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Disney: The Evil Empire?

Is Disney truly evil or are people just jealous of winners? Mouse-mashing has developed over the past 15 years. Martin “Dr. Toon” Goodman theorizes why and defends the House of Mouse in this month's column.

The Mouse That Roared and Disney: The Mouse Betrayed blast the Disney empire from both the right and left.

The Mouse That Roared and Disney: The Mouse Betrayed blast the Disney empire from both the right and left.

 It’s a nice conceit to believe that everybody loves a winner. As things outside the world of aphorism typically work, it turns out that some people love a winner. Others react with jealousy, resentment, sniping, and the stinging thought that the winner could have — should have — been themselves. Others attack the winner’s character, measure the winner against narrow and dogmatic constraints to find him/her badly wanting, or in some cases hate the winner for no clear-cut reason other than the fact that they are winners.

Since few entities have attained personal or moral perfection, detractors are helped along by a winner’s obvious or perceived flaws, which are then tirelessly harped upon despite any number of notable achievements the winner may have attained. Depressingly enough, the bigger a winner may be, the louder and more numerous the bashers and the more desperate their declamations. So it goes for presidents, performers, celebrities, sports teams such as the Yankees and Lakers, or corporations such as Microsoft... or Disney.

Disney-bashing is a relatively new phenomenon, developing over the past 15 years or so. Before that era, Disney was synonymous with wholesome family entertainment, iconic animation and exciting theme parks that provided a dizzying scope of experiences. Mouse-mashing has taken place in the shadow of two contexts: First, the notion of Disney as an “evil empire” has grown proportionally with the company’s expansions and acquisitions; to many this represents increasing amounts of corporate money that can be (and sometimes is) used for political influence. The second context concerns the increasingly contentious public discourse between the cultures of the liberal left and conservative right, who perceive themselves beneficiaries or victims of said political influence. It is almost a certainty that an economic entity the size of Disney would be trapped in the crossfire.

Is there sex in The Lion King? © The Walt Disney Company.

Is there sex in The Lion King? © The Walt Disney Company.

 Disney’s recent record of mergers, acquisitions and expansions has resulted in impressive profits, but these will not be discussed in this article. I am not a business journalist nor am I an economic analyst. The focus of this article is the befouling that Disney has experienced in recent years across both poles of the ideological spectrum. Although there are numerous printed and Web resources available for perusal, two recent books do a nice job summing up how the left and right have seen fit to castigate Uncle Walt’s Kingdom.

The fire on the right comes from Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, whose 1998 book, Disney: The Mouse Betrayed, highlighted alleged abuses at Disney theme parks and Disney’s moral degeneration under Michael Eisner. The book is published by Regnery Press (a regular publisher of conservative-oriented material), and the Schweizers also chose the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s syndicated TV program as the forum from which to tout their tome. The Schweizers, along with organizations of the religious right, are some of Disney’s most vociferous enemies, decrying Disney films and boycotting their products.

 Among the charges in The Mouse Betrayed are Disney’s promotion of homosexuality, political correctness, pornography and eco-feminist agendas that undermine family values. There are also charges that Disney promulgates Satanism through their cinematic subsidiaries. As far as Disney animation goes, all the tired old charges are repeated; hidden sexual symbols in films; the embedded word SEX appearing in The Lion King; the phallic video cover and the bishop’s “erection” in The Little Mermaid; Aladdin instructing teenagers to take off their clothes; the adult, allegedly sacrilegious themes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In reading the book, one becomes more suspicious that Disney’s greatest crime in the Schweizer’s eyes is Eisner’s support of Bill Clinton and the despised Democratic Party.

The left is no kinder. Henry Giroux, prominent professor of education at Penn State, has had it in for Disney since the mid-'90s. A keen observer on how cultural hegemonies are formed and maintained, Giroux came out with his own book, The Mouse That Roared, in 1999. Giroux’s version of the Evil Empire depicts a company that insidiously influences social and political discourse through products disguised as entertainment. In Giroux’s opinion, this influence is decidedly toward... the conservative right!

