Monday, January 04, 2010

Mickey Mouse Monopoly

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.
-G.K. Chesterton

I just watched Mickey Mouse Monopoly and have found much to disagree with. The gist of the documentary is that Disney is too large and perpetuates its biases and stereotypes through a massive, global corporation, thus poisoning our children's minds.

Using the word poisoning sounds like I'm exaggerating their thesis, and they never use that word directly, but it's accurate as far as I understand. The thoughts Disney perpetuates are negative, children lap it up, and as such it can be considered poison.

Right off the bat, one of the interviewees refers to Disney as dangerous because what she obviously sees as highly negative concepts are communicated as innocent entertainment. I can already tell that I'm not going to agree with most of what she says, since the paranoia required to see danger in innocence is not something I possess. I did for a time. In tenth grade I was convinced the government was covering up shit in Roswell.

They next have two college students that are interviewed for another part of the documentary where they both argue that Disney is mere entertainment, adults read too much into it, and that it doesn't harm children at all. These few seconds of film are the only dissenting voices in the film.

It doesn't take long before the anti-corporate bias of the film begins to shine through. I'm not specifically pro-corporate. In fact, I detest most corporations, their influence, and the people who run them. This hatred has only be intensified with the recent financial bailouts. But corporate power is not one that is forced upon us. We willingly hand over that power because we like what the company is doing. I get the impression that they are likening the corporations to government entities and I think that the comparison is not only inaccurate, but fundamentally and wholesale incorrect. A company loses the instant we stop giving it money, a government can go on regardless.

Moreover, with the advent of the internet, the supposed censorial power exercised by these large companies has dwindled. A single, scathing blog entry can be enough to rip an entire corporation down. Whole websites exist for no other reason than to air grievances against these companies., anyone? Corporations work because people like them. Corporations trying to further their existence beyond this generally requires anti-competitive practices and that is against the law. So, the only issue that is really an issue already has laws against it.

One interviewee who gets used quite a few times is Henry Giroux, author of The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. He attacks Disney for suing people who try and use Disney's images, be it Mickey or even photos of Disneyland. I agree with him that this is shitty, but it's not just Disney; it's all companies. The website spends it's entire time arguing why trademark and copyright law is bad and is abused by many corporations. Why focus on Disney when they are simply one element in a large network of legal and social issues? I see no reason. We should be concentrating on copyright law, not Disney.

The documentary moves from corporate issues to sexism, where it's discussed how Disney's portral of females has not changed much over the decades. Again, I agree with this to a degree, but they seek out and focus on the elements of Disney production that conforms to their argument, instead of formulating an argument based on the data. Yes, Belle, Aurora, and Snow White are all thematically similar. They're damsels distressing, and they need help. Females are usually very sexual, with fabulous bodies. But, again, isn't this an issue in all of media? And what about females in Disney cartoons like Gummy Bears? Or what about Eilonwy in The Black Cauldron? Peg in Goof Troop, Gosalyn in Darkwing Duck, Perdita in 101 Dalmations, Bianca in The Rescuers Down Under, Lilo and her sister from Lilo and Stitch, Gadget in Rescue Rangers, Elisa in Gargoyles, Recess, Pepper Ann, Teacher's Pet, Kim Possible, or Dave the Barbarian? What about them?

(Oh, and a note about the female rabbit from Bambi, she has a beard! I can't stop seeing it. She looks like a cartoon rabbit version of Earnest Hemmingway with makeup on.)

It's seems that Disney will produce ANYTHING that they think will sell. Sexist undertones be damned. I think that the comparative failure of their non-traditional films, like The Black Cauldron or Mulan, show that people actively desire these stereotypes. They want to get lost in these worlds that are obviously unrealistic and predicated on stereotypes, and it is not within Disney's power to force upon them something they don't want. The Princess and the Frog is non-traditional (to a degree, at least), and it's under-performing. It hasn't even broken $100 million in the American box office. Compare this to Snow White, the number ten movie of ALL TIME. 101 Dalmations? Number eleven. Fantasia? Twenty. In the top one hundred, you will also find The Lion King, Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, and Aladdin.

It's obvious that audiences enjoy something non-traditional, now and then. Both Shrek and Shrek 2 are on that list, as is Finding Nemo, but that's it. Perhaps it's because people expect a certain thing from Disney and don't want anything else? Shrek's success is a sauce that the movie companies have been trying to recreate for years. Every damned CGI film that comes out is loaded with pop-culture references, snarky characters, both male and female, and bright, colorful, over-the-top action. But, again, that's it. It's very derivative, with all the movies shooting for the same general personality. Even fairy tales are subject to this hip-ification. Happily N'Ever After and Hoodwinked both took fairy tale raw materials and applied a healthy dose of Shrek to them.

