Animating Youth: the Disnification of Children's Culture
By: Henry A. Giroux
[Socialist Review 24:3 (1995), pp. 23-55. Reprinted as "A Disneyzacao Da Cultura Infantil," in Tomaz Tadeu Da Silva and Antonio Flavio Moreira, eds. Territorios Contestados (Brazil: Vozes, 1995), pp. 49-81.]
The notion that America is at war with meaning has taken on a much greater significance in the last few decades. This can be seen in the heated cultural battles that have been waged in current debates over what should be taught in schools, presented in the media, displayed in museum exhibitions, and housed in public libraries. Beneath the so called "culture wars" there exists serious debates and conflicts over more volatile issues involving national identity, abortion rights, cultural differences, family values, sexual orientation, and the meaning of public life. As important as these struggles are in expanding the possibility for public debate and social criticism, they have often diverted attention away from another cultural sphere in the United States, the terrain of children's culture. Children's culture is a sphere where entertainment, advocacy, and pleasure meet to construct conceptions of what it means to be a child occupying a combination of gender, racial, and class positions in society through which one defines oneself in relation to a myriad of others.
Children's culture as an object of critical analysis opens up a space in which children become an important dimension of social theory. While youth culture, especially adolescence, has been, a strong component of cultural studies, children's culture has been largely ignored, especially the world of animated films. An examination of children's culture unsettles the notion that the battles over knowledge, values, power, and what it means to be a citizen are to be located exclusively in the schools or in privileged sites of high culture; moreover, it provides a theoretical referent for "remembering" that the individual and collective identities of children and youth are largely shaped politically and pedagogically in the popular visual culture of videogames, television, film, and even in leisure sites such as malls and amusement parks. Lacking an interest in children's culture, cultural studies and other progressive forms of social theory not only ignore the diverse spheres in which children become acculturated, they also surrender the responsibility to challenge increasing attempts by corporate moguls and conservative evangelicals to reduce generations of children to either consumers for new commercial markets or Christian soldiers for the evolving Newt Gingrich world order.
Though it appears to be a commonplace assumption, the idea that popular culture provides the basis for persuasive forms of learning for children was impressed upon me with an abrupt urgency during the last few years. As a single father of three eight year old boys, I found myself somewhat reluctantly being introduced to the world of Hollywood animation films, and in particular those produced by Disney. Before becoming an observer of this form of children's culture, I accepted the largely unquestioned assumption that animated films stimulate imagination and fantasy, reproduce an aura of innocence and wholesome adventure, and, in general, are "good" for kids. In other words, such films appeared to be vehicles of amusement, a highly regarded and sought after source of fun and joy for children. However, within a very short period of time, it became clear to me that the relevance of such films exceeded the boundaries of entertainment. Needless to say, the significance of animated films operates on many registers, but one of the most persuasive is the role they play as the new "teaching machines." I soon found that for my children, and I suspect for many others, these films to inspire at least as much cultural authority and legitimacy for teaching specific roles, values, and ideals than more traditional sites of learning such as the public schools, religious institutions, and the family. Disney films combine an ideology of enchantment and aura of innocence in narrating stories that help children understand who they are, what societies are about, and what it means to construct a world of play and fantasy in an adult environment. The commanding legitimacy and cultural authority of such films, in part, stems from their unique form of representation, but such authority is also produced and secured within the predominance of a broadening media apparatus equipped with dazzling technology, sound effects, and imagery packaged as entertainment, spin off commercial products, and "huggable" stories.
The cultural authority of this postmodern media-scape rests on its power to usurp traditional sites of learning and its ability to expand the power of culture through and endless stream of signifying practices, which prioritize the pleasures of the image over the intellectual demands of critical inquiry. Moreover, it simultaneously reduces the demands of human agency to the ethos of a facile consumerism. This is a media apparatus in which the past is filtered through an appeal to cultural homogeneity and historical purity that erases complex issues, cultural differences, and social struggles. It incessantly works to construct a commercially saturated and politically reactionary rendering of the ideological and political contours of children's culture. In the television and Hollywood versions of children culture, cartoon characters become prototypes for a marketing and merchandizing blitz, and real life dramas, whether fictionalized or not, become a vehicle for pushing the belief that happiness is synonymous with living in the suburbs with an intact white middle class family.
The significance of animated films as a site of learning is heightened by the widespread recognition that schools and other public sites are increasingly beset by a crisis of vision, purpose, and motivation. The mass media, especially the world of Hollywood films, on the contrary, constructs a dream-like world of security, coherence, and childhood innocence where kids find a place to situate themselves in their emotional lives. Unlike the often hard nosed, joyless reality of schooling, children's films provide a high tech, visual space where adventure and pleasure meet in a fantasy world of possibilities and a commercial sphere of consumerism and commodification. The educational relevance of animated films became especially clear to me as my kids experienced the vast entertainment and teaching machine embodied by Disney. Increasingly as I watched a number of Disney films first in the movie theater and later on in video, I became aware of how necessary it was to move beyond treating these films as transparent entertainment to question the diverse representations and messages that constitute Disney's conservative view of the world.
