Disney: The Evil Empire?
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.
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.
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.