Disney, Southern Baptists, & Children’s Culture:
The Southern Baptist Convention in June generated a lot of media attention when it called for a boycott of the Disney Company for promoting "immoral ideologies such as homosexuality." The Southern Baptists were angry because Disney sponsors "Gay Days" at its theme parks, provides health benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees, and publishes books about growing up gay. According to Herb Hilliger, a convention spokesperson, the last straw came in April when the lead character of the sitcom Ellen had the audacity to come out as a lesbian on the Disney-owned ABC.
The Baptists got it right in assuming that something was amiss in Disney’s image as an icon of clean childhood fun and healthy family entertainment. Unfortunately, the Southern Baptists got it wrong in attempting to dismantle Disney’s pristine image of innocence and good will. The attack on Disney’s pro-gay policies suggests not only how widespread gay bashing by the right wing has become in this country but also how gay-friendly policies, in this case, have been appropriated to reinforce Disney’s corporate identity as a model of social and civic responsibility. Against the Southern Baptists’ retrograde homophobic demands, the land of the Magic Kingdom actually looked progressive—even though Disney was one of the last studios to extend health benefits to same-sex partners. Disney should not be condemned because it refuses to endorse homophobic practices in its labor operations and television programming, but because its pretense to innocence camouflages a powerful cultural force and corporate monolith—in Eric Smoodin’s words "a kind of Tennessee Valley Authority of leisure and entertainment"—that commodifies culture, sanitizes historical memory, and constructs children’s identities exclusively within the ideology of consumerism.
Far from being a model of moral leadership and social responsibility, Disney monopolizes media power, limits the free flow of information, and undermines substantive public debate. In doing so, it corporatizes public space and limits the avenues of public expression and choice. Disney does not have the power to launch armies, dismantle the welfare state, or eliminate basic social programs for children. On the contrary, Disney’s influence is more subtle and pervasive in its ability to shape public consciousness in its own image through its enormous economic holdings and cultural power. Michael Orvitz, a former Disney executive, was right when he claimed that Disney is not a company but a "nation state" exercising vast influence over global constituencies. Influencing large facets of cultural life, Disney ranks 48th in the Forbes 500 and controls ABC Network News, numerous TV and cable stations, five motion picture studios, 429 Disney stores, multimedia companies, and two major publishing houses. In 1996, Disney pulled in a record $21 billion in revenues from all of its divisions. Not content to peddle conservative ideologies, it now provides prototypes for developing American culture and civility, including a model town aptly called "Celebration," a prototype school system, and the Disney Institute where it offers the intellectually curious vacations organized around learning educational skills in gardening, radio and television production, cinema studies, and a wide range of fitness programs and cooking classes.
As one of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world, Disney works endlessly to promote cultural homogeneity and political conformity while waging an ongoing battle against those individuals and groups who believe that central to democratic public life is the necessity of democratizing cultural institutions, including those of the mass media. Extravagant feature-length animated films, theme parks, and the Dysnification of West 42nd Street certainly may have entertainment and educational value, but they cannot be used as a defense for Disney’s strangulating hold on the message and image business, its stifling of unpopular opinions and dissent, or its relentless corporatizing of civic discourse—all of which undermine cultural and political life in a vibrant democratic society.
Disney’s threat to civic life comes from its role as a major communications industry capable of exercising harmful and damaging amounts of corporate power and ideological influence over vast segments of the American cultural landscape. In the Magic Kingdom, choice is about consumption, justice is rarely seen as the outcome of social struggles, and history is framed nostalgically in the benevolent, patriarchal image of Walt Disney. In the animated world of Disney’s films, monarchies replace democracy as the preferred forms of government, people of color are cast as either barbarous or stupid, and young Kate Moss-like waifs such as Pocahontas or Megasus in Hercules reaffirm the worst kind of gender divisions and stereotypes.