I recognized that any attempt to take up Disney films critically rubs against the grain of American popular opinion. After all, "the happiest place on earth" has traditionally gained its popularity in part through a self-proclaimed image of trademark innocence that has protected it from the interrogating gaze of critics. Of course, there is more at work here than a public relations department intent on protecting Disney's claim to fabled goodness and uncompromising morality. There is also the reality of a powerful economic and political empire that in 1994 made $667.7 million in filmed entertainment, $330.00 million in consumer products, and $528.6 million from its theme parks and resorts. But Disney is more than a corporate giant, it is also a cultural institution that fiercely struggles to protect its mythical status as a purveyor of American innocence and moral virtue.
Quick to mobilize its monolith of legal representatives, public relations spokespersons, and professional cultural critics to safeguard the borders of its "magic kingdom," Disney has aggressively prosecuted violations of its copyright laws and has a legendary reputation for bullying authors who use the Disney archives and refuse to allow Disney to approve their prepublished work. For example, in its zeal to protect its image and extend its profits, Disney has gone so far as to threaten legal action against three South Florida day-care centers for using Disney cartoon characters on their exterior walls. In this instance, Disney's role as an aggressive defender of Quaylesque family values was undermined through its aggressive endorsement of property rights. While Disney's reputation as an undisputed moral authority on United States values has taken a beating in the last few years, the power of the Disney's mythological status cannot be underestimated.
Disney's image of itself as an icon of American culture is consistently reinforced through the penetration of the Disney empire into every aspect of social life. Operating as a $22 billion empire, Disney shapes children's experiences through a maze of representations and products found in box office movies, home videos, theme parks, hotels, sports teams, retail stores, classroom instructional films, CDs, television programs, and family restaurants. Through the widespread use of public visual space, Disney inserts itself into a network of power relations that promotes the construction of a closed and total world of enchantment allegedly free from the dynamics of ideology, politics, and power. At the same time, Disney goes to great lengths to boost its civic image. Defining itself as a vehicle for education and civic responsibility, Disney sponsors "Teacher of the Year Awards," provides "Doer and Dreamer" scholarships to students, and more recently offers financial aid, internships, and educational programs to disadvantaged urban youth through its ice skating program called "Goals." Intent on defining itself as a purveyor of ideas rather than commodities, Disney is aggressively developing its image as a public service industry. For example, in what can be seen as an extraordinary venture, Disney plans to construct in the next few years a prototype school that one of its brochures proclaims will "serve as a model for education into the next century." The school will be part of 5,000 acre residential development, which according to Disney executives, will be designed after "the main streets of small-town America and reminiscent of Norman Rockwell images."
What is interesting here is that Disney no longer simply dispenses the fantasies through which childhood innocence and adventure are produced, experienced, and affirmed. Disney now provides model prototypes for families, schools, and communities. Disney's role in America's future is to be understood through a particular construction of the past. French theorist Jean Baudrillard provides an interesting theoretical twist on the scope and power of Disney's influence by arguing that Disneyland is more "real" than fantasy because it now provides the image on which America constructs itself. For Baudrillard, Disneyland functions as a "deterrent" designed to "rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real."
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real but of the order of the hyppereal and of simulation.
At the risk of taking Baudrillard too literally, examples of the Disnification of America abound. For instance, Houston airport models it monorail after the one at Disneyland. Small towns throughout America appropriate a piece of nostalgia by imitating the Victorian architecture of Disneyland's Main Street USA. It seems that the real policy makers are not those that reside in Washington, D.C. but in California calling themselves the Disney Imagineers. The boundaries between entertainment, education, and commercialization collapse through the sheer omnipotence of Disney's reach into diverse spheres of everyday life. The scope of the Disney empire reveals both shrewd business practices as well as a sharp eye for providing dreams and products through forms of popular culture in which kids are willing to materially and emotionally invest.
Popular audiences tend to reject any link between ideology and the prolific entertainment world of Disney. And yet Disney's pretense to innocence appears to some critics as little more than a promotional mask that covers over its aggressive marketing techniques and influence in educating children to the virtues of becoming active consumers. Eric Smooden, editor of Disney Discourse, a book critical of Disney's role in American culture argues that "Disney constructs childhood so as to make it entirely compatible with consumerism." Even more disturbing is the widespread belief that Disney's trademarked innocence renders it unaccountable for the diverse ways in which it shapes the sense of reality it provides for children as they take up specific and often sanitized notions of identity, difference, and history in the seemingly apolitical, cultural universe of "the Magic Kingdom." For example, Jon Wiener, argues that Disneyland's version of Main Street America harkens back to an "image of small towns characterized by cheerful commerce, with barbershop quartets and ice cream sundaes and glorious parades." For Wiener this view not only fictionalizes and trivializes the history or real Main Streets at the turn of the century, it also represents an appropriation of the past to legitimate a present that portrays a world "without tenements or poverty or urban class conflict....it's a native white Protestant dream of a world without blacks or immigrants."
I want to venture into the contradictory world of Disney through an analysis of its more recent animated films. These films, all produced since 1989, are important because they have received enormous praise from the dominant press and have achieved block buster status. For many children they represent their first introduction into the world of Disney. Moreover, the financial success and popularity of these films, rivaling many adult features, do not engender the critical analyses often rendered on adult films. In short, popular audiences are more willing to suspend critical judgement about such children's films. Animated fantasy and entertainment appear to fall outside of the world of values, meaning, and knowledge often associated with more pronounced educational forms such as documentaries, art films, or even wide circulation adult films. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells capture this sentiment:
Disney audiences...legal institutions, film theorists, cultural critics, and popular audiences all guard the borders of Disney film as `off limits' to the critical enterprise. In the construction of Disney as a metonym for `America'--clean, decent, industrious,--`the happiest place on earth' has been inscribed in the cultural register of common sense.
