What if you could buy social justice? (Part 4: The Church of Disney)

As What Would Jesus Buy documents, over 15 billion a year is spent on advertising to children. This advertising is ramped into overdrive during the holiday season. Or, as Renee from Womanist Musings, puts it, “Santa is Coming, Let the Shameless Consumerism Begin.”

Renee rightly worries about “the message we are sending our children,” the message of “Show me you love me, buy me something doesn’t really feel like a celebration of anything other than capitalism.” Of course, wee ones don’t see the love-through-buying for the sinister capitalism it is (unless they are lucky enough to have parents like Renee who teach them to analyze the world around them, that is.) Yet, even with socially-conscious parents, kids would be hard pressed not to internalize the consumerist messages they are inundated with – messages that tell them all good things in the world – fun, adventure, love, camaraderie, etc come through buying things. (I know I certainly internalized these messages in my consumer worshipping family.)

Children are constantly barraged with the message “YOU MUST CONSUME! BUY! BUY! BUY!” They get it from the internet, television, movies, billboards, radio, and print media. This is exactly why cites like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are so necessary. Their mission statement, in part, reads:

CCFC’s mission is to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers.  A marketing-driven media culture sells children on behaviors and values driven by the need to promote profit rather than the public good.  The commercialization of childhood is the link between many of the most serious problems facing children, and society, today…When children adopt the values that dominate commercial culture-dependence on the things we buy for life satisfaction, a “me first” attitude, conformity, impulse buying, and unthinking brand loyalty-the health of democracy and sustainability of our planet are threatened.  CCFC works for the rights of children to grow up-and the freedom for parents to raise them-without being undermined by commercial interests.

And, Disney is one of the, if not THE, commercial interest shaping young children’s lives into a consumer driven existence. As documentaries such as MickeyMouse Monopoly and theorists such as Henry Giroux and Jack Zipes argue, Disney is “the most popular cultural commodity in America.”[i]

Disney, in addition to teaching children gender/sexual/class/body norms, as well as about the glories of patriarchy and empire, also teaches children to be consumers. Or, as Giroux puts it, Disney “sells not only its products but also values, images, and identities that are largely aimed at teaching young people to be consumers.” [ii] Giroux takes this claim even further, arguing that in contemporary US culture, “consumption is the only form of citizenship being offered to children.”[iii]

This claim is interesting when put in the context of one of the most well-known images/locations of the theme park itself, “Main Street, USA.” This supposedly wholesome slice of Americana, the one that park-goers first experience when they visit Disneyland, serves not only as a gateway to the rest of the park, but also supports the idea that Disney trades HEAVILY in turning citizens into consumers, and especially consumers of the Disney brand.

While Main Street is meant to replicate the “small town” feel of an America long gone, it only does so on a surface level. Although the storefronts and some window displays try to transport park-goers to days gone by, the products the stores sell are most certainly in keeping with today’s global marketplace of mass-sweat-produced products. Moreover, Main Street does not offer anything but consumption – unless you count the restrooms and the Abe Lincoln exhibit (which also housed the recent 50 years of Disney exhibit). Oh, and of course, the large row of ATMs…

Now, while I do think we offer narratives of citizenship to children other than “I shop, therefore I am,” a big part of “civilizing” children is teaching that their consumerist desires and acts translate into being a “good American.” And this message certainly doesn’t stop as these consumer-Disneyfied-citizens grow.

Moreover, it is not only the Disney corporation that “works to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas” — people like GW Bush also promote consumerism as a way to fight terrorism, to make America safe and strong, to show patriotism…[iv]

However, Disney sows the seeds of this consumerist mindset. As such, Disney, like Wal-Mart, needs to be critically (and actively) taken to task. Yet, Disney and Wal-Mart both actively subvert thinking. As Jack Zipes argues “the Disney film is geared toward nonreflective viewing. Everything is on the surface, one-dimensional, and we are to delight in one-dimensional portrayal and thinking.” As he further notes notes, Disney films encourage people to “stop thinking about change” and “to long nostalgically for neatly ordered patriarchal realms.”[v]

Wal-Mart similarly encourages “non-reflection.” The happy face symbol is perhaps the most fitting representation of the surface mentality Wal-Mart tries to promote – don’t think about your problems or the world’s problems, just smile as you stroll through the aisles of happy-face strewn Wal-Mart (which look the same no matter what town/country you are in and thus obfuscates any sense of situational/geographical contexts). In fact, the use of the happy face as a symbol equates to what Zipes argues is the modus operendi of consumerism – to convince us that consuming will make us happy. In his words, “commodification has no purpose other than to capture and play upon-in order to profit from-our desire for pleasure and happiness.”[vi] As Zipes further argues, it is crucial to remember that “These desires and whishes are not ours-even when we think they are or would like them to be-because we tend to forget what the culture industry does to our children and ourselves.”[vii]

What Would Jesus Buy offers an excoriating critique of Disney, referring to Mickey as the “antichrist” and infiltrating a Disneyland parade to spread the “stop shopping” message. The film also features Disney’s use of sweatshop labor (for a post on this topic, see here) and sweatshop labor activist extraordinaire, Charles Kernaghan. As the director of the National Labor Committee, Kernaghan has played a key role in exposing the exploitive labor practices of Disney and other corporations. The aptly named Toys of Misery as well as the NLC website reveal the very unhappy face behind the Disney magic.

