I’d like to point out that I don’t think the main problem with Disney is that it influences our culture and the way we understand our world. Of course, it does to some extent, especially with its hypermarketing of its Princess franchise and overall adherence to strict gender roles, etc. that millions of children are exposed to. But Disney is only one of hundreds of companies, products, people, movies, books, and everything else than influence people in our culture.
Disney is a snapshot of a moment in time, capturing what we do and do not find unacceptable to appear in a children’s movie. We are not a reflection of Disney’s values- it gives us what it thinks we want. Disney is, in fact, a reflection of us, and this is the problem.
For example, the way Disney handles voodoo/vodou in its 2009 movie, the Princess and the Frog. Disney messed up because most of America is not aware of the extent to which this religion has been racially mythologized in our culture. Disney messed up because most Americans sincerely have no idea how offensive it is that we continue, in the 21st century, to portray a rich, complex, cultural identity and religion as something “Evil black people do, that involves sticking pins in/twisting dolls to make people ill, coming up with hexes, evil spirits, satanic rituals, etc.” It is reflective of the fact that we still live in a racist society where we can afford to say, “Well, that does not matter much.” If you did not know this before, you are not a bad person. It is a story that has been told to us many, many, many times in our culture- see pictures here of “Scooby-Doo! World of Mystery: Haiti-Voodoo churches” book or movie complete with evil zombies, and picture of an internet “Voodoo Curse” game.
So don’t see this as a personal attack- see it as part of a larger context in which we, as a society, do not always deeply examine the messages being flashed at us. Disney should have known better than to once again portray voodoo as something evil, but we should have known better than to find this a continually acceptable storyline.
Disney is also a reflection of us in the way they create their characters, like when they craft their villians around problematic stereotypes. Many of the villains are females who are evil because they desire youth and beauty (ex: Cruella de Vil, Mother Gothel, Queen in Snow White), even as Disney showcases them alongside princesses and other characters that embody our culture’s female “ideal” (white skin, small waist, often blond hair, young, etc.). This is reflective of of a culture that both pushes young women to strive for physical perfection, while simultaneously then shaming/punishing them for desiring it.
Other villians are often men made to look more feminine/queer-coded (ex: Doctor Facilier), dark skinned (Scar), and/or foreign (Jafar) than the other male characters in the movie. Disney doesn’t do this just because Disney itself wants to encourage hypermasculinity in boys because it is afraid of them acting “gay” or “feminine”. Disney does this because to some extent, we as a culture subconsciously agree that these people fit their villaneous roles, and Disney correctly realizes few of us will question their casting. Disney does not have an agenda her so much as it has a script with specific roles we have handed to it.
The problem is that we are comfortable with our privileges when we do not have to confront them. We can handle it so long as it is packaged up with beautiful animation and what we interpret to be a wholesome and happy ending. Disney does not change, because we ourselves have refused to change as much as is necessary. We have decided too many times not to challenge messages so long as they are not as blatantly offensive as a noose in a tree or an acknowledged slur.
Nothing will change until we acknowledge that the burden of change does not rest with companies, or with the government, or with television channels. At a fundamental level- the change will have to occur with us. By saying all this I do not intend to absolve Disney (or anything else) of responsibility, because it is 100% responsible for everything it has financially backed and for the messages it has probably realized are problematic and decides to capitalize on anyways. But it is far too simplistic to see Disney as the enemy and shove all responsibility for the creation of these messages onto their plate. It has never been that simple.
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