The “happily ever after” endings of classic Disney movies aren’t as idyllic as they seemed. At least, that’s what Kazue Muta, a professor of sociology at Osaka University in Japan, argued on social media last month and again for Japan’s Women’s Action Network (WAN) on December 31.
“Come to think of it, those princes in the fairy tale are also considered to be quasi-sexual offenders, because they kissed the beauties (who were totally strangers to them) while they were unconscious,” Muta tweeted on December 11 after a man was arrested for kissing a sleeping woman on a train in Osaka.
The post spurred angry reactions from users who “misunderstood or misread my comment and criticized or denounced it in strong language,” she wrote in an article a few days later, which was translated into English and posted on the Worldwide WAN site on Sunday. (Newsweek cleaned up spelling and grammar errors from the translation in quotes included here.)
Japan Today, which publishes original stories, as well as translations of articles found in popular Japanese magazines and newspapers, gathered responses to her original tweet. They included comments like, “No matter how you interpret those stories, what the princes did is not sexual assault!” and “This kind of dismantling of our culture and traditions does more harm than good.”
Muta engaged with her critics, but was limited by Twitter's short-form nature. “So, I’d like to discuss here why I think the prince’s kiss is a sexual assault and why it is necessary to pay attention to it,” she explained in her article.
Muta provided several different defenses and explanations, beginning with a brief lesson on the feminist approach to literary criticism. As a researcher focusing on historical sociology and gender theory, Muta likes to adopt the technique to see old works (whether it’s literature, film or even cartoons) in a new light.
“Such ‘reading’ is not meant to devalue or deny the worth of the work. Still less does it argue for the ban of the publication," she wrote. "Rather, it intends to deepen and expand an understanding of the work.”
In the case of narratives like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, reexamination of the work revealed that “this typical pattern of the fairy tale (by the Disney version, which is the most popular one in Japan)—the kiss of a prince awakened the princess, then they got married and lived happily forever—could be interpreted as a story of sexual assault, not a romantic love fantasy, when looking from a different perspective,” she wrote. “Because the prince, however noble and handsome he was, kissed a strange woman sleeping unconsciously in the forest without her consent.”
Muta explained her controversial missive was also meant to support Shiori Ito, a Japanese woman who spoke publicly and wrote a book about how a well-known television journalist raped her while she was unconscious. “Her brave accusation made the idea publicly known that having sex with an unconscious person should be considered to be rape,” Muta wrote.
Many critics retorted the princess gave “presumed consent” because the narrative ends with a typical “happily ever after” for her and the prince. But that interpretation is dangerous, Muta argued. “Only those who can be insensitive to the victims’ pains and struggles may call it ‘It turned out to be OK.’”
Muta was disheartened that many of her critics chose to attack her personally rather than engage in a meaningful discussion. But she can see why they might have done so.
“They feel threatened by an idea which disapproves the world they believe in and want to attack it,” she wrote. After all, “it is unpleasant for everyone if somebody reveals discrimination and injustice in the world which they take for granted and are content with.”
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