Existentialism and Disney: Alienation, Authenticity, and Freedom

One of the reasons Disney animated movies are so successful is the relatable experiences the characters encounter within themselves; the doubt of Simba, the cynicism of Megara, the overprotective tendencies of Bagheera, the Beast’s perception of his self-worth. Through their movies, Disney addresses a surprising number of existential themes such as alienation, authenticity, and freedom. 

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir

Mulan

A clear representation of the search for personal authenticity is the movie Mulan. Leaving behind the societal expectations placed upon her, Mulan literally tries to be someone else, in part for her father, but in part for herself, in a quest to embody who she believes herself to be. Early in the movie, while internally wrestling with this issue, in the song Reflection, she asks:

Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?

Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?

Somehow I cannot hide?

Who I am, though I’ve tried.

When will my reflection show, who I am, inside?

How many of us have had that moment when we look into the mirror, and then for some reason look a little longer, suddenly startled by the being starging back is us, inside of which is somehow yourself. And what is yourself? It can be slightly jarring, this dissociation, knowing that the physical thing in the mirror is you but also not you, not the conscious you. 

But to Mulan’s point, allowing the true self to emerge in the context of societal and familial expectations can be an awfully daunting challenge, one we face no matter our age. Also troubling is not only the emergence of the authentic self in the world, but the creation of that self to begin with, an exhausting and never ending process, one fraught with implications when considering the quest for authenticity in a world of external expectations. 

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Albert Camus

Elsa

Knowing that your mental self can never be represented to others in just the way you want can create a feeling of alienation, a theme seen throughout many Disney movies. Hercules is searching for a place where he belongs, Simba convinces himself he is unwanted, Snow White…well, her stepmother is trying to kill her, but still, as a result, she must flee and become part of a new community, that of the dwarfs.  

But what can be more alienating than being locked in a room all your childhood (maybe not the best parenting tip) because you have what are perceived as dangerous powers? In the movie Frozen, Elsa must come to grips with her supernatural powers and identity so that she can join society authentically. The journey to that authenticity is a tough one, the low point being where she breaks fellowship with society all together and creates her own kingdom of isolation. 

Who has not wanted to do this, wall yourself away from the world? While solitude can be a restorative action, isolation is altogether another path, one that is ultimately self-destructive. While Let it Go seems like an empowerment song, and certainly speaks to authenticity and freedom, it is also a sad song representing a wounded soul. Elsa is not allowed to express her passions exemplified through refrain she repeats to herself conceal, don’t feel. 

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see

Be the good girl you always have to be

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Though she thinks she’s made it out of the swirling storm inside, the storm still swirls; it is just temporarily suppressed by the illusion of her empowerment through escape which, in the end, is just as destructive. Elsa makes the journey to authenticity by realizing she must make amends with her powers, which is part of who she is, and balance that with being a partner in relationships, whether that be her sister and a very funny little snowman, or with the entire population of Arendalle.

S??ren Kierkegaard; drawing by Niels Christian Kierkegaard, circa 1840
Soren Kierkegaard

Moana

Continuing with alienation and authenticity, Moana feels that she cannot be part of her island community. In the song How Far I’ll Go, Moana cites how the seemingly harmonious nature of her island society strikes her as inauthentic, causing her to question if there is something wrong with her.

I know, everybody on this island seems so happy on this island

Everything is by design

I know, everybody on this island has a role on this island

So maybe I can roll with mine

I can lead with pride, I can make us strong

I’ll be satisfied if I play along

But the voice inside sings a different song

What is wrong with me?

What an awful feeling this is, to not only feel like you do not belong, but the reason for your alienation is that something about you is simply wrong. Moana wants to wake the sleepwalking self so that she might experience a more authentic way to live, and so rather than acting in bad faith, she takes the existential leap towards freedom, and strikes out to find that which rings true. 

Once you begin making these connections between existential themes and Disney character story arcs, it is hard to stop seeing them. They can tell us some very valuable things about ourselves as well and our journeys towards the authentic self. 

I cannot help but think about these same yearnings in our own lives during the corona quarantine. What does it mean to live authentically while isolated? Who are we when largely removed from our typical contexts and relationships which can bring about alienation? Is there a way to express freedom when it seems some freedoms are put on hold?

The answer to most of these questions can only be found by taking the journey and exploring our own story arcs. Sometimes the only way out is through and live our way into that understanding. 

Compliment this article with another along existentialist themes To Live is to Live Passionately or To Live Is to Live Authentically

Also anything from the Being and Existence category.

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