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When thinking about America one of the first related items that comes to mind is Disney. Disney is a predominant influence on Americana and has been pivotal in the creation of the nation. The company is very popular among the country and is estimated be worth 110 billion dollars (Dennison, 2018). Disney’s empire includes toys, theme parks, films, clothing, memorabilia, and much more. This paper will discuss how Disney has impacted the nation and (un)consciously influenced the societal norms that can be seen today.
Many of the Disney films appeal to both youth and adults and have been established as a big part of their upbringing. However, are these films really innocent or have they created a society of beasts and conforming citizens. With close analysis it can be seen that many of Disney’s popular princess movies represent something larger than just a fictional tale. Many of the films subtly hint at the roles of women in society and reinforce the notion that they are weak and dependent among males. Disney has been a tremendous influence on American identity by molding societies gender roles and reinforcing heteronormativity through the use of the Disney Princess. The underlying messages within the films are creating unappealing behaviors within our society. The films promote female inferiority and discrimination among minority groups. The enchanting world of Disney may not be so enchanting afterall.
How it works
To begin, the symbiotic relationship between Disney and America will be discussed. Walt Disney has influenced America in several ways. Disney has been intertwined with American national identity because the movies and theme parks have built a foundation of ideals and morals in which America lives by. Although, what is national identity? National identity is defined as a nation that is a united whole that has distinctive traditions, culture, and language. Now, the term nation is defined by Anderson as imagined, as most of the members of the community will not see or know most of the members included (1983). So why is it that this imagined community has a mutual connectedness through Disney? Most of the nation can agree that Disney is a part of their lives and their children’s lives and is integral to who they are.
The first way Disney has integrated itself within the American culture is through its theme parks. Disney theme parks have taken typical American aspects and have magnified them to appeal to the masses. For instance, when entering Disneyland the visitor walks through Main street. This has a classic Midwestern American feel as many Americans have encountered the same street name within their own environment. Disneyland also creates a realistic feel with including streets, town buildings, transportation, and bodies of water throughout the park. However, Disney amplifies these aspects to be better than the real world.
Disney romanticizes American culture and city life by the way it has built its theme park. This is done by creating the streets bigger, having more space, the buildings are cozy and have windows facing the streets and scenery. Additionally, the transits are electric and not expelling tons of smog (King, 1981). Therefore, America’s value this exemplified version of their home town and consider it to be part of their national identity. The park is immensely popular that there were over 24 million people that visited Disneyland in 2017 (Anaheim Celebrates Fifth Record Setting Year, 2018), so it can be considered that Disneyland is the Mecca of American Culture. Now not only do the theme parks play a role in American national identity but Disney movies also have an impact in shaping America.
Most, if not all, children grow up watching the enchanting stories of the Disney princesses and their adventures. These films have been influential to many children throughout the decades. Each film tells its own stories which are internalized by young watchers. In the year 2017, Disney films reportedly earned 2.4 billion at the box office in domestic earnings (Eggertsen, 2018). Therefore, It can be perceived that Disney films are being watched by a lot of Americans. This is what makes Disney so influential and impactful to the nation. It poses as a foundation of the youths moral teachings and upbringing. However, when taking a closer look it is revealed that Disney is teaching children less than meaningful values and also creating and ingraining gender roles within it’s viewers. Three movies will be analyzed to display what Disney has endorsed.
The first film under critique is the movie Cinderella. In this motion picture the young middle class girl is stuck at home cleaning all day. Throughout the story she is forced to do all of the housekeeping and is harassed by her family but still tends to keep a positive mood. This aspect of Cinderella is teaching young girls that it is a woman’s duty to clean and keep the house tidy while being compliant and cheerful about the chores. Cinderella has created the gender norm of women doing all domestic work. In Baker-Sperry’s study of young children who read and interpreted Cinderella stated, that when the children were asked to describe Cinderella they described her as beautiful, nice, and skilled in domestic tasks (2007). This represents that women doing domestic work is well associated with being of normalcy and expectedness among many young children. Cinderella’s skill in housework is not the only aspect that is highlighted within the movie.
The concept of beauty being of high importance is also depicted in the story of Cinderella. Cinderella is described as a young, blonde haired, blued eyed, slender beauty who is opposite of her evil stepmother and sisters who are old, gray, and have large unattractive features. Cinderella’s beauty is what saves her from her dreadful circumstances, not her hard work, skills, or wit. As Parson states, the notion of being a passive and beautiful girl will result in being rewarded becomes accepted and natural among children who hear or watch the story (2004). This notion enforces girls to believe that all they need to do is look pretty and soon a romantic partner will come to save them. The movie also tends to focus on the need of a male counterpart.