Given the influence that the Disney ideology has on children, it is imperative for parents, teachers, and other adults to understand how such films attract the attention and shape the values of the children who view and buy them. As a producer of children's culture, Disney should not be given an easy pardon because it is defined as a universal citadel of fun and good cheer. On the contrary, as a one of the primary institutions constructing childhood culture in the United States, it warrants healthy suspicion and critical debate. Such a debate should not be limited to the home, but should be a central feature of the school and any other critical public sites of learning.
In what follows, I will argue that it is important to address Disney's animated films without either condemning Disney as an ideological reactionary corporation deceptively promoting a conservative world view under the guise of entertainment, or to simply celebrate Disney as the Hollywood version of Mr. Rogers doing nothing more than providing sources of joy and happiness to children all over the world. Disney does both. The productive side of Disney lies in its ability to address in highly successful pedagogical terms the needs and interests of children. Moreover, its films offer opportunities for children to experience pleasure and to locate themselves in a world that resonates with their desires and interests. Pleasure becomes the defining principle of what Disney produces, and children are the serious subjects and objects of Disney's project. Hence, rather than simply being dismissed, Disney's animated films have to be interrogated and an important site for the production of children's culture. At the same time, Disney's influence and power must be situated within the broader understanding the company's role as a corporate giant intent on spreading the conservative and commercial values that in fact erode civil society while proclaiming to restructure it.
The role that Disney plays in shaping individual identities and controlling the fields of social meaning through which children negotiate the world is far too complex to be simply set aside as a form of reactionary politics. If educators and other cultural workers are to include the culture of children as an important site of contestation and struggle then it becomes imperative to analyze how Disney's animated films powerfully influence the way America's cultural landscape is imagined. Disney's scripted view of childhood and society needs to be engaged and challenged as "a historically specific matter of social analysis and intervention" that addresses the meanings its films produce, the roles they legitimate, and the narratives they construct to define American life.
The wide distribution and popular appeal of Disney's animated films provides diverse audiences and viewers the opportunity to challenge assumptions that allow people to suspend judgment regarding Disney's accountability for defining appropriate childhood entertainment. Critically analyzing how Disney films work to construct meanings, induce pleasures, and reproduce ideologically loaded fantasies is not meant to promote a particular exercise in film criticism. Like any educational institution, Disney's view of the world needs to be taken up in terms of how it narrates children's culture and how it can be held accountable for what it does as a significant cultural public sphere. Of course, Disney's self-proclaimed innocence, inflexibility in dealing with social criticism, and paranoid attitude towards justifying what it does is now legendary, and suggests all the more reason why Disney should be both challenged and engaged critically. Moreover, as a multi-billion dollar company, Disney's corporate and cultural influence is too enormous and far reaching to allow it to define itself exclusively within the imaginary discourse of innocence, civic pride, and entertainment.
The question of whether Disney's animated films are good for kids has no easy answers and resists simple analysis within the traditional and allegedly nonideological registers of fun and entertainment. Disney's most recent films, which include The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) provide ample opportunity to address how Disney constructs a culture of joy and innocence for children out of the intersection of entertainment, advocacy, pleasure, and consumerism. All of these films have been high profile releases catering to massive audiences. Moreover, their commercial success is not limited to box office profits, which totaled over $598.8 million in 1994. Successfully connecting the rituals of consumption and movie going, Disney's animated films provide a "marketplace of culture," a launching pad for an endless number of products and merchandise that include videocassettes, sound track albums, kid clothing, furniture, stuffed toys, and new rides at the theme parks. For example, in the video market Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast have a combined sales of over 34 million videocassettes. Moreover, Aladdin has earned "$1 billion from box-offices income, video sales and such ancillary baubles as Princess Jasmine dresses and Genie cookie jars." Moreover, produced as a video interactive game, Aladdin has sold over 3 million copies in 1993. Similar sales are expected for the video and interactive game version of the film, "The Lion King," which grossed $253.5 million in profits as of August 24, 1994. Ranked as one of the most profitable films every made, Jessica J. Reiff, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Company, says "the movie will represent "$1 billion in profits for Disney over two or three years." Similarly, characters from Disney films such as Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Jasmine, Aladdin, and others become prototypes for numerous toys, logos, games, and rides that fill department stores all over the world. Disney theme parks which made over $3.4 billion in revenues in 1993 produced a sizable portion of their profits through the merchandising of toys based on characters from the animated films. The "Lion King" produced a staggering $1 billion in merchandizing profits in 1994 alone, not to mention the profits made from spinoff products from the movie. For example, Disney has shipped over 3 million copies of the soundtrack from the "Lion King." Disney's culture of commercialism is big business and the toys modeled after Disney's animated films provide goods for over 300 Disney Stores world wide. As a commentator in Newsweek recently pointed out, "The merchandise--Mermaid dolls, Aladdin undies, and collectibles like a sculpture of Bambi's Field Mouse--account for a stunning 20 percent of Disney's operating income."
