I remember as a teenager beginning to realize the not-so-magical underlying messages of Disney and the final “hitting the nail on the head” moment when I watched Mickey Mouse Monopoly for a previous sociology class last year. That was the day the magic died…
Dramatics aside, it’s amazing and sobering how many gut wrenching reactions the documentary causes when exposing some of the tropes and objectifications Disney films and its related products portray. Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart examined these messages and demonstrated the influence Disney has over consumers both young and old in its portrayal and maintenance of childhood as innocent, pure and magical. As Josef Chytry supports in his article “Walt Disney and the creation of emotional environments,” Disney not only targets children to perpetuate the ideal way of life, but adults as well. It’s hard to deny that Walt Disney wanted to build an empire with his projects to “create immersive environments associated with experience economies, a series of memorable events that a company stages to engage the consumer in a personal way.” From the studios of his productions to theme parks to the ambitious EPCOT, or Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, he wanted to extend this idyllic world beyond the screen and into real communities. It’s done extremely well in a commercial sense, but not so much in the latter (unless you count Celebration, Fla., which has so far kind of worked).
Disney is just one example of how adults sustain hegemonic ideas of adulthood and childhood by projecting their own ideas of purity and innocence onto children. Mindy Blaise also demonstrates how talk about sexuality is separated from ideas of childhood to maintain this separation in her article “Kiss and tell: Gendered narratives and childhood sexuality.” She begins by acknowledging the widespread belief that children either don’t or shouldn’t know about sexuality, as this would corrupt their childhood innocence. However, her study involved engaging children in research activities that would encourage them to talk about gender and sexuality. She found that despite the concept of childhood purity, the children who participated demonstrated a considerable amount of sexual knowledge and how that translates to larger social interactions and behaviors.
In the case of Disney, this presents a paradoxical push to maintain childhood innocence while also representing animated worlds in a hypersexualized manner. As in Mickey Mouse Monopoly, female protagonists and the ever-idealized Disney princesses present an unrealistic and sexualized portrayal of women. Audiences have become more critical about this as was shown when petitions were drafted against Disney’s re-illustrations of a recent princess, Merida.
A more recent example, however, went the other way. Sports Illustrated’s 2014 swimsuit issue had a special release that featured Barbie, the internationally famous children’s doll, on the cover. As you can guess, a number of people were upset about it and said the promotion associated a children’s toy with a hypersexualized, unhealthy beauty standard that objectifies the female body. To justify the partnership, Mattel countered with an #Unapologetic campaign that distanced the product from a children’s toy and instead said Barbie is an icon for women everywhere. Even though the toy is marketed for children, we see another example of adults defining what’s appropriate for child and adult audiences, thus sustaining the constructed divide between the two. Kerry H. Robinson and Cristyn Davies continue this discussion in “Deconstructing Childhood ‘Innocence’ in Media Representations” and note that “hegemonic discourses of childhood artificially construct mutually exclusive worlds — the world of the adult and the world of the child — in which adult-child relationships are defined and binarised, signifying hierarchical relations of power.”