In a 1995 essay predating the book entitled, Animating Youth: the Disnification of Children’s Culture, Giroux accuses modern cultural studies of neglecting children’s culture, and thus “surrender the responsibility to challenge increasing attempts by corporate moguls and conservative evangelists to reduce generations of children to either consumers for new commercial markets or Christian soldiers for the evolving Newt Gingrich world order.”

It is somewhat evident by now that that the Newt won’t be leading anyone anywhere, but the point is made. In Giroux’s version of Disney, being white, suburban, middle class, (and subservient if one is female), goes happily along with consumerist capitalism, and such is the agenda Disney transmits to kids.

Reading the two books in sequence can be a truly disorienting experience. It amazes the reader that both authors can analyze films like The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas, and make feminist interpretations (Schweitzers) and antifeminist, patriarchal takes (Giroux) on the same films. Yet, this is how the culture wars are fought today, and both right and left claim the high ground in pumping the Disney empire full of holes. I proclaim a plague on both their houses. Perhaps we should turn that hell spot so despised by both sides, Disney World, over to their competing camps and let them duke it out as they may.

I, for one, would love to hear the catcalls and jeers cascading between Pat Robertson’s “Christian Haunted Castle Ride” on one side and the Rigoberta Menchu “People’s Space Mountain Collective” on the other. Better still to ignore both factions and go on exercising the free will that neither side will admit is your own.

Little Mermaid and Pocahontas are interpreted as both feminist and anti-feminist propaganda by the right and left. © The Walt Disney Company.

Little Mermaid and Pocahontas are interpreted as both feminist and anti-feminist propaganda by the right and left. © The Walt Disney Company.

Singling out Disney as the avatar of cultural and moral degeneration is useful to both archconservatives and liberals in that Disney is a large and easy target spread over a vast number of domains. In truth, Disney is likely not an instrument of Satan, feminists, eco-freaks, pornographers or gays. It is not an “evil empire” any more than it is the upholder of all that is innocent, good or righteous. The Walt Disney Company is an unfettered conglomerate in a free market, a richly diversified economic entity responsive to the vagaries and trends of market demands.

With that role comes creative delights, questionable business practices, multiple sources of profit, and cheesy merchandise. There can be the unquestioned triumph of Beauty and the Beast or the resounding disaster of Treasure Planet. In an increasingly global economy, Disney both makes — and rides — the tide. Interpretations may abound, but... why an Evil Empire?

The problem, indeed, lies in the concept of “evil” as used against Disney. There is nothing inherently wrong with cultural criticism. It is the fusion of ideology and moral judgment that sours the critical pot. It is fair to examine whether Disney perpetuates the white-middle-class- Republican status quo but a certain line is crossed when the company is decried as a rampant engine of capitalist/consumerist global domination. It is eminently fair to scrutinize the content of Disney’s films, but unacceptable to condemn them as anti-family because the company’s ceo chose to support a certain political party, supposedly a right in a democratic nation. Virtually forgotten in the culture wars is the fact that Disney has produced some of the world’s finest entertainment while this tiresome skirmishing has been going on. And so, looking neither left nor right, here are some of the “evil empire’s” more beneficent gifts to the people.

Beginning in 1989, the Disney animation studio has produced some of the best films in the studio’s history. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and, more recently, Lilo and Stitch are new classics of American cinema. Even less than stellar efforts such as Hercules and Pocahontas easily outstripped the competition until DreamWorks showed up, and that company has a long way to go to usurp the Disney legacy. Disney is not the premier animation studio because shamans in Eisner’s pay have been sticking voodoo pins into Richard Rich or Don Bluth. Disney animation has been, and remains, extremely proficient at what it attempts to do. Disney also participated in studio team-ups that produced gems like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it was under the Disney aegis that Pixar was able to stun the world with the Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. Although the companies may soon be parting ways, the benefits to both (and audiences) have been tremendous.

The diversification of that same entertainment has led Disney to venues of presentation that no other studio has attempted. Disney has made use of contractual arrangements with the IMAX corporation, (headed by the son of ex-Disney savant Ub Iwerks), in order to present its films in six-story, surround sound glory, just as Walt would have wanted. Disney has parlayed other animated films into successful ice shows and Broadway presentations as well. This appears to represent successful entertainment more than successful attempts to enforce a conservative hegemony or further some gay/feminist/anti-religious agenda.