But Disney's attempt to turn children into consumers and construct commodification as a defining principle of children's culture should not suggest a parallel vulgarity in its willingness to experiment aesthetically with popular forms of representation. Disney has shown enormous inventiveness in its attempts to reconstruct the very grounds on which popular culture is defined and shaped. For example, by defining popular culture as a hybridized sphere that combines genres, forms, and often collapses the boundary between high and low culture, Disney has pushed against the grain of aesthetic form and cultural legitimacy. For instance, when Fantasia appeared in the 1930 drew the wrath of music critics, who holding to an elite view of classical music, were outraged that the musical score of the film drew from the canon of high culture. By combining high and low culture in the form of the animated film, Disney opened up new cultural spaces and possibilities for artists and audiences alike. Moreover, as sites of entertainment, Disney's films "work" because they put both children and adults in touch with joy and adventure. They present themselves as places to experience pleasure, even when we have to buy it.
And yet, Disney's brilliant use of aesthetic forms, musical scores, and inviting characters can only be "read" in light of the broader conceptions of reality and predispositions shaped by specific Disney films within a wider system of dominant representations about gender roles, race, and agency that are endlessly repeated in the visual worlds of television, Hollywood film, and videocassettes.
All four of the recent films mentioned draw upon the talents of song writers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, whose skillful arangements provide the emotional glue of the animation experience. The rousing calypso number, "Under the Sea," in The Little Mermaid, and the "Be Our Guest," Busby Berkeley inspired musical sequence in Beauty and the Beast are indicative of the musical talent at work in Disney's animated films. Fantasy abounds as Disney's animated films produce a host of exotic and stereotypical villains, heroes, and heroines. The Beast's enchanted castle in Beauty and the Beast becomes magical as household objects are transformed into dancing teacups, a talking teapot, and dancing silverware. And yet tied to the magical fantasy and light hearted musical scores are representations and themes that emulate the repetitive stereotypes that are characteristic of Disney's view of the childhood culture. For example, while Ursula, the large oozing, black and purple squid in The Little Mermaid gushes with evil and irony, the heroine and mermaid, Ariel, appears as a cross between a typical rebellious teenager and a Southern California fashion model. Disney's representations of evil and good women appear to have been fashioned in the editorial office of Vogue Magazine. The wolf-like monster in Beauty and the Beast evokes a rare combination of terror and gentleness while Scar, the suave feline masterfully embraces a scheming sense of evil and betrayal. The array of animated objects and animals in these films is of the highest artistic standards, but they do not exist in some ideologically free comfort zone. Their characters are tied to larger narratives about freedom, rites of passage, intolerance, choices, and the brutalities of male chauvinism. These are just some of the many themes explored in Disney's animated films. But enchantment comes with a high price if one of its effects is to seduce its audience into suspending critical judgment on the dominant ideological messages produced by such films indefinitely. Even though these messages can be read through a variety of significations shaped within different contexts of reception, the dominant assumptions that structure these films carry enormous weight in restricting the number of cultural meanings that can be brought to bear on these films, especially when the intended audience is mostly children. This should not suggests that the role of the critic in dealing with Disney's animated films is to simply assign them a particular ideological reading. On the contrary, the challenge of such films is to analyze the various themes and assumptions that inform these films both within and outside of the dominant institutional and ideological formations that attempt to constrain how they might be taken up. This allows educators and other to try to understand how such films can become sites of contestation, translation, and exchange in order to be read differently. But there is more at stake here than recognizing the plurality of readings such films might animate; there is also the political necessity of analyzing how privileged dominant readings of such texts construct their power-sensitive meanings to generate particular subject positions that define for children specific notions of agency and its possibilities in society.
Contexts mold interpretations; but political, economic, and ideological contexts also produce the texts to be read. Focusing on films must be supplemented with analyzing the institutional practices and social structures that work to shape such texts. This type of analysis does not mean that cultural workers should subscribe to a form of determinism in which cultural texts can be assigned a singular meaning as much as it should suggest pedagogical strategies for understanding how dominant regimes of power works to severely limit the range of views that children might bring to reading Disney's animated films. By making the relationship between power and knowledge visible while simultaneously referencing what is often taken for granted, teachers and critics can use Disney's animated films pedagogically for students and others to read such films within, against, and outside of the dominant codes that inform them. There is a double pedagogical movement here. First, there is the need to read Disney's films in relation to their articulation with other dominant texts in order to assess their similarities in legitimating particular ideologies. Second, there is the need on the part of cultural workers to use Disney's thematization of America and America's thematization of Disney as a referent to both make visible and disrupt dominant codings, but to do so in a space that invites dialogue, debate, and alternative readings. That is, pedagogically one major challenge is to assess how dominant significations which are repeated over time in these films and reinforced through other popular cultural texts can be taken up as a referent for engaging how children define themselves within such representations. The task here is to provide readings of such films that serve as a pedagogical referent for engaging them in the context in which they are shaped, understood, or might be seen.
