Teaching Disney, Part One: Hypertextuality, The Formula, and Gender

PALS Note: We welcome a two-part post from Philip Smith, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of The Bahamas. Smith regularly teaches Children’s Literature, and we are excited to have our first post on children’s lit. This post and Part Two, which will follow, cover a myriad of possibilities for teaching one of the most enduring presences in children’s entertainment, Disney. 

Typically, the tone in my Children’s Literature class is somewhat restrained. Students will—if not happily—at least willingly offer observations on eighteenth-century chapbooks, nursery rhymes, and fairytales. Their enthusiasm is sometimes stirred by The Hobbit and Peter Pan. Maus typically prompts some measured debate about whether children’s literature has the capacity to represent something with such tremendous moral weight as the Holocaust. The course is perhaps more interesting to them than others they attend, but their engagement tends to be scholarly, detached, and analytical. They are building an analytical and historical topography of childhood through literature, but from a distance—they study childhood, but never their childhoods.

Apart from week 9.

Week 9 is when we study Disney.

During week 9, students who typically need careful prompting in order to share their thoughts will thrust their hands skyward or even talk over their course-mates. I will find myself gesturing for quiet, giving students an order in which they can speak, or encouraging enthusiastic speakers to reach a point so that others can have a turn.

Teaching Disney (or, more specifically, Disney’s animated films, for their output extends far beyond their best-known works) offers the instructor the rare opportunity to center a discussion around a body of texts with which students are, in the majority, intimately familiar. A typical Literature class involves analysis of a single text, often, for many students, hurriedly skimmed the night before. With Disney, conversely, the collective knowledge of the class is detailed and considerable. Indeed, so long is the shadow that Disney casts over the rest of children’s literature that, even before we reach week 9, I often find I need to preface texts such as Perrault’s “Cinderella” or J M Barrie’s Peter Pan by explaining that students should first clear from their minds images of cartoon mice or a boy dressed in green cloth.

Disney matters for these students because Disney, in part, raised them. I typically start the class with the observation that we can often gauge an individual’s age by asking which Disney movies resonate for them most strongly—since you ask, Aladdin and The Lion King, but I have younger siblings, so Pocahontas also caught me just at the tail-end of childhood. Returning to Disney as an adult allows (requires, even) students to confront and evaluate ideas and images which they have carried with them, unexamined, since childhood.

Before class, I arrange a screening of The Little Mermaid (1989). Students are generally already familiar with the film, but I encourage them to attend so that it is fresh in their minds during our seminar. When we meet to discuss the film, I sequence our conversation around hypertextuality, the Disney formula, gender, race and ethnicity, and economics.


We begin with a brief overview of animation history and Disney’s early works culminating in Snow White (1937)—the film which established the Disney formula. I invite students, working in pairs to choose a fairy tale we studied earlier in the course (typically a version written by Perrault or the Brothers Grimm) and to compare this with a Disney film. I ask them to describe the ways in which Disney has adapted and altered the original.

In our ensuing discussion, I introduce the following quote from Richard Schickel:
[Disney] could make something of his own, all right, but the process nearly always robbed the work at hand of its uniqueness, of its soul, if you will. In its place he put jokes and songs and fright effects, but he always seemed to diminish what he touched. He always came away as a conqueror, never as a servant. It is a trait, as many have observed, that many Americans share when they venture into foreign lands, hoping to do good but equipped only with know-how instead of sympathy and respect for alien traditions. (191)

We discuss the propriety of the neo-colonial analogy and whether it matches the students own observations of the Disney film.

At this stage, I want the students to be aware of some of the ways in which Disney is in dialogue with other forms of children’s literature. I want them to be able to think of Disney films not as a transparent or direct retelling of an original (however nebulous such a term is when discussing fairy tales) but a conscious refashioning of plot elements into a recurring formula.

The Formula

We then go on to establish the characteristics of the Disney animated film. I ask students what they would expect to find in a Disney movie. As they offer suggestions, I make a list in a place visible to all. Typically, the following will arise: music, big eyes, “cuteness”, magic, princes and princesses, romance, anthropomorphic creatures, happy endings, sidekicks, and villains. I then present them with part of the list offered by Steven Watts:

  • The real and unreal are combined
  • Tropes are refashioned from the Victorian period, exaggerating sentimentality and cuteness.
  • Although images and experiences are broken down, they are always restored.
    The inanimate world is animated
  • High cultural signifiers are visually satirized

I explain each item in turn and call attention to the idea of “cuteness.” We discuss the possible dangers of our anthropomorphizing animals. Disney, I argue, did not invent the “funny animals” genre (something which can be traced, by way of Kafka and Kipling, to indigenous folk tales), but has certainly contributed to a pervading myth that animals think like human beings. I ask students if they can think of possible problems which may arise from this mythology.

