Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cranky Book Review: The Mouse That Roared


As someone who is interested in the way people play with corporate-driven mass media, I was looking forward to reading the authors' argument about how Disney affects children's culture. Instead, I ended up having to slog through pages and pages of pedagogy about grass-roots democracy. There actually isn't much in here about Disney media itself. The passages that do cover specific movies and theme parks are very much taken out of context.

I suspect that the authors haven't even watched the cartoons or movies that they write about. They definitely have that old prejudice of all animation being primarily a children's media. Sure, Hannah Montana and more recent creations are carefully targeted to a youthful audience, but this wasn't always the case. And so we get:

“Donald Duck may once have comforted American children by dreaming in stars and stripes, but Mickey Mouse now marches with Chinese youth on the other side of the globe.”

Referring the 1940s propaganda cartoons as “comforting children,” is fairly misleading. Adults watched these along with the news features that ran in theaters before the main feature. One of the early Disney victories was the flocking of crowds of people just to see “The Three Little Pigs,” regardless of what movie was actually playing.

They even get Micky Mouse wrong, in a discussion of the video game “Epic Mickey:”

“One product, the video game Epic Mickey, revamps the character of Mickey Mouse in an alleged effort to make him more appealing to today's generation of youth. With Mickey's popularity in decline in the United States, Disney's market-driven agenda is visible not only in its willingness to transform the hallowed icon upon which its corporate empire was built but also in the very way it has transformed Mickey Mouse's character. The mouse will no longer embody a childlike innocence and generosity but will instead be “cantankerous and cunning” and will exhibit “selfish, destructive behavior.”

Not only is there an assumption here that the video game was marketed primarily to children, but there is a purposeful misleading of the intentions of Mickey's characterization. This Disney product was openly described in reviews and press releases as a returning to the mouse's original cartoon self, a typical mischief character.

This same game is played with adult movies as well. A discussion of Enchanted compares it to Pretty Woman, mentioning that film's female character arc of a prostitute who charms a man by acquiring the “appropriate mannerisms and designer dresses,” without mentioning that the male lead goes through a similar, though inverse learning arc. And, again, the implication is that Enchanted (or Pretty Woman??) is a movie meant for children, rather than typical fluffy adult fare.

There are a lot of interesting discussions about Disney's use of cheap overseas labor, among other problematic economic choices made on the corporate level. But these parts of the book have nothing to do with the actual thesis of how children's education can be affected by Disney media. Plus, I'm highly suspicious of the author's reporting of these events due to their lazy “interpretations” of product that I'm familiar with. It's as if they wanted to write a book about the dangers of an uncontrolled corporate media empire using Disney as the prime example, then decided to throw in some media studies chapters in order to get more textbook sales.

Not only do I not recommend this, I feel very sorry for college students who are assigned to read this mess. If you want an interesting, progressive slant on Disney from people who have actually consumed its products try Inside the Mouse, instead. For a good history of the company's history of conservative business practices I'd recommend Hollywood's Dark Prince. Or, heck, poke around on the web and come up with your own interpretations...

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