Monday, June 21, 2010

The Disney Dilemma

After much thought and deliberation (and fear of being shot by Disney enthusiasts), I’ve decided to collect my thoughts on the child-product-mega-company and post my observations. Many of these were pointed out by my mom and followed by a hearty eye-roll in my younger years, but these themes have become more of an interest as I begin to raise my own son. Recently they've become the topics of many a facebook debate, so I thought that instead of invading someone's nonchalant wall post with a dissertation, that I would post it here.

I will preface my review of Disney by saying that I know this will not be something that we will be able to avoid in Dominic's childhood, and by saying that I watched and loved the entire Disney collection growing up. Until Dominic is 6 years old, I will do my parental best to keep him in an environment that is purposefully and actively driven, in order to meet the needs of his self-construction, which is largely completed in the first 6 years of life. My approach is not to destroy Disney or decline any invitation for my child to hang out with children who watch Disney, but rather (when he is older than 6, and a reasoning human being with a strong inclination to moral development) to have conversations about some of the disturbing themes that run through the collection, so he knows that our family values are quite different than the cartoon representations of the Disney collection and so he can develop his discerning eye for media (movies, literature, news, music, and all the rest).

My favorites were always Robin Hood, Sword in the Stone, and Cinderella. Ryan’s favorites were Beauty and the Beast, Robin Hood, and Sword in the Stone. We probably would have been great friends growing up, but we will just have to settle for great friends now. Hockety pockety wockety wack… I still wish I could sing that song and watch my dishes wash themselves! So on that positive note, here comes the beef. I will begin by reviewing overarching themes and move on to the subtle or subliminal themes of the collection.

Overarching themes:

Absence of Nuclear Family: I cannot think of a single Disney film that has an intact family, with a mother and father who raise the children (princesses or fish alike). Most of the films represent single parenthood, and corrupt or bumbling parents (see more subliminal issues below). This represents a strong message across the entire collection, and neither supports a sense of security in the family unit nor a worldview that I want my child to be worrying about in his early years. This is definitely a truth of our society that many children grow up with one parent or under the care of a different relative entirely, but in his early years I do not want him to worry “when will my dad disappear, or when will my mom be out of the picture.” From 0-6 years children are absorbing every external stimulus holistically (like a camera taking a picture), without any discrimination, and while this isn’t something that Disney overtly mentions at the beginning of each film, it is something underlying that is taken into the child’s mind.

Capitalism at its Finest/Basest: Disney is in the business of marketing, and as such, anything you can think of can have a logo slapped on the side of it and then be sold for a premium price because of its longstanding market dominance. It does not promote creativity or imagination, but rather sells a mass-produced substitute for those two values in our society. I know I will be opposed on this, but will go into further detail in my later discussion of the developmental stages and the role of creativity, imagination, and consumerism. Because every movie is “cute” and has a “happy ending” they have secured a huge market, and one that is geared primarily at children and still appeals to adults because of nostalgia for the movies and contentment that “it is good” based on superficial reasons (the sugar coating on the bitter pill, if you will).

Subliminal themes:

Parents as Tyrants and Parents as Buffoons: In many of the Disney movies, old and new, the parents are depicted as one of two extremes: evil tyrants or bumbling out-of-touch fools. Most of the classic princess story lines feature a helpless daughter at the mercy of a tyrannical mother (or step-mother, or the like). Whereas many of the “modern” story lines feature an overly powerful child and a parent that has no idea how to handle it (sounds eerily realistic, if you work with young children these days). I am thinking specifically of Cinderella and Snow White in the former case, and I’m referring to Beauty and the Beast, Pocohontas, Aladdin, Finding Nemo, Little Mermaid, Mulan in the latter case. While subliminal, these are prevalent themes in the collection, and themes that glorify disrespect and disobedience.

