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This essay will consider how Disney films can be regarded as projecting a range of stereotypes in film which seek to define what is normal and natural in society. I hope to reveal that these images actually are consciously constructed to adhere to and reinforce dominant ideological values and are a part of the ‘Disneyfication’ process where everything is homogenized and turned into a product (See Bryman 2004). This entails the repetition of stereotypes from film to film in the arena of gender, sexuality and race, and while these roles vary slightly throughout the years, they remain largely consistent between 1923 when Disney was founded and 2010 when their most recent film Tangled (Greno & Howard, 2011) was released. The fact that these stereotypes are so conservative has prompted a range of writers to criticise the impact Disney has had on American and even global society. Giroux stated in The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999) that “There are few cultural icons in the United States that can match the signifying power of the Disney Company” (2001: 123). He is not alone in his criticism of Disney; writers like Wasko (2001) and Bell (1999) have joined the ranks of those seeking to elucidate how pervasive Disney’s influence has become. I will consider the impact these films potentially have on children, especially in the way their world views are formed.
I will consider several Disney films in seeking to explore these stereotypes: Tangled, The Princess and the Frog (Clements & Musker, 2009)
The Lion King (Allers & Rob Minkoff, 1994), Aladdin (Clements & Musker, 1992) and The Little Mermaid (Clements & John Musker, 1989) as I believe these all can be seen as very reflective of the societies in which they were produced and reveal Disney’s world view. I will argue how the fact that these films are aimed at young people make them even more powerful. The Disney film seeks to naturalize these stereotypes, presenting them as part of the natural order, when in fact they are nothing of the sort. The world that Disney has constructed has historically tended to be defined and largely populated by white heterosexual characters, even when the narratives reside in the animal world. I will show how some of these more contemporary texts offer partial challenges to these norms while simultaneously reinforcing the predominantly hegemonic world view. I intend to approach the films from a semiotic, sociological and psychoanalytical perspective in an attempt to deconstruct the role these films play in society. In doing so I have attempted to look at the texts in as objective a manner as possible and read them as artistic artefacts to suggest what they say about the times and the culture in which they are made. I would argue that films are the most powerful of all artistic texts with a tremendous ability to move and motivate people in ways they often cannot understand or even register. Governments have regularly put the cinema to use in mobilising the public to support their political ideas, both in an explicit fashion (see the Soviet propaganda films made by Eisenstein and Pudovkin during the aftermath of the revolution in Russia in 1917) and in more implicit ways (for this we could consider how Hollywood films have continued to promote a variety of versions of the American Dream especially in the 1930s and 1940s). A lot has been written about Disney, especially in the fields of race and gender and these texts have been very useful in informing my critical approach to Disney as a company and a signifying entity.
The Central Question
How do Disney films and other Disney products influence young people and their lives? I would argue that far from being a benign and harmless relationship the connection between Disney and its consumers, as that is what they are, is a powerful one which starts at a very early age. Children are exposed to Disney images almost from birth on Disney’s television channels and then at the cinema, then on home DVD. I suggest that this surreptitiously informs their world view in quite significant ways. This is especially perfidious because these texts are deliberately targeted at the young and impressionable who lack the defences and reasoning skills adults have developed which enable them to resist such strong images. The world view that Disney normalises for them is one in which certain behaviours are depicted as being the norm and even certain races, sexualities and gender roles are assigned with positive and negative attributes. A key aspect of these process is the way in which Disney films market themselves as safe, innocent and even morally educational, suggesting to the parents that to entrust their children to Disney is to embrace something that is more than a company but something akin to a family. I hope to show in this essay that this is just another cynical marketing ploy that Disney employs to engender support for the company, and ultimately generate more revenue for the corporation.
