Dermatological Disney Scholarship; or, Academic Arguments and Corporate Narratives

Tomorrow morning I leave North Carolina, where I’ve spentCinderella castle night the last three weeks talking about “the construction of childhood in words and images” at the National Humanities Center, and head back to Florida via Columbia, SC, where the Children’s Literature Association annual conference is held this year. It’s a wonderful conference (though you don’t have to take my word for it) and I always enjoy my time there.

The paper I’m presenting developed out of a course I taught this spring, “Disney’s Victorians.” It was initially something of a gimmick: I wanted to combine a Victorians course with a children’s literature course (which students want but which our department doesn’t typically offer), and since we’re in Orlando, Disney seemed an obvious choice. I figured we would read Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and “The Little Mermaid,” and students would learn about the Victorian period, children’s literature, and film adaptation.

As I prepared for the course, though, I was struck by the number of Victorian texts the studio adapted, especially in its early years, when Walt Disney was most involved in the film production part of the company. When I proposed the paper, I had a fairly clear idea of the argument I wanted to make: that the Victorian period greatly appealed to Walt, and that his adaptation of so many Victorian-era results from his personal nostalgia. As I made that case, though, I found myself suspicious that my own argument lined up so closely with the narrative the Disney company promotes — and then suspicious of my own suspicion. Does it matter if my argument agrees with the official corporate narrative?

Most scholarship on Disney does not follow the company’s version. This criticism can probably be traced back to Frances Clark Sayers’s 1965 letter to the Los Angeles Times. “I call [Disney] to account,” writes Sayers, “for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes. He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends.” Critics have followed Sayers’s lead, and much scholarship calls Disney to account for Euro-centrism, promotion of a “princess culture” and unrealistic body images, or stereotyping of nonwhite characters.

My panel session is titled “Dissecting Disney,” a title that privileges that approach. And this criticism is important. But as many people (including me, on this blog) pointed out, not only have these criticisms of Disney gone mainstream, but Frozen starts to challenge some of those arguments: director Jennifer Lee is quoted in the Telegraph about the company’s revised treatment of gender roles in its films.

What’s a critic to do? Must we be suspicious of all statements the Disney company makes about itself? On Friday I’ll be talking about Disney’s Victorians, but also trying to think through this question of suspicion. I wonder, must we always be vivisectionists, dissecting Disney? Or can we be dermatologists, paying attention to surfaces as well?

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