The Thing About Disney…

It doesn’t matter whether it comes in by cable, telephone lines, computer or satellite. Everyone’s going to have to deal with Disney.” – Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO

Oh, Disney, Disney, Disney… You simply cannot be a parent today and not have an opinion on it. Some of us love Disney, some of us hate Disney. (Some hate it so much that they try to ban Disney product entirely from their children’s lives, though I’m not sure this is the right way to go… even if it was possible… which it isn’t.) Many, many of us love and hate Disney at the same time.

The hate is well deserved. Disney the Corporation has set new standards for rapacious capitalism. Its aggressive marketing is impossible to escape – the vast resources of the conglomerate can easily clobber us into submission. And the shameless nature of the conglomerate allows it to do the clobbering without hesitation. Disney product is promoted so relentlessly that it’s well-nigh impossible to escape it. Your child doesn’t even have to see the latest movie or tv show to be intimately acquainted with every character – their friends will be wearing the underwear, T-shirts, hats and socks, carrying the backpacks and lunch boxes, and will eagerly fill them in on the details. You can have a TV-less, computer-less home off the grid in the back forty of nowhere, but around the age of three your daughter will – as if by magic – know exactly what colour of dress each Disney princess wears.

Beyond the annoying ubiquity of it all, Disney the corporation has been guilty over the years of countless egregious practices, from sweatshop labour on its merchandise to (and yes, this is true) actually suing small-town daycare centres who paint Mickey Mouse and Goofy on their walls. And there’s the racism. And the sexism. And the drive for worldwide cultural domination. I could go on and on, but further information, argument and analysis can be found in many places, at the New Internationalist for a global perspective, Wikipedia for an overview of various controversies over the years, or the excellent book by Richard Schickel, The Disney Version, for a film critic’s take on the history of the company.

Okay, so that’s the ‘hate’ part of the relationship. How about the ‘love’?

Like it or not, especially when you go back to the early films, Snow White, Pinocchio and onward, the sheer quality of them is outstanding. Walt singlehandedly invented the genre of feature-length animated family film, and set such high technical and artistic standards that other companies are still scrambling to keep pace. He personally insisted on such perfection and care on his films in the early days, often taking huge financial risks to do so, that he was able to create the sterling reputation for his company that allowed it to survive many a storm over the decades and grow to the behemoth it is today.

I still appreciate that he cared enough, and spent the time and money to make very high-quality entertainment for children.

Many of his films (and again, I tend to prefer the older ones) are cinematic treasures, part of our cultural language. Artistically and technically his films are great accomplishments, but Walt’s real talent lay in his instinctive knack for giving the American public exactly what it wanted and needed, exactly when it wanted and needed it the most.

Walt Disney operated not only as an entertainer but as a historical mediator. His creations helped Americans come to terms with the unsettling transformations of the twentieth century. This role was unintentional but decisive.” – Steven Watts The Magic Kingdom ¹

In the 1920s and 30s, when Hollywood was beset by scandal and the American public began to worry about the decadent effects of movies on its youth, Walt Disney was a reassuring figure, a middle-class paragon of industry, modesty, and thrift. He grew up on a farm in the mid-west and created a business empire from nothing. He was a rags-to-riches hero for Depression-era audiences. He was also a purveyor of wholesomeness – his studio was widely publicized as having a “family atmosphere”, over which Walt exerted a kindly, avuncular authority. (Not entirely accurate, but this was the general impression.) He was good for the business of American movies in general, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant to appease all who grumbled about the corrupting, ‘foreign influences’ in Hollywood. As Schickel puts it, he was an Everyman, so absolutely normal that he was a success “by virtue of being uniquely average”.²

In every way Disney was able to perfectly dovetail the fortunes of his company with the tastes and values of mid-twentieth century American culture, most especially in its concerns about children. The young nation was eager to carve out its own character and culture in contrast to that of Britain and Europe, and America’s anxieties about modernity – industrialism, urbanism, immigration, overcrowding and social unrest, the declining influence of the church – all came to the forefront in debates about how best to raise the next generation of good American middle-class citizens.

As mass consumer culture increasingly came into conflict with an ideal American culture, the child became the focal point in the struggle to preserve those American ideals and enforce their inclusion in mass-mediated products.” ³

Science provided new tools of psychiatry and data research to analyze family life, and the business of parenting advice literature boomed.

… in a very real sense twentieth-century child-rearing manuals may also be read as manuals for entering the middle class.” ⁴

Disney’s singular success was due to instinct and strategy but also to dumb luck and demographics. Just as he was aligning his product with what was popularly thought to be beneficial for children, between 1940 and 1965 the number of children in the U.S. aged five to fourteen doubled.⁵ Parents grew to trust movies and books with the Disney logo unquestioningly. Disney had achieved “brand recognition that did not require assessment of individual products.” ⁶ This frankly brilliant positioning persists to the present day, as parents make assumptions about Disney excellence despite wildly inconsistent product: badly written books, merchandise that falls apart as soon as you buy it, and knock-off subsidiary videos (ie. Sing-Along series) with incredibly inept, off-model animation. Apparently total market dominance requires more than a few corners to be cut.

Indeed, everyone has to deal with Disney. It has the power to compel one’s attention to any product it wants to push:

All its parts – movies, television, book and song publishing, merchandising, Disneyland – interlock and are mutually reciprocating. And all of them are aimed at the most vulnerable portion of the adult’s psyche – his feelings for his children. If you have a child, you cannot escape a Disney character or story even if you loathe it. …  The machine’s voice is so pervasive and persuasive that it forces first the child, then the parent to pay it heed – and money. In essence, Disney’s machine was designed to shatter the two most valuable things about childhood – its secrets and its silences – thus forcing everyone to share the same formative dreams. …  As capitalism, it is a work of genius; as culture, it is mostly a horror.” ⁷

That’s the ‘hate’ side of the coin, certainly, and while I agree with much of what Schickel has to say, I still find a surprising spark of fondness in my cynical brain for individual movies, scenes and characters, if not for the twelve tons of crappy plastic toys that accompany them.

I may wince from time to time, raise an eyebrow at Disney excess, or resist buying everything they push at me,  but my daughter and I will continue to watch the films. I’ll try to address issues as they crop up – consumerism, racial insensitivity, sexism, body image issues, and the general blinders-on limited vision of society – but I’m not going to deny my little girl the accomplished, beautiful and funny movies that give her so much delight.

Everyone has to deal with Disney – she is her own person and she will deal with Disney on her own terms as she grows up, just as I have tried to do.


¹ as quoted in Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2005) p. 13

² Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: the Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Revised and Updated) (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1968/1985) p. 30

³ Op. cit. Sammond, p. 7

⁴ Ibid., p. 7

⁵ Op. cit. Schickel, p. 19

⁶ Op. cit. Sammond, p. 74

⁷ Op. cit. Schickel, p. 18


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