Disney and the End of Innocence

As commercial culture replaces public culture and the language of the market becomes a substitute for the language of democracy, consumerism appears to be the only kind of citizenship on offer to children and adults alike.

—Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock, The Mouse that Roared (Updated and Expanded Edition): Disney and the End of Innocence (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010), p. 24.

What are the implications for a democratic society increasingly under the sway of corporations that subordinate politics, history, public discourse, and noncommodified forms of culture to consumerism, escapist entertainment, and corporate profits?

—Ibid., p. 90.

Growing up corporate has become a way of life for American youth, and companies like Disney constitute a new global force in shaping youth around the world as consuming subjects.

—Ibid., p. 211.

In March 2007, Disney announced early preparation for a new animated production, The Frog Princess. Maddy (as in: Mammy), in true “American fairy tale” tradition, would be a Black chambermaid slaving away in the New Orleans pit of a spoilt, White débutante, only to be rescued ultimately by a voodoo priestess fairy godmother who helps her clutch the heart of a White prince who rescued her from a Black Magic villain. Civilization!

But soon as the 40 million Black people in America got word of Disney’s latest exploits in the realm of racial imagination, holy hell let loose, and the plot and title were at once scrapped: revised as The Princess and the Frog: the tale of Tiana, a fatherless 19-year-old Black waitress (and aspiring restaurant owner), set in Jazz Age New Orleans, who tries to snap a wicked spell placed on a not-quite-White prince, and thereby restore his humanity—only to be transformed herself into a frog, then having to hop through life’s animated twists and turns until arriving at the inevitable ending where both regain their character, fall into sensual bliss, and live happily ever till the credits roll.

The embarrassing effrontery of Disney’s first proposal is in many ways emblematic of the media/merchandise giant’s decades-long anachronistic approach to reality, and stubborn disregard of cultural sensitivity: a characteristic synonymous with corporate hubris. But it also extended a ritual Disney has, since inception, strived to keep secret—injecting highly educational-political-pedagogical shots into the social realm, all the while claiming Innocence as prime and final motif.

How fortuitous for Disney that as it sought to assure the world Black girls belonged better in kitchens and laundry rooms (rather than restaurants and board rooms), a Black family was ascending the podium of international acclaim, and Michelle Obama, wife of the current President, was arousing curiosity from all ends for refusing to recline in the back-seat while her husband ran laps across the country, hoping to convince citizens he could do the job just as good as any of his White opponents/predecessors.

Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock survey this theme with abundant brilliance in a newly released, updated and expanded version of The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, first published in 1999. Disney has long been educational and political, they write, and parents who prefer Disney—because, so the chants go, it offers up innocent and harmless alternatives to the sinful, violent, sexist, caustic courses that make up most TV shows and movies these days—need to widen their eyes more to a reality not so hard to pick up: far from innocent and harmless, Disney’s stuff not only render social and political and historical commentary often skewed toward bias, but at times aim for that exact edge.

When, in 1992, Disney unfurled Aladdin, and blurred the line between ignorance and xenophobia, with the main theme, “Arabian Nights,” confessing,

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

the Gulf War had just ended. And, here, Arabs were distorted as grotesque-faced barbarians waiting/needing to be civilized. Walt Disney would have been much pleased, after all his vision, as World War II raged, was to employ film in “molding opinion.” Thus all coincidences were off when in freezing point of the Cold War, twelve years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki turned to clouds, Disney released Our Friend the Atom, a 53 minute film extolling the virtues of atomic power.

Yet, Disney affects kids and adults with equal authority—with a strident, mythical representation of Innocence that concerns childhood just as much as it does nationhood: kids revel exhilaratingly in the spectacle of fairy tales and everlasting happiness (which only lasts the longer they can buy the hundreds of merchandise lined up to relive various epic moments in various pictures), and adults are steered to examine their country as pure and faultless, and a righteous crusader against evil in this world.

Disney, here, blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, catering to both children and adults’ sense of perfection, and purging the imaginary world it creates of “evil”—one historical record at a time. At Disneyland, “There are no historical records of labor strikes … There is no history of labor unrest. No history of attacks on immigrants. No history of slavery or segregation. No Red Scare, no McCarthyism, no atom bomb.”

