What We Talk About When We Talk About Disney

Grim Grinning Ghosts

Last January I finally got the chance to teach a course on Disney.

Many of my colleagues have been mocking me for years for  being a Disney “fan,” because I go to Disneyland while they are all, of course, too savvy and too cynical to be taken in by the insidious marketing strategies of the media monster.

Centaurettes at ‘Fantasia’ screening. These are not me.

But I will confess right now, I am not a true “fan” in the sense that we use that term today. I do not cosplay. I do not fan-fict. I do not adore all things Disney. I don’t think “Walt” was a god who could do no wrong, and I did not grow up in princess attire. In fact, my un-fan-ness disappointed many of my Disney class students.

Both points-of-view confuse me. I can neither dismiss “Disney” as the ultimate evil empire of capitalism, nor embrace it unquestioningly as the font of all dreams and goodness.

Of course, this begs the question: What do we mean when we talk about…Disney-Logo-Global

The man? The animation studio? The conglomerate behemoth?

“Disney” may be a single corporate hydra, but it isn’t truly a single topic to either love or despise. The Walt Disney Company is a huge and complex commercial enterprise with a long and complicated history. At this writing it is the world’s largest media conglomerate and has the most unique evolutionary tale.

Where does one even begin to think and talk about “Disney?”

Walt and DwarvesThere was, of course, a man… a human man, who was no more or less human than any other man, particularly among those who built that other mega-pan-institution we lazily refer to as “Hollywood.” And no, Disney, the man, is not frozen by the way. That is just one of the many unquestioned and oft-repeated urban legends his memory drags around like Marley’s chains.

There was and still is The Walt Disney Company, which is not and was not inseparable from Walt Disney, the man. The man is deceased, after all, but the company has never been more vital.

If one wishes to talk about The Walt Disney Company, there are whole constellations of people and events to investigate. Without brother Roy who took care of the finances, there would not have even been a Walt Disney Company. It was Roy who got the merchandise licensing underway and who fought to maintain television rights to the short films — in the 1930s!

After Walt’s death, his son-in-law Ron Miller took over company operations, and there is much to consider about both the creative and business practices during that era.

Then of course, there was Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and now Bob Iger. Each of these and a host of others in the lower ranks, made decisions that had substantial impacts on the corporate character of the thing we, today, call “Disney.”

Setting the corporate aspects aside, one could also talk about the huge canon of “Disney” films and television programs. One could spend a career focusing on the animation alone, noting the contributions of particular animators and artists, and the impact of technological advancements on the Disney animation aesthetic over the past 90+ years.

Freaky Friday
Jodie Foster made ‘Freaky Friday’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ within the same year.

There are also the live action nature documentaries which were certainly forefathers of nature programs that are so familiar on cable networks today.

And then there were live action fictional films from The Absent-Minded Professor through Freaky Friday and The Apple Dumpling Gang… though don’t ask me to re-watch the latter; it was a crushing disappointment to me as a child. Did you know Jodie Foster made Freaky Friday and Taxi Driver within the same year?

It was actually at the end of Miller’s reign that the Walt Disney Company launched Touchstone Pictures and branched into adult live action features, which expanded exponentially under Eisner.

Disneyland-TV-Show-TomorrowlandOne could also talk infinitely on Disney and television. Walt Disney recognized the synergistic potential of television earlier than most other Hollywood studio moguls. Genius? No, necessity. He had an insanely expensive theme park underway and, having emptied his personal coffers, television presented a way to finance and promote his pet endeavor. He show was on ABC which The Walt Disney Company purchased in 1995, a little more than 40 years after “Disneyland,” the show, premiered and a little over 30 years after Walt’s death. Told you: it’s a long and complicated history.

The company’s relationship with television programming has only become more complex in recent decades as the Disney Channel took off and spawned new mini-media-phenomenas, such as Hannah Montana and High School Musical. (It turned out my students are most familiar with and interested in the Disney channel, about which I know almost nothing. Sigh.)

My personal favorite Disney topic is the company’s use of new technologies over the years: synchronized sound, the multi-plane camera, widescreen, surround sound, sodium-ray image-matting, underwater cameras, and hosts of different digital imaging technologies.

Planar Camera
Multi-plane camera, on view at Disney Family Museum

Technology, both old and new, is at the center of the theme parks. They are built of it and comment upon it, from Tomorrowland’s space craft to Main Street’s horse-drawn carriages and Penny Arcade. Technology animates Abe Lincoln, Buzz Lightyear and those singing maccaws.

disney-strikeThen, of course there is the “dark side” of the company’s history, and by this I do not mean genitalia hidden in animation cells. My students were stunned to learn of the severity of the 1941 animators strike, and the possibility that it so deeply affected Walt Disney as to motivate his “friendly” testimony before HUAC a decade later. (Disney’s bitter reaction to the strike and its organizers looms large in accounts of his anti-semitism. Though many who knew him believed he was not anti-semitic and was usually apolitical, the strike definitely rendered him anti-communist.)

The studio’s war time activities were also remarkable. Disney’s position as Good Neighbor Policy ambassador led to Salads Amigos, The Three Caballeros and short films on hygiene and menstruation, for starters. Then the training and propaganda films ensued, while the studio facility itself served as an actual military base. Animators also designed insignia, war bonds, and a plethora of promotional materials. [see: America in WWII article]

The company’s history gets darker during the Eisner regime when the company earned the moniker, from its employees, “Mousewitz.”

The Walt Disney Company began to take over the world under Eisner’s regime — opening theme parks abroad, branching into cruise lines, planned communities, Broadway plays, and of course Princess culture.

And what about those acquisitions? ABC? Muppets? Pixar? Marvel? Star Wars? How does the meaning of “Disney” change as it subsumes these other entities?

I haven’t even started on the Cultural Studies angles: gender, race, nationalism, imperialism, ethics, morality, family, etc…

Disney Star Wars CruiseAnd fandom! Where does one even begin there? There is the DIY fandom like that of Bat’s Day and Disney Bound, and then there is the branded fandom: Disney Lifestyle. You can Disney-fy your kitchen, have a Disney wedding, or join the Disney Vacation Club. And how do the Marvel and Star Wars franchises complicate the fandom landscape?

I understand that if you detest capitalism, then you must detest the Walt Disney Company out of hand. Yet the company and its products are such pervasive components of the popular cultural landscape, it seems absurd to me to dismiss them. Even many of my otherwise-anti-Disney feminist friends were taken in by Maleficent.

When it comes to talking “Disney,” topics splinter and multiply endlessly like… well, you know…

Sorcerer's Brooms

My “Disney Class” is actually entitled “The Walt Disney Company: From Animation to Empire.” I’ll be teaching it again this summer, and learning more than my students, yet again. I can’t wait. So very much to talk about!

There are myriad books written on all topics Disney. Many of them are erroneous, many of them corporate-sacntioned and sanitized. I keep a Zotero library of citations of some of the writings I’ve felt were of higher repute, usefulness, and thoughtfulness. I am open to suggestions for further reading.

PS: As I was adding the images to this post, a colleague passing by looked over my shoulder and said, “You know he (Disney) was a Nazi sympathizer, right?”

So very much to talk about…

Education for Death
Still from “Education for Death” propaganda cartoon (1943).


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