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From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture

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From Mouse to Mermaid, an interdisciplinary collection of original essays, is the first comprehensive, critical treatment of Disney cinema. Addressing children’s classics as well as the Disney affiliates’ more recent attempts to capture adult audiences, the contributors respond to the Disney film legacy from feminist, marxist, poststructuralist, and cultural studies perspectives. The volume contemplates Disney’s duality as an American icon and as an industry of cultural production, created in and through fifty years of filmmaking. The contributors treat a range of topics at issue in contemporary cultural studies: the performance of gender, race, and class; the engendered images of science, nature, technology, family, and business. The compilation of voices in From Mouse to Mermaid creates a persuasive cultural critique of Disney’s ideology.

The contributors are Bryan Attebery, Elizabeth Bell, Claudia Card, Chris Cuomo, Ramona Fernandez, Henry A. Giroux, Robert Haas, Lynda Haas, Susan Jeffords, N. Soyini Madison, Susan Miller, Patrick Murphy, David Payne, Greg Rode, Laura Sells, and Jack Zipes.

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One Breaking the Disney Spell

ePub

Jack Zipes

It was not once upon a time, but at a certain time in history, before anyone knew what was happening, that Walt Disney cast a spell on the fairy tale, and he has held it captive ever since. He did not use a magic wand or demonic powers. On the contrary, Disney employed the most up-to-date technological means and used his own “American” grit and ingenuity to appropriate European fairy tales. His technical skills and ideological proclivities were so consummate that his signature has obfuscated the names of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Carlo Collodi. If children or adults think of the great classical fairy tales today, be it Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella, they will think Walt Disney. Their first and perhaps lasting impressions of these tales and others will have emanated from a Disney film, book, or artifact. Though other filmmakers and animators produced remarkable fairy-tale films, Disney managed to gain a cultural stranglehold on the fairy tale, and this stranglehold has even tightened with the recent productions of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992). The man’s spell over the fairy tale seems to live on even after his death.

 

Two Memory and Pedagogy in the “Wonderful World of Disney” Beyond the Politics of Innocence

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Henry A. Giroux

An alarming defensiveness has crept into America’s official image of itself, especially in its representations of the national past. Every society and official tradition defends itself against interferences with its sanctioned narratives; over time these acquire an almost theological status, with founding heroes, cherished ideas and values, national allegories having an inestimable effect in cultural and political life. (Said 1993, 314)

Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred . . . but even though such entities, once their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred is in truth an event of history. . . . And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to declarations of their obsolescence. To respect the sacred is to be paralysed by it. (Rushdie 1991, 416)

In different ways, Edward Said and Salman Rushdie address the complex relationship between memory and history on the one hand and culture and power on the other. By historicizing culture, and problematizing knowledge, both authors point to the necessity for a cultural politics that engages the relationship between knowledge and authority, how it is established, and what relationship it has to dominant regimes of representation. Today’s “culture wars,” largely organized around liberal and conservative arguments, each make claims about how the “past is remembered, understood, and linked to the present” (Simon 1993, 77). On one side conservatives invoke claims to national unity and world responsibility through an appeal to a nostalgic past written as an unchanging narrative, the loss of which marks a crisis of leadership and innocence. On the other side, various nationalists and progressives embrace collective memory as something to be merely recovered, an essentialized force that must be granted its place in the public arenas that define the parameters of cultural authority.

 

Three Pinocchio

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Claudia Card

TO L. S. B.FOR WINTER SOLSTICE

In 1978 I bought a red and green Italian Pinocchio doll in a Solstice shopping spree with feminist friends in Syracuse. The doll triggered these reflections on honesty, childhood, moral education, and Walt Disney. These reflections also bear the influence of Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) and Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978), both then new texts for my course on feminism and sexual politics. I wrote most of this essay, and the poem following, between terms in Hanover, New Hampshire, while I was a visiting professor at Dartmouth.1

This season’s holiday toy offerings feature an Italian-made wooden doll with two noses—a long one and a short one—that can be screwed onto his face. He comes in at least two sizes. There is a life-sized version for $200 and a smaller one for $35. I bought the one for $35, which seemed right enough for the shortest day of the year. He does not look like Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. But he is unmistakable. I then bought a copy each of Carlo Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio (1882; 1988) and Walt Disney’s Version of Pinocchio (1939; 1989), and I read them both in one afternoon.2 Honesty, lying, and fantasy had been on my mind. I had recently taught an honors course in philosophy on the topic of honor, reading Sissela Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Choice (1978) and Adrienne Rich’s “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (1977). It was a good time to reread the Pinocchio tales. When I began, I could not recall the differences between the original and the Walt Disney version, apart from the looks of the Disney animated characters.