Many activists and scholars (and bloggers!) are working to spread awareness about the uglier aspects of consumer capitalism. To my knowledge though, there has not been near as much focus on Disney-Mania as a quasi religion. Yet, I think the analogy is an apt one – children are raised in the Church of Disney, taught to praise the god-like icons of Mickey and the princess posse (are they the nuns?), and schooled in the necessity of making pilgrimages to Disneyland, or at least the Disney channel.

Jennifer Porter, a Canadian professor who offers a course in “Disney as Religion“, makes a similar argument:

My current view is that Disneyism, as a religion, is a reality. But it’s at an infantile stage (even though some would argue that it started with Walt’s approval of the Mickey Mouse Club back in 1928 as a way to recruit young practitioners (aka, audience members for his cartoons). There are cathedrals (the theme parks), acolytes (myself, other Disney authors and subject matter authorities), and even worship meetings (NFFC groups, MouseFest, and online discussion boards).

And, if one takes the definition of Church as “institutional religion as a political or social force,” Disney is most certainly a Church. It acts as a religion via rituals, traditions, and practices, via the “spiritual leaders” of Mickey et al (and Walt), and via the devotion, zeal, and worship it promulgates. As an institution, it has immense political and social force, shaping the ways we view ourselves and the world.

Further, in relation to labor issues and consumerism specifically, Disney is not only the master of creating lifelong consumer desires, but also is adept at hiding the realities behind its exploitive corporatist agenda, and agenda that is not new, but that has colored Disney from the outset. To illustrate, let’s take a brief look at the gendered labor divisions of Disney in the 1930’s:

“The early Disney shop, not unlike other organizations in the 1930s, strictly divided labor into that performed by men and that relegated to women…the production staff was overwhelmingly male except for the 200 women in the Painting and Inking Department.”[viii]

The women referred to here by scholar Elizabeth Bell yielded on average 250,000 paintings for each feature film (they painted over artist’s tracings on each ‘cell of film’). Yet, these women were not recognized for their work that made the films possible. As Bell puts it, “The hands of women, painting and transcribing the creative efforts of men, performed the tedious, repetitive, labor-intensive housework of the Disney enterprise.”[ix] Similarly, today, the hands of sweatshop laborers (most of which are children’s and women’s hands) are not recognized for their labor. In the “Church of Disney,” such laborers are put under erasure, as the reality of their work would tarnish the image of this “magical” corporation.

For those of us who believe that such practices are deplorable, even if we are drawn into the “magic of Disney,” it is crucial to question our worshipping practices. For my part, I have not barred my kids from Disney films, but have encouraged them to view Disney through a critical lens. And, yes, we have made our pilgrimages to the park (we live a mere 90 minutes away), but, I am always pleased by comments from my children that reveal they are not suffering from blind faith. “Why is Ariel naked but all the prince’s have clothes?” asked my daughter some years ago. “Why do they make you walk through a store every time you leave a ride?” queried my son. So, I readily admit, we are drawn to the faith, but we are trying ever so hard to resist the messages of this powerful opiate.

(Up next: Part 6: Wearing Justice: T-shirts, Bracelets, and Ribbons, Oh my!)


[i] From Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry, Jack Zipes, New York, Routledge, 1997, page 1.

[ii] From “Mouse Power: Public Pedagogy, Cultural Studies, and the Challenge of Disney,” The Giroux Reader, Henry A. Giroux, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, 2006, ed Christopher G Robbins, page 220.

[iii] Ibid, 222.

[iv] Ibid, 222

[v] From”Breaking the Disney Spell,” Jack Zipes, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells, Indiana UP, Bloomington, 1995, 21-42, page 40.

[vi] From Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry, Jack Zipes, New York, Routledge,  1997,page 6.

[vii] Ibid, 8

[viii] From “Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies,”  by Elizabeth Bell, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells, Indiana UP, Bloomington, 1995, 86-103, page 107.

[ix] Ibid, 107

8 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 4: The Church of Disney)”

  1. Don’t get me started on Disney–in addition to their cheesy songs, flat amination, and–as you point out in this great post–their rampant marketing schemes, another major problem with Disney is their racism (I believe that the good guys tend to have western/american accents and the bad guys, not so much) and sexism (yes, we’re moving beyond the old school Cinderella days, but we still have examples of sexism such as the one your thankfully smart daughter noticed about Ariel’s clothing–or lack thereof). –CC at Onely

    1. Thanks CC.
      Yup, they are racist for sure. Have you seen Mickey Mouse Monopoly? This doc has a great section on racism Disney style.

  2. A light bulb went off in my head when I read this sentence: “Giroux takes this claim even further, arguing that in contemporary US culture, “consumption is the only form of citizenship being offered to children.”

    So interesting. The commodities of citizenship are so insidious, particularly how multicultural discourses are often so tied up in the consumption of various one-dimensional visions of culture.

    Excellent post.

    1. Thanks, Liz.
      As for your claim that “multicultural discourses are often so tied up in the consumption of various one-dimensional visions of culture” — excellent!!! And so true.
      Giroux is a great theorist — glad you found him illuminating.

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