Since 1923 Disney has become an almost unrivalled multi media empire. However, Walt Disney did not believe his films were culturally influential, he suggested they were “just entertainment” (qtd in Wasko 2001: 3). Critics like Ward disagree and assert that such films aimed at young people “can shape the way children think about who they are and who they should be” (2002: 5). Disney films can be considered to promote sexist or even misogynist values to young women as the roles women are afforded are very limited and the narratives place men in positions of power. Here it is clear that Disney fits into stereotypes that reach across the breadth of Hollywood into all of its genres. Laura Mulvey argued that Hollywood reproduces the hegemonic and patriarchal society by presenting certain roles and images as the norm. In her analysis women are portrayed in a very reductive manner and presented as scopophilic objects for the purpose of being looked at by males and in the process dominated. In Mulvey’s understanding Hollywood is part of the systematic process which reinforces the patriarchal ideology and we can see this at work from early Hollywood until now. Her works poses a lot of questions for audiences? Why do women get so few leading roles? Why are they relegated in films and cast as sex objects for the male oriented narratives? Why are women that transgress the natural order punished in Hollywood cinema? We can observe that this process works on two levels: the films both recreate and perpetuate dominant ideological values. Mulvey commented, “There is no way in which we can produce an alternative [to the conservative values that Hollywood reproduces] out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one” (Mulvey 1989: 15). I would argue that Disney films are an effective embodiment of many aspects of Mulvey’s central thesis.
In the history of Disney films women have largely tended to be defined as either perfectly pure princesses (to be valued, idealised and cherished and ultimately married), villains (who transgress unspoken ‘laws’ of society by being corpulent, unattractive or refusing to submit to patriarchal dominance), mothers (who give up their independence, sexuality and individuality to be subsumed into the male defined family unit), or variations of these archetypes. Despite often being the protagonist (and having the film named after them), they are relegated to subservient positions in the narrative or rely on men for their ultimate salvation. Attractiveness is a key feature in Disney and it has been since even before Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Women are categorized by whether they are attractive or not and beauty becomes a key to their moral status and their happiness. The goal for a woman in Disney films is often love, not a career or intellectual growth, and these visions of womanhood are presented as something every woman should aspire to, without exception. If a woman departs from this stereotype she is shunned within the diegesis and presented as a corruption. Bell suggested there were only three predefined roles for females in Disney texts 1) beautiful young heroines, 2) cruel mother figures and 3) harmless, asexualised elderly women. (See Bell 1995) Here we see the imagery and ideology young girls are exposed to before they are old enough to understand and be critical of it. They are informed that to be ‘a whole and happy person’ they must be beautiful, define themselves through relationships with the opposite sex and be submissive to their fathers and then their husbands. For me this is far from a healthy ideology to promote to young girls and offers up a disturbing and unbalanced gender relationship at a very important period in a young person’s life.
We can see examples of this paradigm in the majority of Disney texts produced over the years. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves we have Snow White as the beautiful heroine and The Wicked Stepmother as the cruel mother archetype. Cinderella contains the eponymous character as the beautiful heroine, the sisters as cruel figures and the fairy godmother as asexualized elderly woman. If we consider some more modern examples we can see how far things have changed, or discern whether they have not changes at all. The Little Mermaid (1989) features the heroine Ariel, a beautiful young woman and mermaid at the centre of the narrative, she is slightly more independent than the antecedents that came before her, but she too is defined by her pursuit of love. She challenges her father, Triton, at the beginning of the narrative, eager to not be a part of a show being performed for him. Near the end of the film Ariel even gives up her identity for the sake of her true love. So despite minor changes, she is still forced to make sacrifices that men in Disney films are not asked to make. It is no coincidence that the heroine of the film is beautiful and young and the villain of the film is the old, overweight and unattractive Ursula, who seeks to steal identity and power and by going outside of the norm can only be thought of as a corruption. This implicitly connotes that if a woman is not young, attractive and compliant she is then a threat to society. Supporters of Disney will suggest that these texts are ‘just’ films, harmless entertainment for young people, but what moral lessons are they to draw from the ideologies presented? In my opinion they are far from innocent texts devoid of cultural meaning, they are immensely powerful artefacts that structure how young people look at the world.
