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Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy established the Walt Disney Company in the late 1920s to produce short animations. The company’s first synchronized-sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), featured Mickey Mouse, a character that became one of the best-known icons in the world. In the wake of the nineteenth-century transformation of the oral tradition of fairy tales into a literary tradition by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and others, Disney, in the early decades of the twentieth century, employed technological advances to turn literary fairy tales into animations. The first feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), paved the way for the Disney brand of family-oriented celluloid fantasies targeting children as their primary audience.
A 1941 strike by Disney animators seeking more recognition, along with economic hard times, crippled the company, but World War II (1939–1945) reenergized the Disney Company through government commissions. The Three Caballeros (1944) was made at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to promote “Good Neighborliness” between North America and Latin America. The conservative Disney also served as a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent from 1940 to his death in 1966. The public image of “Uncle Walt” with a gentle smile and with roots in rural small-town America is the result of mythmaking, which masks Walt Disney’s traumatic childhood and distrustful personality. Disney’s vendetta against striking employees of his studio in the 1940s betrays not only a suspicious and controlling character but an anticommunist obsession. His hidden career as a secret informant in the last two decades of his life gives a perverse twist to the family entertainment Disney has come to symbolize.
The Disney television show went on the air in 1954. Theme parks proved to be far more successful than animations and live-action films and television. Disneyland in Anaheim, California, opened in 1955, followed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in 1971. Tokyo saw the Japanese version of Disneyland in 1983, France in 1992, and Hong Kong in 2005. Having languished after Walt Disney’s death, the Disney Company resurged under Michael Eisner in the 1980s. Disney has now grown into a global business conglomerate of film studio, television network, cable company, magazine, merchandise bearing various Disney logos, theme parks and resorts, and other ventures, with revenues totaling over $25 billion around the turn of the century. Disney also works through the Touchstone label, Miramax Films, Buena Vista International, and other business entities to produce and distribute less family-oriented shows.
With its increasing monopoly of media and entertainment, Disney has given rise to the phenomenon of Disneyfication, that is, trivialization and sanitization. The key to the success of the “Magic Kingdom” is indeed carefully controlled, heavily edited images of childhood innocence and fun. Yet what appears to the child to be happy tunes and carefree joy often veils sexist, racist, ageist, and neo-imperialist reality. From Sleeping Beauty to the Little Mermaid to Mulan, every Disney female lead embodies idealized Euro-American beauty in facial features, balletic physique, and youth-culture obsessions. These Disney females, including the sword-wielding Mulan, ultimately derive their meaning in life through male characters. The blatant racism in the happy plantation African Americans in The Song of the South (1946) and the slant-eyed, bucktoothed, pidgin-speaking Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Aristocats (1970) has gone underground, occasionally resurfacing in, for example, the cruel, hand-chopping Arabs in Aladdin (1992) and the stereotypical, “multicultural” duo of “kung fu” Mulan and her familiar, the blabbering Mushu dubbed by Eddie Murphy. Theme parks best exemplify the Disney culture of control. The enclosed environment of these sites separates visitors from the outside world, encouraging consumption in the guise of family fun. Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland is, of course, a shopping mall. Various adventures at Disneyland are centrally themed to formulate a narrative and to shape consumer perception. Even Disney employees with smiling faces are trained in “performative labor”: they are not so much working as role-playing; they are cast members in the Disney discourse of happiness.
Any critique of Disneyfication faces the challenge that animated fantasy is customarily regarded as devoid of ideology, notwithstanding the fact that the racial, gender, national, and capitalist undertones of Disney have repeatedly been the subject of study. Adults’ nostalgia for childlike simplicity and pleasure further leads to an acquiescence to Disney’s ahistorical and apolitical universe. Assuredly, growing up anywhere in the world, one is invariably nurtured on Disney’s breast milk of superior quality in terms of ingenuity and craftsmanship. To contend that consumers have been fed with something aesthetically refined but culturally suspect is likely to provoke vigorous opposition. Yet the 1995 defeat of the proposed 3,000-acre Disney theme park in Virginia’s Civil War battlegrounds signals the potential of grassroots resistance to corporate greed and expansionism. With the shadows of the omnivorous, lawsuit-happy Disney Company looming over the twenty-first century, new battles will be fought far away from Virginia. Globalization has brought Disney to every corner of the world. In the company of giants such as McDonald’s, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, Disney’s transnational operations will continue to perpetuate Americanization globally, but it remains a severely constricted vision of America, one enjoyed principally by middle-class visitors to Disney World and passive consumers of Disney culture.
- Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. 1995. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Giroux, Henry A. 1999. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Smoodin, Eric, ed. 1994. Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. New York: Routledge.
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