I’m going to talk about Disney.
Okay, so, what might be so very literati about a mega-corporation like Disney and its instantly recognizable brand? These days, there’s such a surplus of Disney merchandise, most all of which seems pretty tacky, that the literati sect tend to simply bemoan its existence as some mind-killing injection from hell. (Literati sects are melodramatic like that.)
The thing is, pop-culture analysis is a big part of cultural studies, which encapsulate the literati, and, for a less pretentious reason to write about Disney, I grew up a Disney kid. I had the Aladdin and Little Mermaid toys and bed sheets, and Belle’s yellow ball dress, and Lion King footie pajamas, and, if pressed, I’m sure I remember most Disney songs from my favorite movies. And, seeing as this year critics have hailed the return of the Mouse with the acclaimed and astonishing success of Frozen, I think it’s a good time to address something that I feel the world needs to remember. Disney (wait for it… wait for it…) isn’t bad.
Yeah, I know, shocking. Those kiddie cartoons we all grew up with? They didn’t hail the impending apocalypse. They didn’t start The Hunger Games or summon the deadites, and they didn’t side with Lord Voldemort.
I’m being melodramatic. But, to be serious, have you noticed that Disney has become the biggest punching bag for all the (first world) ails? The right thinks it has secret, hidden messages, encourages disobedience in children,and depicts men poorly.
The left thinks it has secret, hidden messages, encourages conformity, and depicts women poorly.
The problem is, Disney is just too big. It’s enormous, owns so much, and affects so much of our media and our cultural formation that people just want to pick it a part. It’s an easy target. It’s like hitting the broad side of a barn. The problems people have with Disney are the problems people have with their parents or the neighborhoods they grew up in, things they are critique harshly because they are familiar.
Now, of course, we should be good media critics, and obviously Disney should not be an exception. They have their fair share of legitimately “problematic” material. And, of course, we should be careful about what material we decide to view or show to children. If you think you’d rather show your kids Spirited Away rather than Little Mermaid, that’s completely understandable. However, showing a child Little Mermaid does not stop that child from appreciating Spirited Away, or any other film for that matter. Susan Sontag argued that while she would choose classical music over The Doors if she had to, it was silly to make her choose. If you decide that you just want to watch something else, good on you, but don’t set up a false dichotomy between the literati and “ye olde rubes who love Disney”.
Because, when you look past the corporatism, the greed, the cash-ins and sequels and crap, Disney has legitimate artistry behind its films and a strong influence on popular culture. And, apparently this influence terrifies a lot of people, so this is my subject: defending Disney, a company that is so successful it really doesn’t need my defense. The defense is really more of myself, for liking Disney. And, for my purposes, I’m sticking with Disney’s Princess movies plus The Lion King and Pocahontas, since those garner the majority of the controversy.
Starting off, Snow White.
Controversy on the left: Snow White is a submissive housekeeper who shows girls that all they can do is clean for men and wait for a man. Also, dead mother, evil older woman, no other female characters.
Controversy on the right: Snow White is generally not too controversial on the right, other than questions about magic and whether or not the story is too scary. However, there is no father, which has become the biggest target subject lately.
Controversy for everyone: It dumbs down the original.
First of all, I’d like to say that this is one of my favorite Disney films, not for the story or Snow White’s amazingly weird voice, but for the animation. The technical loops the company went through to develop this look, which had never been tried before, is astounding. It’s inspired by artists like Arthur Rackham, who illustrated the Fairy Books.
The look is dark, Germanic, brooding, Gothic even, with haunting shadows and lush detail.
The anatomy of the human characters, which had never been tried before in this way, is technologically brilliant, even if they had difficulties with male characters. For example, ever wonder why the prince is hardly in the movie? Well, he was supposed to be. They literally didn’t know how to draw him so that he would move realistically. Also, the story structure is interesting. Did you ever wonder where the staple of musicals plus cute animal sidekicks came from? They came from vaudevillian musical productions of the time. The Disney standard is the direct heir of old-timey musicals, which is why they tend to translate back to the stage pretty well.
As an animation geek, it’s impossible for me not to like this movie and also consider it a work of art which children probably should experience as a great introduction to the form and way to get kids excited about film as art as well as illustrations. You could use it as a lead-in to looking at art and reading fairytales. This and Fantasia are the two Disney films I most consider to be art and worthy of artistic discussion, even just from a technical level, an art history perspective, so just for educational purposes I’d suggest it.