Speaking of diversification, despite the many howls of those who hate the dubs, the music or just the company, Disney has been instrumental in distributing the works of Hayao Miyazaki throughout the U.S., giving them a popularity that they might not have enjoyed without going into general release. One such masterpiece, Spirited Away, even bested Disney’s efforts at the Academy Awards.

The long arm of Disney is responsible for distributing the works of Hayao Miyazaki in the U.S. His Spirited Away beat out Disney's own work for an Oscar. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau, Berliner Studios; Spirited Away © 2002 Nibari

The long arm of Disney is responsible for distributing the works of Hayao Miyazaki in the U.S. His Spirited Away beat out Disney's own work for an Oscar. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau, Berliner Studios; Spirited Away © 2002 Nibari

After a brief period where Disney’s DVD releases were so penurious in terms of extras that “original disc art” was touted as a treat, the company changed its approach and began including voluminous amounts of material that added greatly to the enjoyment of the features. Many of Disney’s greatest animated works of the Golden, Silver and “Silicon” Ages now come as “Collector’s Editions,” featuring separate disks that offer detailed and often fascinating segments including deleted scenes, interviews and insights into production.

Compared to the amount of current material on DVD featuring classic and popular cartoons from other “Golden Age” studios, Disney comes off quite well. DVDs such as the Silly Symphony compendium or the acclaimed Mickey Mouse in Color/Black and White compilations were gifts to animation aficionados. Say if you will that these “Collector’s Editions” are a ploy to make greater profit. The product appears to be well worth the extra price.

The recently released collector's edition of A Bug's Life is an example of how Disney mines its material.

The recently released collector's edition of A Bug's Life is an example of how Disney mines its material.

 Both the left and right despise Disney’s theme parks, equating them with mindlessness, exploitation, consumerism and the perpetuation of Disney’s nefarious agendas (pick either agenda; I weary of repeating them). Neither camp can force themselves to admit that these parks are not only entertaining, they are massively attended by the populace, all of which can’t be fooled all of the time. Most of them seem to come home with considerably fewer funds yet readily admitting to a fine time for both self and family.

Again, dear readers, this is a free market. The patrons of Disney parks attend of their own free will. Smug and/or angry ideologues are not exactly forced through the gates at gunpoint, either. These watchdogs are free to pursue whatever high-or-lowbrow entertainment they please. It’s time to allow everyone else to do the same without labeling them dupes of an evil empire.

I have not always agreed with Disney’s every decision nor have I enjoyed every film that the studio has produced. In particular, I am disappointed with the company’s decision to produce direct-to-video sequels of its classic masterpieces, an endeavor I believe to be artistically impossible and aesthetically corrupt. As a longtime fan of the National Hockey League, I was discouraged by the corporation’s purchase of an expansion team that seemed to be a blatant promotion for a series of films and, later, a desultory cartoon series.

Does he look like an evil emperor to you? Here Uncle Walt shows off the master plan for Disneyland. © Disneyland.

Does he look like an evil emperor to you? Here Uncle Walt shows off the master plan for Disneyland. © Disneyland.

Not long ago I decried the decisions that resulted in the deep-sixing of a possible sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Still, some objectivity must be retained. These actions do not signify an Evil Empire, merely a corporate giant operating in a free market, making the decisions it deems best for its own survival and prosperity. Deciding whether or not we agree with Disney should depend more on our own free will, critical judgment and individual taste than on dogmatic pronouncements from pulpits or ivory towers.

(Parts of this column were originally published as reviews appearing in TOON Magazine during 2000 and 2001) - Dr. T.

Dr. Toon would at this time like to express his appreciation to departing editor Heather Kenyon, who “adopted” his persnickety little column from Animation Nerd’s Paradise nearly four years ago and gave it a home on this esteemed website. Ms. Kenyon’s guidance, encouragement, honest feedback and sharp critical eye made these columns — and this columnist — far better than the rough drafts they often were. Thanks, Heather, and best of luck!

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.