I know what you're thinking, "How could Disney possibly go wrong?" At first glance, there is nothing wrong with the Disney franchise, but if you take a closer look, with critical eyes, you can find quite a bit wrong (sorry to burst your bubble).
When you think about Disney, what do you imagine? Princesses? Castles? Happy endings? Fairy Tales? Falling in love and true love's first kiss? All of that sounds well and good, but in reality, it is not painting the best of pictures for our children - primarily girls. Right now, you're probably thinking, "Great, another ridiculous feminism article trying to destroy something wonderful to prove a stupid point." This is where you're wrong. This is not an attempt to ruin Disney for you or you family. This goes beyond feminism.
I have been well aware, for quite some time now, of the assigned gender roles we are all given, from birth, that is then reinforced by society's standards of our assigned gender. I am currently enrolled in an Introduction to Sociology course, and was recently assigned to read the article "Animating Youth: the Disnification of Children's Culture" by Henry A. Giroux, and could not agree more with the points he was making. Despite what this might sound like, Giroux is not telling his audience that children should be prevented from watching Disney films, but rather is explaining how we can identify flaws within the movies, and the franchise as a whole, and use those flaws to better educate children.
It goes without saying that children are like sponges; they absorb everything they hear and see and regurgitate it, no matter what it is. As children grow, they find people who are important to them, real or fictional and identify them as significant others. These significant others very quickly become role models. This includes watching a Disney movie, becoming attached to a character, and having that character then become a role model or even an idealized self. We most commonly see this with little girls and the Disney princesses. When we see little girls wanting to dress up as and act like a princess, we often see it as something innocent and cute. However, allowing our girls to watch these movies over and over again further drills into their minds the stereotypical ideas of what is expected of them as a female. Females are typically taught that they are meant to be dainty and very proper, and also partaking in activities like ballet, reading, and playing dress up. They are taught to find a nice man to marry and to be a lovely housewife and mother.
Males, on the other hand, are taught quite the opposite. In fact, they are often taught that by participating in activities like those, their masculinity is being threatened. Males are taught that they are meant to be strong and tough, and play sports or build things. They're taught to get dirty. But why can't both genders be taught the same things? Disney princesses, as well as other Disney movie characters, reinforce these expected gender roles. In his article, Giroux explains, "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 in these films are ultimately subordinate to males, and define their sense of power and desire almost exclusively in terms of dominant male narratives [...] Ariel in this film becomes a metaphor for the traditional housewife-in-the-making narrative." He is entirely correct. Of course, at a young age, girls won't recognize that this is the case, however, as a parent or educator, we can identify these things and explain to young girls that while Ariel did fall in love and find a man to happily marry, thus getting her happy ending, that is not their only purpose in life; women are worth so much more than merely living life for a man and they can do so much more than just falling in love.
Here is where you might be thinking, "So? A movie can't do much damage." Well, you might not realize this, but Disney is more than just a movie production company. They are a massive franchise that turns entertainment into objects of consumption, and children into products of consumerism. Don't believe me? Think about it. From amusement parks to children's books, to the Disney Store, and more, Disney products are truly everywhere. Giroux goes on to explain that Disney is "more than a corporate giant, it is also a cultural institution." What he means that Disney goes beyond the average company with its products and goes above and beyond to be a part of a child's everyday life. They are not just making movies - they're making clothes, toys, and regular household items. They are creating a culture of imagination dependent upon gender roles and stereotypes. They are taking consumerism to the next level by almost forcing themselves int the lives of children, from the home to the classroom and everywhere in between. Disney does this very strategically, to the point where it almost goes unnoticed. Giroux explains, "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." Through their products, Disney makes it even more possible for a child to construct their "world of play" while discovering who they are. This is where Disney goes wrong. Children begin to discover who they are through pretend-play, through recreating these fantasy environments they see in movies, and through the gender roles that, at first, come across as subtle, but are actually very prevalent and archaic.
The truth of the matter is, Disney has created an empire. While these numbers listed by Giroux are outdated, they still prove his point. Just in 1994, which is also the year The Lion King was released, Disney made "$667.7 million in filmed entertainment, $330.00 million in consumer products, and $528.6 million from its theme parks and resorts." That is a whole lot of money; this is how they are so much more than a "corporate giant." They thrive on consumerism, and their films turn children into consumers at a very young age.
But wait, there's more!