The Little Mermaid was also accused of racism on its release, the character of Sebastian the underwater crab was felt by many to be a stereotype of a Jamaican man who enjoys a lazy life under the sea which he prefers to the surface. The song he sings is suggestive of this “Up on the shore they work all day, Out in the sun they slave away, While we devotin’, Full time to floatin’, Under the sea!” This is just another example of how Disney chooses to frame certain characteristics in distinctly racial terms. The choice to have the character a black man embody this aspect perpetuates the racist stereotype that has remained pervasive in the society and here it is projected at children.
Disney’s newest film, Tangled, makes an interesting addition to the Disney oeuvre as it both subverts and reinforces some of these archetypes. It concerns the familiar fairy tale story Rapunzel, but like many modern adaptations (See Dreamworks’ Shrek, 2001) it deconstructs its tropes and its codes and conventions. Bruno Betelheim in his influential The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales suggested that stories like this imparted powerful notions of ideology to generations through the ages and reflect what a society arbitrarily decides is moral and just. We can see this approach very much apparent in the work of Disney who often draw on these fairy tales in their films and see they role as some sort of unofficial moral educator for generations of children, whether they state this or not. The protagonist of the Tangled, Rapunzel, is a young woman who is, as per usual blonde, white and slim. One could ask what kind of messages this sends to young women? They suggest that the way for happiness and success is through youth and beauty. That being young and looking a certain way makes you ‘normal’ and fit into society. If you do not fit this paradigm then you are relegated from the narrative or cast as the villain. The way Disney promotes these messages is so veiled that the youths watching may never regard the issue so explicitly, but it is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it is hard to ignore. In this way films and the way people identify with the cinema screen can be associated with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage. Lacan suggested that the child at the age of between six and eighteen months see themselves in the mirror and believe it not to be a reflection but the self in its entirety. Thus the way a spectator identifies and subsumes itself into the characters it sees projected on the cinema screen is just as illusory as the process the baby goes through. This is only one example of how a psychological approach to Disney is useful in coming to understand the film as texts with cultural resonance. Whether one holds with this theory or not it is clear that these images of princesses hold a distinct fascination for young girls which can be seen in the amount of merchandise that is sold across the world focusing on characters like Snow White, Cinderella and Ariel. Disney presents these figures as iconic characters that girls of the world should aspire to be like instead of doctors, authors, scientists and politicians.
Rapunzel is more independent than Disney’s usual heroines; she is not averse to action and combat, in fact when she first comes across Flynn, the dashing hero of the film she knocks him out. Rapunzel is also intelligent, quick witted and humorous, attributes that are not always connected to women in Disney films. Here we see evidence of Disney’s ability to move somewhat with the times and identify that the needs of their audiences have changed since the 1950s, but I would argue that this is performed in a cynical fashion, seeking to anticipate what would sell to an audience rather than a desire to present more balanced role models for young women. The antagonist of the film is much more predictable, a cruel mother figure called Gothel who has kidnapped Rapunzel and imprisoned her in a tower, leaving Rapunzel unaware of the fact that she is a princess. Gothel uses Rapunzel’s powers to keep herself young. By being ignorant of her royal lineage the film places Rapunzel resolutely within the fantasy of young women discovering they are princesses, an enduring trope particularly relevant in the last few years given media fascination with the courtship and eventual marriage between Prince William and a ‘commoner’ Kate Middleton. Not only is Rapunzel a princess, but she secretly has magic powers and later we discover her tears can heal wounds and even bring the dead back to life.
The character of Flynn embodies many archetypes familiar to the Disney canon, his swaggering posture denotes that is the handsome and dashing rogue with a heart of gold. It is worth pausing to consider that, while males are given more variety of characterization in Disney films than women, they still are forced into certain stereotypes of attractiveness, bravery and what constitutes masculinity. Disney makes one or two concessions to new millennial masculinity in portraying that underneath Flynn’s brash exterior he is sensitive. In a sequence where they both believe they are about to die Flynn reveals his real name is the considerably less dashing Eugene Fitzherbert.
