Nature’s Commentator and Teacher
The Walt Disney Corporation created the term “edutainment” in 1948 to describe the purpose of the “True Life Adventure” documentary shorts of both “education” and “entertainment.” The films focused on providing information about the natural world – from oceans to deserts. These short films “are among the purest reflections of Walt Disney’s worldview – a vision that continued to shape the studio’s output after his death in 1966…the sheer volume of edutainment films that Disney produced, and the company’s enthusiasm for recycling and repackaging them, made them an ubiquitous presence in postwar American popular culture” (Van Riper, 3). Although Disney quickly moved away from the nature documentaries, he strove to add educational value to his products with information he himself would provide. “He abandoned his claim to remain faithful to nature as it ‘really was’ but to create a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction that emphasized the sorts of familial and social values that he personally valued as an American” (Van Riper, 3). Nature may have constituted the plots of “True Life Adventures,” but Disney’s values would constitute the plots “unabashedly” over the next several decades.
Politics Meets the Pictures
Disney claimed that he did not direct his films to a certain segment of people but rather to the public at large. However, Disney’s political ideologies still emerge in several of his films. In his youth, he was a member of the Democratic Party and campaigned for Roosevelt. The 1940 version of Fantasia features socialist undertones and a strong work ethic, as displayed by the working brooms in the Sorcorer’s Apprentice scene.
Also along the lines of liberal swaying, Pinocchio, from the same year, relies on individualism and emphasizes a corrupt society. Later on in his career, Disney became a supporter of the Republican Party. Conservative influences appear, for example, in Peter Pan’s (1953) reliance upon the patriarchal family.
Regardless of his political sways, Disney remained hopeful for the future, as seen in his parks (“Tomorrowland,” “Fantasyland”). Brode argues that Disney views America as “not liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, Democrat or Republican. The genius of the system resided in a symbiotic relationship of each complementary opposition – an ever-shifting balance between rugged individualism and commitment to community,” (Brode, 37).
WWII and Propaganda
With the outbreak of WWII, Disney became increasingly involved in reality-based films. The studio produced lighter hearted but serious instructional cartoon shorts for the military. These shorts educated soldiers, defense workers, and civilians on personal hygiene to techniques of using weapons. By 1942, over 93% of Disney production was related to government contracts, producing shorts for various departments. Examples are Food will win the War for the Department of Agriculture to celebrate and encourage American farmers contribution to the war effort and Out of the Frying pan into the Firing Line to educate housewives on how household wastes can be recycled and used on the battlefront.
Disney produced many cartoon shorts for propaganda. Disney’s famed characters were turned into ambassadors for democracy. Der Fuehrer’s Face featuring Donald Duck was the most successful propaganda film portraying the evils of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Donald has a nightmare about living in Nazi Germany and wakes up embracing a miniature Statue of Liberty, happy to be an American. Other propaganda films include Reason and Emotion which analyzed the Nazi psyche and Education for Death which implied that Nazi Germany trained their people to die. Walt Disney was essential in furthering war efforts by strengthening nationalism and Anti-Nazism in people from their living rooms.
The Space Race
Disney played an active role in instilling the ideals of the Space Age in Americans. In the 1950s, in collaboration with NASA rocket designer Wernher von Braun, Disney produced an educational series called Man in Space. The series, three one-hour shows on space exploration, exemplifies Disney’s Americanization of science, which produced a sense of hope and patriotism in the people. The first segment, “Man in Space” aired on March 9, 1955, “provided information on such newfangled issues as pace suits, information-gathering satellites, and the effects of weightlessness” (Watts, 309). Curious people were fascinated by this new sensation of the “space age.” The second segment, “Man and the Moon” portrayed what a manned space flight might look like. Finally, the third segment, “Mars and Beyond,” was aired in 1957 and introduced the possibilities of life forms on other planets. These three segments spurred the imaginations of Americans in what could become of this space race.
Disney had strong faith that what was portrayed in his series is fully possible and said to the public that, “if [they] were to start today on an organized and well-supported space program… a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years” (Watts, 310). Americans watching these films began to recognize space activity as an idea entirely conjured up by Americans. Some even speculate that it was Disney’s Man in Space series that influenced President Eisenhower in the summer of 1955 to promulgate the development of Earth-circling satellites. The series was viewed not only in the living rooms of daily Americans but also by scientists from prestigious engineer universities and institutes (Watts, 312). Disney officially became recognized as “America’s secret weapon for the conquest of space” (Watts, 311). While government officials were aware of the grim side of the Space Race against the Soviets, Disney’s optimistic portrayal of space exploration and advancement secured American support of what would become the Space Age.
