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The Emperor's Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney's Magic Kingdom
Brenda Ayres, ed.
New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
$24.95, £16.00, 203 pages, ISBN 0-8204-6369-9.

Debra Boyle
California State University Long Beach

Like most collections of essays, The Emperor's Old Groove has its share of hits and misses. Ostensibly, the authors' collective argument is that Disney, despite recent efforts to "multiculturalize" itself, has really achieved nothing more than to put old racial, cultural and gender stereotypes into shiny new packages. The colonizing force mentioned in the subtitle works through the more subtle means of psychology and imagery rather than the direct application of pressure as it did in the old days. Disney's intention of "doing some great good in the world" [p.4] is a more sophisticated, euphemized means of spreading American values throughout the world. The vast mass marketing system which underlies the colonizing force is all the more insidious because it is directly aimed at children. So how can conscientious parents counter the images and values presented in Disney's animated films? Like most academic works, The Emperor's Old Groove presents more questions than answers.

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:

Timing was everything: George Bush [the first one] and Michael Eisner each desperately needed a media hit to restore confidence in their ailing empires. [p. 180]

While there was no evidence of collaboration between Eisner and the Pentagon, both relied on the same storehouse of racial and cultural images. [p. 180]

And most damningly:

Artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme anticipated Disney in discovering that there was a fortune to be made in providing popular audiences with convincing images of exotic creatures and habits from the perspective of Western superiority. [p. 181]

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:

The anthropologist Elizabeth Fernea describes this power of the Middle Eastern woman in her book Guests of the Sheik. While the book is forty years old, it is a powerful account of Islamic family life, which compares favorably to that of the (albeit mythical) June Cleavers of nearly forty years ago in America. When Fernea lived in a rural Iraqi village, she witnessed strength and power in these women, and she found herself surprised that 'in spite of the relative obscurity in which these women lived, I came to realize how much they influenced men, their husbands and especially their sons...' [Fernea, p. 65, quoted p. 71]

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:

Although it is both inaccurate and unethical to represent and valorize this beautiful brown woman for what [in the simplified Disney view] amounts to selling out her culture to Europeans, Parekh explains that Shruti [her daughter] was very enthusiastic about seeing someone who looks like herself in the movies: 'She is so happy at the difference that she doesn't worry so much about the other representations' [p. 6].

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