Yet despite these progressive aspects to Rapunzel’s character the film also has her life given meaning through her love for Flynn. Flynn proves the catalyst for her self-discovery and she is rarely a casual narrative agent of her own. She is the latest in a long line of Disney heroines that require a man to save her and teach her what true love is. The film ends with Gothel being killed; by moving outside of what is regarded as normal and moral behavior for women she must be punished. Rapunzel then marries Flynn and in doing so she has achieved the ultimate goal, in Disney’s eyes, of what young girls must aspire to. At the beginning of the new millennium Disney believes that it is appropriate and right to suggest to young women that what they should dream of above all else, above a career, education, excitement, travel or adventure, is marriage with a young man.
The other prominent arena that Disney has been criticised for is its depiction of racial stereotypes in its films. From its very early days Disney films were permeated with racist characterisations which were delivered in the same way: as harmless depictions of how things really were and in no way a moral statement at all. One could point to how the crows in Dumbo (1941) or the Arabs in Aladdin are framed in distinctly racial and pejorative terms. It wasn’t until 2010 that Disney produced a film with a black princess, The Princess and the Frog and the film emerges as a very interesting and ambiguous text. The film is set in New Orleans in 1912 and it too is a reinterpretation of a familiar fairytale updated for modern audiences. The princess is Tiana and, on the outside, she seems like a fairly modern construction. When her mother reads her the fairy story ‘The Frog Princess’ at the start of the film unlike her friend Charlotte La Bouff, she rejects it, stating that she would never kiss a frog. This is one of many ways the film ironically comments on its own status as a fairytale text and allows the film-makers to make gestures towards contemporary attitudes and values. When the narrative moves to 1926, Tiana is far from what might be considered an ‘ivory tower princess’, as she works two jobs in an effort to save money and open her own restaurant. By portraying her as an industrious young business woman the film seems to be suggesting that there is more in life for young girls to aspire to than becoming a princess, wife or mother.
However despite this the film relies on the old fashioned stereotypes that have permeated Disney since the very beginning with regards to how women should look. Tiana is black, yet she is beautiful, slim and pale skinned and thus contributes to the inculcation of a certain stereotype that Princesses must look a certain way. Again we must ask, how would young girls who do not look this way respond? When a prince is changed into a frog she agrees to kiss him in exchange for enough money to open her restaurant, but is surprised when she too turns into a frog. So while Tiana spends a large section of the film asserting her individuality through her hard work and feisty attitude she finds herself completed by the love of a man. The film does offer some variations on the stereotype of the male hero, in more or less the same way as Tangled, near the end of the film it is the sensitive prince Naveen who states that he is willing to give up his dreams for her, an act that is usually given to the woman to perform. When they are initially unable to change back to human form, they proclaim their love for one another and state that they will be happy to live as frogs as long as they are together. However, when they kiss Tiana becomes a princess and thus breaks the spell turning them both back into humans.
Like Tangled, the film offers both improvements to Disney’s traditionally conservative portrayals and also it perpetuates some of the same old stereotypes. I would argue that the film uses racial stereotypes in a different way to the way Disney has historically. By dwelling on voodoo, in particular in the character of the voodoo master Dr. Facilier, it relegates African identity to a crudely stereotyped Other. He is a malicious and evil characterization who, by transgressing the natural order, must be punished at the end of the narrative.