Disobedience and Disrespect Pay Off, and Have no Negative Consequences: Because of these Disney archetypes for authority figures, there is a massive theme of disrespect and disobedience to authority (coming from a Rage Against the Machine fan, I know this sounds totally off-the-wall). There was a string of movies in my elementary school days that resonated this theme: Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Mulan and Aladdin. More recently Finding Nemo is a flagrant example of the same. In the three former that I mention, a powerful daughter (or maybe “entitled” is a more fitting adjective) directly disobeys her father and ends up in a terrible amount of danger (the action of the movie, because otherwise this would never sell), and in the end she proves that her father was wrong and that all will be “happily ever after” despite her flagrant disobedience. In the latter, Nemo swims out in a direct defiance to the father’s limit (which is set as a safety precaution), and is essentially kidnapped in front of his father’s eyes (I realize he is a fish, but lets look at it for the underlying value). The father then goes on a wild adventure in search of his kidnapped son, enduring perils and of course seeing humor all along the way. The kidnapped and initially distraught Nemo, finds that being kidnapped isn’t so bad as he meets a tank full of store-bought fish that he convinces to escape to the ocean. Eventually, the father and son are reunited, and the father realizes that it wasn’t that big of a deal for his son to be kidnapped, and that really, a lot of good came of that kidnapping. And they live…. Everybody now… “HAPPILY EVER AFTER.” Apart from minor peril and fear, the child is always right, and the parent is just not quite hip enough to “get it.” Yikes.

Unrealistic Image of Love: In the princess story lines, there is a totally fantastic (as in, the adjective of the word fantasy, not a synonym to awesome or great) framework for love and relationship. This was something that Ryan brought up in discussing this topic. There is a theme of the first person you meet, who is always totally gorgeous and sings beautifully, will be the person you spend the rest of your life loving in that state of happily ever after. There is no conflict beyond that point (because the movie has ended), there is no repercussion of the broken home that one or both of the involved lovers is coming from, and this is something that everyone seems to oooh and ahhhh about. Maybe it is good to send a message that good can come to someone in a broken home, and certainly that is true although not indicative of research of children from broken homes. The fantasy view of love is something that leads to plenty of heartbreak during elementary and teen years of life when the girl who sits next to you is teasing you mercilessly or your first boyfriend dumps you out of the blue.

Money and Marriage Fantasy: In many of the films the hero and heroine find "love", get married, and live in royalty happily ever after. This emanates that if you marry into money, you will live happily ever after, and since you will be a king/queen/princess (whatever) there will be no hard work or hard times ahead. The message is almost anti-love and pro-marry-up. Maybe you love an artist or theology major, but let’s face it, that isn’t going to get you anywhere… go for the doctor (medical doctor, not doctor of philosophy)!

Sex Sells: At the other side of that fantasy image of the charming prince and beautiful princess, there is a more recent trend in Disney films that focuses on disguising adult humor as child-friendly content. The film that really resonates this is Shrek, although it is not a Disney film, it is definitely geared toward children. I remember seeing in middle or high school and coming out of it laughing so hard, and thinking, “what a great movie, it entertains the kids and it is hilarious for an older crowd because it is totally over the kids heads.” I am sure I rolled my eyes at my mom when she was aggravated by this sentiment, but I now know that nothing gets past children, not even that joke that is over their heads (in fact, I probably knew it then because I was a kid and I was very observant). I know there have been moments in Disney movies that I have had this thought, although never as overt as in the Mirimax film, Shrek, but I cannot recall a specific instance of it. Returning to the princess stories, there are several “favorites” who are animated as busty chicks in bikinis tops, showing cleavage, leg and midriff throughout the films, along with themes of seduction and sweeping in to steal the prince (Little Mermaid) or even the princess becoming a slave to a sorcerer or ‘bad guy’ because of her choices (Aladdin)… ick.

It may seem as though these are all themes that run rampant in the larger scope of the media; and it is no surprise to me that this is the case. If it sells during prime time soaps or comedies, it will probably sell in the next Disney “classic.” The last Disney movies I saw were Wall-E, Cars, and Finding Nemo, and anything other than those in recent years has been off my radar, so I cannot speak to any of those other recent films, but I am pretty confident that I’ve seen the whole collection up to Nemo.

Would you like your brownies with or without poop?

