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The youth today have found an empowering ally on-screen. This is how movies have come to embrace and empower through the times

What was the most impactful movie you saw as a child? If you grew up anywhere between the 80s or 90s, you might answer with one of the more familiar Disney or Pixar movies we grew up with (and consequently love!). But children these days have much more options—and while we may be too old to fully appreciate them, we can't deny that they seem to be leagues ahead of what was on our own screens back in the day. 

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On the Feminine 

The damsel in distress has been an ever-present trope in movies, comic books, TV shows, and other forms of media. They are in our fairy tales and our films and are a constant in narratives. Often acknowledged as Disney's first princess, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves premiered in 1937 and remains a classic to this day. Yet, closer examination of its plot—and the plots of movies that followed—detail the evolution of children's films with relation to its perspectives of life and women. 

Over a decade since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves premiered came Cinderella. She was introduced to us in 1950, at a time when women in America were taking on their role as a homemaker. And much like Snow White, Cinderella is seen to be an industrious housewife of sorts, only having been saved by a prince and not of her own hardworking merit. Here, men were still seen as providers and saviours; though the movie is centred around the lives of these women, we see that they are secondary to the power and privilege of their princes. 

It was only around the 1990s that the damsels in Disney movies became much more empowered. In 1991, Belle was brought to life and introduced young viewers to a woman who was smart and compassionate. In 1992, came Aladdin's Jasmine, who, though bound by the men in her life, was headstrong and stood up for her beliefs. Of course, it would be impossible to discount Mulan, the movie that tackled gender discrimination much more openly than in any other children's film. The statement here was loud and clear: women were just as capable as men.

Since then, a new era of Disney women have emerged and there is no going back to the misogynistic message of early Disney counterparts. These days, a handful of these Disney women don't need a love story to make them interesting anymore. Since 2010, Disney has pivoted their female leads to be independent and strong, never having to rely on another secondary character to prove their worth. Brave's Merida was the first movie to come out without a prince and soon followed the ambitious Moana. 

The movement towards gender equality, while still needing much more to be done, has come a long way from the 20th century. But it wasn't just this that had evolved. 

On the Meaning of Life 

What is the meaning of life? This question has haunted philosophers for generations—and despite the constant mulling, no one has come up with an answer. To explain this to children, and to allow them the ability to comprehend it, is in itself a mammoth task. But the past few years, there have been a handful of movies that have tried to reckon with the situation. 

During the Industrial Revolution, labour and wage became almost equivalent to worth. This has been carried over through to generations, so much so that burnout, work stress, and mental health problems have become more and more common. The whole idea of the "American dream" has been that hard work brings wealth, happiness and prosperity—but this kind of thinking isn't just a Western ideal; plenty of work pressure also lands on the shoulders of Asian workers on the other side of the world. But is that really the truth? Movies such as Citizen Kane and the documentary, American Dream has shown that work and wealth aren't always the key ingredients to feeling a sense of worth. 

Now, movies such as Soul and Encanto have sought to dispel such beliefs among children. Groundbreaking on its release, Soul underlines the importance for people not to pressure themselves with goals or passions. While those are important to have, the absence of such doesn't take away from anyone's importance. Similarly, Encanto shows that a special talent doesn't make one more valuable than the other.  

On Diversity 

One of the most significant movements in Hollywood nowadays is representation. Whereas movies in the past focused on Caucasian leads—with characters mostly coming from the northern United States and Europe—now, more people of colour have been spotted on-screen. Most recently, the movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, impressed audiences with a hodgepodge of Southeast Asian references: with everything from Filipino arnis to Vietnamese architecture and the like. Brown-skinned people have also been given more of a chance to shine in movies such as Coco and The Princess and the Frog. 

It's encouraging to see that children these days are able to embrace a more inclusive and empowering view of themselves and that movies are focusing less on the trivial and more on creating important dialogue about mental health, female empowerment, and diversity. Though art has a long way to go to be truly inclusive, these steps are no less important for future generations. 


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