By Timothy Jarvis
The Walt Disney Company has, for decades, conveyed the narrative of what the ideal American family consists of by over-representing white, male-led, and middle-class values at whatever cost to members of society representing different demographics. Through the use of film, these messages are how the magic of Disney operates as an appeal to the dominant ideology.
The founder of The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney himself, had a highly specified agenda for his vision based on his life experiences and worldview (Byrne, McQuillan, 2011, p. 38) In 1901, Walt Disney was born into a family with strong midwestern American values in Missouri, which would stay with him for the rest of his life (p. 42). He held the nuclear family in high regard as inherently American, and often referenced his father’s values as the source of his inspiration (p. 43).
Ideals of the American dream would not only be the inspiration of his life, but it became the vision for The Walt Disney Company. Upon the beginning stages, it was clear to those around Disney how zealous his ambitions were. Uncompromising about his ideas, he often spoke of his creations as if they were real, and would make an impact on society (Byrne, McQuillan, 2011, p 43-44). His fertile imagination for his productions included what he coined as a “utopian society for families which later included a family-oriented theme park, Disneyland, which opened in Anaheim, California on July 17, 1955 (pp. 44-45).
With such a high degree of aspiration, Walt Disney’s political and ideological views would become paramount for The Walt Disney Company. As the scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux noted in his book, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, Walt Disney’s worldview was on the more conservative side of the spectrum (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, pp. 15-16). Disney political tendencies became known during World War II when the employees of his company decided to unionize, along with the vast majority of the country (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p. 17). Disney has no tolerance for such activity, and disbanded all unionized entities from The Walt Disney Company (p. 17-18). Since World War II, Disney employees have not been allowed to unionize (p. 19). In 1947, as McCarthyism began to set in, The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigated communist activity in the entertainment industry. During her hearings, Walt Disney claimed his workers were “full-blooded American” and the union was full of “un-American communists who were anti-family (pp. 19-20).
The ideology Walt Disney subscribed to manifested itself through his life’s work, especially in regards to film. The most archaic of Walt Disney Studios film were, without question, politically charged (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, pp. 128-129). Der Fuehrer’s Face, Education for Death, and The Spirit of ’43 were all short films Walt Disney himself wrote and directed. Each one of these uses the iconic Disney characters to convey a pro-American military message in opposition to the Axis powers in World War II. The United States government looked to Walt Disney for wartime morale-building through his film productions, more so than any other studio at the time (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, pp. 130-131). As Giroux puts it, “Disney’s history of making alliances with state power is not surprising, given its corporate interest in reaching a large audiences and perpetuating dominant cultural forms but not since its production of several films for the U.S. military during World War II has Disney participated in the dissemination of such overt political propaganda (p. 134).” With “its corporate interest in reaching a large audience and perpetuating dominant cultural forms,” it is no surprise how Walt Disney earned the reputation as a master of propaganda among scholars (pp. 135-136).
Disney’s highly effective use of propagada to build American morale in World War II would only mark the beginning of the film company’s ideological pursuits (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p. 145). The American dream and the nuclear family became the new dominant themes for decades, with the Disney’s iconic princess-era serving as the central ideal for reconstituting the nuclear family ( pp. 146-147).
For Americans, narratives of the ideal nuclear family typically depict four members consisting of two parents, two children, white, who live in a suburban area, with the father figure serving as the patriarchal leader (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p 150-152). That family structure is the most accepted understanding of what a nuclear family is, as opposed to an egalitarian family where each member of the family possesses more agency than the eldest male,something lacking from society in general (p. 152). However, as the typical representation of American families is mostly absent from Disney’s princess films, the narrative is devised around the princess’s quest to rebuilt and achieve the nuclear family structure. According to Belinda Marie Balraj of University Pertahanan National Malaysia, “single parents are a common theme in Disney films, [with] 63% of princesses having fathers and 25% mothers” (2013, p. 119). Not only are males the leaders of the princess’s life, but they are often raised with only one parent or none (Balraj, 2013, pp.120-121).
As Disney fairytales often begin with a princess’ life portrayed as bleak in the context of lacking family structure, the term “a Cinderella story” now derives its meaning from such a narrative (Stone, 1975, p 42). The “Cinderella story” is entrenched in society due to Disney repreated use of it across films. In The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Beauty, and the Beast, and Pocahontas, to name a few, the commonality of a solution to the princess’ nuclear family is held (Bryman, 2011, p 65-66). Without fail, female protagonists find a relationship with a male character by which the entire conflict of the plot is resolved in a “knight in shining armor” and “the prince charming” manner (Bryman, 2011, p 68). Males are consistently the resolution to the princess’ conflict of lacking a family, whereby the heterosexual relationship allows for nuclear families to be created (Bryman, 2011, p 70-72). In turn, the princess is not a well-developed character, as her solutions to her problems are beyond her control, making her a non-dynamic character. Furthermore, this only demonstrates the lack of agency princesses have over their own lives as they are designed to be dependent on someone else to solve their family issues (Bryman, 2011, p76-78).