The film Aladdin was also accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes on its release in 1992. As Disney moved into depicting an Arab culture in one of its films many predicted it would conjure up similar antiquated and racist characters. It too takes a familiar fairy tale and deconstructs it as became the trend in the 1990s and into the new millennium. The story follows a young boy, Aladdin, and his relationship with an evil wizard, Jafar, as they battle for the powers of a magic lamp which contains a genie. Critics felt that the film dwelled on images of barbarism and cruelty by Arabs which audiences would equate with the contemporary Muslim world. A particular song in the film was targeted by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as being an embodiment of the attitude of the film towards the Middle East, its lyrics went “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home”. In subsequent releases on video and DVD they were changed to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” It is quite obvious that those with lighter skins are placed on the side of good and those with darker skins are evil. Giroux states that the ‘bad’ Arabs in the film are determined by their “thick, foreign accents” and the ‘good’ Arabs like Jasmine and Aladdin “speak in standard American English”. (1999: 105) The film was criticized for something Disney has historically done with many of its non white characters throughout the years, that is anglicize their features. We can see this in the case of not only Aladdin and Jasmine in Aladdin but Pocahontas and Mulan. Disney takes non-white characters and makes them appear more white in appearance than they actually are and thereby less threatening for the audience who they presume might be offended by watching an non-white character as a protagonist. The case of Aladdin and Jasmine is quite clear as they are changed from looking like Arabs to almost twentieth century American who happen to have healthy tans. It is no coincidence that the character was Aladdin seems to have been modeled on perhaps the all American symbol of the 1980s and 1990s, Tom Cruise. Such Manichean and racist accounts of morality can be found across the whole of Disney where the idea of evil is encapsulated by the dark skinned and obviously Arabic wizard Jafar.
One of Disney’s greatest critical and commercial successes in the modern era is undoubtedly The Lion King. It too is an example of a film which, arguably, embodies both the sexism and racism in inherent in the Disney world. It is an original rites of passage drama about a young cub Simba, who sees his father the King Mufasa killed. Scar tricks Simba into thinking he was responsible for his father’s death causing Simba to flee the kingdom in shame. The throne is claimed by Simba’s cruel uncle Scar who had orchestrated the king’s death. Throughout the course of the narrative women are almost entirely marginalized from the film and the realms of power and responsibility are only occupied by men. This is another way that female roles are constructed in Disney films, by legitimizing gender power relations and naturalising such imbalances. Here one might ask whether Disney are being sexist or just reflecting existing social structures in the real world? However this process of legitimization results in further exacerbation of such existing structures by reinforcing them. Like other Disney films this process is deemed as normal and part of the natural order, attention is not drawn to it within the plot and it is depicted as historically inherent and normal. The only female characters of note are Simba’s mother who is relegated to the sidelines and the young cub which Simba grows to marry. Her only function is to act as a catalyst to prompt Simba to return to do his masculine duty and reclaim the throne. At the end of the film she has another role and that is to provide a son and heir for Simba when he becomes King.
The villain of the film, Scar, has conspicuously darker skin than his biological relatives in the film and he is distanced from them by the fact that he speaks with an English accent. The creation of such a racial Other has been a historic strategy by Disney throughout the company’s history. In modern films their racism is not so obvious as it once was but there is still an assumption that a villain must deviate from what society regards as normal, that is he or she must be non-white, overweight or old. Perhaps the film’s most racist element is the army of hyenas which Scar commands are also depicted as distinctly part of a racial minority in the way they speak: inner city, jive talk. When finding a group of characters supposed to represent menace and evil, Disney falls back on the same hackneyed stereotype it has used for more than fifty years. Critics of the film charged that The Lion King made racism and sexism acceptable and part of the natural order. Ward stated “when racism and sexism becomes the norm that appears to represent reality, then Disney has lost its moral high ground” (2002: 32). In recent times outside of Disney films directors like George Lucas and Michael Bay have been criticised for using the same stereotypes in their films. In The Phantom Menace (1997) the character of Jar Jar Binks was criticised by being a bumbling and foolish character who happened to speak with a Jamaican accent. In Transformers 2 (2009) the characters of Mudflaps and Skids were regarded as racist for the same reason.
Many Disney films have come under a lot of criticism for including subliminal messages in their films in particular hidden erotic images like a phallus from The Little Mermiad, the word sex across the sky written in the clouds in The Lion King, and nudity in The Rescuers and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. After these criticisms Disney often removed the offending images from the video and DVD release of the films. They were mostly done by disenfranchised animators during the long and laborious process of animating a film which can last for several years. The powers of subliminal messages are well documented and it might be argued that this is another reason why Disney films should not be handed over to children to be watched without care and attention. Techniques like this have been used in advertising for decades to sell products and here in films targeted at families and children it is hard to tell what the effects may be. These stories of images in Disney films inspired the episode in the satirical Fight Club where the protagonist Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) splices images from pornography into family films. The audiences do not ever know consciously what they have seen, but somewhere in their brain it registers, the scene ends with a shot of a little girl crying for a reason she doesn’t understand.