Disney takes the same raw material and applies the Disney juice to it. Just as derivative, but in a different way. They use those stories and fairy tales, which are almost universally racist and sexist, because those are the psychosocial constructs that give us cultural touchstones. Universals with which we all relate since they've been a part of our lives. Shrek lampoons, and it works because we all know them, while Disney worships, and it works because we all know them.

One thing that annoyed the ever-loving crap out of it is the myopia of those interviewed. They only attack those aspects of the films as negative that fit with their preexisting interests. The professors of race talk about racism. The professors of women's history concentrate on sexism. Well, what about all the other elements of fairy tales that can be construed as highly, highly negative.

What about "love at first sight." Forget the sexism and racism for a second and concentrate on the other cultural touchstones used. Isn't it damaging to think that I'll meet someone, love them immediately, have some wacky adventure but live happily ever after? Isn't the very concept of Happily Ever After essentially harmful because it's so hilariously unrealistic? What about Scrooge McDuck being a stingy Scot? Or the stereotypical French chef? Or, for the love of all that's holy, what about Lampwick? Irish stereotype, much?

But that's just it. It's a stereotype. It's not realistic. It's a story. A flight of fancy. If it was realistic and only discussed subjects carefully to make sure that no cliches, biases, or stereotypes were used, the whole endeavor would be tearfully boring. The women are all attractive and the men are all manly! So? That's the point. It's fantasy. If the real world made a habit of invading my fantasy, I'd commit suicide pretty quickly.

We restrict movies about real stuff to adults because children don't like those movies. They attack Pocahontas as being an unrealistic portrayal of Native American relations. Well duh! Would they rather have an animated The New World? If I was a kid, I'd leave the room lickety-split.

They close the documentary with more anti-corporate discussion, using both a quote from Michael Eisner and an interview with what I assume is some random mother, first implying and then directly stating that Disney has a moral obligation to teach our children about the real world and to not fill their heads with stereotypes.

No. No they do not. I find the very idea of that absurd. It is the parents job to do that. It's Disney's job to entertain and to make money in the process, which is exactly what Eisner said. To say otherwise is to belittle the impact of parents and to ascribe moral judgments to something that doesn't need them and, truly, would suffocate under them.

The Siamese cats were racist. Pocahontas was inaccurate. And, someday, your prince is not going to come. It's not hard to tell children these things. Let them enjoy, and then correct their misconceptions as they arise, because you will have to do that regardless of the movies they watch.

When I was younger, I liked Disney. Disney creations affected my fantasies, and that's alright. Complaining about Disney coloring a child's perception is pointless since children live in a fantasy world. The real world and the fantasy world are tightly connected. As such, saying that someone's perceptions at age eight, like the children interviewed, are guaranteed problems in later life is highly inaccurate. Problems arise as they get older and their fantasies become expectations. This is where parenting comes in. Sexism is nearly impossible if your parents aren't sexist. Like all the arguments against cigarette advertising, even though the only variable strongly correlated with starting was whether the parents also smoked.

By my early teens, I was keenly aware that those fantasies were not reality. Both of my parents were raging alcoholics by this time, so I had little parenting, but I managed to figure it all out. Actually, I became intensely anti-Disney and would regale anyone who would listen with how The Hunchback of Notre Dame was nothing like the book.

The point is that fanciful ideas about life are not harmful to a child. Their perceptual construct is wildly inaccurate and that's not Disney's fault. Incorrect ideas about life, society, and who we are in the grand scheme of things are, usually, the fault of the parents. My parents were not racist bigots, and no crows or apes in a Disney film will change that. Disney is not harmful.


sue hickey said...

sorry, friend, I have to disagree with you in many ways. As the parent of a young daughter (who can't stand Disney cartoons except for Fantasia because she loves Modest Mussorgky and the demons), I find much of the fare is incredibly sexist. Even the supposedly strong women like Belle, Ariel and Mulan have their dreams of princes! And the bodies are still a boy's wet dream. Sadly the Disney empire is about cultural assimilation worldwide these days. Grimms fairy tales - I have all them, translated, not edited - are folk tales from the rural areas of Germany. They are dark, many of the female characters are powerful and never longed for handsome princes!

Aaron MC said...

Hi Sue,

Thanks for the comment. Perhaps I didn't explain myself well enough in the post, but I certainly believe that Disney is sexist. Their movies are derivative, and sexist, and racist, and every other kind of -ist there is.

For example, I love Pixar, but where are the female characters? There are tearfully few. It's as though females can't be lead characters. This is rampant among ALL animated movies, though, not just Disney.

These trends infuriate me, but the point of my post was that Disney is a company selling a product. That's all that they are. The biases that underlie much of their work aren't the exclusive domain of Disney, but of society on the whole.

I want less sexism, but that's something that needs to be addressed culturally, not by simply pointing at Disney and acting as though they're the cause of it all.