06 May 2009

So, what do you have against Disney?"

"What do you have against Disney?"

A couple of years ago, we published a blog post about how we are exposing Jack to 'popular culture' by going back to the original sources Disney used in creating his most popular movies. We read the books -- some of which are great literature, and some of which aren't, then we get the most "true to the book" movie (not the Disney version) we can find, and we watch that.

Why go to all the trouble? Why not watch the Disney films, like his friends are doing? The short answer is "Because we don't want Jack's world 'Disney-fied'".

That attitude seems to confuse people sometimes -- after all, Disney is all about what's right with America, right? It's hot dogs and apple pie and white picket fences. It's diversity, and family values, and tradition. Isn't it?

Well, it certainly is sold that way, I grant you that. But I think there is both a lot more, and a lot less, than that going on with the Disney thing.

My objections are manifold, and it's hard to prioritize them. The short answer to what we have against Disney is "nothing". Disney is a corporation, like any other. It is well within it rights to make money hand-over-fist from anyone who wants to contribute to the corporate coffers, within the laws of the countries within which it operates. Just like Wal-Mart. We are also within our rights to decide which corporations we want to support.

We don't support Walmart either.

Why not? Well, let's stick with Disney.

My first and largest objection is that Disney butchers and eviscerates some of the finest children's literature in the English language. You probably know Disney's Winnie the Pooh. Have you read Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh? You no doubt love Disney's Peter Pan; are you familiar with Barrie's? All the little girls love Disney's Little Mermaid -- but perhaps the message of Andersen's would be healthier for them. And, believe it or not, before Disney got their hands on him, Bambi was well beloved from A Life in the Woods.

When I was a child a half century ago, many people had read the original stories and almost everyone knew they existed, so the Disney movies were "a cute new take" on a familiar story. Increasingly, though, I find that people aren't even aware that there was an original of most of the Disney stories or that the Disney version isn't the same story at all.

On an individual basis, it is a matter of personal preference whether you like the Disney version or the original better, but as a culture I think we lose a lot when we dismiss the depth and breadth of our cultures stories and replace them with the sanitized, ultra-simplified versions in which the details are changed to make the story less challenging. (But ...can it truly be "personal preference" if you weren't aware that there was another choice?)

Somewhere in Disney's history, it went from FINDING literature that fit its magical formula, to FORCING all literature to fit into its now very successful formula. The result is that the great narratives and stories of our lives are stripped of everything that does not fit the Disney formula, and the remaining characters are altered to fit. That is so sad, and so limiting.

But Disney doesn't just gobble up literary characters for its movies. It also pushes out a thousand products to sell those characters. Disney is, by no means the only culprit but certainly they are masters at it.

That leads to my second objection, Disney does nothing without merchandising it. The dangers of the commodification of our kids is a big enough topic for the dozens of books that have already been written, so I won't try to cover all of it here, but calling a fondness for the Disney version over the original character from literature a "personal preference" is pretty disingenuous when Disney buys the copyright to the name of literary character after literary character and makes their own version ubiquitous, while the original becomes legally pretty much unavailable, usurping our choice.

Love Winnie-the-Pooh? Want to use the images in your child's nursery? Good luck finding E. H. Shepard's illustrations brought to life. The only thing available is Disney's version -- and that's the only version that will be available, because Disney's legal ownership of the copyright on the name ensures it. What's more, when a child is old enough to read Milne's classic, and sees the E. H. Shepard's illustrations, he or she is likely to react to the illustrations as "wrong". After all, Pooh bear looks like Disney -- they know that because they've seen it a million times, in Disney's book, on TV, on sheets, on pre-school walls, on t-shirts, and on sippy cups!

The Disney Princesses are not just cute movie characters, they have become an obsession -- little girls can (and do!) build their entire worlds (and sadly, their self images) around these characters, from the movies to the merchandising books, the dolls, the dress-up clothes, the backpacks, the wall paper, the table place settings, the stationery, the birthday cards ... ad nauseum. (And lest we forget the little boys, have you tried to buy a gift for a little boy that *didn't* have a licensed character plastered all over it? Not an easy task in most stores.) Once your home, yard, and car are completely given over to Disney, your vacations can now we spent even more deeply immersed -- whether you want a stay at an amusement park or take a cruise on a Disney themed ship, or simply stay home and cruise Disney.com or Club Penguin.

Humans are inclined to identify ourselves with something larger than ourselves. First it was the tribe or family, then it was nation or religion. More recently, we have convinced ourselves to identify ourselves with the the brands we prefer, including Disney. If you truly want your identity to be "in support" of a corporation that exists to get more money from you, that is certainly your choice. I want a different identity for myself and I hope for Jack to find his identity elsewhere, too.

And, then there is the fact that we simply don't like the world that Disney has created.

In Disney's world, there is a clear line between the good guys and the bad guys. Always. There are rarely any grey areas or mitigating circumstances. Good guys always do good and bad guys do bad things because they are bad guys. Good guys may be tempted by bad decisions, but they rarely succumb to them. In Disney's world, there is an evil that opposes and threatens to devour every good, and the triumph of that good over the dark and ominous evil is Disney's signature story line.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that story line, beyond its very shallow and binary nature. As one narrative among many, it pretty harmless and there is a place for every taste. If Disney had stopped at one, I would not be writing this piece, but it doesn't. Disney makes EVERY storyline fit that one exclusive binary narrative and there is so much wrong with that way of thinking as an approach to life! This is the world-view has given us a world in which we have red states and blue states and politics has become a zero sum game. We are no longer able to see each other as patriots with a different point of view. We can't work together to find better solutions that make our country more comfortable for all of us, because anyone who doesn't believe exactly what we do must be a "bad guy".

