Although I have mixed feelings about the pervasiveness of the Disney brand in our culture, it seems as though visits to Disney World have become about as important to parenting as changing diapers and packing lunches.
I grew up at a time before the princess revolution that has permeated the world of young girls. I was a part of the second wave of feminism reading Betty Friedan and singing along to “Free to Be You and Me” a musical compilation about gender equity developed by Marlo Thomas to serve as an alternative to fairy tale mythology.
As the mother of a three-year-old, I am keenly aware of her exposure to the Disney princess brand. Will the fact that every Disney employee seems required to call her “princess” seep into her consciousness and impact the way she views herself and others? What will the long-term effects be of the omnipresent emphasis on royal balls and fairy godmothers?
For our most recent Disney trip, my sister-in-law arranged three spaces at lunch with Cinderella in her castle; and quite honestly my only reservations were those in the book. It sounded like it would be fun.
But my daughter had a different idea. She staged a revolt and refused to go in, leaving us starving at the gates of the castle. Did the droves of little girls wearing more make-up than I wore on my wedding day, their hair in tightly sprayed buns, and fitted with tiny ball gowns overwhelm her? Perhaps. We will never know.
Despite the inconvenience of leaving the park without sampling the “specialties of the Castle,” once I was properly satiated, I felt proud of Daphne for knowing what she wanted and not being afraid to express it. She was content to spend hours in the pool back at the hotel.
The next day, Daphne happily met the characters of Disney Junior with much greater success. She loves Princess Sofia, a young girl whose mother marries a King. Although Sofia is aligned with what seems to be Disney’s mission to make young girls satisfied with nothing less than royalty, she is actually relatively down-to-earth.
Sofia breaks gender barriers by becoming the first female jockey on her school’s team; she remains best friends with the girls from the village and regularly includes them in royal events; and she convinces a shy girl to share her gift of music with her classmates. Her message is one of inclusiveness and freedom to be who you want to be in life. The theme song is “be who you want to be, anything you want to be,” quite reminiscent of the “free to be you and me” message.
Daphne also delighted in meeting other Disney Junior characters including Handy Manny, who owns a repair shop and has talking tools, Jake, a young pirate based on Peter Pan, and Doc McStuffins, a young girl who is the doctor to her stuffed animals following in the footsteps of her physician mother. The new array of characters is a far cry from the retro princesses, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White who relied on their respective princes to rescue them and improve their fate.
The blatant consumerism of Disney, with its magic bands that allow you to charge anything with a literal flick of the wrist and the ever-present marketing is certainly fraught with potential ramifications for young children. However, it is also working to update its image by making its newest post-modern characters a different kind of Disney brand. I will remain vigilant, ensuring that my daughter is exposed to a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and cultures. We took her to live in Wales for six months, where in addition to visiting real British castles, we also went to the People’s History Museum in Manchester and dressed up like suffragettes.
I also am aware that Disney done thoughtfully can be a very positive experience for young children. Recently, “CBS Sunday Morning” ran a feature on a young man, Owen Suskind, who was diagnosed with autism as a child, which really brought home the positive impact that Disney can potentially have. He was effectively “locked in” as a three-year old, when his cognitive development seemed to have stopped and he became unable to communicate. His father noticed that he was riveted to Disney movies and decided to talk to his son as a character from one of the films. Suddenly, Owen found a way to reconnect with the world. Later, he taught himself to read by watching and sounding out the credits on Disney films. Slowly, he came back to life in a way that would surely make Walt proud. Today, he leads a discussion called “Disney Club” at the school for special needs young people that he attends. He found that talking about the characters also helps his classmates express difficult feelings in a non-threatening way. The characters give them a vehicle to communicate that has been life changing.
In the end, despite my concerns, I’ve decided that Disney has a lot to recommend it. There are few experiences like spending the day with family and coming together to watch fireworks every night to build camaraderie and community. Throughout our travels, the love of Disney World was a common theme when the people we met found out we were from Florida. The cultural shorthand that we share about great characters ranging from Mary Poppins to Hans Solo can bind us together. And as we all know, “it’s a small world after all.”
Disney has such a powerful effect on our society and culture; unsurprisingly, it has attracted the attention of many pairs of critical eyes from a variety of academic disciplines. For example, here at USF, faculty in departments ranging from Communications to Women and Gender Studies regularly examine these issues in the classroom. Dr. Kevin Yee, Director of the Academy of Teaching and Learning Excellence, is a prominent author and blogger on Disney. Also note that the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at USF provides support and assistance with the goal of optimizing the potential of people with autism and related disabilities.
As Disney continues to influence our society, and as social changes impact Disney, we will no doubt continue to regard Disney as a pop culture reference point for critically reflecting on who we are and the larger forces that shape our conceptions of who we should be.