a moral or spiritual one."

Contrast the following two perspectives on beauty presented in Disney's Mulan:


 

This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.

 

Miguel Benitez Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at the State College of Florida. He is also a PhD candidate in humanities (ABD) at Faulkner University. His academic interests include the philosophy of art and beauty and the works of G.K. Chesterton. His wife Daniela, son Alexander, and daughter Gabi consider themselves a Disney family as they all love visiting the Disney parks and watching Disney movies on a regular basis.

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