The construction of gender identity for girls and women represents one of the most controversial issues in Disney's animated films. In both The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, the female characters are constructed within narrowly defined gender roles. All of the female characters in these films are ultimately subordinate to males, and define their sense of power and desire almost exclusively in terms of dominant male narratives. For instance, modeled after a slightly anorexic Barbie Doll, Ariel, the woman-mermaid in The Little Mermaid, at first glance appears to be engaged in a struggle against parental control, motivated by the desire to explore the human world and willing to take a risk in defining the subject and object of her desires. But in the end, the struggle to gain independence from her father, Triton, and the sense of desperate striving that motivates her dissolves when Ariel makes a Mephistophilean pact with the sea witch, Ursula. In this trade, Ariel gives away her voice to gain a pair of legs so that she can pursue the handsome Prince Eric. While children might be delighted by Ariel's teenage rebelliousness, they are strongly positioned to believe in the end that desire, choice, and empowerment are closely linked to catching and loving handsome men. Bonnie Leadbeater and Gloria Lodato Wilson explore succinctly the pedagogical message at work in the film with their comment:
The 20th-century innocent and appealing video presents a high-spirited role for adolescent girls, but an ultimately subservient role for adult women. Disney's "Little Mermaid" has been granted her wish to be part of the new world of men, but she is still flipping her fins and is not going too far. She stands to explore the world of men. She exhibits her new-found sexual desires. But the sexual ordering of women's roles is unchanged.
Ariel in this film becomes a metaphor for the traditional housewife-in-the-making narrative. When the sea-witch Ursula tells Ariel that taking away her voice is not so bad because men don't like women who talk, the message is dramatized when the Prince attempts to bestow the kiss of true love on Ariel even though she has never spoken to him. Within this rigidly defined narrative, womanhood offers Ariel the reward of marrying the right man and renouncing her former life under the sea as a telling cultural model for the universe of female choices and decision-making in Disney's world view. The forging of rigid gender roles in The Little Mermaid does not represent an isolated moment in Disney's filmic universe; on the contrary, the power that informs Disney's reproduction of negative stereotypes about women and girls gains force, in part, through the consistent way in which similar messages are circulated and reproduced, in varying degrees, in all of Disney's animated films.
For example, in Aladdin the issue of agency and power is centered primarily on the role of the young street tramp, Aladdin. Jasmine, the Princess he falls in love with is simply an object of his immediate desire as well as a social stepping stone. Jasmine's life is almost completely defined by men, and, in the end, her happiness is insured by Aladdin who finally is given permission to marry her.
Disney's gender theme becomes a bit more complicated in Beauty and the Beast. Belle, the heroine of the film, is portrayed as an independent woman stuck in a provincial village in eighteenth century France. Seen as odd because she always has her nose in a book, she is pursued by Gaston, the ultimate vain, macho male typical of Hollywood films of the 1980s. To Belle's credit she rejects him, but in the end she gives her love to the Beast who holds her captive in the hopes she will fall in love with him and break the evil spell cast upon him as a young man. Belle not only falls in love with the Beast, she "civilizes" him by instructing him on how to eat properly, control his temper, and dance. Belle becomes a model of etiquette and style as she turns this narcissistic, muscle-bound tyrant into a "new" man, one who is sensitive, caring, and loving. Some critics have labeled Belle a Disney feminist because she rejects and vilifies Gaston, the ultimate macho man. Less obviously, Beauty and the Beast also can be read as a rejection of hyper-masculinity and a struggle between the macho sensibilities of Gaston and the reformed sexist, the Beast. In this reading Belle is less the focus of the film than a prop or "mechanism for solving the Beast's dilemma." Whatever subversive qualities Belle personifies in the film, they seem to dissolve when focused on humbling male vanity. In the end, Belle simply becomes another woman whose life is valued for solving a man's problems.
The issue of female subordination returns with a vengeance in The Lion King. All of the rulers of the kingdom are men reinforcing the assumption that independence and leadership are tied to patriarchal entitlement and high social standing. The dependency that the beloved lion king, Mufasa, engenders from the women of Pride Rock is unaltered after his death when the evil Scar assumes control of the kingdom. Lacking any sense of outrage, independence, or resistance, the women felines hang around to do his bidding. Given Disney's purported obsession with family values, especially as a consuming unit, it is curious as to why there are no mothers in these films. The mermaid has a domineering father; Jasmine's father is outwitted by his aids; and Belle has an airhead for a father. So much for strong mothers and resisting women.
Jack Zipes, a leading theorist on fairy tales, claims that Disney's animated films celebrate a masculine type of power, but more importantly he believes that they reproduce "a type of gender stereotyping...that have an adverse effect on children in contrast to what parents think....Parents think they're essentially harmless--and they're not harmless." Disney films are seen by enormous numbers of children in both the United States and abroad. As far as the issue of gender is concerned, Disney's view of female agency and empowerment is not simply limited, it borders on being overtly reactionary.
Racial stereotyping is another major issue that surfaces in many of the recent Disney animated films. But the legacy of racism does not begin with the films produced since 1989; on the contrary, there is a long history of racism associated with Disney. This history can be traced back to denigrating images of people of color in films such as Song of the South, released in 1946, and The Jungle Book, which appeared in 1967. Moreover, racist representations of native Americans as violent "redskins" were featured in Frontierland in the 1950s. In addition, the main restaurant in Frontierland featured the real life figure of a former slave, Aunt Jemima, who would sign autographs for the tourists outside of her "Pancake House." Eventually the exhibits and the native Americans running them were eliminated by Disney executives because the "Indian" canoe guides wanted to unionize. They were displaced by robotic dancing bears. Complaints from civil rights groups got rid of the degrading Aunt Jemima spectacle.
