Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why I keep Disney out of my home (for now)

Okay, I'll admit it. I am not a fan of Disney and so far, I have chosen not to bring any Disney items into my home or my child's life. Now he is a toddler. When he's older, however, and the "nag factor" becomes something to reckon with, he will likely ask for some of Disney's products or "experiences". We'll figure out how to deal with that when we get to that point.

While I choose to keep Disney out for now, I do acknowledge Walt Disney to be a powerful force among today's "culture shapers." (Why, there is a whole school of thought called Disney Studies, dedicated to the study of Disney's influence on society.) I have thought about that quite a bit lately in light of the recent buzz regarding Disney announcing its production of The Frog Princess, the first animated film by the company featuring a black princess. Though I am well aware of the significance of this diversification effort and the need for more multicultural characters in mainstream children's entertainment, I am skeptical.

Given Disney's trademark tendency to sanitize and simplify the complexities of life in the world of its characters, I doubt this film will be groundbreaking in dealing with any social issues. In fact, it will probably not go there at all. The truth is, as Times Online reports, Disney "lags behind other children's brands in its conversion to multiculturalism." Some of the press is already saying that Disney is making this movie to ward off accusations of racism. Plus, another motivation is clearly that a character of color will expand Disney's marketability and profits.

Though Disney is committed to "to producing unparalleled entertainment experiences based on its rich legacy of quality creative content and exceptional storytelling," and promises to "turn the ordinary into the extraordinary" as well as "make dreams come true," the company's mission is first and foremost to "maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital profitability toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value."

And that's what the Frog Princess is all about. If in the process of raking in the dough for Disney, Maddy saves the day by magically erasing Disney's record of racist portrayals of characters of color, as some are already hoping she will, yipee. I'm sorry to put it so blatantly, but it seems to me that Disney, with the help of the press, is out there already pimping poor Maddy, who may very well fit the bill of the role of female "Magic Negro," there to assuage white guilt and any notion that racism is alive and well (at Disney and elsewhere in the society).

What's more, given Disney's huge presence in the cultural & consumerist landscape worldwide, as well as its pattern of whitewashing history, I worry that Disney may be trying to play a part in wiping out any lingering post-Katrina racism-related “beef” and promoting instead the idea that New Orleans, where Princess Frog will be set, is back to its original Jazz Age splendor. It's already touting that image. The shareholders' meeting was held in New Orleans and I can imagine the hype for the movie, replete with all the products, will begin well before the movie's release. Many will say that any effort to help the area still recovering from Katrina is good. And Disney has, as Orlando Sentinel reports,
"more than $3 million to Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, including $1 million to rebuild 16 Boys & Girls Clubs that were destroyed." However, I am concerned that Disney's powerful, sugar-coated voice will drown out the voices (such as these or these) still asking the tough questions and pressing for racial justice in light of Katrina.

But I'm not just skeptical of Disney's latest. I'm wary of Disney on the whole. I feel that Disney movies and products inhibit children's imagination and steer children away from challenging reading, storytelling, unstructured drawing, and the other more old-fashioned ways of entertainment and learning.

Also, Disney esthetics just don't sit well with me. I find them nauseating. From the schmaltzy music to the look of the animated characters. The esthetic Disney represents to is kitsch, which I would define in trite, sentimental, commercially produced stuff in bad taste.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being provides an interesting way of thinking about kitsch. He defines it as "the absolute denial of shit" and argues that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions."

That is exactly what I feel Disney movies and characters do. Kundera further links kitsch with totalitarianism in that its nature is to paper over the complexities and contraditions of real life. To further borrow wording from wikipedia, in a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life" in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch."

I think that is a brilliant analysis. And if we agree that Disney fits the definition of kitsch, we can see how it then inhibits imagination by crowding out any diversion from the esthetics it dictates.

Then there is the whole whitewashing aspect of history I mentioned earlier, as well as Disney's shadowy (anti-Semitic, anti-communist, and possibly pro-Nazi) side, which I have a hard time disassociating with the company and its products.

Well, that's my two cents on Disney so far. I'm sure I will return to this topic at some point.

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