I will now share one of my mom’s favorite anecdotal benchmarks for measuring the merit of a movie (I think she got it from a speaker at a Steubenville Youth Conference, when she was a chaperone): A mother asks a child who returns from a movie, “How was it?” The child responds, “It was great, it was funny, it was interesting, but there was this one part that you wouldn’t like (graphic violence, sex, profanity, take your pick, you won’t have to think to hard if you think back to the last movie you watched).” The mom responds “Oh, well was it really that good, then?” picture the child rolling his/her eyes (I know I did every time I heard this story in high school after getting home from a movie). So at a later time the mom prepares a delicious batch of brownies, and the whole family gobbles them down (picture now the crumbs remaining in the pan as the last bites are finished). The mom asks, “How were the brownies?” Everyone responds “Delicious, great, marvelous, the best, fabulous brownies, you rock mom!” and she discloses, “Well, I followed my usual recipe, but I just added a tiny bit of dog poop to the batter. It wasn’t that much though, just a pinch.” (Have you vomited yet?) Obviously this was to make a point, and the family did not consume any feces.

Appropriateness of Themes for Children in Different Stages of Development:

First plane, the Absorbent Mind: zero-6 years old: During this stage, children are making their first orientations to reality, getting a grip on how things respond to their touch, the sounds in their environment, the emotions of the people around them, and the security and love they are getting from their parents. Rather than offering contact with reality (which is totally new and wonder-filled for children who’ve only been on the earth for a few months or years) the programs offer fantasy, which the young child takes in as reality. This is a stage of absorbent learning, meaning everything they come to contact leaves a replicated impression in the mind. Many argue that fantasy is a precursor or sign of imagination, but with closer examination, this Disney fantasy is a pre-bundled or manufactured “imagination,” such that, the story is this or that when you play with these toys or “imagine” about princesses, or here is the framework for playing fish… complete with character names and mannerisms, nothing unique or original (I see a lot of this working with 3-6 year olds). Fantasy play, in Montessori philosophy is considered a deviation from natural childhood tendencies, based on Dr. Montessori’s observation of children the world over (remember, she was developing this philosophy before there was television, and before the fascination with fantasy play swept the US as a beneficial thing for children). Don’t be alarmed, Montessori is interested in inventiveness and creativity in an almost religious capacity; in fact, she calls this stage a period of “self-construction” during which the child is creating herself through interaction with her environment—the greatest creative act of human life! The absorbent mind takes in all of the overarching themes and subliminal themes, bundles them as reality in neuro-pathways in the brain, and the more it takes in of this the stronger those synapses are etched in the mind of the child. This is also a time of orientation to the culture of the child’s upbringing, which seems to embrace the values Disney is selling as true and good. It seems clear that inner turmoil will arise from these overarching cultural values and the values that we strive to impress upon our children in our own homes.

Second Plane, the Age of Reason: 6-12 years old: Here is where fantasy and “imagination” in the modern sense become appropriate because of changes in the way the children are thinking and the different developmental sensitivities they have during this age range. Imagination at this stage is extremely important in understanding the greater functioning and interdependence of people within a society (that all the food at the grocery store has been grown by a farmer, then delivered by a driver, then set out by the grocer, purchased by the parent, and eaten at dinner… this takes a leap of imagination, because chances are, the kid hasn’t met the farmer or delivery guy or the grocer). Fixation on the pre-packaged imagination inhibits imagination in the sense of true creativity and independent thinking. This is the time of moral development, interest in justice and how it plays out in society (and movies), and these developments arise out of the reasoning mind of the child who begins to consolidate the impressions absorbed in the first six years of life… there is a reason First Communion in the Catholic Church takes place when children are 7 or 8 years old; they are reasoning and morally functioning humans. During this stage of sensitivity for moral development, the movies offer moral confusion and conflict with what they are learning in reality from parents, teachers, and even peers. Chances are, parents don’t encourage their children to run off without permission or to flagrantly disobey their requests and limits. Because of this conflict between reality and the films, children begin pushing limits to test their moral compass and their understanding of big moral questions, such as, “what is justice?” This is the stage of life when “that’s not fair,” becomes a staple in childhood vocabulary. Kids at this stage are entering a time of social collaboration and belonging, and the movies promote the development of fantasy-based ideas of love and relationship. “Why are the girls at school picking on me?” “They just like you.” Thinking: “That’s not how it is supposed to go! It doesn’t happen like that in the movies” (which have been absorbed as reality, if viewed before this stage of life). Because of a strong pack/herd mentality at this second stage and because of a higher regard for what friends are doing (peer pressure) there is an increase in consumerist lobbying (begging) for toys and paraphernalia to fit in or because “she has one!” or “his mom lets him have it!” These things are so prominent in my memory of growing up… “BUT MOMMY!!”