Currently, the most controversial example of racist stereotyping facing the Disney publicity machine occurred with the release of Aladdin in 1989, although such stereotyping reappeared in 1994 with the release of The Lion King. Aladdin represents a particularly important example because it was a high profile release, the winner of two academy awards, and one of the most successful Disney films ever produced. Playing to massive audiences of children, the film's opening song, "Arabian Nights," begins its depiction of Arab culture with a decidedly racist tone. The lyrics of the offending stanza states: "Oh I come from a land-From a faraway place-Where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear-If they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." In this characterization, a politics of identity and place associated with Arab culture magnifies popular stereotypes already primed by the media through its portrayal of the Gulf War. Such racist representations are further reproduced in a host of supporting characters who are portrayed as grotesque, violent, and cruel. Yousef Salem, a former spokesperson for the South Bay Islamic Association, characterized the film in the following way:
All of the bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they're wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn't have a big nose; he as a small nose. He doesn't have a beard or a turban. He doesn't have an accent. What makes him nice is they've given him this American character....I have a daughter who says she's ashamed to be call herself an Arab, and it's because of things like this.
Jack Shaheen, a professor of broadcast journalism at Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville, along with radio personality, Casey Kasem, mobilized a public relations campaign protesting the anti-Arab themes in Aladdin. At first the Disney executives ignored the protest, but due to the rising tide of public outrage agreed to change one line of the stanza in the subsequent videocassette and world wide film release; it is worth noting that Disney did not change the lyrics on its popular CD release of Aladdin. It appears that Disney executives were not unaware of the racist implications of the lyrics when they were first proposed. Howard Ashman, who wrote the main title song submitted an alternative set of lyrics when he delivered the original verse. The alternative set of lyrics, "Where it's flat and immense- -And the heat is intense" eventually replaced the original verse, "Where they cut of your ear-If they don't like your face." Though the new lyrics appeared in the videocassette release of Aladdin, many Arab groups were disappointed because the verse "It's barbaric, but hey it's home" was not altered. More importantly, the mispronunciation of Arab names in the film, the racial coding of accents, and the use of nonsensical scrawl as a substitute for an actual written Arabic language were not removed.
Racism in Disney's animated films do not simply appear in negative imagery, it is also reproduced through racially coded language and accents. For example, Aladdin portrays the "bad" Arabs with thick, foreign accents, while the Anglicized Jasmine and Aladdin speak in standard Americanized English. A hint of the racism that informs this depiction is provided by Peter Schneider, president of feature animation at Disney, who points out that Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise. Racially coded language is also evident in The Lion King where all of the members of the royal family speak with posh British accents while Shenzi and Banzai, the despicable hyena storm troopers speak through the voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin in racially coded accents that take on the nuances of the discourse of a decidedly urban, black and Latino youth. The use of racially coded language is not new in Disney's films and can be found in an early version of The Three Little Pigs, Song of the South, and The Jungle Book. What is astonishing in these films is that they produce a host of representations and codes in which children are taught that cultural differences that do not bear the imprint of white, middle-class ethnicity are deviant, inferior, unintelligent, and a threat to be overcome. The racism in these films is defined by both the presence of racist representations and the absence of complex representations of African-Americans and other people of color. At the same time, whiteness is universalized through the privileged representation of middle class social relations, values, and linguistic practices. Moreover, the representational rendering of history, progress, and Western culture bears a colonial legacy that seems perfectly captured by Edward Said's notion of orientalism and its dependency on new images of centrality and sanctioned narratives. Cultural differences in Disney's recent films are expressed through a "naturalized" racial hierarchy, one that is antithetical to an viable democratic society. There is nothing innocent in what kids learn about race as portrayed in the "magical world" of Disney.
Another central feature common to all of Disney's recently animated films is the celebration of deeply anti-democratic social relations. Nature and the animal kingdom provide the mechanism for presenting and legitimating caste, royalty, and structural inequality as part of the natural order. The seemingly benign presentation of celluloid dramas in which men rule, strict discipline is imposed through social hierarchies, and leadership is a function of one's social status suggests a yearning for a return to a more rigidly stratified society, one modeled after the British monarchy of the 18th and 19th centuries. Within Disney's animated films, nature provides a metaphor where "harmony is bought at the price of domination....no power or authority is implied except for the natural ordering mechanisms [of nature]." For children, the messages offered in Disney's animated films suggests that social problems such as the history of racism, the genocide of Native Americans, the prevalence of sexism, and crisis of democracy are simply willed through the laws of nature.
Given the corporate reach, cultural influence, and political power that Disney exercises over multiple levels of children's culture, Disney's animated films should be neither ignored nor censored by those who dismiss the conservative ideologies they produce and circulate. I think there a number of issues to be taken up regarding the forging of a pedagogy and politics responsive to Disney's shaping of children's culture. In what follows, I want to provide in schematic form some suggestions regarding how cultural workers, educators, and parents might critically engage Disney's influence in shaping the "symbolic environment into which our children are born and in which we all live out our lives."
