Disney, Southern Baptists, & Children’s Culture


Henry A. Giroux

 

The Southern Baptist Convention in
June generated a lot of media attention when it called
for a boycott of the Disney Company for promoting
"immoral ideologies such as homosexuality." The
Southern Baptists were angry because Disney sponsors
"Gay Days" at its theme parks, provides health
benefits to the domestic partners of gay employees, and
publishes books about growing up gay. According to Herb
Hilliger, a convention spokesperson, the last straw came
in April when the lead character of the sitcom Ellen
had the audacity to come out as a lesbian on the
Disney-owned ABC.

The Baptists got it right in
assuming that something was amiss in Disney’s image
as an icon of clean childhood fun and healthy family
entertainment. Unfortunately, the Southern Baptists got
it wrong in attempting to dismantle Disney’s
pristine image of innocence and good will. The attack on
Disney’s pro-gay policies suggests not only how
widespread gay bashing by the right wing has become in
this country but also how gay-friendly policies, in this
case, have been appropriated to reinforce Disney’s
corporate identity as a model of social and civic
responsibility. Against the Southern Baptists’
retrograde homophobic demands, the land of the Magic
Kingdom actually looked progressive—even though
Disney was one of the last studios to extend health
benefits to same-sex partners. Disney should not be
condemned because it refuses to endorse homophobic
practices in its labor operations and television
programming, but because its pretense to innocence
camouflages a powerful cultural force and corporate
monolith—in Eric Smoodin’s words "a kind
of Tennessee Valley Authority of leisure and
entertainment"—that commodifies culture,
sanitizes historical memory, and constructs
children’s identities exclusively within the
ideology of consumerism.

Far from being a model of moral
leadership and social responsibility, Disney monopolizes
media power, limits the free flow of information, and
undermines substantive public debate. In doing so, it
corporatizes public space and limits the avenues of
public expression and choice. Disney does not have the
power to launch armies, dismantle the welfare state, or
eliminate basic social programs for children. On the
contrary, Disney’s influence is more subtle and
pervasive in its ability to shape public consciousness in
its own image through its enormous economic holdings and
cultural power. Michael Orvitz, a former Disney
executive, was right when he claimed that Disney is not a
company but a "nation state" exercising vast
influence over global constituencies. Influencing large
facets of cultural life, Disney ranks 48th in the Forbes
500 and controls ABC Network News, numerous TV and cable
stations, five motion picture studios, 429 Disney stores,
multimedia companies, and two major publishing houses. In
1996, Disney pulled in a record $21 billion in revenues
from all of its divisions. Not content to peddle
conservative ideologies, it now provides prototypes for
developing American culture and civility, including a
model town aptly called "Celebration," a
prototype school system, and the Disney Institute where
it offers the intellectually curious vacations organized
around learning educational skills in gardening, radio
and television production, cinema studies, and a wide
range of fitness programs and cooking classes.

As one of the most powerful media
conglomerates in the world, Disney works endlessly to
promote cultural homogeneity and political conformity
while waging an ongoing battle against those individuals
and groups who believe that central to democratic public
life is the necessity of democratizing cultural
institutions, including those of the mass media.
Extravagant feature-length animated films, theme parks,
and the Dysnification of West 42nd Street certainly may
have entertainment and educational value, but they cannot
be used as a defense for Disney’s strangulating hold
on the message and image business, its stifling of
unpopular opinions and dissent, or its relentless
corporatizing of civic discourse—all of which
undermine cultural and political life in a vibrant
democratic society.

Disney’s threat to civic life
comes from its role as a major communications industry
capable of exercising harmful and damaging amounts of
corporate power and ideological influence over vast
segments of the American cultural landscape. In the Magic
Kingdom, choice is about consumption, justice is rarely
seen as the outcome of social struggles, and history is
framed nostalgically in the benevolent, patriarchal image
of Walt Disney. In the animated world of Disney’s
films, monarchies replace democracy as the preferred
forms of government, people of color are cast as either
barbarous or stupid, and young Kate Moss-like waifs such
as Pocahontas or Megasus in Hercules reaffirm the
worst kind of gender divisions and stereotypes.