Disney’s princess films provide a strong message for society and indicate to what degree such narratives have made an impact. As Peter Trifonas has noted in Simulations of Culture: Disney and the Crafting of American Popular Culture, falling in love with a near flawless partner and starting a family of their own is seen so often in these Disney films as the perfect ending to a conflict (Trifonas, 2001, p 25). It is self-evident that these are among the most powerful ideas of the American dream, and one needs to look no further than Disney’s most loyal followers to understand that.
Furthermore, within Disney culture, the problem is that the “ideal family” is exclusive to privilege the white, middle class and patriarchal demographic to whom the narrative is tailored to (Trifonas, 2001, pp. 26-27). Any individual outside the aforementioned demographic is excluded from what an ideal nuclear family constitutes. Such an assertion reinforces the idea of there being superior and inferior families in the strict confines of these societal standards (Trifonas, 2001, p. 29).
These notions have to lead to devastating effects on society in terms of practical matters as well, not simply in the abstract (Sperb, 2012, p 13). As Jason Sperb insightfully argued in his book, Disney’s Most Notorious Film, the Disney narrative is responsible for several social issues in the contemporary world (pp. 15-17). They include racial disparities among black and white families, wherein white families live in suburban areas compared to black families who live in urban ones (Sperb, 2012, p 23-25). As Sperb puts it, “in this framework lies the mechanism for presenting and legitimizing caste systems, hierarchies of gender and race, and structural inequality as a part of the natural order” (Sperb, 2012, p. 32). Sperb contends that the effects of this pervasive Disney narrative has to lead to unprecedentedly high divorce rates, mental health issues (such as clinical anxiety and depression among youth), and in extreme cases even domestic abuse (Sperb, 2012, p 36-40). Similarly, Giroux argues that the Disney narrative has impacted society in such a way that it can be damaging to the personal lives of the average citizen, resulting in what is perhaps the perfect scheme for the hegemonic elite (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p 147-148).
Disney Corporation serves as one of only six of the prime media companies in the world, accounting for some 42.28 billion dollars in media revenue annually. In terms of influencing children, Disney’s ability is unparalleled, with additions to the children and family franchise including India Jones, Marvel superheroes, Pixar, and Star Wars (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, pp. 180-182). The success of these Disney franchises is two-fold. First, their films have created a family culture in which the “Disney demographic (white, male-lead, middle class),” reasserts its social status (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p. 185). In American society, this continued to perpetuate the inequality among families, as not everyone has the privilege of simply watching films for leisure.
Secondly, with the acquisition of these movie franchises, the commercial success overseas has had a profound impact on individuals living outside America. For instance, in 2008, a small Disney theme park was established in Baghdad, Iraq (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p. 207). As Giroux explains, “critic[s] rightly observed that the park is a barely disguised promotion of American cultural values in the name of entertainment; the new complex is intended to help legitimize the U.S. occupation of Iraq by working to ‘depoliticizes Iraq youth and curb anti-American statement,” (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p. 207).
By using similar methods as its propaganda films of World War II, Disney continues to is promote a pro-American agenda around the world. The term for this phenomenon as many scholars have labeled it is cultural imperialism (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p 208-209). In this sense, Disney is just as much a part of politics as any government entity, only Disney is the imagination fueling the American dream. To reference Walt Disney’s words directly, “Why be a governor or a senator when you can be king of Disneyland?” (Giroux, Pollock, 2010, p. 210). Walt Disney has fulfilled exactly what he has implied, namely, a political position through his use of the powerful media enterprise.
Among all of the enigmatic figures that have defined American culture, Walt Disney has changed society in some of the most profound ways fathomable. The man who started his film career with propaganda pieces empowered The Walt Disney Company to continue his legacy through powerful dominant stories of the American dream and the nuclear family. For generations, the formulaic narrative of a princess coming from a broken family, only to be saved by a “prince charming,” has told females for generations that happiness is derived through patriarchal dependancy, which may contribute to high divorce rates. Moreover, the limited scope of the “Disney demographic” has disenfranchised those whose families and experiences are not represented, leading to devastating consequences on the nuclear family, including social, political, and economic disparities among black and white families. Finally, Walt Disney’s company is one of the most powerful media corporations in the world, spreading American cultural imperialism across all corners of the globe. A greater awareness of Disney’s power as a pervasive cultural storyteller and corporation is required to help families have more autonomy and agency in their lives and in society.
Student Author: Timothy Jarvis, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
Balraj, B. M. (2003). The Construction of Family in Selected Disney Films. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 3(11), 119-121. Retrieved May 13, 2018.
Bryman, A. (2011). The Disneyization of society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Byrne, E., & McQuillan, M. (2006). Deconstructing Disney. London: Pluto Press.
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Giroux, H. A., & Pollock, G. (1999). The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
Sperb, J. (2012). Disney’s most notorious film: race, convergence, and the hidden histories of song of the south. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Stone, K. (1975). Things Walt Disney Never Told Us. The Journal of American Folklore, 88 (347), 42-50.
Trifonas, P. (2001). Simulations of Culture: Disney and the Crafting of American Popular Culture. Educational Researcher,30 (1), 23-28.