First, it is crucial that the realm of popular culture that Disney increasingly uses to teach values and sell goods be taken seriously as a site of learning and contestation, especially for children. This means, at the very least, that those cultural texts that dominate children's culture, including Disney's animated films, should be incorporated into schools as serious objects of social knowledge and critical analysis. This would entail a reconsideration of what counts as really useful knowledge in public schools and would offer a new theoretical register for addressing how popular media aimed at shaping children's culture are implicated in a range of power/knowledge relationships.
Second, parents, community groups, educators, and other concerned individuals must be attentive to the multiple and diverse messages in Disney films in order to both criticize them when necessary and, more importantly, to reclaim them for more productive ends. At the very least, we must be attentive to the processes whereby meanings are produced in these films and how they work to secure particular forms of authority and social relations. As stake pedagogically is the issue of paying "close attention to the ways in which [such films] invite (or indeed seek to prevent) particular meanings and pleasures." In fact, Disney's films appear to assign quite unapologetically rigid roles to women and people of color. Similarly, such films generally produce a narrow view of family values coupled with a nostalgic and conservative view of history that shold be challenged and transformed. Educators need to take seriously Disney's attempt to shape collective memory, particularly when such attempts are unabashedly defined by one of Disneyland's imagineers" in the following terms: "What we create is a sort of `Disney realism,' sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements." Needless to say, Disney's rendering of entertainment and spectacle, whether expressed in Frontierland, Main Street USA, or in its endless video and film productions, does not merely represent an edited, sanitary and nostalgic view of history, one that is free of poverty, class differences and the urban decay. Disney's writing of public memory also aggressively constructs a monolithic notion of national identity that treats subordinate groups as either exotic or irrelevant to American history while simultaneously marketing cultural differences within "histories that corporations can live with." Disney's version of United States history is neither innocent nor can it be dismissed as simply entertainment.
Disney's celluloid view of children's culture strips the past, present, and future of its diverse narratives and its multiple possibilities. But it is precisely such a rendering that needs to be revealed as a historically specific and politically constructed cultural "landscape of power." Positing and revealing the ideological nature of Disney's world of children's films opens up further opportunities for educators and cultural workers to intervene within such texts to make them mean differently. Rustom Bharacuha puts it well in arguing that "the consumption of...images...can be subverted through a particular use in which we are compelled to think through images rather than respond to them with a hallucinatory delight." One rendering of the call to "think through images" is for educators and cultural workers to demonstrate pedagogically and politically that history and its rendering of national identity have to be contested and engaged, even when images parade as innocent film entertainment for children. The images that pervade Disney's production of children's culture along with their claim to public memory need to be challenged and rewritten, "moved about in different ways," and read differently as part of the script of democratic empowerment. Issues regarding the construction of gender, race, class, caste, and other aspects of self and collective identity are defining principles of Disney's films for children. It is within the drama of animated storytelling that children are often positioned pedagogically to learn what subject positions are open to them as citizens and what positions aren't. Hence, the struggle over children's culture partly must be seen as the struggle over the related discourses of citizenship, national identity, and democracy itself.
Third, if Disney's films are to be viewed as more than narratives of fantasy and escape, as sites of reclamation and imagination, which affirm rather than deny the long-standing relationship between entertainment and pedagogy, cultural workers and educators need to insert the political and pedagogical back into the discourse of entertainment. In part, this points to analyzing how entertainment can be rendered as a subject of intellectual engagement rather than a series of sights and sounds that wash over us. This suggests a pedagogical approach to popular culture that engages how a politics of the popular works to mobilize desire, stimulate imagination, and produce forms of identification that can become objects of dialogue and critical investigation. At one level, this necessitates addressing the utopian possibilities in which children often find representations of their hopes and dreams. The pedagogical value of such an approach is that it alerts cultural workers to taking the needs, desires, languages, and experience of children seriously. But this is not meant to merely affirm the necessity for relevance in the curriculum as much as it means recognizing the pedagogical importance of what kids bring with them to the classroom or any other site of learning as crucial to decentering power in the classroom and expanding the possibility for multiple literacies and agency as part of the learning process.
It is imperative that parents, educators and cultural workers pay attention to how these Disney films and visual media are used and understood differently by diverse groups of kids. Not only does this provide the opportunity for parents and others to talk to children about popular culture, it also creates the basis for better understanding how young people identify with these films, what issues need to be addressed, and how such discussions would open up a language of pleasure and criticism rather than simply foreclose one. This suggests that we develop new ways of critically understanding and reading electronically produced visual media. Teaching and learning the culture of the book is no longer the staple of what it means to be literate.
Children learn from exposure to popular cultural forms, providing a new cultural register to what it means to be literate. Educators and cultural workers must not only be attentive to the production of popular art forms in the schools. On one level this suggests a cultural pedagogy rooted in cultural practices that utilizes students' knowledge and experience through their use of popular cultural forms. The point here is that students should not merely analyze the representations of electronically mediated, popular culture, they must also be able to master the skills and technology to produce it. Put another way, students should gain experience in making films, videos, music, and other forms of cultural production. Thus, giving students more power over the conditions for the production of knowledge. But a cultural pedagogy also involves the struggle for more resources for schools and other sites of learning. Providing the conditions for students and other to become the subject and not simply the object of pedagogical work by asserting their role as cultural producers is crucial if students are to become attentive to the workings of power, solidarity, and difference as part of more comprehensive project for democratic empowerment.