Third Plane, the Social Newborn: 12-18 years old: The physical changes of puberty kick off this stage along with emotional turmoil and self-consciousness; these are the “awkward years.” Any issues that went unresolved in the first plane come up again during this time, as they are parallel stages and the times in life with the most rapid physical growth and emotional development. Youths may feel disappointment in the reality of love and relationship or self-consciousness about how things really go compared to their expectations—there is depression at the rift between reality and the false reality absorbed much earlier in life. At the other extreme, because it is a stage of idealism, they will embrace the false “reality” that is presented in these “classic movies”—rejecting the way life in society actually works. At this age youths are also attracted to heroes and stories of struggle, because those themes mimic the internal struggle of the child—the princess defying the father becomes the role model. Youths begin to formulate conscious values at this stage, and will probably continue pushing limits and the expectation that “happily ever after” happens no matter your choices. Youths begin venturing into financial independence (though in our society, I think this happens later in life with each passing year, with children depending on their parents well into adulthood for housing and other provisions). That mindset of “no consequences” or positive reinforcement for the glorified poor choices in these movies can definitely cause a detrimental attachment to a non-reality… at a time that reality becomes a lot rougher in the “real world.” Is it any wonder that credit card companies target 18 year olds with free t-shirts and high credit limits in our American society?!

Fourth Plane: 18-24 years old: At this point the child/youth/young adult reaches biological maturity and trains for and enters society in a chosen vocation. This could be a difficult enterprise with an unrealistic sense of how the world works, and how choices are affected (especially with parental enabling of this false notion of reality, but I’ll save that rant for another post). People having children during this stage of life begin to look critically (hopefully) at the society and the role it will play in raising a family, and whether that is even something to consider in the culture of selfishness and false reality that is built up by this staple of our childhoods (I’m so grateful for my education and upbringing, that helps me to differentiate this media lie from reality). Additionally, young adults will begin to face these issues for their own children if they are having children. This stage parallels the second stage as a time of rational formation, moral concern, and finding a role as a member of society. To buy it, or not to buy it?

Call to Action; Taking a Proactive Role in our Children's Media Exposure:

We would never offer our children food with something we know is harmful or gross. In fact, when the doctor tells you that your child has a food allergy, there is no fence-walking about your child coming into contact with that food… no questions asked, no rationalization, we follow the doctor’s order without any hesitation. When it comes to what children are putting into their minds in the form of media, we are far more lax in our standards. Every time I mention the television standard for children, which comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics (no screen time under the age of two), the response is a resounding, “Well, I watched TV and turned out fine” or “Just a little won’t hurt them.” Because it isn’t the cause of a physical defect, we just write it off; there is little concern for the psychic (spiritual, emotional, pick the word you like best) development of the child, which is taking in all the subliminal dross of the content as well as forming a fixation to time spent doing absolutely nothing. I don’t know that parents even preview or think about what their children are watching the majority of the time, and once an image, or words, or undertone of disrespect goes by on the screen it is imprinted in the child’s mind. That, again, is some powerful marketing or a powerful social shift… the parents do not even question the merit of what they are giving their children, but know that it must be good because it has an upbeat soundtrack, cute characters, and a happy ending.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing all of this. I only realized you had a blog when someone mentioned it on facebook. I agree in general about Disney, especially for children under age 6 for the developmental reasons you give.