A concept which I feel has been largely neglected in most academic studies of Disney that I have read is the fact that children growing up in the Disney era being introduced to fairy tales through the Disney process rather than in one of their original forms. Of course this is a considerable shame for a variety of reasons: 1) that the stories are distinctly Americanised and populated with white characters and lack the diversity which can be found in many of the original texts. 2) That children are being (and have been for many decades) effectively raised by the television and having these stereotypes inculcated into them from a very early age. 3) That these rich stories are being manufactured to act as devices through which to sell products to children which, I would argue, perverts the important role which fairy tales play in our society.
One must consider Disney’s power as a cultural signifier in this first decade of the twenty-first century. Disney now has television stations that are projected into people’s living rooms everyday rather than once or twice a year when people take their children to see the latest Disney film at the cinema. This changes things in the sense that the company achieves an even greater intimacy with the consumer from an even earlier age. Fortunately this has coincided with what we might regard as greater awareness on issues of media culpability, although how much of this has filtered into the mainstream audience remains to be seen. I believe that the majority of parents regard the Disney brand as an example of ‘safe and sincere’ entertainment that is automatically suitable for young people.
Disney has branched out to produce hugely successful shows aimed at the wide spectrum of different demographics within the family audience from the very young, those dubbed ‘tweens’, into the early teenage years and beyond with shows like Hannah Montana which fit into the mould established within Disney’s animated films. These shows are vibrant and aspirational and on the surface have positive messages for young people. However, as we have seen with Disney films this fails to account for what they leaves out of these narratives. There are very few characters from ethnic minorities, or with disabilities, or those who have different sexualities, or children who look different from the bright, predominantly white, clean teens that occupy the central positions in these shows. One might ask how relevant these characterisations are around the world? Or to children living in America who do not come from so obviously affluent families? Disney might argue that these shows are inspirational, but for many they ignore the realities of a large part of their audience forced to identify with characters very different to themselves.
There can be no doubt that Disney has changed, to a certain extent, with the times both on the cinema screen and in the home entertainment arena. Many of Disney’s television shows and films pay lip service to issues of political correctness as we have observed in films like The Frog Princess and Mulan. But I think it is still clear to see that a fundamental shift in Disney’s approach to the social and political realities of the world has yet to happen. Disney has continued to perpetuate many racial stereotypes even in recent films, when they must have been aware of the impact of these issues and how important they have become to many parts of their audience.
It is clear to see that Disney are one of the most influential media companies in the entire world and to deny their influence on successive generations of youths is impossible. Once this influence is accepted one asks, what kind of influence is it? Peter and Rochelle Schweizer in Disney: the Mouse Betrayed: Greed, Corruption, and Children at Risk (1998) argue that Disney’s image of wholesome and nostalgic Americana is a self-consciously created one that is only formed to generate income for the company. Disney films are not benign artefacts, but texts full of extremely potent symbols rife with meaning and ready to be decoded by people willing to look a bit deeper for these sorts of message in cultural texts. The images of gender and race we have seen in this essay seem harmless on the surface, but when considered closely one sees that the kind of ideals and norms they present to children they might not be as benign as they first appear and for this reason alone they are worthy of further study. These images have tended to be ignored in the mainstream media as Giroux comments “The more liberal critiques often entirely ignore the racist, sexist and anti-democratic ethos that permeates Disney films” (1999: 85).
Here we must identify something that often slips by parents in their relationship with Disney, the fact that it is a capitalist corporation designed to earn money for its shareholders. This is often lost in the fondly remembered nostalgia consumers have for the films of their childhood. This is perhaps one of the most effective marketing strategies in the history of modern America, how the company has sought to convince consumers that it does not real
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