Disney does more than spread its
regressive, sanitized, corporate culture across North
American and the far corners of the globe. More
insidiously, it shamelessly uses its much-touted
commitment to wholesome entertainment to market an
endless array of toys, clothes, and gadgets to children.
Beneath Disney’s self-proclaimed role as an icon of
American culture lies a powerful educational apparatus
that provides ideologically loaded fantasies for children
and adults alike. Walt Disney Imagineers have little to
do with "dreaming" a better world, or even
commenting on the world that today’s kids actually
inhabit. On the contrary, fantasy for Disney has no basis
in reality, no sense of real conflicts, struggles, joys,
and social relations. Fantasy becomes a marketing device,
a form of hype rooted in the logic of self interest and
buying. Disney’s view of children as consumers has
little to do with innocence and a great deal to do with
corporate greed and the realization that behind the
vocabulary of family fun and wholesome entertainment is
the opportunity for teaching children that critical
thinking and civic action in society are far less
important for them than assuming the role of passive
consumers. Eager to reach children under 12, "who
shell out $17 billion a year in gift and allowance income
and influence $172 billion more spent by their
parents," Disney relies on consultants such as
marketing researcher, James McNeal, to tap into such a
market. McNeal can barely contain his enthusiasm in
targeting children as a fertile market and argues in Kids
as Customers
that the "world is poised on the
threshold of a new era in marketing and that… fairly
standardized multinational marketing strategies to
children around the globe are viable."

In its search for new markets and
greater profits, Disney consistently and inventively
finds ways of presenting its films, theme parks, and
entertainment offerings as objects of consumption rather
than spheres of participation. Art in the Magic Kingdom
becomes a spectacle designed to create new markets,
commodify children, and provide vehicles for
merchandizing its endless array of toys, gadgets,
clothes, home accessories and other commodities.
Disney’s ability to use films and other forms of
children’s entertainment as launching pads for a
vast array of toys can be seen in how films such as The
Lion King
, Pocahontas, and more recently, Hercules,
are used as a pretext to convert J.C. Penny, Toys R
Us, McDonald’s, and numerous other retailers into
Disney merchandising outlets. But the real commercial
blitz will be centered in Disney’s own marketing and
distribution network which includes the Disney Store, the
Disney Channel, Disney magazine, Disneyland, and
Walt Disney World.

Given the recent media attention on
the exploitation of children and young adults—over
the use of heroin chic in the fashion industry, the
sexualization of young girls in the world of high powered
models, and the eroticization of six year-olds in
children’s beauty pageants—it is surprising
that there is little public outcry over the baleful
influence Disney exercises on children. The Southern
Baptists and the general public appear indifferent to
Disney’s role in securing children’s desires
and needs to the lure of an endless chain of commodities
while convincing them that the only viable public space
left in which to experience themselves as agents is in
the toy sections of Wal-Mart or the local Disney Store.

Disney’s role as the arbiter
of children’s culture may seem abstract when
expressed in these terms, but in the aftermath of the
promotional blitz for Disney’s new animated film, Hercules,
the mix of educational strategy and greed was brought
home to me with great force. My three boys were watching
television news clips of the Disney parade in New York
City and were in awe that Disney could hold an
extravaganza capable of tying up 30 city blocks while
pulling out every stop in the glitzy grab bag of pomp and
spectacle. Of course, they couldn’t wait to see the
film, buy the spinoff toys, and be the first on their
block to wear a Hercules pin. "Pin? What Pin
I asked?" I hadn’t watched the promotional ad
carefully enough. It seems that Disney was providing a
special showing of the film, Hercules, a few weeks
before its general release. But to get a ticket for the
special showing, parents had to go to an authorized
Disney store to buy a box for $7.00 dollars which
contained a ticket, a collector’s pin of one of the
characters in the film, a brochure, and a tape of a song
from the movie, sung by Michael Bolton. Disney made sure
that every kid, including my own, knew that with the film
came the inevitable flow of stuffed animals, figurines,
backpacks, lunchboxes, tapes, videos, and a host of other
gadgets soon to be distributed by Mattel, Timex, Golden
Books, and other manufactures of children’s culture.

Disney appears ignominious in its
attempt to turn the film hero, Hercules, into an
advertisement for spin off merchandise. Once Hercules
proves himself through a series of brave deeds, Disney
turns him into a public relations hero with a marketable
trade name for products such as "Air Hercules"
sneakers, toy figurines, and action-hero dolls, all of
which can be bought in an emporium modeled shamelessly in
the film after a Disney Store. Disney executive, Tom
Schumacher, claims the film is about building character,
pop culture, and what it means to be a celebrity.
 Character in the land of the Walt Disney Imagineers
appears to have nothing to do with integrity. Hercules
suggests that the Disney dream factory is less a guardian
of childhood innocence than a predatory corporation that
views children’s imaginations as simply another
resource for amassing earnings.