“… I think that bears are the best mothers. … We spied on Ms. Black Bear, handsome in her fine fur coat, for the better part of two seasons. We saw her come out of her winter cave with two fat little cubs and begin their education. Father Bear had nothing to do with the rearing of his youngsters. But Mrs. Bear stayed wiht her kids two years, taught them where to find food, hugged them with affection, cuffed them when they were unruly, and brought them up a credit to her name and to bear society.” – Walt Disney (Watts, 326)
Disney embraced “traditional” American societal values with great emphasis on the nuclear family. Like mentioned in the quote above, a females main role was to be a good mother and raise her children. He painted the picture of an ideal woman as a stay at home mom who is good at raising kids, taking care of the home, and cooking food. The fathers role is to go to work, bring home the money, and spend leisure time on Saturday with his family and attend church on Sunday mornings.
In The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, Steven Watts coins the phrase the “Disney Doctrine: a notion that the nuclear family, with its attendant rituals of marriage, parenthood, emotional and spiritual instruction, and consumption, was the centerpiece of the American way of life” (Watts, 326). A strong nuclear is family is what distinguishes America from the rest of the world and it is the main way the US can fight communism. Disney upholds the idea of family even in the Mickey Mouse Club, telling the members that they are a part of a “gigantic family.” To Disney, the core of America is happy families.
Disney films only aided in spreading his image of the the ideal nuclear family. For instance, the orginal Uncle Remus stories, the basis for Song of the South, are based along the archetypal coming-of-age narrative (Russo 22). However, when Disney adapted the story, the conflict arises when Johnny’s parents separation and only resolves when the parents reunite, symbolically and literally healing their dying child with their union (24). Seeing as divorce rates were on the rise in 1946, it comes at now surprise that Disney’s alteration of the story should involve a social remark on the importance of family in the post-war era, when family as an institution grew ever more cherished by Americans (23). Many a later film, such as 101 Dalmations, Pollyanna, and Mary Poppins, supported and emphasized this same conviction for belonging and maintaining the (especially nulcear) family unit.
Creating a Culture
Not only did Disney films have political and social influence in American society, Disney also greatly influenced American popular culture, particularly the counterculture of the 1960s. In fact, Brode argued that “more than any other influence in American popular discourse, Disney ought to be considered the primary creator of the counterculture, which the public imagination views as embracing values that are the antithesis of those that the body of his work supposedly communicated to children” (Brode, x). He also argued that Disney films have more “sociopolitical daring” than films from any other filmmaker from the “golden era” of Hollywood (xi).
Walt Disney was a great lover of music and he tried to incorporate music as a major factor in his films and parks. Disney once proclaimed “the American public loves dance music” and he encouraged dancing on the pavement of Disneyland – much to the criticism of more conservative parents (Brode, 4). Brode argued Disney introduced rock and roll music with the Mickey Mouse club from 1955-1959, and in the films Babes in Toyland (1961) and The Parent Trap (1961).
Along with the introduction of rock and roll, several Disney films also include psychedelic imagery and “trippy” scenes. The first re-release of Fantasia in 1969 catered to a different audience than the one that had seen the 1940 original to identify with the growing drug culture of the time period. With its supernatural characters and mind-blowing visuals, the film was even advertised as “the ultimate trip.” One explicit drug reference featured in both Fantasia and the ultimate film for the sixties drug culture, Alice in Wonderland, (1951) is mushrooms – a clear reference to hallucinogenic effects of “shrooms.”
Disney had such an impact on American popular culture that researchers conducted a “Global Disney Audiences Project” in 2001 to analyze the views of certain Disney images abroad in eighteen different countries through interviews and surveys. With the broad theme of Disney globalization, one of the most important questions asked was whether foreign countries saw Disney as “distinctly American.” To this question, 49.5% of those surveyed answered “yes, Disney is ‘distinctly American,’” arguing that the corporation represents American ideals – whether positive (promoting democracy) or negative (advocating excessive consumerism and imperialism). To this question, 27.6% disagreed, arguing that Disney either represents universal values or can reflect the values of one’s own individual culture (Wasko, 4). Regardless of whether Disney is tied to an American identity, the rest of the world has been greatly influenced by the social, political and cultural impact of the corporation.
Text by Caroline Massie & Gloria Kim; additional text by Allison Santo.
Brode, Douglas. From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture. Austin: University of Texas, 2004.
Van, Riper A. Bowdoin. Learning from Mickey, Donald and Walt: Essays on Disney’s Edutainment Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.
Wasko, Janet, Mark Phillips, and Eileen R. Meehan. Dazzled by Disney?: the Global Disney Audiences Project. London: Continuum, 2005.
Watts, Steve. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
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