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BooklistReaders awed by the broad power of Disney Company should read this critical examination.
Ideal supplementary material for students examining the commercialism of American culture.
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DISNEY AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC CULTURE
I think of a child's mind as a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly.
THE ECLIPSE OF CHILDHOOD INNOCENCE
In the popular mind, Walt Disney, the man and the company, has become synonymous with the notion of childhood innocence. As suburban America witnesses urban violence invading its schools, homes, and neighborhoods, Disney becomes a symbol for the security and romance of the small-town America of yesteryear—a pristine never-never land in which children's fantasies come true, happiness reigns, and innocence is kept safe through the magic of pixie dust.
Of course, Walt realized that innocence as a cultural metaphor had to be associated with a particular rendering of childhood as well as a specific view of the American past, present, and future. In other words, Disney's view of innocence had to be constructed within particular maps of meaning in which children and adults could define themselves through a cultural language that offers them both modest pleasure and a coherent sense of identity. This suggested that Disney define innocence as part of the logic of home entertainment and also, pedagogically, as a set of values and practices that associate the safeguarding of childhood with a strong investment in the status quo and in the market as a sphere of consumption. Refusing to separateentertainment from education, Disney challenged the assumption that entertainment has little educational value and is simply about leisure. For Walt Disney, education was not confined to schools but implicit in the broader realm of popular culture and its own mechanisms for the production of knowledge and values. He also knew that it had to be lively and enjoyable.
Walt's fusing of entertainment and education blurred the boundaries between public culture and commercial interests and found expression both in the attractions that came to characterize theme parks such as Disneyland and Disney World and in the extended range of cultural and media outlets that shape everyday life. Hollywood films, radio stations, television networks, sports franchises, book publishing, and daily newspapers provided the Disney Company with sites from which to promote its cultural pedagogy. Walt Disney's key insight was that the educational field could be reconstructed and transformed through the mastery of new spaces for leisure, new electronic technologies, and new global markets. Pedagogy, for Disney, was not restricted to schooling, and schooling did not strictly define the contexts in which children could learn, make affective investments, and reconstruct their identities.
If we imagine the Disney Company as a teaching machine whose power and influence can, in part, be measured by the number of people who come in contact with its goods, messages, values, and ideas, it becomes clear that Disney wields enormous influence on the cultural life of the nation, especially with regard to the culture of children. Consider that "more than 200 million people a year watch a Disney film or home video, 395 million watch a Disney TV show every week; 212 million listen or dance to Disney music, records, tapes or compact discs.... More than 50 million people a year from all lands pass through the turnstiles of Disney theme parks." In the company's 1997 Annual Report, Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company, claimed that during the week of November 2-8, 1997, Disney culture attracted the attention of the following numbers of people, mostly children: "During these seven days, 34.2 million people watched The Wonderful World of Disney, 3.3 million people turned on One Saturday Morning, 3.8 million subscribers viewed the Disney Channel, 2.8 million listened to Radio Disney, 793,000 visited Disney theme parks, 810,000 made a purchase at a Disney store and nine million copies of Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas were shipped to video stores across the country."
Disney's commercial success is a testimonial to the crucial role that culture and entertainment play "in the structure and organization of late-modern society, in the processes of development of the global environment and in the disposition of its economic and material resources." Disney's success represents, in part, the power of the culture industries to mediate and influence almost every aspect of our lives. But Disney's emergence as part of a new entertainment monopoly also points to the ways in which corporate culture uses its power as an educational force to redefine the relationship between childhood and innocence, citizenship and consumption, civic values and commercial values. How children learn and what they learn, in a society in which power is increasingly held by megacorporations, raises serious concerns about what noncommodified public spheres exist to safeguard children from the ravages of a market logic that provides neither a context for moral considerations nor a language for defending vital social institutions and policies as a public good.
A democratic culture fulfills one of its most important functions when it views children as a social investment, whose worth and value cannot be measured exclusively in commercial and private terms. That is, a democratic culture provides the institutional and symbolic resources necessary for young people to develop their capacities to engage in critical thought, participate in power relations and policy decisions that affect their lives, and transform those racial, social, and economic inequities that close down democratic social relations.