Fourth, Disney's all-encompassing reach into the spheres of economics, consumption, and culture suggest that we analyze Disney within a broad and complex range of relations of power. Eric Smoodin argues rightly that the American public needs to "gain a new sense of Disney's importance, because of the manner in which his work in film and television is connected to other projects in urban planning, ecological politics, product merchandising, United States domestic and global policy formation, technological innovation, and constructions of national character." This suggests undertaking new analyses of Disney which connect rather than separate the various social and cultural formations in which the company actively engages. Clearly, such a dialectical practice not only provides a more theoretically accurate understanding of the reach and influence of Disney's power, it also contributes to forms of analysis that rupture the notion that Disney is primarily about the pedagogy of entertainment.
Questions of ownership, control, and the possibility of public participation in making decisions about how cultural resources are used, to what extent, and for what effect must become a central issue in addressing the world of Disney and other corporate conglomerates that shape cultural policy. In part, teachers, students, and cultural workers must situate the control, production, and distribution of such films within larger circuits of power that allow concerned public citizens to take up Disney, Inc. as part of a larger cultural strategy and public policy initiative. This form of analysis would combine research about Disney that addresses how the outcome of such academic and community-based work could produce knowledge and strategies that address how the issue of cultural power and the shaping of children's culture, could be taken up as a matter of public policy.
The availability, influence, and cultural power of Disney's children's films demand that they become part of a broader political discourse regarding who makes cultural policy. As such issues regarding how and what children learn could be addressed through broader public debates about how cultural and economic resources can be distributed and controlled to insure that children are exposed to a variety of alternative narratives, stories, and representations about themselves and the larger society. When the issue of children's culture is shaped in the schools, it is assumed that this is a commonplace matter of public policy and intervention, but when it is shaped in the commercial public sphere the discourse of public intervention gets lost in abstract appeals to the imperatives of the market and free speech. Free speech is only as good as the democratic framework that makes it possible to extend its benefits to a wider range of individuals, groups, and public spheres. Treating Disney as part of a media sphere that needs to be democratized and held accountable for the ways in which it sells power and manufactures social identities needs to be taken up as part of the discourse of pedagogical analysis and public policy intervention. This type of analysis and intervention is perfectly suited for cultural studies, which can employ an interdisciplinary approach to such an undertaking, one that makes the popular the object of serious analysis, makes the pedagogical a defining principle of such work, and inserts the political into the center of its project.
This suggests that cultural workers need to readdress the varied interrelations that define both a politics of representation and a discourse of political economy as a new form of cultural work that rejects the material/cultural divide. The result would be a renewed understanding of how their modalities mutually inform each other within different contexts and across national boundaries. This is particularly important for cultural workers to understand how Disney films work within a broad network of production and distribution as teaching machines within and across different public cultures and social formations. Within this type of discourse, the messages, forms of emotional investment, and ideologies produced by Disney can be traced through the various circuits of power that both legitimate and insert "the culture of the Magic Kingdom" into multiple and overlapping public spheres. Moreover, such films need to be analyzed not only for what they say, but also how they are used and taken up by adult audiences and groups of children within diverse national and international contexts. That is, cultural workers need to study these films intertextually and from a transnational perspective. Disney does not represent a cultural monolith ignorant of different contexts; on the contrary, it's power in part rests with its ability to address different contexts and to be read differently by transnational formations and audiences. Disney engenders what Inderpal Grewa and Caren Kaplan have called "scattered hegemonies." It is precisely by addressing how these hegemonies operate in particular spaces of power, specific localities, differentiated transnational locations that progressives will be able to understand more fully the specific agendas and politics at work as Disney is both constructed for and read by different audiences.
I believe that since the power and influence of Disney is so pervasive in American society, parents, educators and others need to find ways to make Disney accountable for what it produces. The recent defeat of the proposed 3000 acre theme park in Virginia suggests that Disney can be challenged and held accountable for the so-called "Disnification" of American culture. In this case, a coalition of notable historians, community activists, educators, and cultural workers mobilized against the land developers supporting the project, wrote articles against Disney's trivializing of history and its implications for the park, and, in general, aroused public opinion enough to generate an enormous amount of adverse criticism against the Disney project. In this case, what was initially viewed as merely a project for bringing a Disney version of fun and entertainment to hallowed civil war grounds in historic Virginia was translated and popularized by oppositional groups as a matter of cultural struggle and public policy. And Disney lost.
What the Virginia cultural civil war suggests is that while it is indisputable that Disney provides both children and adults with the pleasure of being entertained, Disney's public responsibility does not end there. Rather than being viewed as a commercial public sphere innocently distributing pleasure to young people, the Disney empire must be seen as an pedagogical and policy making enterprise actively engaged in the cultural landscaping of national identity and the "schooling" of the minds of young children. This is not to suggest that there is something sinister behind what Disney does as much as it points to the need to address the role of fantasy, desire, and innocence in securing particular ideological interests, legitimating specific social relations, and making a distinct claim on the meaning of public memory. Disney needs to be held accountable not just at the box office, but also in political and ethical terms. And if such accountability is to be impressed upon the "magic kingdom" then parents, cultural workers, and others will have to challenge and disrupt both the institutional power and the images, representations, and values offered by Disney's teaching machine. The stakes are too high to ignore such a challenge and struggle, even if it means reading Disney's animated films critically.