 

What strategies are open to
educators, parents, and others who want to challenge the
corporate barons shaping children’s culture in the
United States? First, as a globe-trotting corporation,
Disney’s economic and political power must be
acknowledged for the threat it poses to both
children’s culture and public life in general.
Secondly, battles must be waged to dismantle its control
and ownership of large segments of the communications
industry. Media critics such as Mark Crispin Miller are
right in arguing that such monopolies represent a
political and cultural toxin and that their hold must be
broken through the creation of broad-based movements
dedicated to a wide variety of strategies, including
public announcement campaigns, sit-ins, teach ins, and
boycotts that would raise public consciousness and
promote anti-trust legislation aimed at breaking up media
monopolies and ownership while promoting economic and
cultural democracy. In this instance, Disney must be
challenged for the threat it poses in creating the
specter of a national entertainment state and for
exercising unchecked corporate power within what Eyal
Press rightly calls "the injustices of an
unregulated global economy."

Thirdy, the time has come to
challenge Disney’s self-proclaimed role as a medium
of "pure entertainment" and take seriously
Disney’s educational role in producing ideologically
loaded fantasies aimed at teaching children selective
roles, values, and cultural ideals. Progressive educators
and other cultural workers need to pay closer attention
to how the pedagogical practices produced and circulated
by Disney and other mass media conglomerates organize and
control a circuit of power that extend from producing
cultural texts to shaping the contexts in which they will
be taken up by children and others. Disney’s attempt
to control the field of social meanings available to
children provides a particular challenge to progressives
in making visible the political, economic, and
educational apparatuses Disney uses to produce cultural
texts as well as the pedagogical practices involved in
making such texts meaningful to diverse groups of
children and adults. What is at stake here is the
necessity for all those concerned about democracy to
engage critically how pedagogy becomes central to
cultural politics, and how companies such as Disney
promote diverse forms of cultural pedagogy as a type of
political practice that often works to restrict the
capacities of kids to think critically, move beyond the
borders of corporate consumerism, and take seriously
their roles as critical social agents.

Finally, as a principle producer of
popular culture Disney’s films, television programs,
newscasts, and other forms of entertainment should become
serious objects of critical analysis, understanding, and
intervention both in and outside of schools. It is almost
commonplace to acknowledge that most of what students
learn today is not in the classrooms of public schools,
or for that matter in the classrooms of higher education,
but in the electronically generated media spheres.
Consequently, students need to acquire the knowledge and
skills to become literate in multiple symbolic
forms—so as to be able to read critically the
various types of cultural texts to which they are
exposed. This is not meant to suggest that we should junk
the canon for Disney studies as much as refashion what it
is that students learn in relation to how their
identities are shaped outside of academic life. Students
need to learn multiple literacies and focus on diverse
spheres of learning. The issue of what is valuable
knowledge is not reducible to the tired either/or culture
wars arguments that pervade the academy. Maybe the more
interesting questions point in different directions: what
is it that students need to learn to live in a
substantive democracy, read critically in various spheres
of culture, engage those critical traditions of the past
that continue to shape how we think about the present and
the future, and engage multiple texts for the wisdom they
provide and the maps they offer us to live in a world
that is more multicultural, diverse, and democratic?

Students also need to learn how to
produce their own newspapers, records, television
programs, videos, and whatever other technology is
necessary to link knowledge and power, pleasure and the
demands of public life. Disney got its eye muddied a few
years ago when its attempts to create a theme park on an
historical Virginia landmark was successfully resisted by
active citizens. The Southern Baptists, because of their
own prejudice against gays and lesbians, were incapable
of seeing that the real threat that Disney poses is not
to fulfilling the demands of the gay and lesbian
communities, but to the imperatives of democracy and to
those children who are essential to carry on its
traditions and fulfill its unfinished business. Maybe
they should take their kids to a Disney store, reassemble
again, and take another vote.

 

Henry A. Giroux is the
Waterbury Chair Professor of Education at Penn
State University. His latest books are Fugitive
Cultures: Race, Violence, and Youth
(Routledge)
and Channel Surfing: Race Talk and the
Destruction of Today’s Youth (St. Martins
Press).