Cinderella helped mold the gender norm of women needing a male partner in order to be happy. Throughout the movie Cinderella shows distress that she has to live with her step mother and evil step sisters and longs for savior by the prince. Even though it can be seen throughout the movie that she does find joy in spending time with her critter friends it is prevalent that she is only truly happen once the prince has found her and taken her from her atrocious living situation. Cinderella’s lack of motivation to fix her own circumstances has taught young girls that only a man can change her circumstances and is the ultimate source of happiness. There is way more to live for than a man and there are rewards that come with hard work but the movie has shaped children’s minds to think otherwise, it has also created expectations of what each sex should do and is capable of.
Within this film gender tasks are separated among men and women. The women in the film are given the softer task such as cleaning, daydreaming, sewing, ect. The men are assigned significant roles such as being a prince of high status or being a right hand to the clergy that gets to inspect the feet of all ladies within the kingdom. Throughout the film the important tasks are left to the males and females are left with romantic and domestic tasks (Siemens, 2003). Women are being portrayed as unfit and incapable of having important tasks. Cinderella is modeling a passive and conforming figure which is being looked up to and normalized among the nation. These messages are encouraging girls to not pursue jobs that are stereotypically for men because they will not succeed.
The next movie that has taught children less than appealing values is The Little Mermaid. The movie is about a young mermaid named Ariel who has a fascination with the world above sea. She is seen as a misfit among her mer-family and is quite adventurous. After a brief encounter, Ariel soon falls in love with a handsome prince (that was unconscious at the time) that lives on land. She is then determined to be with the prince and seeks help from, the evil sea witch, Ursula to get the man of dreams. Throughout the musical there are many misogynistic ideals being taught.
Firstly, the sexualization of the female body is present within the film. For most of the movie Ariel is wearing a seashell bra which is considered normal and not indecent. There is also a scene where her figure is shown seductively once she has transformed into a human. Young viewers are being taught that women should show off their bodies as it is sexy. In Wohlwend’s study she asked young boys to draw pictures of a Disney princess and the outcomes included cleavage, long hair, and full lips (2012). It can be inferred that woman are being represented as sexual objects and it can be seen that children are internalizing this. The film also puts an emphasis on Ariel’s beauty.
Although the movie is portrayed as innocent, it sends a bad messages to the youth that watches. Ariel teaches young girls that there is an importance in beauty and not one’s thoughts. In the movie the evil witch Ursula persuades Ariel into trading in her voice for a human body. Ursula emphasizes that there is no need for Ariel to speak when she can use body language. Young girls are learning that in order to be loved they only have to be attractive to find a partner. The movie also expresses the importance of body weight and how it is viewed among society.
There are not many body types shown throughout the film among its characters. All mermaids and the prince have slender physiques. However, the antagonist who is named the “Evil” Sea Witch Ursula is noticeably overweight. No one likes the bad guy and since Disney is representing Ursula as overweight it is teaching children that being overweight is not accepted and is essentially wrong. The movie creates a parallel between weight and beauty. If one is thin they are beautiful and worthy of success while if one is overweight they are destined to fail. Along with physical beauty being promoted throughout the movie, conforming for a romantic partner is also encouraged (Seybold and Rondolino, 2018).
Ariel is a bright young girl that could have many prospects under the sea, after all she is a princess. However, she falls in love with Prince Eric who is a human on land. Ariel goes through several trials to get Prince Eric to fall in love with her. It is not until the end of the movie where her father King Triton is willing to let Ariel be with the man of her dreams and changes her into a human. Although, this is a happy ending why couldn’t Prince Eric transform into a mermaid himself? Once again the movie has taught young children that it is the woman’s job to change who she is to fit a man’s preferences in order to be a romantic subject. Now it seems that there has been a recurring theme of women waiting to be with a man and the struggles they go through to do so. Next, a movie that shows the relationship between a male and female will be critiqued.
Beauty and the Beast is a beloved movie of many Disney fans and has even been remade into a live action film in 2017. The story is about a young girl named Belle who loves literature and learning, and is not attracted to the usual popular guy. That is one thing Disney had right with this movie, however, as the movie goes on Belle gives up her freedom to save her father’s life and is forced to live with a big burly beast in his castle under his rules. She soon falls in love with this Beast despite his uncontrollable temper. There are plenty of inappropriate behaviors that are being promoted throughout this movie.
One gender norm reinforced by Disney throughout Beauty and the Beast is that men are dominant and have power over women in relationships. Belle is ordered to dress how the Beast wants her to and eat only when he allows. This is showing young girls that it is okay for a male figure to command what he wants of her and that it is necessary to obey. Female inferiority to males is being taught within the context. Usually if these aspects are being displayed in a relationship it is considered a cause for concern.
