Debating ‘Disneyfication’

It was on the strength of her performance in Tiger Bay that Hayley Mills was awarded her contract with Disney – although it is hard to think of many films featuring children at this time that are less like the output mostly associated with Disney Studios. Before moving on to look at Mills’s Disney features, it is important to consider Disney’s significance in relation to ideas about childhood, and to unpack the idea of ‘Disneyfication’ in my title.

In the three decades before the 1960s, the rise of Disney was largely due to its intensive targeting of the children’s market – although Disney himself always insisted that his films were intended as ‘family entertainment’, which would draw in parents as well (and hence prove even more lucrative). From Steamboat Willie and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons, right through to its contemporary productions such as the Toy Story films, Cars and the various ‘Disney Princesses’, Disney has become almost synonymous with a particular, dominant definition of American childhood. Even today, Disney films tell both parents and children powerful stories both about childhood and about the transition to adulthood.

In his book Babes in Tomorrowland, Nicholas Sammond describes how claims about the harmful effects of media on children gained traction in the early 1930s, especially after the coming of sound. While this led to greater censorship (in the form of the Hays Code), it also implicitly raised the question of how movies might be beneficial for children – how they might help to raise children as good citizens, rather than misleading them into bad ways. This effectively created a market opportunity: it enabled Disney to present itself as a company whose accumulation of commercial profit could be compatible with ‘doing good’ for children. By carefully cultivating its wholesome brand identity – and constructing Walt himself as an avuncular but efficient self-made man – the company was able to embed its enormous range of media products and merchandise into most Americans’ everyday family lives.

Sammond shows how ideas about child-rearing changed from the highly regulated behaviourist approach of the 1920s and 1930s, based on ideas of ‘scientific management’ that were being applied in industry, to the moderately permissive approach that arose in the 1950s, most often identified with Dr. Spock. As he argues, these changing ideas were tied up with anxieties about the United States’ national identity and its position in the world, initially around the Depression and the New Deal, and subsequently during the Cold War. Media consumption was a particular focus of concern here – especially given the way in which cinema brought different racial groups and social classes together. According to Sammond, Disney’s approach involved the imposition of white, middle-class norms of behaviour; and even as it cautiously embraced the more permissive ideas of the 1950s, it also urged the child to conform to narrowly stereotypical but apparently innate gender roles, not only in its cartoons but also in its nature documentaries.

Sammond’s account goes beyond familiar arguments about ideological manipulation that are often laid at Disney’s door. He argues that these arguments about child-rearing, which were widely circulated in women’s magazines and other popular advice literature for parents, effectively created a climate in which Disney could thrive. Disney, he argues, was not an all-powerful agent of thought control, imposing a kind of false consciousness on its audiences: rather, it was meeting (and of course also helping to shape and define) an already perceived need.

However, the view of Disney films as a means of brainwashing is the one that prevails in much of the critical commentary. Despite his status as a kind of American icon, there is a long history of condemnation of Disney, which gathered particular force in the 1960s. In 1965, the critic Frances Clarke Sayers published a classic essay in a children’s literature journal, in which she claimed that Disney productions – its animated cartoons in particular – were vulgar, sentimental and clichéd. Disney’s versions of classic fairytales, she argued, were crude and simplistic, ironing out moral complexities in favour of a one-dimensional image of ‘sweetness and light’. Three years later, Richard Schickel was going further: ‘Disney’s machine,’ he argued, ‘was designed to shatter the two most valuable things about childhood – its secrets and its silences – thus forcing everyone to share the same formative daydreams’. Disney was a force for ideological conformity, which was driven by rampant commercialism.

For more recent critics, of whom there have been many, Disney is also a purveyor of sexism, racism, classism, imperialism, and a whole legion of other obnoxious prejudices. The charge of ‘Disneyfication’, in this account, is partly about a kind of simplification or sanitization: moral tension and complexity are ironed out in favour of simplistic, dumbed-down tales of good and evil. It is also about sentimentality: genuine and profound emotions are substituted by superficial mawkishness and mush. The criticism implies a rejection of Disney’s commercialism – and in particular the transformation of ‘classic’ or sacred children’s texts into profitable commodities. Yet it is also, finally, a political charge: Walt Disney himself is presented (admittedly with some good evidence) as a reactionary, even a kind of crypto-fascist, as well as a peddler of xenophobic prejudice.

Few critics seem prepared to defend Disney from such charges, although one notable exception is Douglas Brode, who claims that Disney laid the ground for the counter-culture of the 1960s, and indeed was its ‘primary creator’. Brode identifies numerous instances of anti-establishment thinking in Disney films, as well as examples of youth-led rebellion and environmentalism. He is not wrong to identify some more liberal elements in recent Disney output – although much of this (for instance the animated blockbusters of the Eisner era) post-dates both the counter-culture and Disney himself. Yet while his challenge to the narrative of ‘Disneyfication’ is provocative, Brode’s work is undermined by his inaccurate interpretations of the films, and the overstatement of his argument.

Debates about Disney remain highly polarized, not just among critics but also among ordinary parents. Several years ago, I conducted a study of British parents’ views, which identified a profound ambivalence. On the one hand, many parents recalled their own childhood experiences of Disney output with nostalgia and affection, and also regarded it as relatively ‘safe’ for their own children. Yet on the other, many were critical of what they saw as its gender stereotyping, commercialism and sentimentality – and, in the UK context, its ‘Americanism’.

While these critical views of Disney were not widely shared in the early 1960s, some of the films of that time – including the ones I consider next – would certainly have provided them with valuable ammunition. On the other hand, we might also expect to see (as we do in Tiger Bay) at least some intimations of the changes in the position of children and young people, and of women, that began to gather momentum as the decade progressed.

Nicholas Sammond’s account takes us to the dawn of the 1960s, when Hayley Mills’s first films for the studio were released; and, like most critics of Disney, he barely looks at the Studio’s live action films. Along with its nature documentaries, such films began to appear in the early 1950s, as the animated output began to fade (at least until the late 1980s); and they became the dominant form of Disney production in the 1960s. They included early successes such as Treasure Island (1950), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955). Such films were largely targeted at boys; and in this context, Disney’s hiring of Mills represented something of a departure – Pollyanna was his first live-action feature with a central girl character.

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