I’ll admit it: I have a soft spot for old Disney movies. They remind me of curling up on the sofa with my daughters while baby Simba is lifted to the sky, or of singing “Be Our Guest” to them in a terrible French accent. Recently, though, something in the news put one of those movies in a different light.
In 1989, “The Little Mermaid” ushered in a new era of Disney animated musicals. It featured a calypso-singing crab, a tentacled sea witch and a handsome Danish prince. It also gave us the first of Disney’s long line of cute, spunky princess protagonists: Ariel the mermaid.
Though the youngest of Neptune’s daughters, she’s no shrinking anemone. She’s adventurous, independent, clever and brave. Her story, however, turns on a Faustian bargain in which she trades her voice and her identity for the chance to pursue a boy. Disney has taken a lot of flak for that unfortunate little metaphor, but the plot was lifted more or less intact from the original story by Hans Christian Andersen. Of course, the movie left out all kinds of juicy, bloody and religious details from the book, so Disney still bears responsibility for the parts they kept, but the gist of the story is very, very old. For centuries, girls have received the same message in a thousand different ways: The path to love, acceptance and womanhood is to be seen and not heard.
Recently, the consequences of that message were on display in the sexual assault trial of Harvey Weinstein. His attorneys repeatedly made the point that some of his alleged victims continued to work with him, correspond with him, and even socialize with him long after they say he assaulted them. What were they thinking? Why didn’t they say something?
It turns out that a woman’s silence is the most common response to sexual assault and harassment. This is the case, not just in the immediate aftermath, when shock and horror can be paralyzing. Those initial feelings are quickly replaced by fear and confusion and shame. If I speak, they wonder, will anyone believe me? Will they blame me? Will they come after me to keep me quiet?
In one study, a group of women were given a “personality survey” in which a few of the questions asked how they would respond to sexual harassment or inappropriate remarks. Almost all of the women said they would report the behavior or confront the perpetrator. Later, these same women were called in for fake job interviews, in which the male interviewer asked a series of increasingly inappropriate questions. Almost none of the women confronted or reported him. They remained silent.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. People are notoriously bad at predicting how they’ll act in stressful, unexpected situations. And the power differential in a job interview creates ideal conditions for passivity and submission to authority. Still, I’m willing to bet that the outcome would have been different if the participants were men. The particular circumstances may have pressed the mute button for those women, but why did they have that button in the first place? Where did it come from?
The short answer is: everywhere. It’s so much a part of our culture that we fail to recognize it. We think we’re treating boys and girls equally, and yet we hold them to different standards and expectations. One way to shine a light on this is to play a gender-switching game in your mind. The next time a girl seems bossy, arrogant, strident or impolite, imagine the same behavior in a boy. Does it feel different? How about a boy who seems too timid, quiet or submissive? Would you think of a girl in the same way?
Children are incredibly sensitive to social cues — they’re hardwired that way. To survive as the weakest members of the pack, they intuit its unspoken rules and its implicit expectations. Girls are especially astute this way — they read adults like open books. We may talk a good game about girl power and gender equality, but words aren’t what counts for them. They’re focused on the subtle, more reliable clues that betray our emotions. How does their behavior affect the room around them? When do we smile? When do we seem annoyed? How often do we ask their opinion? How often do we ignore them?
We can’t fake our way through this one. The answer isn’t to say the right words or to buy the right toys — it’s to really walk the walk. Women who can speak out for themselves start out as little girls who do the same. Let’s make sure we really want to hear what they say.
Jeff Lee uses antlers in all of his decorating in Seattle.
This column was first published online on Feb. 29, 2020.
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