 

Four Disney Does Dutch Billy Bathgate and the Disneyfication of the Gangster Genre

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Robert Haas

Traditionally, Hollywood studios subdivided their annual production into specific genre films that, if nothing else, served as a useful way of striking a balance between product standardization and differentiation. Maintaining certain formulas that would stabilize audience expectations and, by extension, stabilize those audiences, was obviously in Hollywood’s best interests. But how does the category of genre “work” today when popular entertainment is undergoing such a massive recategorization brought on by the ever-increasing number of entertainment options and the fragmentation of what was once thought to be a mass audience into a cluster of “target” audiences? (Collins 1993, 243)

Film genre criticism is enjoying a renaissance through the intervention of cultural critics and their attention to popular film. Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992), for example, examines gender issues in the modern horror film; Jane Tompkins explores the cultural, aesthetic, and gender codes of the western in West of Everything (1992); and William Paul’s Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (1994) treats the extremely popular and lucrative “gross out” movie. These new studies attempt to interrogate and rearticulate formalistic approaches to narrative cinema. Classifying films by genre in the 1990s, as either a conscious or unconscious act, allows critics to examine the complexities of audience/enunciation/identification, sociocultural values and their historical significance, and constructions of gender/sexuality. Genre theory sets these issues within a recognizable framework of filmic conventions by which meaning is interpreted in and through accepted patterns and expectations of particular films. To that end, genre conventions have, over the years, remained fairly constant. Westerns, horror, science fiction, and gangster films have maintained culturally accepted and constructed conventions that promote, through box office revenue, a profitable enterprise for the producers and distributors of the film. Even films classified as “postmodern” maintain generic conventions: the panoramic vistas, saloon shootouts, and enigmatic protagonist of Stagecoach (1939) are equally evident in Clint Eastwood’s “revisionist” Western, Unforgiven (1992), but the power of these conventions is disputable. The gangster genre, for example, has remained relatively unchanged since the 1930, S1 and John G. Cawelti claims it “may have reached a point of creative exhaustion” (1985, 519). Even use of the phrase “genre” may have reached a similar point. In a postmodern society, genre boundaries are routinely blurred, and critics often prefer to examine films in terms, not of generic expectations, but of audience expectations.

 

Five The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t How Disney Do’s That Old Time Derision

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Susan Miller and Greg Rode

When I got to Atlanta I assumed he was going to be there. When I asked why he wasn’t, there didn’t seem to be an answer. Finally I found out it was because the hotel wouldn’t accept him and he was told he would have to stay with some family in a certain part of town. It spoiled the whole occasion for me. I was outraged. But of course there wasn’t anything I could do about it. It was already a fact. (Ruth Warrick, recalling her response to the absence of James Baskett [Uncle Remus] from the gala Atlanta premiere of Song of the South. Emphasis added. [Thompson 1986, 19])

Patriarchalism, the uncritical forms of the modern family, the patterns of sexual dominance, the disciplining of pleasure, the reinforcement of the habits of social conformity are some of the key ways in which the political movements of the left have remained deeply conservative and traditionalist at their culture core. The tiny “family man” is still hiding away in the heads of many of our most illustrious “street-fighting” militants. (Emphasis added. Hall 1988, 250)

 

Six Somatexts at the Disney Shop Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies

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Elizabeth Bell

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. (Hellman, 1973)

The early Disney shop, not unlike other organizations in the 1930s, strictly divided labor into that performed by men and that relegated to women. From “storymen,” “gagmen,” art directors, lyricists, animators, and “in-betweeners,” to background artists, layout artists, and camera operators, the production staff was overwhelmingly male except for 200 women in the Painting and Inking Department. These women applied paint to the artists’ tracings on each individual “eel” of film, yielding, on the average, 250,000 paintings for each animated feature film.1 When the company became so large that direct communication among all the production facets was difficult, a second gendered labor practice began. In “sweatbox” sessions (reviews of works in progress in a small, windowless screening room), a woman stenographer recorded the conversations and produced typed transcripts for distribution to all departments. The hands of women, painting and transcribing the creative efforts of men, performed the tedious, repetitive, labor-intensive housework of the Disney enterprise.

 

Seven “The Whole Wide World Was Scrubbed Clean” The Androcentric Animation of Denatured Disney

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Patrick D. Murphy

A May 25th, 1993, Chicago Tribune column by Anna Quindlen on the recent royal marriage in Japan was titled “ ’90s Princesshood: What Happened to Happily Ever After?” The notion that marrying a prince ought to be a woman’s highest ambition has recently been dashed on the gems of British and other royalty. Yet, the Walt Disney Company has attempted to persuade us otherwise in its most recent animated films. Despite Disney’s recent corporate changes, the motto for the animation division should be: “The more things change the more we stay the same.” The trailer for the videocassette edition of The Jungle Book (1967) evidences such an implicit motto. Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of movie and television operations, introduces clips from the production of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and promises that it is “pure Disney imagination.” Architect of the Touchstone R-rated repertoire, Katzenberg seems to be assuring parents that even if the live-action films are a departure, the animated ones remain true to the Disney ethos (see Taylor 1987, 217–18, 239–43).

