Disney: Any scenes that shocked you as a ‘child’?
The Disney brand stands for pleasure and entertainment across the globe, but could it also be responsible for the youth’s character development somewhow?
Since the 1930s, Disney became the symbol of values such as joy, magic, entertainment, and family through the loveable stories, characters, and unique experiences. The cartoons, films, comics, books, toys, theme parks, among other Disney products, have become key actors of the entertainment industry, thus our everyday lives (Wasko, 2020). Strengthening even stronger the bonds with the fans the current approach of Disney (2014- “The Disney Renaissance of Live Action Remakes”) promises a nostalgic tour with the beloved and long-missed figures of our childhood. At the centre of the campaign (and its success) stand the children – both current and ‘Peter Pan-like never growing up adult’ ones whose first point of contact with the big wide world was probably one of these tales, where they experienced and learned ideas and values from Disney that may last a lifetime…
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The Disneyization of Society (Bryman, 1999)
The Disney magic worked back then and works even better nowadays when people are desperately looking for joy, positive feelings, and the comfort of the past: the pleasant childhood memories when everything was nice and easy accompanied by the parents and, of course, Disney. Even in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic recently Disney generated $1.17 billion at the domestic box office in 2021, the most of any studio in the industry. This means nearly 26% of the total box office in North America (followed by Sony 23%, Universal 16%, and Warner Bros. 15%) (CNBC, 2022). Today beyond Walt Disney Studios (Pixar) and Disney Theme Parks Disney owns the rights of Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm Ltd, Twenty-first Century Fox Inc., ESPN Inc. National Geographic, ABC, and Disney Channel, where literally everyone can find something for their taste from the wide Disney portfolio. 2021 Disney films related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Black Widow, Eternals) each generated more than $100 million at the domestic box office, and then we haven’t talked about other sources like merchandising. As Edgerton and Jackson (1996:90) put it:
“Disney is the film industry’s exemplar for creating blockbuster motion pictures, fuelling the releases with highly sophisticated advertising and marketing campaigns, and then maximizing profit by licensing literally hundreds of ancillary products”.
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Large multinational companies such as Disney inevitably influence our everyday life through their power to shape the forms of producing, circulating, and exchanging information. This can be quite problematic for those among the young who are more vulnerable during their journey of self-discovery to the camouflaged messages and campaigns of profit-hungry companies which are “shaping human meaning and behaviour and regulat(ing) our social practices at every turn” (Giroux & Pollock, 2010:1).
With the newest technologies “someone is always smiling at us”, however in most of the cases driven by selfish ambitions, endangering what is supposed to be a “safe space” in popular culture where youth have the chance to get to know themselves, form bonds, and discover their goals in the big world, and turning them instead into an easy target, an easily reachable, influenceable new customer group with a promise of lucrative profits (Giroux & Pollock, 2010).
However, the aim of this article is not to criticise nor to decide whether our beloved Disney is intrinsically “good” or “bad” but instead to remind the reader for the aspects of the stories they may have seen and heard from early childhood and consider their possible effects on young people’s character development.
Disney shaping generations – “The Disney Babies”
“A Disney baby is also what you were if you were born at any date after 1925, were taken as a child to see Disney films, used to read Disney comics and owned some Disney merchandise such as a Mickey Mouse watch. Disney babies of the latter kind grow ideally into Disney adults. Disney adults take their children to Disney films and theme parks, buy them Disney merchandise and subscribe to the Disney Channel”
Nowadays, the content shown on TV serves a critical socialising function. Thus, Disney has a significant role in the youth culture with its universal language and versatile character portfolio. The proportion of people glued to the screens is at an all-time high (see also our previous article); in today’s digital era, not only adults but also children nearly from birth are “forced” to consume advertising, marketing, and entertainment messages. On average, a typical teen and/or tween is said to watch over eight hours of recreational media daily (Tv, PC, DVDs, video games) (Giroux & Pollock, 2010). With a young brain constantly watching these programs – let it be either news or cartoons – they have a huge impact on our worldview, forming a base upon judging the world and even ourselves. In this vein, Disney represents not only an entertainment source but also a force that shapes the identities, desires, and subjectivities of millions of fans around the globe.
“He [Disney] did, after all, reach us first (and, therefore, foremost), at that very point in our youthful development when either an individual or a generation is most receptive (and vulnerable) to such forces and ideas.”
Looking at the academic literature related to how Disney might influence our development, researchers have examined this phenomenon from many angles in the last decades. On the one hand, Disney seems to be still the “untouchable lovely brand” for many (Wasko, 2001). On the other hand, Disney films are have been criticised for problematic scenes like the images of madness (Beveridge, 1996), mental illnesses (Lawson & Fouts, 2004), indirect aggression (Coyne & Whitehead, 2008), child maltreatment (Hubka et al., 2009), the negative portrayal of older characters (Robinson et al., 2007) and death (Cox et al., 2005) shown in Disney’ animated shows, on the grounds that children’s first encounter with these could be influential and even traumatic as they may not be ready to process the happenings.
After all, who among us did not cry at the point of King Mufasa’s death (The Lion King) or was not shocked by Cruella’s mad obsession with dalmatians (101 Dalmatians) and still after many years remember those images that were burnt into the mind as a little child?
Another topic that recently received much attention is the portrayal of biased (trans)gender roles in Disney films, with many researchers are highlighting the underlying stereotypical issues that can lead to the creation of unreal beauty and behaviour images among young people (Hoerner, 1996; Do Rozario, 2004; Wohlwend, 2009; Bazzini et al., 2010; Cheu, 2013). As stereotypes are constructed by children either through direct experiences or else indirectly through some medium, these solid first impressions about death or how real princesses should look like can form, change, and reinforce stereotypes.
We can see that more and more criticism has been directed towards Disney of late. Still, we should consider this with the utmost caution as Best and Lowney (2009) noted that one of the disadvantages of Disney’s good reputation is that it can be widely targeted for social problem claims (a form of blowback — adverse reactions to the firm’s positive reputation also known to marketers as negative double jeopardy). Also, we must not forget that when the stories they depict were first written, those were very different times, with their own norms and values. Thus, old Disney films might less than 100% “modern”, but we cannot judge them by today’s standards.
One might ask the question at this point: “is Disney really bad for us after all?” Well, as most of us grew up watching and/or surrounded by Disney products and still turned out to be “normal” people, the answer is not so simple (not least because there isn’t really a clear definition of “normal” anyway). The general rule applies here, too: if we consume something too much – without limits – it will be harmful sooner or later – be it food, drink, computer games (see also our previous article) or TV. As the “Disney Baby’s cycle” above illustrates well, it is not only about children but adults as well: growing up on ONLY one kind of story with its own world(view) might have negative effects – as experiencing only one part of the world with its own values and beliefs day to day will undoubtedly have an influence on your life. Consequently, learning what is “good” or “bad” should come from multiple sources of input, not only from the Disney universe. A healthy balance is best.
To finish the article with a little reflective “takeaway”:
Do you have any favourite Disney characters?
Think a bit, can you find any similarities between the two of you?
What do you think why / why not?
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