With a net income of more than $11 billion in 2019, Disney’s influence on the world’s economy and imagination cannot be understated. Even with a current three-digit decline in revenue thanks to the pandemic, the company and its Disney+ channel are still front and center in pop culture. As the son of an abusive alcoholic, Walt Disney seemed obsessed with highlighting life’s goodness and proving the imminent triumph of good over evil. But does this simple message impart any benefit to the children who watch Disney animated movies? And is it the only important message children receive from Disney?
With families around the world passing time while sheltering in place with Disney family singalongs and with the continuing trend of remaking classic animated Disney films into live-action films, (welcome Mulan), the question arises: Should parents be “Hakuna Matata” or is it better to “Let it Go”?
Disney movies promote social awareness.
Disney films use fairytale romances and hero-villain epics as engines for social consciousness. With the 2019 debut of the Lion King as a live-action film, or the original animated version, viewers can take a closer look at “Circle of Life,” which implores the audience to make sacrifices (like Simba, a lion who gives up meat to maintain balance between those at the top of the food chain and those at the bottom). Meanwhile, Lilo and Stitch explores the ethical questions behind genetic engineering.
Disney’s Pixar films are particularly hard-hitting: Monsters Inc. investigates the sources and methods of energy extraction, and begs the question: Is the energy industry full of monsters? Wall-E provides an apocalyptic warning against unchecked consumerism. In the last 20 years, there is scarcely an issue that Disney hasn’t examined, lending its unique voice to ever-adapting conversations between film, audiences, and society at large. Not to mention, many of the characters come from culturally diverse backgrounds (Moana, Tiana in the Frog Princess, and Mulan, among others) inviting young children (and their parents) to expand their social and cultural awareness.
Disney films promote children’s capacity for hope, an essential tool for success.
All Disney films deal in hope. Protagonists overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to lead to happier lives. Whether the obstacle is poverty, a punishing stepmother, or a character’s own eccentricities, Disney heroes reach the point of no return and rebound to success. Psychologists have long recognized hope’s potential as a cognitive motivational tool. Disney characters model the transformative power of hope, encouraging children to apply hope in their own lives.
Disney characters regularly flout social expectations, challenging kids to follow their own inner voices.
A fair number of Disney protagonists are outsiders. Mulan is too awkward for an arranged marriage; Belle from Beauty and Beast has a feminist side not warmly embraced by her town; Ratatoullie’s Remy is ousted from his community for his culinary flare; and Quasimodo is, well, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And while each of these characters is out of step with their surroundings, their exceptionality eventually leads to greatness. Mulan becomes a warrior who prevents an invasion; Belle finds love and happiness without compromising; Remy becomes a gourmet chef; and Paris hails Quasimodo as a hero. Disney’s outcasts challenge society’s norms and invite young viewers to challenge them as well.
Many Disney movies, like Frozen 2, also directly or indirectly promote lessons of tolerance, showing that it can be rewarding to accept others for who they are, even – or especially – if they are different.
Let It Go
Disney de-emphasizes female agency.
Disney’s characterizations of females and femininity have been seen as pejorative. Eleven of 13 Disney princess plots are driven by love interests, and the princesses themselves mostly earn their efficacy through advantageous marriages. Disney steers young women away from power by differentiating the treatment of magical powers between male and female characters. In the Little Mermaid, King Triton’s use of his magic triton is portrayed as benevolent and good. Yet, in the hands of a woman (Ursula), it is unequivocally evil and wreaks havoc in the order of the natural world, as expressed through the storm she conjures. Even female protagonists with magical powers like Rapunzel and Elsa are considered dangerous and locked away. Disney sends young women a clear message: females should only earn power through beauty.
Disney advances stereotypical, inaccurate ideas of other cultures.
For many American children, Disney films offer their first glimpse into unfamiliar cultures. Aladdin takes us to ancient Iraq, Mulan takes us Han China, Pocahantas to the Colonial Americas. The only problem is, Disney has a penchant for stereotypes. The Jungle Book literally depicts African Americans as lazy, nonsensical monkeys, while Dumbo depicts them as lazy, nonsensical birds. Moana’s depiction of the demigod Maui as gigantic is considered among Polynesians as insensitive, considering that the obesity rate in the South Pacific is the highest in the world.
And while many Disney movies are peppered with insensitive depictions of cultures, Arabs receive some of the worst treatment. The Phrygian opening song of Aladdin relates the “facts” of the Arab world that the audience is expected to accept: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Aladdin’s hero is a thief, its law enforcement filled with easily duped zealots, their Sultan imbecilic, and its villain an evil sorcerer. The film’s indiscernible mashup of Arab cultures and histories leads to an unflattering presentation of a people whose global legacy is much more than an enchanted lamp.
Disney initiates children into consumerism and never lets go.
Any parent can attest to the insatiable craving for the Disney merchandise that follows the release of each film. Communications scholar Eric Jenkins contends that Disney has engineered this and “not only promotes consumerist behavior but trains us in the habits of consumerism.” Disney animation encourages viewers to project emotions onto objects; buying Disney products offers further interaction with these emotions. Disney has endless avenues for communication, and this communication ensures the company such ubiquity that it consistently ranks among the world’s most powerful brands.
The Bottom Line: Disney did not invent consumerism or the gender roles and biases that pervade our society, though it certainly has propagated and profited from them. To Disney’s credit, it too seems to be thinking about these questions, and continues to animate characters who negotiate them in imaginative, uplifting ways. Do you think entertainment companies be held accountable to accurately present history and culture to children, or if it is enough that they outline basic moral principles?