Disney so values Innocence and Perfection that employees must adhere to extremely conservative dress codes and conducts—no facial hair, limited hair-length, no earrings or bracelets on men, limited accessories on women; smiley-faces and cheerful dispositions always, complete obedience to script, etc. And when accidents occur, such as passengers being thrust off malfunctioning rides hundreds of feet in the air, employees must keep these “incidents” under wrap. Should ambulances be necessary, hurt passengers would be hurtled into “low-profile vehicles”—to keep the thousands of oblivious, potentially soon-to-be-victims everlastingly happy in the “happiest place on earth.”

Disney’s deal with parents is terribly complex. Parents must be willing to submit their kids up for inspection, upon which Disney decides which roles they fit, and which identity-narrative they adopt. But parents must also realize the prize of the birthright: admission of inherent deficiency, both in themselves and in their kids. After all, successful parents don’t need imaginary characters raising their kids: and smart kids don’t need imaginary characters for stimulation: and, more pernicious, a manageable society does not need moral lessons from the world’s largest media and entertainment empire. But such is the deal brokered, which explains why Disney has raked in millions of dollars from the absurd Baby Einstein products which swear to enable toddlers whose parents “want their kids to keep up in a highly competitive world”—a Darwinian society. It also explains why DisneyFamily.com was launched to, amongst other excuses, provide “resources on parenting and raising healthy children.”

For this reason, in Disney’s film history adults have always represented quirky, uncouth, uncool, burdensome characters. Kids are central target—adults: merely proxy. But once the heart of the child has been claimed, the adult is of no use anymore, and kids must come to understand that. Ironically many adults were raised by/on Disney, and stand forever armed to bring down the hammer on anyone who claims Disney does more than entertain—that it educates (explicitly or otherwise). And it’s not so hard to understand why: for who, in right mind and sense, can accuse a bunny-eared, glove-wrapped, oval-eyed mouse of orchestrating an insidious plan to indoctrinate children worldwide?

This has made Disney Teflon for years—even as it carries out some of the most retrograde work practices in the modern world, and bombards children with consumerism, and attempts to subvert parental authority, individual agency, social community, public spaces, and private lives. Disney also wins in a world where the worth of children factor less each day, where hundreds of billions of dollars are cashed in annually from direct marketing to kids of any age, with horrendously minimal concern from legislators and elected officials who with a conscientious vote can end the abuse immediately.

Giroux and Pollock make mention of an addiction more injurious to kids than all the street paraphernalia laws have been installed to haul them off to jail for buying or selling—a zombie-like addiction to various electronic media forms, documented January this year by a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study suggesting typical American tweens and teens actively engage electronic media for up to 8 hours daily—up 1 hour, 17 minutes in just 5 years. With a 2000 Nielsen Media Research study able to account for only 38.5 minutes spent weekly by most parents and kids in meaningful conversation, it’s clear who the real Daddy and Mommy are—Mickey and his emissaries.

“Too many parents have become mere shadows in the lives of their children, who spend endless hours absorbed by the visual imagery on a screen,” write Giroux and Pollock in The Mouse that Roared. “By exposing them to a marketing pedagogical machinery eager and ready to transform them into full-fledged members of consumer society, the commercial world defined by Disney and a few other corporations conscripts children’s time.” And in an age where kids register over 40,000 TV ads annually, where by 4th grade most have memorized 300-400 brands, the identity of the American child can only fall somewhere between consumer and commodity.

For Disney, Identity reigns supreme. The White female raised on Disney mostly learns that her lot in life is to seek endlessly until finding that knight-in-shining-armor—without whom her life would lack meaning. For the White male, over the White female has he been given dominion: for her existence is incomplete without him; and should he feel just in kidnapping and abusing and maltreating her, she can’t but settle patiently till the inner prince lurking is comfortable enough to set forth, as Belle in Beauty and the Beast recounted: There’s something sweet/ And almost kind/ But he was mean/ And he was coarse/ And unrefined/ And now he’s dear/ And so unsure/ I wonder why/ I didn’t see it there before/. For the Black or Brown male or female, if a chambermaid or villain or terrorist or thug or brute isn’t too full a pill to swallow, arrangements can be made for a future blockbuster motion picture that stresses to do better.