 

Eight Bambi

ePub

David Payne

Technoscience and science fiction collapse into the sun of their radiant (ir)reality—war. (Haraway 1991, 185)

My father is a wise and gentle man. He was never drunk, loud, violent, abusive, competitive, aggressive, unfaithful, or impatient. He never, in my presence or to my knowledge, made a fool of himself trying to prove that he was a man.

Until he was drafted into the army just after World War II, my father had never left the panhandle of western Oklahoma where he was born to a displaced Missouri farmer and Nora Jones, child of a half-Cherokee father. My father had avoided going to war through a farm deferment, graciously awarded even during war years to the last remaining son on a farm. In the army, he typed paychecks for his committed time, and then returned to the clay-red bluffs and coarse panhandle grasslands to become what every man raised there became: a farmer. After the birth of his second son, me, he decided what countless others in 1952 decided, and moved his young family to the city where he was to do factory work for most of the next thirty years. In Wichita, Kansas, he built and repaired the large bombers for Boeing Aircraft. He sired two more sons, but no daughters.

 

Nine Beyond Captain Nemo Disney’s Science Fiction

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Brian Attebery

Ascience fiction story by Howard Waldrop describes the accidental activation of three robots in a post-holocaust landscape. The three were intended as attractions in a late twentieth-century amusement park. After a stroke of lightning wakes them in the abandoned factory, they take their bearings:

“Gawrsh,” said one of them. “It shore is dark in here!”

“Well, huh-huh, we can always use the infrared they gave us.”

“Wak Wak Wak!” said the third. “What’s the big idea?” (Waldrop 1986, 168)

Thus Goofy, Mickey, and Donald enter the world of science fiction as mechanical simulacra of their cartoon selves. In the radically transformed environment of the story, the animated figures turn into absurdist heroes, playing out their preprogrammed roles, like characters in a Beckett play, in a wasteland.

Waldrop’s story reveals how bizarre those familiar images really are. They are—have always been—unnatural, isolated, sexually ambiguous, alien beings. What is surprising is that we could have forgotten the fact, could ever have accepted them as ordinary suburban males. A giant mouse living in a ranch house? With a dog for a pet? Only the extreme ordinariness of the surroundings, the safe, bland environment that was a Disney specialty both on film and in his theme parks, allows us to suppress our awareness of the anarchic energy hidden in the notion of the guy down the street who happens to be a talking mouse or duck. Waldrop’s science fiction frame simply unleashes the covert disruptions.

 

Ten The Curse of Masculinity Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

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Susan Jeffords

The only real addition Ronald Reagan made to Richard Nixon’s agenda for the 1980s was a focus on the family and the moral values that, for those on the far right, defined it. But while Reagan was able to keep the disparate and potentially contradictory interests in a hard-boiled militarism and a warm-hearted familialism in check, largely through the force of his personal image, George Bush could not manage the same feat. The Republican ticket for 1988 revealed the divisions between these elements of the right, as Bush campaigned on his experience as vice president, as former CIA chief, as former U.S. ambassador, and as personal friend of foreign leaders, while Dan Quayle campaigned on his defense of family values and moral principles. This evidence of a splintering of the conservative movement was supported by other divisions, particularly the “gender gap,” as Republican women began to become more vocal about their oppositional stances on abortion and women’s rights in the workforce. But with the economy declining, the national debt skyrocketing, and the militaristic reason for many such expenses disappearing, the Reagan emphasis on family seemed to provide the only secure legacy of the Reagan ideology. At the same time, it provided a popular and facile site for retaining a sense of American superiority in the face of Japanese and European economic competition.

 

Eleven “Where Do the Mermaids Stand?” Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid

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Laura Sells

Where to stand? Who to be?

—Cixous (1975) [1986], 75)

A young pastor, finding himself in charge of some very energetic children, hit upon a game called “Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs.” “You have to decide now,” the pastor instructed the children, “Which you are ... a giant, a wizard or a dwarf?” At that, a small girl tugging on his pants leg asked, “But where do the mermaids stand?” The pastor told her there are no mermaids. “Oh yes there are,” she said. “I am a mermaid.”

