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While outraged families are right to cut off Disney from their children’s imaginative formation, they should have been doing this a long time ago. The now-blatant sexual agenda of the corporation is only the final manifestation of a distorted and perverse view of reality that has pervaded the “Disney” brand for a long time.
The recent disclosures of the overt sexualization of Disney cartoons have outraged many American families. Disney executives have openly stated that they have increasingly injected LGBT content, characters, and themes into their films and that they do, in fact, have a “gay agenda.” They have spent millions to promote left-leaning political causes against the interests of their main customers.
While upset families are right to cut off Disney from their children’s imaginative formation, they should have been doing this a long time ago. The now-blatant sexual agenda of the corporation is only the final manifestation of a distorted and perverse view of reality that has pervaded the “Disney” brand for quite a long time—even from the earliest of its feature-film cartoons. While the original films may not have presented a dysfunctional view of human sexuality, they did present a distorted view of the world and of the family. Most never were what we might call “age-appropriate.”
Step back a moment and consider the original Disney feature-films for children, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Fantasia, and Pinocchio, and then ask yourself: Is this the imaginative world of an innocent child or of a wounded adult? Do these films introduce nightmare images to a child’s mind, or do they offer a way out of nightmares inherent to the child’s mind?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s excellent essay, “On Fairy Stories,” addresses the very problem that Disney had from its inception: the notion that fairy stories are exclusively children’s stories. They are not. They are stories allowing adults to examine the world from a new perspective to find a better way to live. Tolkien asserts that people connect “the minds of children and fairy- stories,” but “this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.”
The Brothers Grimm collection of fairy stories are not meant for bedtime reading to young children. Yet Walt Disney and his original production team chose a Grimm story, Snow White, as their first feature film in 1937 for families with young children. Most readers will recall the basic plot of the story, so let me briefly analyze the problems in this film as I argue that it does not properly form a child’s moral imagination.
First, Disney combines nightmarish images with buffoonery. Once her life has been spared, Snow White runs screaming into a chaotic forest whose darkness is cut by stabs of light illuminating demonic faces and silhouettes—an intense, unsettling scene of garish light and noise. She (along with the four-year old audience member!) passes out from fear but then awakens to a gentle scene filled with loving animals who lead her to the house of the bumbling seven dwarves. The scene radically shifts from its preceding one, and the viewer sees now only Snow White’s peaceful life with goofy, bumbling, appropriately-named dwarves. A flash of fury interrupts these pastoral scenes when the evil queen realizes Snow White still lives. The “fairest of them all” then radically shape-changes into a frightening-looking beggar woman who finds Snow White’s forest home and interjects her ugly face into the window, breaking the beauty and harmony of the refuge.
This shifting of the sands of safety undermines a keen sense of what is real. Is the nightmare state reality? Is the pastoral? The two cannot be blended but must be determined clearly in the mind first of the adult and then the child. To present the nightmare in such serious terms and the pastoral realm with such buffoonery suggests that the more “real” of the two is the first, the nightmare. This is a significant problem if you want your child to have a firm foundation in the powerful assurance of the true, good, and beautiful. If this triad becomes associated with the farcical, the absurd, and the humorous but ultimately impotent world of the seven dwarves, then the child loses the power and majesty of these three realities. The peaceful world of nature is ineffectual as a guard against the serious presentation of evil’s invasion.
This leads to the second major problem that Disney films often repeat: the depiction of men, if they are present at all, as infantile fools who need a “woman’s touch.” Snow White becomes the mother figure to these older men who, despite their years, are grossly immature compared to the much younger woman. The scenes of her caring for the dwarves are amusing, even winsome and tender, but they are also demeaning to men, stereotyping them as dopey, lazy, grumpy, dirty figures. Further, they are useless as protectors when most needed. They act as adults only once Snow White has already bitten the poisoned apple. They chase the witch to her death and then place the sleeping body of Snow White in a glass coffin. The only other male figure in the story is the prince who initially appears as a love-interest to Snow White and then only reappears to kiss her and marry her at the tale’s conclusion. The story does not manifest many masculine virtues because its focus is female: the mother-daughter relationship.