Throughout the movie the Beast shows abusive characteristics by yelling at Belle, banging on walls, and the destroying objects within her presence. Intimate terrorism which is when “one partner uses coercive control with violence, or the threat of violence, as reinforcement” (Juby, Downs & Rindels, 2013, p. 238), is being displayed here. The Beast is using his size and power to threaten Belle into compliance. Belle will sometimes express that she is scared but makes no attempt in leaving the Beast. All of the abusive tendencies are normalized as Belle does not take offence to them. She easily brushes off the rather intense actions that have just gone on. Children are watching this movie and are relating it to their own household. If a child is exposed to domestic violence in their household and now see it on television they will grow to believe that it is normal. It can be shown that domestic violence is prevalent throughout America.
According to the NCADV, on average, every minute at least twenty people will experience domestic violence. This rate is alarming and it can be inferred that Disney movies like Beauty and the Beast could be contributing to the dilema. American children are being taught that it is okay to yell at your partner or to be submissive and that it will one day change for the better. Kathryn Olson said it best when she stated that the movie reinforced the lesson that the victims “can reform a violent mate through nurturing care as well as for excusing rough behavior as intense romantic passion” (2013, p. 449). Young women are suffering abuse and waiting for their beast to become a prince charming. Even though the movie is said to be innocent and ends in a happy ending it is devleoping innapropraite models for children.
Each movie discussed had their own way of teaching young children how to live. It also teaches them what is expected within society. Some lessons were good and others terribly misleading. All three of these Disney movies are different in storyline and each teach a different societal norm. However, all of them encourage a few of the same concepts throughout the films.
There is a common theme that is displayed throughout each of theses movies and that is the concept of a heteronormative society. According to Eller, heteronormativity is the thought of heterosexuality being normal and good sexuality (2015). Each movie has a female character who falls in love with a male counterpart. The plot of each movie was to find a mate of the opposite sex, marry, and live happily ever after. Through this, it can be seen that there is a favor displayed over heterosexual couples. Disney does a disservice to all young people as it does not allow them to have heroes that are gay or lesbian. The movies keep the queer community hidden and unexposed.
Young queer children do not have any characters to identify with which will make them feel ashamed. There are 1.3 million American high school children who reported as gay, lesbian, or bisexual in 2017 (Schlanger, 2017). Despite those numbers, there are still several states in America that do not have laws against LGBTQ discrimination as seen by the chart below from Movement Advancement Project.
As discussed earlier, Disney is part of what creates American identity and is a big platform to what is acceptable within the country. If children had Disney hereos who were gay or lesbian there would be widespread knowledge on different sexual orientations which could help deteriorate discrimination.
In today’s society there needs to be transformation and Disney could help start the revolution. In 2017 there were at least 29 transgender deaths related to violence and 22 as of 2018 according to the Human Rights Campaign (2018). If early exposure to different sexualities was endorsed by Disney the violent acts against transgenders may be decreased. Yet, It may be a long time before a lesbian princess may be introduced to Disney films. Now although the Disney is considered popular there are some that are starting to notice it’s flaws.
Many of the films have flown under the radar and have been labeled as innocent but some people have caught on and are now upset at what is being displayed. In recent news there has been outrage on Disney films and their underlying lessons. Recently on the show Ellen, special guest, Keira Knightley, openly discussed her frustration and disgust with the Disney movies Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. She stated that she does not allow her daughter to watch either film. She’s created the ban within her home because the movies teach young girls to sit around and wait for a man to rescue them or to marry a man they’ve just met (Wood, 2018). Keira Knightley has caught on to the obscure notions Disney has put in there films and is taking a stand. With more people realizing the hidden inappropriate aspects of Disney and discussing their outrage there may be a chance for reform.
Overall, it may be said that Disney has had a tremendous impact on America’s national and self identity throughout the years. Even though the nation is a large group of individuals they are connected by their love of Disney. It has created a sense of community among millions, through the use of theme parks and motion pictures. Disney has used its platform to promote ideals, values, and morals among America. Such as heterosexual orientation, the concept is predominant in all Disney movies and can be known as the most dominant orientation among Americans, which in turn has marginalized the LGBTQ community.
Along with promoting heterosexuality the films have also promoted several gender norms which are present within the lives of many Americans. Such as domestic violence which affects nearly 10 million men and women each year (NCADV). The conformity of women to men’s approval is also part of the American norm as it is displayed throughout the films. Women are depicted as being valuable housemaids who take pride in their domestic work. Though Disney is a central part of America’s national identity it is teaching its nation all the wrong aspects of life. It has molded several gender norms for both men and woman and has glorified heterosexuality. With close analysis and critique there could be reform so that Disney can represent America in a new light and teach the new generations independence, self-love, and acceptance.
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