Other colored kids don’t belong on LCD screens but in toxic, run-down, roach-infested, union-busting, underpaying factories—to sew and stuff the clothes and dolls Disney sells to Western children at hundreds of times the hourly wages earned by kids slave-laboring in China or Haiti. (For more, see the candid 1996 documentary, Mickey Mouse goes to Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation.) As one child in Orange County, Florida, is swiping a junior debit card to pay for a $23 T-shirt, emblazoned with the face of her favorite Disney pop star, another in Sonapi Industrial Park, Port-au-Prince, is swatting the sweat off her brows and hurrying, before dusk falls, to line up the edges of the same shirt which in a few months would be hung on a rack in some Florida Disney store.

But Disney, the mammoth media conglomerate it is, can flaunt weight and worth around without any worries. It can invade classrooms—as happened with five hundred 3rd grade students from eight Maryland schools in 2006, which helped pilot a “Comics in the Classroom” program employing Disney characters as literacy resources (“kids end up learning without even thinking about it,” the Vice President of Disney World Publishing bragged)—and little pushback is felt. It can sell to kids disposable icons like Miley Cyrus, star of the popular sitcom Hannah Montana, thereby reducing self-expression “to what a young person can afford to buy,” and only faint, distant objections are raised. It can offer crypto-fascism a facelift, with pictures like The Incredibles and The Path to 911, knowing well whatever criticisms fall its way wouldn’t stain a spot on its financial reputation. It can champion conservative causes openly, and sleep tight knowing the cloak of Innocence still spreads unruffled.

“The issue here,” Giroux and Pollock argue, “is not whether people read Disney differently, or even enjoy the glut of entertainment and commodities that the company dumps into the culture, but whether a democratic society can allow an ever-expanding corporate culture to blur the distinction between public and private, entertainment and history, and critical citizenship and consumer identity.” And Disney is today more important than ever, as it encroaches international and indigenous communities where, given its unremarkable human rights record and neoliberal devotions, “everything potentially becomes a commodity, including, and perhaps most especially, identity.”

With the elegant, former CEO Michael Eisner booted out in 2005, and the mild-mannered Roger Iger assuming position shortly after, many saw a moral sea-change and better days for/from Disney hovering over. Close reading, however, suggests differently: for while Eisner governed through imposition (“It doesn’t matter whether it comes in by cable, telephone lines, computer, or satellite. Everyone’s going to have to deal with Disney.”), Iger’s lash is no less swift. He prefers the new-neoliberal doctrine of illusion-of-choice, of selling customers fictional identities, of “empowering” citizens to carry out their civic duty—consume.

In 2005 Iger insisted to the Associated Press, “Consumers have a lot more authority these days and they know that by using technology they can gain access to content and they want to use the power they have. … We can’t stand in the way and we can’t allow tradition to stand in the way of where the consumer can go or wants to go.”

What Disney has for nearly a century packaged as family, wholesome fun and entertainment—totally innocent and innocuous—has meant the imposition of narrow and often prejudicial values, ingrained by kids, adults, and the larger society—in the U.S. and beyond. And though Disney may be a global, corporate force wielding enormous resources, those who find fault with its principles have no other choice but to fight on its own turf and terms—with kids, with adults, with society.

“Central to such a challenge,” advise Giroux and Pollock, “is the necessity of addressing how neoliberalism as a pedagogical practice and a public pedagogy operating in diverse sites has succeeded in reproducing in the social order a kind of thoughtlessness—a social amnesia of sorts—that makes it possible for people to look away as an increasing number of people are made disposable.”

Fighting Disney on its own turf and terms also means critically engaging multiple media forms, creating progressive versions, and refusing to be swept up by animation (as though computer-generated characters couldn’t command harmful suggestions). “Film watching involves more than entertainment,” admonish the authors: “it is an experience that reproduces the basic conditions of learning.”

Only then, by avid learning, can this very real war be won.

TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.