The Politics of Disney

Topics in Visual Culture and Communication (VCC390)
Department of Visual Culture and Communication
University of Toronto Mississauga
Summer 2014

Course description: As it nears one hundred years of age, the Walt Disney Company’s global reach continues to expand apace. Currently the world’s largest media conglomerate, it owns and operates not only its flagship filmmaking studio, Walt Disney Studios, but also the computer animation studio Pixar; the broadcast television network ABC; top-grossing cable networks such as the Disney Channel, ESPN, A&E, and the History Channel; and six major theme parks/resorts—plus a cruise line—around the world. Yet perhaps the most telling testament to Disney’s vast holdings and influence is that the corporation’s brand name now also works as a verb. “To disnify” is even recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary: “to alter in a way considered characteristic of Disney films, cartoons, or theme parks; to romanticize, sanitize, or simplify” (OED Online). In this course, we will closely examine the aesthetic and narrative alterations that are “characteristic” of Disney films from different time periods and on disparate themes. We will seek to identify significant “sanitizing” effects in the Disney canon, and we will engage with scholarship that will help us to understand the ideological purposes these effects serve. Our focus will be on unpacking these films’ abiding interest in representing their human characters’ relationships with nature, empire, family, and romantic partners in ways that “prettify” complex and politically charged issues of race, nation, gender, and species. We will also explore a related sense of “disneyfication” that is rooted in the corporation’s theme parks: the process of making replicas of “real” places that are designed to be experienced as more “real” than their referents, and which consequently come to supplant the historical originals—and, arguably, history itself. Here we will critically question the political repercussions of living in a “hyperreal” world.

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