    I am curious about what you think of Disney's Sleeping Beauty. That one has long been my favorite, mainly because it is probably the closest to the actual fairy tale (as far as I am aware, anyway) and without most of the Disney extras (goofy extra characters, etc.).

    Also, do you think that the money/royalty happy endings are a problem in and of themselves, or is it just the Disney versions of them? Classic fairy tales (which I think are hugely important to childhood) nearly always end with the bad guys being punished and good people being rewarded, usually with tangible things like marriage to a prince, wealth, a promise of happiness, etc. But the good people always encounter a great deal of suffering before they reach these rewards, a point that seems to be utterly lacking in most of the Disney movies.

  2. Oops, sorry. That last comment was from me, Sarah Kouba. If you follow the link you can't figure that out because I was signed in to the wrong account.

  3. I didn't really grow up with Sleeping Beauty, but I have seen it a few times. I think that many of the themes remain true about it. Someone (probably on the lengthy facebook discussion about this post... I cannot believe nobody left the comments here!) mentioned that beyond the lack of nuclear family, the films fail to show any familial relationship. That said, I have a couple uncomfortable feelings about Sleeping Beauty: I wanted it to be my favorite because she was born into an intact family, but the parents passed her off to the fairies for her upbringing because they were afraid of a curse. The whole "curse" idea in children's movies also disturbs me, as it supports a sense of the human, completely moved by things outside himself and void of will, essentially giving up on living... especially when the curse comes true despite giving up a child for 18 years in an attempt to avoid it. Lame. That is the bulk of what I remember from the film (I remember the witch yelling something about damning them all to hell in either that one or Snow White... which kind of shocked me, but I thought it was kind of cool, too that they said hell in the Disney movie...).

    I'm not sure of my opinion of the money/royalty marriages/endings as a whole. My gut says that I am not a fan of it, but I will think about that question some more. I think that there are far better things to teach children about marriage (and I doubt that we would disagree about that!). The Disney movies rarely paint a picture of the virtue of the persons entering the marriage, and usually paint a picture of struggle to get around the rules. It is shocking for something like that to come out of my mouth, as a general advocate for doing things differently when there is a good reason! The princes don't really do anything in the films beside being rich, looking handsome, and going after the babe-a-licious princesses that Disney animates. I'd rather skip it and show my children a loving marriage and family by my life, than by a discussion of why things were so messed up in that movie I showed them.

    Classic fairy tales are great stories for elementary age children, but I don't know that they were intended for children. They are usually gory in some way and often depict severity from authority (along with its subversion). I realize that is kind of an indicator for life in general at the time the stories were written. I do prefer the endings with real consequences, and I think the sense of good things coming to good people and bad things coming to bad people is valuable in moral development (as a Catholic). I think the most important thing is seeing good choices and the consequences of those choices.

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  5. Hmm, maybe we do disagree about fairy tales then. Curses are part and parcel of the fairy tale narrative! Maybe I just don't expect very clear life lessons to come out of fairy tales, for one thing. Or perhaps I should say that their messages are more like metaphors and allegories and less about straightforward models on how to be virtuous.

  6. Renee, I just found your blog -- awesome!
    I completely agree about Disney fairy tales -- lots of messages in them that I don't agree with -- some day, in your copious free time, check out "The Storyteller" or "Jim Henson's The Storyteller". I discovered the book (by Anthony Minghella), then realized it was based on a series available on DVD. Great language, gorgeous pictures (and not conventionally pretty princesses). It's excellent for older elementary children or middle school. Quirky retelling of classic European fairy tales woven into a comprehensive story arc. Beauty and the Beast told from the perspective of the Beast; a version of Cinderella with a prince who's insensitive to the servants; strong, intelligent female characters; choices have consequences and loyalty matters. My favorite bit of language: a female troll is called a trollop.

  7. Sarah, I think I'm ok with fairy tales for an older child, but have big concerns about them for younger children. From a literary standpoint, I think they're an excellent source of "teaching moments" about literary devices, such as allegories and metaphors.

    Meg, those sound awesome. I will definitely check them out!