The concept of innocence, when linked to the notion of social justice, references the obligation for a society to hold adults responsible for creating institutions in which education is viewed as a public asset and not merely a private good. In this context, the requirements of citizenship necessitate vigilance in public affairs, criticism of public officials (and corporate interests), and participation in political decision making in the interests of expanding equality of opportunity, justice, and the public good. Such activity resists the privatizing impulses of corporations, which attempt to overshadow the demands of citizenship with the demands of commerce by replacing the notion of free and equal education as a right with the notion of restricted and income-based education as a commodity venture. The challenge democratic societies face by the rise of conglomerates such as Disney—with their profound interest in shaping all facets of children's culture—can be discerned in the crisis that has emerged around the very concept of childhood and the expanding role that corporate culture plays in shaping public education. It is to this issue that I turn before taking up, more specifically, the pedagogical practices that Disney employs in its theme parks, its corporate work culture, and its school system in Celebration, Florida.
THE POLITICS OF SCHOOLING
"We need not quibble about Disney as a serious cultural phenomenon," says Peter Michelson. "We are obliged, willy-nilly, to find out what he teaches. For Disney lives. He is timeless, everywhere—the artistic extension of the McGuffey Reader, and there is no keeping our children from his school."
The United States appears to be in the midst of a social and cultural upheaval regarding both how it views children and how it expresses its concerns for them. Recent tragedies such as the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the child beauty queen, and the school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas; Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; and Springfield, Oregon invoke the fear that childhood innocence is being eclipsed in contemporary American society. Such fears mobilize public concerns about the growing threat to children's safety and well-being. But the nation is also coping with the increasing and even convenient collapse of the boundaries between children and adults through an eager exoneration of adults, reflected in state legislation authorizing that kids as young as fourteen be prosecuted and sentenced as adults. Children are now seen as both troubled and troubling, as the mood of the country shifts from viewing children as a social investment to containing or even punishing them through expanding surveillance laws, harsher criminal codes, and the dismantling of traditional safety nets such as child welfare, health care, and school nutrition programs.
James Wagoner, the president of the social services organization Advocates for Youth, argues that the death of innocence has less to do with public concern over the fate of the nation's children than with blaming children for the very problems that society creates for them. He writes, "Young people have been portrayed almost universally as a set of problems to be managed by society: juvenile crime, teenage pregnancy, drug use.... That concept has taken such deep root that various institutions are permeated by it, and there's not enough of the other view, of youth as an asset, a group of people with their own perspectives on things who do pretty well." The scapegoating of young people, especially those who are poor and racial minorities, points to the loss of childhood innocence, to a crisis in public discourse, and to a growing inability on the part of society to affirm and act on the principles of social justice, equity, and democratic community. As the quality of public life diminishes, not only do the most vulnerable and powerless of our population suffer, such as children, the needy, and the elderly, but also we lose, as a nation, a common vocabulary for defining and reforming those public spheres that are vital to developing and defending the meaning and experience, of democratic life.
When school shooter Kipland Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, was asked about a recent family trip to Disneyland, the youngster replied that he wanted to "punch Mickey Mouse in the nose." Although Kinkel appears to be deeply disturbed, his comment begs for a consideration of the tensions that many youth must feel about, on the one hand, the cultural iconography of Disney as a purveyor of innocence and family fun and, on the other, the harsh realities of coming of age in a society that is not only weary of its youth but also repeatedly demonstrates that kids don't count for much except as consumers. Kinkel's comment also suggests that we consider whose hunger for innocence and absolution is being satisfied by the yearly family pilgrimage of middle-class America to the Magic Kingdom.
But the discourse of innocence is not limited to the public debate about whether to invest in our children or to devise new policies to contain them; it also signifies the enormous attention that children attract from the corporate culture. Kids, especially those under fourteen years old, have become a hot item for corporations because marketeers recognize that young people "will directly spend an estimated $20 billion this year (1998), and they will influence another $200 billion.... [Moreover], from 1993 to 1996 alone, advertising in kid-specific media grew more than 50% to $1.5 billion, according to Competitive Media Reporting." The debate about children's loss of innocence signifies more than society's changing attitude toward young people; it also points to the rise of a corporate culture that reasserts the primacy of individualism and competitiveness and that calls for young people to surrender their capacity to become citizens in the fullest sense—possessed of the widest range of citizen skills and rights—for a market-based notion of identity, one that suggests relinquishing their roles as critical subjects for the passive role of consuming subjects. Similarly, as corporate culture extends ever deeper into the basic institutions of civil and political society, there is a simultaneous diminishment of noncommodified public spheres such as social service centers, churches, and recreational clubs, which offer the opportunity for people to engage in dialogues and practices that address the relationship of the self to public life, our responsibility to the demands of active citizenship, and a practical politics that connects our own interests to larger public problems?
