The Emperor's Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney's Magic Kingdom
The most compelling essay on cultural imperialism is entitled "Winds of Change" and treats the subject of Disney's musical, Mary Poppins. This is the only essay which deals with animation rather than [sort of] live action; similarly it is the only one which uses 'imperialism' in its most traditional sense by evoking the most far-flung realm of the past 200 years, the British empire. This essay deftly shows the twists, turns, and somersaults which Disney uses to re-establish social and cultural order, even when the original work upon which it is based is relatively critical of political and social dominance. P.L. Travers, on whose work Mary Poppins is based, includes oblique social critique, portraying late Victorian England at a time when the dying empire was gasping. Brian E. Szumsky, the essay's author, presents a convincing argument that the film takes subversive material--suffragists, class struggle, and imperial myopia--and neatly repackages it into a newly-reformed family with good old dad as its head.
Disney more straightforwardly reveals its cultural imperialism and political agenda through its animated feature, Aladdin. In the best essay of the book, "The Politics of Vision: Disney, Aladdin, and the Gulf War," Diane Sachko-Macleod gets the really "sock-o" points:
And most damningly:
Disney's Aladdin--in its entirety--is a critique of the barbarity [p. 185] of the "law" in the Middle Eastern world; the sharia edict of cutting off the hand of a thief is a particularly fearsome boogey alluded to in the film. Further, the author states, Disney proceeds from simple stereotype to outright racism, such as the distorted pronunciation of "Arab" as "Ay-rab" [p. 183]. However, I must note that this is in itself a stereotype--the "typical" ugly American redneck is definitely at least one of the images evoked here. Sachko-Macleod ultimately draws unmistakable parallels between the "enemy images" of Jews in 1930s and those of Arabs in the 1990s: hooked noses, beady eyes, atypical facial hair and foreign accents [p. 186].
This chapter redeems the earlier essay on Aladdin by Christiane Staninger entitled "Disney's Magic Carpet Ride: Aladdin and Women in Islam." I was so incensed when I read it that I ranted to everyone who would listen. The author states: "Disney did nothing to help destroy the West's stereotypical view of the East as a country [sic] of violence and oppression of women's rights".
Actually, Disney did nothing to help destroy any female stereotype: the veiled woman, the exotic woman in the gold bra (oh, baby!), and most damaging, the young woman who prizes love before duty. This is exactly the brand of "feminism" that drives me crazy: using feminist concepts of empowerment as a justification for disempowerment. Here is Staninger's justification:
So who needs the vote, or a driver's license, or the right to leave the house without a male relative? Staninger proposes that these things are tainted with "Western feminism," but did Western women not enjoy this same "power?" And if so, why would they struggle so for equal rights? Presumably without being aware of it Staninger revives the culture vs. gender conflict which tore the feminist movement apart in the 1970s.
Taken as a body of work, The Emperor's Old Groove consistently offers solid critique with little of the alarmist tone which makes other works of its kind so hard to take seriously. Certainly, Disney faces some challenges as an organization, similar to those we face as a society, and yes, Disney is culturally conservative in terms of its messages and character portrayals. On the other hand, I wonder if the main challenge isn't summarized in the following anecdote offered by the editor about contributing author Pushpa Parekh's ["Pocahontas: The Disney Imaginary"] daughter: