Disney at 100: Mickey and multiculturalism

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 19, 2023
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The Big Story:

The Walt Disney Company, the world’s biggest entertainment firm, is marking its 100th anniversary this month with a specially produced short film that features 543 iconic Disney characters from Mickey Mouse to Moana and a centenary exhibition that will travel the world over the next five years. But the canonical American brand that created a magic kingdom, faces challenges, both commercial and cultural.

The Backstory:

  • Walter Elias Disney, 21 and his brother Roy set up an animation outfit, the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, in October 1923. It took five years to have their first smash hit, Steamboat Willie, one of the world’s first animated films with sound. It featured a certain Mickey Mouse.
  • The studio went from strength to strength. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938) was one of the first full-length animated feature films in colour. Pinocchio (1940) marked the Disney tradition of finding old stories to re-tell. With Bambi (1942) Disney created another winning habit – buying the film rights to a popular novel. The Disneyland theme park project started in the 1950s. From the late 1980s, Disney celebrated a slew of award-winning films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan.
  • Today, Disney rules the box office, reaches 130 countries, has broadcast and cable-TV networks that rake in billions and more subscriptions than Netflix. It is the acknowledged leader, as one former Disney executive says, in building “worlds and characters, not just movies”.
  • But some criticise Disney for the extractive mining of myths and legends from around the world, which it is said to process into Western products that reinforce racial stereotypes and misrepresent ethnic cultures. Critics point to these problematic Disney films, among others: The Three Caballeros (1944) set in Mexico and Brazil; The Jungle Book (1967) set in India; Aladdin (1992) set in the Arab worldThe Lion King (1994) set in Africa, and Pocahontas (1995), which portrayed Native Americans.
  • Hawaiian academic Ida Yoshinaga has said Disney’s 2016 portrayal of “its lone Pacific princess, Moana…(an) indigenous heroine of color” had left Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiians feeling “disrespected and spiritually exploited”.

This Week, Those Books:

  • An admiring look at Disney’s inclusiveness.
  • A collection of stories from the women who worked for Disney.
  • A compelling biography of Walt, creative entrepreneur.

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  • Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment

    By: Douglas Brode

    Publisher: University of Texas Press

    Year: 2005

Film and media historian Douglas Brode takes a positive view of Disney’s output. He argues that it was, for its time, radical and inclusive on “issues of race, gender, sexual preference, and various other forms of ‘difference’.” He says that Disney products created a template for what became known as multiculturalism, living up to the words of the Disney parks’ theme song “it’s a small world, after all.” The book continues the theme of Brode’s previous work, From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture.

Magic Kingdom Park in the US. Photo by Rayna Tuero, Unsplash
  • Women of Walt Disney – Imagineering: 12 Women Reflect on Their Trailblazing Theme Park Careers

    By: Julie Svendsen, Maggie Elliott, Tori Atencio, et al

    Publisher: Disney Editions

    Year: 2022

ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee writes in the foreword to this collection of stories from 12 female Disney employees: They “worked in a different era and in very different careers from mine, but they made footholds in a mountain all the same – the Disney mountain”. Imagineers, as they were called, these women were employed by the company’s research and development arm.

Choice quote:

“We weren’t considered a second-class group, but we were not perceived as having the abilities of men”.

  • The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney

    By: Michael Barrier

    Publisher: University of California Press

    Year: 2007

    Animation historian Michael Barrier’s depiction of the life and times of Walt Disney is no fairytale. He covers the pioneering artist and entrepreneur’s narcissism and his tendency to micromanage. Using the more than 150 interviews he started to record from 1969, just a few years after Walt’s death, Barrier offers a compelling portrait of the man who created a company that is at the centre of American and global popular culture.

    Choice quote:

    “…a stunted but fascinating artist, and a generally admirable but less interesting entrepreneur.”