—Barbara Bush (1990)

In spring 1990 Barbara Bush addressed the graduating class of Wellesley College, facing a hostile crowd of young feminist women who challenged her ability to represent the woman they all hoped to become as they entered the “real world.” Arguing that Bush was selected as the wife of an important figure rather than as someone with accomplishments of her own, students first circulated a petition that one-fourth of the class signed, and later wore to the graduation ceremony purple armbands, which signified their protest, their graduating class color, and their first-ranked choice of commencement speaker, Alice Walker. The controversy received national media coverage, which, incidentally, characterized the protesting students as hysterics.1

 

Twelve “Eighty-Six the Mother” Murder, Matricide, and Good Mothers

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Lynda Haas

It is hard to speak precisely about mothering. Overwhelmed with greeting card sentiment, we have no realistic language in which to capture the ordinary/extraordinary pleasures and pains of maternal work. (Ruddick 1989, 29)

Phone conversations at my house are frequently the most trying moments of the day; regardless of what my children are involved in before I pick up the receiver, all three decide they need my immediate, undivided attention the moment I begin to talk. People without children, I’m sure, find the constant interference—“just a minute, no—no chocolate milk right now”—frustrating. I must admit, I too am usually frustrated; but, I have learned that motherhood means

being constantly interruptible, responsive, responsible. Children need one now. . . . The very fact that these are real needs, that one feels them as one’s own (love, not duty); that there is no one else responsible for these needs, gives them primacy. (Olsen 1978, 18–19)

 

Thirteen Spinsters in Sensible Shoes Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks

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Chris Cuomo

When Mary Poppins, who is “practically perfect in every way,” floats down onto the Banks family doorstep, Jane Banks sizes her up immediately. “Perhaps it’s a witch,” Jane wonders aloud, and though young Michael Banks reminds us that witches have brooms, the question remains—indeed, it is answered affirmatively throughout the events that follow. Walt Disney’s 1964 film is based on the P. L. Travers children’s classic Mary Poppins, published in 1934. Travers’s book, and the series of Mary Poppins novels that followed it, tells the story of the nanny extraordinaire who cares for Jane and Michael Banks and the baby twins in their Victorian nursery. In the book, Poppins is curt, unsentimental, perfunctory even while creating magical realities. Disney’s Poppins is sweeter (after all, she’s Julie Andrews), spunkier, and not a bit maternal. Disney even gets rid of the twins in order to avoid the image of this independent nanny pushing a tram. But the fantastic tales of an amazing nanny spun by Travers become a social parable in the hands of Disney. The celluloid Poppins is on a moral mission to save a family run by a failed patriarch and an inattentive suffragette. Disney, through song and sketch, sets the story of the magical nanny in the context of English society in 1910, with its class struggles, its imperialist and racist assumptions, and its equation of British nationalism with morality, and tells us—the Disney audience—how to rise above those nasty social concerns and get back to what really matters in life: family and home.

 

Fourteen Pretty Woman through the Triple Lens of Black Feminist Spectatorship

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D. Soyini Madison

Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.

—Toni Morrison

Black women are employed, if not sacrificed, to humanize their white superordinates, to teach them something about the content of their own subject positions.

—Valerie Smith

In viewing a film, the black feminist spectator gazes at the images, plot, and meanings unfolding before her through a lens formed out of an awareness that race, gender, and class are inextricable as sites of struggle in the world and that they operate variously in all symbolic acts. As a spectator she sits before the screen, all the while reading what she watches through a consciousness of the profound confluence of what it means to be underclass, to be woman, and to be black. Whether she is witness to cultural representations wherein these factors are prominently manifest or deliberately made to appear nonexistent, the black feminist spectator carries her ideology with her and is focused on the interworkings of these “isms”—projected or masked—on all human representation and action. Black feminist critics are in a kind of “third wave” of analysis that is focused, not so much on the invisibility or the silencing of the black female voice, as on the ways specific conceptualizations of literary and cultural study are fostered and institutionalized and how the effects of race, class, and gender operate on the practice of criticism.

 

Fifteen Pachuco Mickey

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Ramona Fernandez

There is a place where for an admission fee of about thirty-five dollars at an average cost of two-fifty per hour for up to fourteen hours a day, the spectator can choke down as much as fourteen miles1 of film image projected on screens of unimaginable diversity, employing every means available for display. The films are rarely delivered in a standard 35mm or 70mm format. Instead, the spectator’s visual field is filled by 120°, 180°, 360° screens, by screens that rotate in complex patterns, by collections of screens uniquely arranged and constructed, by screens appearing in odd and unexpected places, of all shapes and sizes, in tunnels, in waiting rooms, in the midst of dioramas. In this place, films are delivered via interactive computer networks, videotape and videodisc; they are displayed in 3D and embedded in nonfilm displays of extreme complexity. In this place, the spectator can saturate herself, welcome disorientation, and willingly dissolve into a meticulously constructed environment. This place is EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World, a theme park cum world exposition, a kind of world’s fair that allows for a continual Disneyesque rewriting of history, a Distory, as Stephen Fjellman has called it. Disney World offers its guests multiple pleasures within the context of Disneyesque representations of race and gender. Distory is presented in a framework of disorientation; indeed, its dominant mode is disorientation. Hence this essay’s conscious anarchy.

 

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