Disney does more than spread its regressive, sanitized, corporate culture across North American and the far corners of the globe. More insidiously, it shamelessly uses its much-touted commitment to wholesome entertainment to market an endless array of toys, clothes, and gadgets to children. Beneath Disney’s self-proclaimed role as an icon of American culture lies a powerful educational apparatus that provides ideologically loaded fantasies for children and adults alike. Walt Disney Imagineers have little to do with "dreaming" a better world, or even commenting on the world that today’s kids actually inhabit. On the contrary, fantasy for Disney has no basis in reality, no sense of real conflicts, struggles, joys, and social relations. Fantasy becomes a marketing device, a form of hype rooted in the logic of self interest and buying. Disney’s view of children as consumers has little to do with innocence and a great deal to do with corporate greed and the realization that behind the vocabulary of family fun and wholesome entertainment is the opportunity for teaching children that critical thinking and civic action in society are far less important for them than assuming the role of passive consumers. Eager to reach children under 12, "who shell out $17 billion a year in gift and allowance income and influence $172 billion more spent by their parents," Disney relies on consultants such as marketing researcher, James McNeal, to tap into such a market. McNeal can barely contain his enthusiasm in targeting children as a fertile market and argues in Kids as Customers that the "world is poised on the threshold of a new era in marketing and that... fairly standardized multinational marketing strategies to children around the globe are viable."
In its search for new markets and greater profits, Disney consistently and inventively finds ways of presenting its films, theme parks, and entertainment offerings as objects of consumption rather than spheres of participation. Art in the Magic Kingdom becomes a spectacle designed to create new markets, commodify children, and provide vehicles for merchandizing its endless array of toys, gadgets, clothes, home accessories and other commodities. Disney’s ability to use films and other forms of children’s entertainment as launching pads for a vast array of toys can be seen in how films such as The Lion King, Pocahontas, and more recently, Hercules, are used as a pretext to convert J.C. Penny, Toys R Us, McDonald’s, and numerous other retailers into Disney merchandising outlets. But the real commercial blitz will be centered in Disney’s own marketing and distribution network which includes the Disney Store, the Disney Channel, Disney magazine, Disneyland, and Walt Disney World.
Given the recent media attention on the exploitation of children and young adults—over the use of heroin chic in the fashion industry, the sexualization of young girls in the world of high powered models, and the eroticization of six year-olds in children’s beauty pageants—it is surprising that there is little public outcry over the baleful influence Disney exercises on children. The Southern Baptists and the general public appear indifferent to Disney’s role in securing children’s desires and needs to the lure of an endless chain of commodities while convincing them that the only viable public space left in which to experience themselves as agents is in the toy sections of Wal-Mart or the local Disney Store.
Disney’s role as the arbiter of children’s culture may seem abstract when expressed in these terms, but in the aftermath of the promotional blitz for Disney’s new animated film, Hercules, the mix of educational strategy and greed was brought home to me with great force. My three boys were watching television news clips of the Disney parade in New York City and were in awe that Disney could hold an extravaganza capable of tying up 30 city blocks while pulling out every stop in the glitzy grab bag of pomp and spectacle. Of course, they couldn’t wait to see the film, buy the spinoff toys, and be the first on their block to wear a Hercules pin. "Pin? What Pin I asked?" I hadn’t watched the promotional ad carefully enough. It seems that Disney was providing a special showing of the film, Hercules, a few weeks before its general release. But to get a ticket for the special showing, parents had to go to an authorized Disney store to buy a box for $7.00 dollars which contained a ticket, a collector’s pin of one of the characters in the film, a brochure, and a tape of a song from the movie, sung by Michael Bolton. Disney made sure that every kid, including my own, knew that with the film came the inevitable flow of stuffed animals, figurines, backpacks, lunchboxes, tapes, videos, and a host of other gadgets soon to be distributed by Mattel, Timex, Golden Books, and other manufactures of children’s culture.
