From Mouse to Mermaid: The politics of film, gender and culture

Today I read most of From Mouse to Mermaid: The politics of film, gender and culture – a collection of essays about Disney’s films edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Indiana University Press: 1995)

There were a couple of really interesting essays in the book, that I wanted to make some quick notes about on here.

As I was reading, Memory and Pedagogy in the “Wonderful World of Disney” by Henry A Giroux, I realised I’ve seen it quoted in quite a bit of my reading recently so it was interesting to go back to the source. I was particularly interested in his discussion of Disney’s use of the concept of innocence to reinforce a political and pedagogical agenda:

“Innocence in Disney’s world becomes the ideological vehicle through which history is both rewritten and and purged of its seamy side […] The Disney Company is not ignorant of history, it reinvents it as a pedagogical and political tool to secure its own interests, authority and power.’ (p.46)

Through this vehicle Disney shows us “strict gender roles”, “unexamined nationalism” and “a series of identifications that relentlessly define America as white and middle class.” Giroux argues that it is important for social activists, academics and political movements to critically examine these cultural outputs as they provide a pedagogy at least as powerful if not more so than our schools’ education systems. Have we risen to “the challenge of a new cultural politics” as Giroux puts it, since 1995. I would argue that while we have a wider range of representation these days, the disney classics still hold massive sway. And while there seems to be a great deal of critical scholarship debunking the Disney myths – is it accessible to the children who are still entranced by the “wonderful world of disney”? I’m not sure…

Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies by Elizabeth Bell was also a very interesting read, although the ideas and critical frameworks were familiar to me, the specific way she breaks down Disney’s representation of women was very effective. She starts the essay by pinpointing the space in which women existed in the labour of making these films:

“The hands of women, painting and transcribing the creative efforts of men, performed the tedious, repetitive, labor-intensive housework of the Disney enterprise.” (p.107)

Then  she moves on to describe the three types of women included in Disney films:

  1. The teenage heroine (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel) slim, white, innocent, from noble families – modeled or rotoscoped from ballet dancers.
  2. The middle aged villain (Maleficient, Evil step sisters, Ursula) – large, sexual, predatory – modeled on drag queens and divas
  3. The old ladies including fairy godmothers and friendly servants. Generally plump and unthreatening, their witchyness contained in sparkles rather than the more traditional (and powerful) roots and plants. They are modeled on “rotund old ladies, usually at the dog food counter.” (p.119)

Particularly interesting is how Bell brings these all back together at the end, describing how “On the Disney cultural and somatic timeline, the young heroines will become their stepmothers; the stepmothers, too, will become the good fairies and godmothers. They in turn will care for the next generation of young heroines…” What does it mean to present women’s life in these peaks and troughs of good and evil?

Laura Sells in “Where do the mermaids stand?” Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid goes still deeper into this issue. Most interesting to me, was her exploration of Butler’s ideas of gender performance with regards to Ursula – and her reading that this frees women from the Disney patriarchy:

The lesson that Ursula gives Ariel about womanhood offer an important position from which to resist narrowly drawn patriarchal images of women, a position absent in Disney’s previous fairy tales […] Ariel learns that gender is performance; Ursula doesn’t simply symbolize woman she performs woman.” p.183

As Butler argues, defining gender as perfomance, dismantles the illusion of a natural category – and thus enables us to question it.


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