'The Disney characters are… the very embodiment of consumer-fetishism' (Byrne and McQuillian (p.23)). Critically discuss the main critical views of 'Disney culture'.

Sabine Keller

Contemporary life has become more and more dominated by global corporations that influence the leisure choice in society as well as change the way of consumption and the role consumption takes in life of the individual (Ritzer1998). This has led to consumption becomes increasingly important in leisure.

One example of modern consumer culture presents the success of the Disney corporation. Disney characters are probably one of the best-known and most popular features across the whole world, which underpins the influential power Disney has on overall culture. Disney films are constructed on the basis of fairytale or other already existing stories and consumed by the audience as pure entertainment hence they might include a certain educative element as Disney understood himself not only as an entrepreneur and entertainer, but also as an moral educator with the task not merely to entertain but also to educate and contribute in the preservation of American culture and history(Giroux 1994). The propagandistic cartoons during the second world war period might present the most extreme form of Disney's educational activities (Bell et al 1995).

Walt Disney's strong and charismatic personality combined with his capability to visualise every detail might be the reason for his great influence on practically everything that got produced by the Disney company. He applied his understanding of the world and his values to almost all that is labelled with Disney. The capitalist ideology of Walt Disney, which lead him to success is reflected in the Disney corporation. Disney company's creation strongly depended on his ideas and his overall direction and therefore mirrors his beliefs. His ideology is conveyed consistently through his creations (Bryman 1995/ Byrne 1999). Even more Disney characters are reproductions of Walt Disney's life and served as a justification for his own behaviour (Rojek 1993).

This paper looks first at different cultural, historical and social critiques of Disney films, followed by the examination of Byrne's et al (1999) deconstruction of 'The Little Mermaid', which is brought into context with the Marxist term of consumer fetishism and followed by alternative readings. Then the paper combines the critiques on Disney films with the Disney sites, and concludes with a critical summary of the main points. The deconstruction of Disney films reveals the underling political US ideology (which Walt Disney praised) in the films which is presented symbolically through the characters and the narratives of the films (Byrne 1999). As Disney films present low-culture entertainment they were left out from critical discussions and analysis of film theorists. However the deconstruction of Disney films gains importance through the educational aspect it conveys to the audience and the effect it might have on culture(Bell et al 1995). The delivery of the interpretation of American values and history in Disney films has to be considered critically since Disney has an almost monopolised position in children's entertainment. Education is used to convey the icon of American culture and economic growth (Giroux 1994). Among others Disney films are criticised for presenting an exclusive culture and history that is extensively sanitizes and simplified thus it is rather a strongly biased interpretation of history than an objective representation. It is argued that people become misled through this kind of surreal presentation and unconsciously influenced (Bell et al 1995/Giroux 1999).

Class and race differences are minimised and simplified in Disney films to deliver a conflict free image of society. A special social form is justified and reinforced. It is argued that Disney culture is distinguished through an excessive paternalism which leads the audience to remain in a passive infant stage (Rojek 1993). Rojek (1993:122) points out that 'Disney Culture presents the particular and historical form of white, capitalist society …' in order to organise moral regulation. With the strong impact of Disney on American society this can be understood as rewriting history as well as conducting the code of approval in American society. (Disney)…commodifies culture, sanitizes historical memory, and constructs children's identities exclusively within the ideology of consumerism' (Giroux 1999:156).

The educative motivation behind Disney films also needs to be questioned. Giroux (1999) blames the Disney films for a lack of delivering social value and responsibility. They merely serve the purpose of exploitation of the consumer as well as indirectly exploit workers in third world countries where partner companies (Mattel, Hasbro etc.) produce the range of Disney accessories (Giroux 1999). Children are taught through the marketers behind the films to behave as passive consumers thus the films do not allow any participation rather than pure consumption. Since Disney films are almost monopolised in children's entertainment the subtle and persuasive impact of the films cannot be underestimated (Giroux 1999). 'Combining economic control with pedagogic influence, Disney has become a major cultural player in American life' (Giroux 1999:157). It is suggested that public culture and democracy is replaced by commercial culture and democracy of the consumers (Giroux 1999).

In addition feminists criticise the sexism in Disney films. Women's bodies become animated and sexualised as for instance the heroines in Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast (Bell et al 1995/Giroux1999). The nature of women becomes simplified into the domestic 'good' women and the evil 'bad' women. This is set in contrast to the dominant male successful character. It is argued that this setting leads to a gender construction in society (Bell et al 1995). Byrne et al (1999) understands the deconstruction of Disney in 'Late Marxism' which unveils imperialist and right-wing concepts. It is stressed that Disney films represent an interpretation of American history including its position in the modern world as well as American social, moral and ideological values. The ideology of Disney is built around the question of nation, capital and race which is mirrored in the various films. The narratives in Disney films reflect the role of America in history as well as in the present in a symbolised form to justify and idealise America. For instance Disney films are metaphors for the domination of capitalism over communism, the issue of ethnical minorities as well as ethnical clearance and colonialisation (Byren et al 1999). Especially the capitalist ideology is reflected in the films. In fact the hidden message in Disney films reflect the values of modern economic society as well as the Disney characters stand for the'…very embodiment of consumer-fetishism' (Byrne et al 1999:23).