As commercial culture replaces public culture and as the language of the market becomes a substitute for the language of democracy, consumerism appears to be the only kind of citizenship being offered to children. Consumerism, corporatism, and technological progress become the central principles for constructing who we are and how we act. Democratic identities are replaced by consuming patterns, and the good life is constructed in terms of what we buy. In effect, the eclipse of childhood innocence can be examined critically within the broader context of the decline of democracy and the ascendance of a market culture that takes over or eliminates those public spheres crucial to the education of young people in the discourse and experience of critical citizenship. As corporate power extends its influence and reach over public schools, education is subordinated to the logic of the market and to the interests of creating corporate citizens. The commercial spheres promoting such changes include television, radio, cinema, and newspapers. They and other media are engaged in a cultural pedagogy marked by a struggle over meaning, identity, and desire. Increasingly, large corporations work to connect matters of meaning and desire to a commercial logic that constricts democratic identity and affirms the growing political and pedagogical force of culture "as a crucial site and weapon of power."
Media culture has become one of the most important vehicles through which corporate executives like Michael Eisner invoke innocence in order to express their commitment to middle-class family values, the welfare of children, and their expansion into noncommercial spheres such as public schooling. Such rhetoric represents more than the staged authenticity of the corporate swindle; it also works strategically to "celebrate innocence over politics and other forms of critical knowledge." Corporate interest in the family also suggests the increasing recognition that youth hold the key to huge markets and profits as we move into the new millennium and that such markets can be harnessed only if the identities and desires of children can be mobilized within the vastly influential educational spheres of both popular culture and public education.
DISNEY'S CORPORATE REACH
Within the last decade, corporate power and its expansion into all aspects of everyday life has grown exponentially. One of the most visible examples of such growth can be seen in the expanding role that the Walt Disney Company plays in shaping popular culture and daily life in the United States and abroad. The Disney Company is a model of the new face of corporate power at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Like many other megacorporations, its focus is on popular culture, and it continually expands its reach. Unlike Time-Warner, Westinghouse, and other large corporations, Disney is an icon of American culture and middle-class family values. It actively appeals to both parental concerns and children's fantasies as it works hard to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas. A contradiction emerges between Disney's cutthroat commercial ethos and the Disney culture, which presents itself as a paragon of virtue and childlike innocence. Disney has built its reputation on both profitability and wholesome entertainment, largely removed from issues of power, politics, and ideology. Yet this is merely the calculated rhetoric of a corporate giant, whose annual revenues in 1997 exceeded $22 billion as a result of its ability to manufacture, sell, and distribute culture on a global scale, making it the world's most powerful leisure icon. Michael Ovitz, a former Disney executive, touches on the enormous power Disney wields: "Disney isn't a company as much as it is a nation-state with its own ideas and attitudes, and you have to adjust to them."
The image of Disney as a political and economic power promoting a specific culture and ideology appears at odds with a public relations image that portrays the company as offering young people the promise of making their dreams come true through the pleasures of wholesome entertainment. The contradiction between the politics that shape the Disney culture and its effort to construct and influence children's culture is disturbing. But holding Disney accountable for the way it shapes children's desires and identities becomes important as the Disney corporation increasingly presents itself not only as a purveyor of entertainment and fun but also as a political force in developing models of education that influence how young people are educated in public schools, spheres traditionally understood to offer children the space for critical and intellectual development uninhibited by the relentless fascinations of consumer culture.
Some critics suggest that the Walt Disney Company is tantamount to the "evil empire." And although Disney is not without its own contradictions, and although it is crucial to recognize that Disney culture is "simultaneously reactionary and progressive, nostalgic and challenging," such contradictions should be mined for the spaces of resistance they provide and for the progressive possibilities they offer. Not only are there enterprising messages and elements in many of its cultural texts (e.g., the film Beloved), but Disney also provides a certain measure of pleasure to the millions who buy its products, visit its theme parks, listen to its media broadcasts, and see, for example, its outstanding Broadway production of The Lion King.