Disney appears ignominious in its attempt to turn the film hero, Hercules, into an advertisement for spin off merchandise. Once Hercules proves himself through a series of brave deeds, Disney turns him into a public relations hero with a marketable trade name for products such as "Air Hercules" sneakers, toy figurines, and action-hero dolls, all of which can be bought in an emporium modeled shamelessly in the film after a Disney Store. Disney executive, Tom Schumacher, claims the film is about building character, pop culture, and what it means to be a celebrity. Character in the land of the Walt Disney Imagineers appears to have nothing to do with integrity. Hercules suggests that the Disney dream factory is less a guardian of childhood innocence than a predatory corporation that views children’s imaginations as simply another resource for amassing earnings.
What strategies are open to educators, parents, and others who want to challenge the corporate barons shaping children’s culture in the United States? First, as a globe-trotting corporation, Disney’s economic and political power must be acknowledged for the threat it poses to both children’s culture and public life in general. Secondly, battles must be waged to dismantle its control and ownership of large segments of the communications industry. Media critics such as Mark Crispin Miller are right in arguing that such monopolies represent a political and cultural toxin and that their hold must be broken through the creation of broad-based movements dedicated to a wide variety of strategies, including public announcement campaigns, sit-ins, teach ins, and boycotts that would raise public consciousness and promote anti-trust legislation aimed at breaking up media monopolies and ownership while promoting economic and cultural democracy. In this instance, Disney must be challenged for the threat it poses in creating the specter of a national entertainment state and for exercising unchecked corporate power within what Eyal Press rightly calls "the injustices of an unregulated global economy."
Thirdy, the time has come to challenge Disney’s self-proclaimed role as a medium of "pure entertainment" and take seriously Disney’s educational role in producing ideologically loaded fantasies aimed at teaching children selective roles, values, and cultural ideals. Progressive educators and other cultural workers need to pay closer attention to how the pedagogical practices produced and circulated by Disney and other mass media conglomerates organize and control a circuit of power that extend from producing cultural texts to shaping the contexts in which they will be taken up by children and others. Disney’s attempt to control the field of social meanings available to children provides a particular challenge to progressives in making visible the political, economic, and educational apparatuses Disney uses to produce cultural texts as well as the pedagogical practices involved in making such texts meaningful to diverse groups of children and adults. What is at stake here is the necessity for all those concerned about democracy to engage critically how pedagogy becomes central to cultural politics, and how companies such as Disney promote diverse forms of cultural pedagogy as a type of political practice that often works to restrict the capacities of kids to think critically, move beyond the borders of corporate consumerism, and take seriously their roles as critical social agents.
Finally, as a principle producer of popular culture Disney’s films, television programs, newscasts, and other forms of entertainment should become serious objects of critical analysis, understanding, and intervention both in and outside of schools. It is almost commonplace to acknowledge that most of what students learn today is not in the classrooms of public schools, or for that matter in the classrooms of higher education, but in the electronically generated media spheres. Consequently, students need to acquire the knowledge and skills to become literate in multiple symbolic forms—so as to be able to read critically the various types of cultural texts to which they are exposed. This is not meant to suggest that we should junk the canon for Disney studies as much as refashion what it is that students learn in relation to how their identities are shaped outside of academic life. Students need to learn multiple literacies and focus on diverse spheres of learning. The issue of what is valuable knowledge is not reducible to the tired either/or culture wars arguments that pervade the academy. Maybe the more interesting questions point in different directions: what is it that students need to learn to live in a substantive democracy, read critically in various spheres of culture, engage those critical traditions of the past that continue to shape how we think about the present and the future, and engage multiple texts for the wisdom they provide and the maps they offer us to live in a world that is more multicultural, diverse, and democratic?
Students also need to learn how to produce their own newspapers, records, television programs, videos, and whatever other technology is necessary to link knowledge and power, pleasure and the demands of public life. Disney got its eye muddied a few years ago when its attempts to create a theme park on an historical Virginia landmark was successfully resisted by active citizens. The Southern Baptists, because of their own prejudice against gays and lesbians, were incapable of seeing that the real threat that Disney poses is not to fulfilling the demands of the gay and lesbian communities, but to the imperatives of democracy and to those children who are essential to carry on its traditions and fulfill its unfinished business. Maybe they should take their kids to a Disney store, reassemble again, and take another vote.