Looking at the deconstruction of the Disney film 'The Little Mermaid' Byrne et al (1999) identifies different layers of interpretation for the film. One way of reading the text is to understand it as symbol of the East - West conflict. The film displays the limitation of communist Eastern society and the less effectiveness they use capital through the state. Ariel, the mermaid, presents a member of this society which is yearning for the world full of pleasure representing the capitalist world (the human world in the film). Her behaviour stresses the desire for consumer freedom and the consumption of commodities, which is restricted in her own merworld. Through collecting human commodities Ariel attempts to take part in this new form of consumption, yet satisfaction does not last long since this is not the way capitalist consumerism works. The mechanism behind capitalist consumerism is even more strongly represented in the contract Ariel agrees to with the merwitch in order to immigrate to the world of the humans. The contract symbolises capitalist business rules to get something for nothing - since consumers purchase unnecessary and often unwanted goods for their money. In the Disney story Ariel cannot win because of the unfairness and the cheating of the witch. Similarly in capitalist consumerism the customer also becomes a victim of meaningless consumer fetishism which Marx explains through the alienated capitalist method to exchange goods (Byrne et al 1999).

Marx defined consumer fetishism as a characteristic of the economic world where goods are not defined through their 'real' value, they would gain from their pure utility- rather than an 'artificial' value indoctrinated by society. In this way the value of a product is not defined through the material worth in addition to the labour time needed yet through the meaning of the product in society. Since in the capitalist economic system goods are no longer exchanged directly but sold for money the original value of the product fades into the background. The same is true for the producer who only produces the product for the money value rather than the utility. This leads to disconnection between the signifier (producer) and the signified (product) which indicate a 'zweckentfremdung' in production. Goods are no longer produced to fulfil a utility need as a commodity but to obtain their symbolic value (money). Similarly the consumer of a product measures the product only by its money value -in isolation to the producer- and not for its purpose. This is understood as commodity fetishism. This development is characterised in the economic world where products are only produced for their exchange value (money). Fjellman (1992) points out that the relationship among people is strongly effected through the commodity that is produced by someone and the commodities one consumes. 'Without commodities we have no friends, no lovers' (Fjellman 1992:304). 'We must be taught the myth of consumer fetishism - that relationship among people are to be seen as relations among things' (Fjellman 1992:402) .In application the meaning of a product operates as a socio-hierarchical indicator yet the utility value of a product becomes minimised. Following goods become meaningless when isolated from their original purpose which leads to completely meaningless consumption. In addition advertising persuades consumers of the need of commodities that will deliver happiness and create 'ersatz needs' that result in a meaningless artificial world which is presumed as reality (Fjellman 1992).

'The power of Disney, as an ambassador of Late Capitalism and American strategic interest, lies in its ability to make itself as an object of desire, the pleasure of which is to be found only in the construction of the desire, never in its possession' (Byrne et al 1999:174). In this way Ariel can only enter the human world and identify her place in it through the adoption of the human consumer behaviour. In collecting the human goods and purely enjoying them without really using them she becomes one step closer to the human world. Her desire for more commodities brings her even further into the vortex of human consumer behaviour. When she exchanges her voice against the 'fake' opportunity to enter the human world she mirrors the passivity of consumers which exchange their power against non existing possibilities presented through commodities. Unlike the original fairytale of 'The Little Mermaid' the Disney version has a happy ending to assure the audience that Ariel chose the 'right' way in deciding for the human (capitalist) world (Byrne et al 1999).

Another reading of 'The Little Mermaid' describe the European economic concepts which operate with financial speculation and operations with money which does not really exist (Byrne et al 1999). Even the film itself is created on the basis of speculations to gain success. It is argued that the whole film can be understood as a representation of the debt situation in Europe where Eastern states depend on making debts with the Deutsche Bank in order to keep up and adapt to Western economy - hence debts might be remitted in order to prevent economic regression (Byrne et al 1999). Similarly the Disney theme parks can be described as ' revealing the underlying principles of capitalism' (Bryman 1995 :143). In this way Disney culture supports and promote capitalist politics in a disguised form to conduct profitable consumer behaviour. According to Bryman (1995) Gottdiener (1982) even expands this idea and refers to Disneyland's 'lands' as 'signifiers of capitalism' (:143), where the mapping of Disneyland is mirroring the different capitals.