(A particularly insightful three year old (as reported by his mother on a homeschooling list discuss) explained his terror at watching a Disney film this way:

"The bad guys are SO bad, and so so so SMART, and the good guys only have luck, because they're stupid... how could the good guys win?" and another time "I must be a bad guy, because the good guys always do the right thing, even when they do the wrong thing it ends up being the right thing, and i DON'T WANT TO BE EVIL AND BAD. I don't want to have to be killed or locked away forever by someone who hates me!! i don't want to be hated for just being me."

I had missed that part, but he's right. In Disney's Universe, smart is a bad thing. Yuck.

It has given us a world in which you are on the inside or on the outside. Where there is one right way to be. Women must be beautiful and sweet -- and that always means thin, athletic, and talented. Women and girls who are not "up to the standard -- ugly or fat or opinionated, for instance -- are ‘bad guys’. Men must be muscular, handsome, and brave. Men who are otherwise must be villains or they are patsies who enable the bad guys to do evil. Occasionally men and boys who look "ordinary" will turn out to be secretly brave and much stronger than they knew -- and my gosh, look how handsome they are when the truth is revealed!

Again, if it stopped at one, it wouldn't matter, but it is EVERY Disney piece that espouses the same virtues and the same evils. It is virtuous to be attractive, well-built and beautiful. Frumpy, dowdy, and ugly are evil. The dowdy hero who "makes good" suddenly morphs, thanks to the magic of the screen, into something more acceptable... which leads us to social acceptability, the ultimate Disney virtue.

Good, bad, ugly, or beautiful, if people don't like you, you're in trouble in Disney's World... and the tension, fear, evil, and nastiness builds to breaking point until the hero finds some way, some virtue, some miracle, by which he or she can find the most highly prized virtue of all, ACCEPABILITY!! Once you are acceptable, all other flaws of character and persona are entirely forgiven. Redemption by popular opinion.

The saddest reflection of all, something which I constantly encounter, is that people tend to feel immediately inferior when someone casts a disapproving glance at them... one has to wonder if Disney is reflecting reality, or if, by market saturation, Disney is creating reality for a larger number of people with each subsequent generation.

Then, there is the use of fear and emotion as a cudgel, to build up the tension to an almost unbearable degree, only to offer an easy resolution in the form of one or another of Disney's pet resolutions -- acceptance, conformity, or the like. It serves to entrench a bunch of stereotypes that severely limit the perceptions of its most innocent and impressionable viewers.

s there something innately bad about such a limited world?
Must every film be 'politically correct"? No, of course not. There is a place for every taste. Those messages are incidental, anyway. The only message intentionally and consistently sold through Disney marketing is that kids and families *need* Disney for a happy childhood and family life.

The embedded and incidental messages are based on assumptions in our culture that I find offensive and they won't change until our culture changes. However the Disney machine also reinforce those ugly and limiting assumptions and they are becoming the overwhelming majority of the messages fed to our children through movies and marketing as entertainment companies rush to imitate the acknowledged leader in kids entertainment.

Disney, for its part, has found a formula that works.
Lots of people like the formula, and lots of people can relate to it, which means that they have greater success in marketing their productions. This is great news for Disney, because it increases their market share and their sales. Do I, as some people assume, think that Disney is "doing something wrong"? Do I think they should be stopped? Oh no. They are a business, doing what businesses do best - making money. That they contain a lot of really yucky (to me) messages is just one factor among many. Disney is fine. They have every right to be the empire they are and to entertain the people who love them. Just as I have every right to decide I don't plan to drink that particular kool-aid.

But when something is sold so enthusiastically and persistently to impressionable young people, I think it's reasonable to assume that questions are warranted. I think it's only responsible for parents to ask themselves what overall message are their children getting from these 'indoctrinations as amusements' and to ask themselves whether it's the message they want their children to be exposed to on a continual basis.

Our family has asked ourselves those questions, and our answer is "No, thank you. That's not how we want to see the world".


  1. Excellent post, Misti!

    This got me thinking about how I really hate the Disney version of the Little Mermaid. I can't believe that people are not appalled at how Ariel has to get this guy to fall in love with her without saying a word. Do people understand what message that sends?

  2. Thanks, Christine. I agree -- one reason I think it would be much healthier for kids to know Andersen's version. Much more sane. Not happy, but sane.

  3. I need pom-poms to express my feeling about this post. GO MISTI!

  4. Great Post! Though I love Disney films, hate the merchandising, I am a big believer in original stories. Before I stayed home with my son I was a PS teacher. In my class, I would read an original (Madaline, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory..)then we would watch the film and Venn Diagram the similarities and differences. We are going to Disney World in the Fall and I am planning on using your list from the older post this summer as a great way to get ready.

    Thanks again for the great posts!

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  6. Misti,
    This post is awesome. I have to say we follow pretty much the same premise at our house, which sometimes causes problems socially since many of our friends' kids are Disneyfied. While I love movies like Bambi, we avoided the whole Disney princess trend. Since I agree with you so very much and because I think this is the type of thing that CM would probably agree with (if she lived today) could I possibly post a link to your blog on my SecularCM website in the forums? I think it might trigger some great discussions. :)

  7. Go Misti! That was awesome!!!

  8. grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr :@

  9. Hi, Isaac Jack! I'll be glad when you can spell lots more words. But I am very happy to see you can spell such a LONG word! Mamma


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