Furthermore, Snow White is just charming. So much work and love went into it that it shocks me when people don’t appreciate the technical wonderment of the product or who cannot get enchanted by the setting and world. For shame, cynics! For shame!
The artistic merit alone should be enough for people to overlook what really amount to be moderate controversies in order to experience a landmark film history production. However, since controversy exists, I’ll address it. First of all, I do not think that Snow White says that all women are good for is cleaning. Snow White is a princess, supposed to inherit queenship, but her evil stepmother makes her a servant in the house. So, these are her skills, and when she finds the seven dwarves, she puts them to work. She’s resourceful. She’s not a swooning damsel. When she escapes the queen’s plot to have her murdered and… mutilated (more on that later) she initially breaks down but quickly puts herself together. She’s an optimist, resourceful and active. She uses kindness to win friends (the forest animals) and is even clever enough to decide that she’s more likely to get a place to stay if she makes herself useful. She puts her skills to use. Okay, I’m reading a bit more plot into the story than there is, but it is true. The story doesn’t explore much character development, being limited by technical difficulties and using an archetypal storytelling method, but Snow White really is this sort of character. If we were to give character types to the Disney princesses (Belle = smart, Ariel = Feisty, et cetera) Snow White would be the optimist. She’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, making the most of difficult situations, winning friends by being friendly and diplomatic, and keeping her chin up throughout the story.
As for the villainous queen, yes, Disney doesn’t have a lot of older female figures who aren’t evil. That is true. But, this isn’t Disney. The original fairytale has an evil queen. That’s just the story. I don’t think little kids are going to discriminate against older women because of it, either.
And, yes, the mother is dead and the father is dead. This is a subject that really surprises me with how controversial it is. First of all, again, many fairytales have orphans as the main characters. This isn’t an invention of Disney. And, why not? The stories feature unlikely heroes, the vulnerable. The stories deal with anxieties that children have, of having to face danger and hardship without parents. But, instead of showing the heroes fall apart, the characters show that goodness and bravery may triumph despite this hardship. And, yes, sometimes I think that the acknowledgement of the anxieties sometimes affirms them, which can be seen in the ineffectual parent types in the Disney films of the ‘90s. However, if you remember your original fairytales, in some stories Snow White’s own mother is the evil queen, and in Cinderella her father is alive and ineffectual for the entire story. And let’s not forget stories like Hansel and Gretel. The fear of ineffectual parents isn’t new or discovered by Disney. Maybe they shouldn’t affirm this concern. That’s a discussion we can have. But, they hardly decided to create ineffectual parent figures out of thin air. The fairytales already have them, or just straight up evil parents.
Lastly, the scare factor. For some reason, people constantly point out how Snow White is dumbed down, despite some concerns that it is too scary. First of all, unless you desperately wanted to have the real-mother-evil-queen version or more emphasis on the whole cannibalism plot (that’s what the queen wants the heart for), then the story isn’t too dumbed down. It’s still very scary.
The queen wanting the huntsman to cut the heart from Snow White is pretty disturbing, and that just leads to a very scary scene of the princess running through the archetypal “dark woods”.
Then there’s the whole spell-casting scene with the evil queen, which is still trippy and twisted, and the finale is also very dark and rather violent. You know those vultures are going to eat the queen. I mean, that’s what happened. Happy Disney. Happy.
Even the kiss from the prince is sort of strange, with the castle appearing as a golden, glowing, mystic light palace in the sky. As a child, I firmly believed she had actually died and went to heaven. That’s not completely out-there. The prince’s character was cut so much due to technical errors that he seems more like a heavenly messenger than a romantic interest.
Also, if you have any doubts that Snow White is scary –you know, beyond childhood suppressed nightmare memories—it inspired a classic horror film from master of gore Dario Argento: Suspiria. So, dumbed down and too cute? I don’t think so.
However, for those who find it too scary, Don Bluth, director of The Land Before Time, had a theory that kids can really handle a lot of scary and sad as long as the ending is happy. It really does depend on the kid, and parents should use their own judgment. But, kids will experience sad and scary in their lives, and seeing heroes get through the sadness and the fear is a good thing. It helps kids know that they, too, can be positive and pick themselves up, even after horrible situations. And, that kind of optimism is why I love Snow White.