To summarise one can recognise the underlying representation of capitalist ideology in Disney films. The Disney corporation itself stands for economic values and capitalist ideology which is mirrored through the film characters and narratives. Walt Disney's overall control in combination with his strong belief in his ideology cannot be ignored which leads one to the assumption that fairytales are not only converted to make them more entertaining but to convey an educative message to the audience and assuring them in consumption. In its self regarded position as a educator Walt Disney reflects and establish the values he thanked his success as well as supports future business success through strengthening capitalist economic ideology. Furthermore the continuity of Disney's ideology throughout films, Disney parks and so on highlights the carefully planned effort in presenting his version of reality as well as to educate his ideology.

Yet Walt Disney's impact on the presentation of his ideology in the film narrative through his overall direction and the creation of films does not explain sufficiently the underlying meaning in the films produced by the Disney corporation. Also one needs to take into account that many of the stories in Disney films existed already and thus Disney 's interpretations of them were limited. As has already been mentioned film theorist do not consider Disney films as worthy for critical discussion and analysis since the films present low-culture entertainment. It has to be questioned if the deconstruction theory interprets too much in the text which only purpose is to entertain and distract the audience. This opinion is commonly known as pointed out by Rojek(1993) that the common consensus of the Disney leisure industry is that it 'provides harmless fun'. Furthermore it has to be considered that this area might not be easy to analyse.

As mentioned earlier the deconstructing of films can deliver alternative interpretations of the text as well as delivering different layers of the film's symbolic content. Following the deconstruction might depend on the researcher and is not necessarily identical with what other audiences perceive, which suggests that grounded semiotics also need to be considered. Alternatively the whole argument is constructed on the assumption that the Disney films watching audience are passive victims that become manipulated in their perception and behaviour through the films. This suggests that that the audience is not able to resist or clever enough to recognise an underlying message. Hence the audience might be much more sophisticated in watching television and resistant to the integration of the consumed fiction into their lives. In fact a postmodern analysis of the Disney films could lead to the result that the audience is much more actively playing with the signs.

Otherwise it could be argued that Disney films present just another phenomenon of postmodernity. History becomes distorted, simplified and sanitised to deliver it in an easy digestible, playful way with the purpose to entertain. This suggests that there might not necessarily be an underlying, carefully constructed meaning of the narrative. Equally the criticism of the false impact Disney films have on children's behaviour might not only be exclusively true for Disney films since watching television in general educates an audience to passively consume and there is rarely a huge amount of activity involved. In addition other applications of deconstruction theory even free from the political force and suggest to concentrate on 'undecidability' of meaning. In this way there cannot be any certainty about the interpretation of the Disney narratives (Jary et al 1999). Also to consider might be that the Western world is constructed on capitalist ideology and the economic system only functions on the basis of consumer fetishism. It seems natural that this ideology is mirrored in all different cultural aspects and might not have been deliberately constructed.

Finally one comes to the conclusion that the deconstruction of Disney films only deliver a vague and ambiguous analysis. The films are interpreted selectively and the interpretation strongly depend on the analyst. This might indicate the importance to critically re-read Disney films as well as to examine the grounded semiotics of the audience. Hence one could suggest that there might no definite interpretation to be found.

Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells (1995) From the Mouse to the Mermaid Indiana University Press Indianapolis
Alan Bryman (1995) Disney and his Worlds Routledge London
Eleanor Byrne, Martin McQuillian (1999) Deconstructing Disney Pluto Press London
Stephen M. Fjellman (1992) Vinyl Leaves Westview Press Oxford
Henry A. Giroux (1994) The Mouse that Roared Rowman & Littlewood Oxford
David Jary, Julia Jary (1999) Dictionary of Sociology Harper Collins Glasgow
George Ritzer (1998) The McDonalization Thesis Sage Publications London
C. Rojek 'Disney Culture' in Leisure Studies 12 (1993) 121-35
Karl Marx Das Kapital Chapter 1 Section 4 Der Fetischcharakter der Waren und sein Geheimnis : http://home.+-oneline.de/home/mlwerke_6/me23_000.htm (12/11/01)

Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells (1995) From the Mouse to the Mermaid Indiana University Press Indianapolis
Alan Bryman (1995) Disney and his Worlds Routledge London
Eleanor Byrne, Martin McQuillian (1999) Deconstructing Disney Pluto Press London
Stephen M. Fjellman (1992) Vinyl Leaves Westview Press Oxford Henry A. Giroux (1994) The Mouse that Roared Rowman & Littlewood Oxford David Jary, Julia Jary (1999) Dictionary of Sociology Harper Collins Glasgow George Ritzer (1998) The McDonalization Thesis Sage Publications London C. Rojek 'Disney Culture' in Leisure Studies 12 (1993) 121-35 Eric Smoodin (1994) Disney Discourse Routledge London The Project on Disney (1995) Inside the Mouse Rivers Oram Press London Karl Marx Das Kapital Chapter 1 Section 4 Der Fetischcharakter der Waren und sein Geheimnis : http://home.+-oneline.de/home/mlwerke_6/me23_000.htm (12/11/01)