If time permits, I will introduce for discussion a polarizing argument which is alive among zoo managers; some maintain that giving zoo animals individual names and selling plush toy versions of the animals on display is actively harmful to our understanding of the natural world and encourages misunderstanding about animal behavior (current thinking maintains that a dog, for example, has a very different sense of cause and effect from a human, and yet ignorant owners will scold a dog for an action which occurred in the past). Advocates of this position argue that zoos have a duty to describe animals in terms of their biology and habits. I open this for discussion. Any teacher who wishes to pursue this line may find Ian Parker’s article “Killing Animals at the Zoo” to be of interest (if, perhaps, too long a read for a class).

The main takeaway from the previous activity was that when Disney assimilates an existing story, they do so by fashioning it into a particular shape so that it resembles every other Disney film. When, in this activity, we establish the dimensions for this shape, I want students to think about what gets left out; the fashioning of fairy tales into a romance plot, for example, requires that the plot of (almost) every Disney film move toward marriage or, at least a romantic union, removing the possibility for narratives in which female characters have aspirations beyond, or other than, heterosexual coupling.


Disney Princesses

Next, I put a slide onto the screen showing an array of Disney princesses and ask what all of these characters have in common. After some discussion, the class will generally agree that while the characters vary somewhat in terms of skin tone, facial features, and dress, they all have the same basic shape. We go on to list the dimensions of the Disney princess, namely a long neck, pointed chin, large eyes, very thin wrists, long legs, and a slender waist (typically, and disturbingly, only slightly thicker than the character’s neck).

We then look at images from a (not particularly academic, but highly illustrative) Buzzfeed article titled “We Got Photoshopped to Look like Disney Princesses, and This is What Happened.” Many of the images on the site demonstrate the implausibility of such body-shapes. So, I ask my students, what type of body does Disney encourage, and what place does Disney offer for those who do not conform to this shape? By way of example, I present an image of Ursula from The Little Mermaid. In the cartoon language of Disney, I suggest, to be overweight, ugly, or (for a female character) to have masculine traits is to be a villain.

Once we have discussed bodies in Disney, we move to behavior. Once again, the contrast between Ariel and Ursula provides a useful point of reference: Ursula wants to rule the sea whereas Ariel wants to marry a prince. Ursula represents a threat to male power, whereas Ariel confirms it. Ariel is rewarded, Ursula dies violently (penetrated, in fact, by the somewhat phallic bow of a ship). I ask the students, what lesson might one take from such a story?

Often, some students are eager to downplay the potential impact of Disney’s visual language, arguing that just because we are exposed to images of slender heroes and grotesque villains does not mean that we adopt this view.

Other students may cite Mulan (1998) as counter-example, arguing that the titular character disrupts gender stereotypes. I allow others to comment and then suggest that the resolution of the film (with Mulan entering into a traditional heterosexual marriage) somewhat undercuts its apparently feminist agenda: Mulan, briefly, disrupts gender roles, but then everything goes back to as it was before.

Frozen (2013), similarly, disrupts the traditional Disney formula, with the prince turning out to be a villain, and a princess being saved by another princess. If students propose this I allow discussion to continue and, if the point does not come up organically, point out that both of the princesses in Frozen still conform to the standard princess shape. Frozen, I suggest, is an improvement, but still reverts to many of the same underlying message as the majority of Disney films. For evidence of Disney moving in a better direction we might look to Brave (2012).

The takeaway from this part of the class is that Disney encourages certain toxic ideas about gender, namely that there is a direct correlation between ugliness and moral turpitude, that to be a princess one must conform to a particular body shape, and that all good girls should aspire no higher to enter into (what some may think of as “traditional”) heterosexual relationships. Disney has, of course, consciously moved away from certain regressive ideas about gender, but sexism, and particularly body-shaming, is, in many regards, intrinsic to the formula we described above.

I will continue this discussion in a second post that focuses on race and ethnicity, economics, and the final assignment of this unit in my course. See you there!

Works Cited

Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Watts, Steven. “Walt Disney: Art and Politics in the American Century.” The Journal of American History 82.1 (Jun. 1995): 84-110.

Contributor Bio

Phil Picture

Philip Smith obtained his Ph.D from Loughborough University. His work has been published in The American Comic Book, The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, The International Journal of Comics Art, Studies in Comics, Extrapolation, The Journal of Popular Culture, Literature Compass, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, The Journal of European Studies, Asian Theatre Journal, Slayage, and The International Journal of Bahamian Studies. He has blogged for The Hooded Utilitarian and Comics Forum. He is co-editor of Firefly Revisited (Rowman and Littlefield) and the author of Reading Art Spiegelman (Routledge). He is currently editing two books: Gender and the Superhero Narrative, and The Novels of Elie Wiesel. He is Assistant Professor of English at The University of the Bahamas where he teaches Children’s Literature and Popular Fiction. He is an editorial board member for Literature Compass and Slayage.


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