The final problem is the most serious, and one which Disney storylines repeat: the entrance of evil into the home and the destruction of fundamental security. In Snow White, we see this from the beginning – both parents are absent: her mother has died, her father remarries and then also dies. She relies on the stepmother as her mother-figure. This relationship is immediately severed, however, as soon as Snow White reaches her teenage years and becomes more beautiful than her stepmother. Jealousy arises on the part of the queen who hates her stepdaughter so much that she orders her killed in the grisliest of ways – her heart cut out. Thus, from the outset Snow White has suffered what most children deeply fear – the loss of their parents, which itself represents psychically the loss of safety, security, and community. Not only does the film depict this most universal and subliminal fear, it goes on to suggest that the mother-daughter relationship necessarily ends in rivalry and hatred. Nature severs the biological relationship and sin severs the adopted one. Where is the foundation of trust and love in this story? It does not exist and that is what makes it so corruptive of a child’s imagination.
Snow White sets a pattern in 1937 that Disney invariably follows in subsequent films with only a few exceptions. Fundamental reality is unclear. Men are comic, immature, unreliable figures. The protective power of the family falters before the destructive forces of evil: Parents die, trusted adults betray, children are left to fend for themselves.
Tolkien strongly disliked Disney productions, writing in 1938 that he had a “heartfelt loathing” for the stories, and holding still to that view in 1964: “I recognize his talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”
Almost all Disney films present a story from the perspective of an adult grappling with mature problems or issues. Because they are cartoons with silly songs, goofy characters, and plenty of bodily-humor jokes, we assume they are for children. Implicit in this is the assumption that they are “safe” for children and form well their imaginative and moral senses. Yet consider how many Disney films have a plot that is more suitable for an adult than a child. For instance, Cars 3’s plotline is one that only an aging man or woman could sympathize with or comprehend. It is the story of life’s waning rather than waxing: the middle-aged man who struggles against the passage of time and the weakening of his physical strengths. This is no story for a child who is on the cusp of life’s strength and glory! A child’s world is of the sunrise not sunset.
In our family, we looked forward to watching Toy Story 3 because the series had been a good one, with few problematic areas. However, like Cars 3, the plot line was adult. The cowboy doll, Woody, is past his prime and no longer useful to the now-college age boy, Andy, who decides to throw away all his once beloved toy-friends. From the outset, this is already dark and disturbing imagery for a child. We watched it despite the increasingly troubling themes of the film, such as the rage of the abandoned toys and the prison scenes of the daycare dolls. That was a mistake. We shut it off when our children ended up screaming as the beloved toy characters were on the conveyor belt to the incinerator. Speaking from my own moral sense and imaginative experience, I had kept saying to them, “Don’t worry, they’ll be saved. Lotso (the Care-Bear style character) is going to have a change of heart. They saved him and he’ll save them. Just wait.” But the film betrayed my confidence. Instead, Lotso has the chance to save the figures by stopping the conveyor belt but does not. In fact, he deliberately restarts it and limps away from the doomed toys.
What is the image that a child takes from this episode? A character is given mercy but does not return it. His actions speak volumes: “I am in hell and you can burn there, too.” The image of the incinerator’s fire reinforces that lesson. In adult life, we sometimes encounter such bitter souls who want everyone to suffer as they have suffered. Some even desire their own damnation. But children ought not to grapple yet with that truth of a fallen world. A darker, more depressing film than Toy Story 3 I myself have not seen in the world of R-rated films. We did not make the mistake of watching the 4th installment of the series and inflicting those images on our children’s minds.
The Toy Story 3 incident caused us to stop watching Disney and its once-worthy Pixar counterpart. We increasingly came to realize their films undermine the family and present corrupt images that have nothing to do with the current sexual agenda but which remain dangerous. In discussing with our children why we cancelled our Disney+ account, one said something quite astute: “It’s like inviting someone into your house to babysit your children and while she’s there, she tries to turn the hearts of the children away from their parents.”
If the current outrage at the now-overt, omni-sexual agenda of Disney is awakening parents to the importance of forming well their children’s imagination, then very good. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Do not let the corrupt vision of the modern storyteller rock your child’s cradle. Take custody of the world you allow your child to inhabit through films and stories. They are not inconsequential dabblings of entertainment. A blurred-out lesbian kiss or an openly-gay character will do less damage to a child’s imagination than a clearly corrupt and infernal story line.
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