Disney even not-so-subtly perpetuates white superiority. How, do you ask? The first way is the one you don't notice right off the bat. In Disneyland, they have a "Main Street USA," that is made up of Victorian styled buildings imitating the idea of small-town America back during the turn of the century. As described by Giroux, and seen by Disney's millions of visitor, this street is filled with ice cream parlors, barber shop quartets, and, at night, hosts their famous parade. Main Street USA is supposed to fill guests with nostalgia and happiness, but the issue with the structure of this street is that, as Jon Wiener feels in Giroux's article, "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 legitimize 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.'" While you might think this is a stretch, you need to take a step back and think about the time in our country that this street is modeled after. Think about the state in which society was in. Think about where we were as far as civil rights go. Racial inequality was nothing shy of a terrifying issue. Sure, this might be one of the more subtle ways in which Disney is perpetuating the problem, but in some films, like Aladdin, this is not the case.
Disney doesn't hold back either. They set the tone for racial stereotypes right in the opening song, "Arabian Nights." This song includes a lyric that goes as followed: "Where they cut off your ear - If they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." Giroux connects this portrayal of the Arab community to the way media has presented this community during the time of the Gulf War. Disney goes further by separating Aladdin from the other Arabs in his community. As expected, there was outrage. Giroux includes a statement from the former spokesman for the South Bay Islamic Association, Yousef Salem, who spoke out against the film, pointing out the already obvious stereotypes, "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 doesn't have an accent. What makes him nice is they've given him this American character."
If Aladdin is from the same country as his villains, speaks the same language, and is of the same culture, why does he not have the same qualities of these villains? Why are the villains the ones that contain these qualities, allowing Arabs to be painted in a very negative light? Disney did take actions to remove part of the offensive lyrics, replacing it with "Where it's flat and immense -- And the heat is intense." However, they did not remove the lyrics about things being barbaric. Giroux further states, "the misinterpretation 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." This is how we contribute to racial stereotypes and biases. This is how we form prejudices from a very early age in an almost seemingly innocent way.
However, despite all of this, Giroux does not leave his article off by saying that parents should stop allowing their children to watch Disney movies. Instead, he explains how we can continue to allow our children to watch these movies, but while doing so, we need to make them aware of what is going on. Parents should take the time to let their daughters know that their only purpose in life is not to find a handsome man to marry and be a traditional housewife for, to not yell at their sons for trying on a princess dress, to educate them on what a racial stereotype is and how the ones they are seeing are not true, and to explain to them what a true America is. Parents and educators have the power to change the way children perceive things, in both good ways and bad. Don't think that they are too young to be learning about gender roles and racial coding and stereotyping. In fact, the younger they learn this, the better! With or without Disney, we should be teaching children these things; they should be learning about diversity and gender. This is how we help them discover themselves.
I will say that Giroux does neglect to recognize that not every parent allows their children to just mindlessly watch TV. Not all parents avoid talking to their children about gender and diversity. Are there parents that do? Sure, but that is not every parent. There are other factors that contribute to a child perceiving Disney movies in the ways Giroux talks about. If parents encourage their children to pursue whatever activity they wish, regardless of the gender that is assigned to that activity by society, and allows them to pursue whatever career choice they have, and is supportive of whatever gender they choose, and teaches them to not judge others based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, spoken language, etc, then this is less of an issue than Giroux makes it out to be. In fact, the impact these films have on children is probably significantly smaller than Giroux has made it seem. Does that mean we should just ignore it then?
No. Does is definitely contribute to a preexisting problem? Yes. But, Disney has come a long way, especially since this article. Movies like Frozen prove this. Frozen showed little girls that they don't need to fall in love with a handsome man trying to pursue them. And that's only one example, but proves a very important point. Even their newest film, Moana, shows significant change. We can only hope that Disney continues on a positive path and chooses to include more diverse cultures in their films. Heck, maybe one day, they'll even include the defiance of gender roles or represent other sexual orientations aside from cisgender heterosexuals. So keep showing your children Disney movies. Keep encouraging their imagination, because if there is one thing Disney does do right, it's encouraging children to dream. Times have changed. Times are continuing to change. Hopefully, Disney will continue to, too.
If you have the time, read Giroux's article, "Animating Youth: the Disnification of Children's Culture" so that you can read it all the way through, not just the select quotes I included. It is worth the read.