Teaching Disney, Part Two: Race and Ethnicity, and Economics

PALS Note: This post is Part Two of guest poster’s coverage of teaching Disney in the Children’s Literature classroom. (Find Part One here.) In this section, Philip Smith discusses addressing race and economics when teaching Disney. These ideas help us think about teaching Disney in all of its complexity and getting students to critique texts which may be near and dear to their heart. 

In my first post, I established the context of teaching Disney in my Children’s Literature course and explained three of the five main elements we focus on in the class: hypertextuality, the formula, and gender. Here, I continue with the last two: race and ethnicity, and economics. As with the previous elements, students are able to identify some examples and, again, desire to defend others.

Race and Ethnicity

Fantasia

I invite students to list Disney characters whose accent, mannerisms, or appearance suggests that he or she is a member of a specific ethnic or cultural group. Students will often recognize that Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid is coded as Jamaican. He speaks with a Jamaican accent and sings calypso-style songs; he also, problematically, spends most of the film trying to please a large white man. Students may also identify the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955) as having been drawn from racist cartoons of Chinese emigrants the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the “Indians” in Peter Pan (1953) as embodying similarly racist stereotypes.

Some students will typically suggest Aladdin is coded as Middle-Eastern. I will point out that Aladdin’s accent and mannerisms are American. Only his clothing suggests otherwise. Other characters in Aladdin (1992) (the guards, for example, or the merchant at the start of the film) have far more explicit, and highly stereotyped, markers of otherness. I will point out that we are quick to recognize Sebastian’s Jamaican accent, but not Ariel’s American accent, white skin, and blue eyes. In Disney, as in much of popular culture, white American is the default from which other characters deviate. Indeed, just as Disney teaches us that to be beautiful is to be a hero, it also teaches us, broadly, that heroism is largely the domain of white people.

I then provide a visual tour of the use of racist caricature in Disney, starting with the satyrs in Fantasia (1940), by way of the crows in Dumbo (1941), the musicians in The Little Mermaid, and the hyenas in The Lion King (1994). One particular example I dwell upon is King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967), whose speech and music are coded as African American, and who sings a song about how much he wants to be, but is not, human.

King Louis.png

The ensuing discussion is often lively. Students often have conflicted feelings about these characters. In the majority, they will agree that Disney has been complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes, but, at the same time, they often have fond memories of these films. I tend to find that my role is best served by managing the discussion and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to speak.

Sometimes students will offer counter-examples. Lilo in Lilo and Stich (2002), for example, or the titular character in Moana (2016) one might argue, are coded in a manner which is more sensitive to issues around representation than earlier Disney films. Indeed, Disney did consult with the Oceanic Story Trust when working on Moana. Others may respond that the image presented of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures in these films are not necessarily negative, but are idealized and unrepresentative, reducing the cultures in question to somewhat cartoonish (perhaps touristy) images of themselves, arresting the culture in question in a pre-modern moment.

I will ask the group if (arguably) more positive representations of race and culture excuse or negate other, more harmful, representations of particular ethnic groups in previous Disney films. I also ask who should be the one to decide whether a given representation is appropriate? Surely, I propose, it should be Hawaiians, for example, who decide if Lilo and Stich is an accurate and sensitive portrayal of their culture. This is particularly important given that one finds so few Pacific Islander actors in mainstream films. Lilo and Stich and Moana carry a heavy burden.

The takeaways from this part of the class is that Disney’s animal metaphors draw heavily upon, and therefore perpetuate, racist stereotypes. Students should recognize that these negative racial signifiers are attached to characters who are either comic or villainous. The more a character resembles a white American, the more likely he or she is to be a film’s protagonist.

Economics

I ask students if they own any Disney merchandise or, if not, when they last purchased a Disney-branded product. Often, depending on the size and age of the class, we can find among us an object which bears an image of a Disney character, typically a keychain, t-shirt, or pencil case. We discuss where and when we acquired such items. Inevitably, the subject of the Disney Store and/or Disney theme parks arises. Students will share stories of visits to such places.

I explain to the students that Star Wars (1977) (now, but not then, a Disney property) changed the business model for major films. Where films once primarily made money through ticket sales, Star Wars introduced the idea of merchandise as a major source of revenue.

The Little Mermaid, I observe, embodies the Star Wars business model. Disney followed release of The Little Mermaid with a large, and ongoing, merchandising campaign. This strategy, I argue, makes up some of the fabric of the text; the verb which Ariel uses more than any other in the film is “want.” I invite the students to consider the song “Part of Your World”:

Look at this stuff
Isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl
The girl who has everything?

Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you think
Sure, she’s got everything

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want things of above?
I’ve got twenty!

But who cares?
No big deal
I want more

I connect these lyrics to an idea we encountered earlier in the course when discussing John Newberry’s interventions into children’s literature. Newberry understood that to sell a children’s product one must market to both the adult and the child—that if one can convince a child to be desirous of a product, the child will persuade the parent to buy it. This has proven to be an effective strategy for Disney—retail earned Disney as much as $1.4 billion in 2015.

Many students will find Disney’s approach to merchandise to be somewhat underhanded, but others will defend this as good business practice and argue that, of course, companies which seek to make a profit must advertise as much as possible. I will generally allow students to discuss this as they see fit and play devil’s advocate if they seem to come to a consensus too quickly.

The takeaway from this section is that Disney understands the considerable importance of “pester power” and leverages this in their films. The content of a Disney film reflects the economics of the company—merchandising is not something which happens after a film is released. Instead, Disney begins by asking how they might sell as much merchandise as possible and then makes their film accordingly.

Assignments and Follow-up

Such is the appeal of Disney, not to mention the accessibility of the texts, that I find I have to structure my assignments so that students do not write and present exclusively on Disney’s animated films. When students tell me that they plan to write on Disney, I encourage them to choose a specific film, lest their argument become too general, and to make use of the many academic works on the subject rather than the plethora of less rigorous, but certainly more widely-available available, works online.

Student work on Disney tends to either constitute a spirited defense of a particular film—arguing, for example, that Frozen disrupts the existing formula—or a detailed critique, drawing upon examples we encountered in class. In either case, I encourage my students, as always, to ground their arguments in the text and, as much as possible, to consult existing reliable secondary sources.

Further Reading

Allan, Rohin. “Walt Disney and Europe.” Visual Resources 14.3 (1999): 275-295.

Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. From mouse to mermaid: The politics of film, gender, and culture. Indiana University Press, 1995.

Byrne, Eleanor, and Martin McQuillan. Deconstructing Disney. Pluto, 1999.

Dorfman, Ariel, and Armand Mattelart. How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in the Disney comic. Intl General, 1991.

Eliot, Marc. Walt Disney: Hollywood’s dark prince. Harpercollins, 1994.

Finch, Christopher, and Walt Disney. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms and Beyond. Abrams, 2011.

Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. Disney Editions, 2000.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. Disney Editions, 1994.

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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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.

Hypertextuality

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.

Gender

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.