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Disney Characters & Character Ethics

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

In chapter six of Disney & the Moral Imagination (the 2nd book in the Disney & Apologetics duology), Shawn White insists we can learn a great deal about character formation if we look to Pinocchio, Merida, Pocahontas, Aladdin, and Mulan. He compares these narratives in order to draw out common threads of moral teaching concerning pride and humility. Whereas both are transformative, pride actually transforms us into something less than human—whether asses or vicious beasts (as exemplified in Pinocchio and Brave). Pride, he argues, harms and hinders relationships. It only divides further, whereas humility presents the only path to reconciliation. This potential for hindering community and harming relationships is brought out more potently in Pocahontas, as pride perpetuates ignorance and biases perspectives so as to breed bitterness, as each sees the other as a “savage.” Aladdin links pride directly to downfall, while it is the humble who triumph, and Mulan is concerned with the wellbeing of others despite humiliation.

While most of the chapters in this volume (Disney & the Moral Imagination) align more with Holly Ordway’s point (in chapter one) that we often need to approach a narrative on its own terms, White's chapter picks up the interest of the first volume (Disney as Doorway to Apologetic Dialogue) concerning Disney’s virtue motif (a universally applicable moral metanarrative observable across Disney’s particular stories).

Here's an excerpt from White's exploration of what we can learn of pride from the film Brave:

"Vices such as pride erode relationships, one’s own character and, as seen in both Pinocchio and Brave, one’s own humanity.... The species of pride in Brave is a lack of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is a type of open-mindedness where we are able to retain our convictions while at the same time listening and seeking to understand another’s perspective. This is not open mindedness in the extreme where we abandon any and all convictions and accept another’s perspective without justification. This kind of pride is what prevents Elinor and Merida from having a healthy relationship as mother and daughter. Elinor prioritizes decorum and status over her daughter’s desires and feelings. Merida prioritizes her desire for independence from the trappings of royal life over her mother’s allegiance to tradition. This stubbornness is present in each of them, as they are both blinded to one another’s point of view. Neither is capable of empathy in this state. In essence, they lack the intellectual humility which creates space for open-mindedness and empathy. It is only after the witch’s spell takes effect [turning Queen Elinor into a bear] that both are able to lay aside their own interests and work together. When they are finally able to let go of their pride, it is only then that they are able to reconcile by truly listening to one another. This act of humility breaks the witch’s spell and reunites, not just mother and daughter, but the family and the community."

 

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!

 

Shawn White holds an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and is currently completing a PhD in Humanities (ABD) at Faulkner University. His academic interests include G.K. Chesterton’s life and writings on gratitude, wonder, and humility. His non-academic interests include his wife, their dog, playing all manner of board games, and playing music.

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