The enormous ideological and material power that Disney exercises over civic culture raises important questions about the fate of democracy given such unbridled corporate power. Its threat to democracy is not canceled out by the fact that Disney produces a progressive television show, supports a Gay Day Festival at Disney World, and produces an avant-garde Broadway production. Nor is the power of Disney to stifle dissent over the book and electronic media industries offset by the fact that varying groups, subcultures, and audiences appropriate Disney goods for their own purposes and that they do so as neither passive consumers nor dupes. These appropriations do not cancel out the systematic attempts by the Walt Disney Company, Time-Warner, Westinghouse, Philip Morris, and other market-driven industries to form powerful monopolies that wipe out competition and that exercise enormous influence over the shape and direction of children's culture—and increasingly over public life.
As part of a handful of industries that control the "country's media-cultural space," Disney represents the disturbing victory of structural power and commercial values over those competing public spheres and value systems that are critical to a just society and to democracy itself. As corporate and consumer rights prevail over citizenship rights, the tension between corporate society and civil society is either downplayed or displaced, and the commercialization of everyday life along with the waning of democratic institutions and social relations continues, though not without countervailing tendencies and organized resistance.
In what follows, I examine Disney's cultural pedagogy as it mediates between corporate culture and public culture, addressing the dominant ideologies that define the boundaries of Disney's cultural politics.
DISNEY CULTURE AND THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL
Michael Eisner, president of the Walt Disney Company, has suggested that the educational and political force of American entertainment is so profound that it actually undermined and, in part, was responsible for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe:
But it may not be such an exaggeration to appreciate the role of the American entertainment industry in helping to change history. The Berlin Wall was destroyed not by the force of Western arms but by the force of Western ideas. And what was the delivery system for those ideas? It has to be admitted that to an important degree it was by American entertainment.
Eisner's comments are telling because they imply a number of assumptions about Disney's own conception of entertainment and its educative force. First, Eisner acknowledges that popular culture does not merely reflect the world but actually plays a role in shaping it. Second, he admits, though indirectly, that popular culture functions as an educational force in mobilizing our interests and desires. And third, his comments imply that culture is about both ideology and power. How else could one understand or explain the conditions through which specific messages are produced, circulated, and distributed to diverse populations in vastly different parts of the globe?
After recognizing that entertainment is always an educational force, the question still remains: What is being taught? If knowledge has to first be made meaningful in its form and content in order to become critical, what revelatory messages did the American media deliver that inaugurated the fall of communism? Once again, Eisner is specific. He claims that American entertainment, with Mickey Mouse serving as its ambassador of goodwill, imparts a "diversity of individual opportunity, individual choice and individual expression, [and that] for viewers around the world, America is the place where the individual has a chance to make a better life and to have political and economic freedom." This is a remarkable statement, because it presents Disney's corporate culture as synonymous with democracy itself and, in doing so, eliminates the tension between corporate values and the values of a civil society, which cannot be measured in strictly commercial terms but are critical to democracy—specifically, justice, freedom, equality, pluralism, individual rights, and rights to health care and free and equal education.
What diversity is Eisner referring to? Certainly, the ongoing attempt by Disney to turn the American landscape into a theme park for largely white, middle-class suburbanites (a week's entertainment for a family of four at Disneyland costs about $2,000, not including travel costs) does not embody the diversity that would be central to a democratic culture. When Eisner mentions individual choice and expression, he must be forgetting that the Disney corporation is run by a mere handful of people and that most corporations of its size have little to do with expanding individual choice and a great deal to do with eliminating choice. How would one explain the corporation's commitment to freedom to the 43 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the last fifteen years as a result of corporate downsizing?
Eisner celebrates freedom, but only in the discourse of the unbridled power of the market. There is no recognition here (how could there be?) of either the limits that democracies must place on such power or the way that corporate culture and its narrow redefinition of freedom as a private good may actually present a threat to democracy equal to if not greater than that imagined under communism or any other totalitarian ideology. Benjamin Barber, responding to Eisner's comments, writes:
How can anyone take seriously the claim that the market only gives people what they want when there is a quarter of a trillion dollar advertising industry? ... The great myth of capitalism has been the idea that all markets do is license and legitimize choice; markets empower people to choose, to vote with their dollars, D-Marks or the yen. But, at the same time, they close down broader choices. The old example still stands: In many American cities you can choose from 25 models of automobiles, but you can't choose public transportation.