Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power Over Society Exercised by The Walt Disney Company

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Disney's power over the cultural appropriation on which the company built its empire[edit]

- Gender studies: Power animation as a male-dominated industry in the 20th century (capitalism --> economics)

- Visual studies/ Film studies: How are cultures represented via animation movies (cliché features of cultures used by Western ppl) "outdated cultural depiction"

- Sociology: gender/race/ethnicity, use of racist images, why was it okay in the 20th century USA to use these images (general opinion and morals), how it increased the power of the US

- Psychology: What image of their own culture is reflected to them, Other bad effects of these depictions: Body image - influences on young girls

- History (especially American Studies): apologising/altering past, accepting past mistakes

- (Public relations?): To what extent is a ‘warning’ effective, what else needs to be done by Disney to reduce the impact of these images


Although we often lose sight of Disney upon the magical misty slogan of 'Where All Dreams Come True', it is no strain to unmask them as a $130 billion net worth corporate giant. For almost a century, the world of Disney has played a significant part of the childhood memories of many. With Disney+ on its way, more Disney babies are precedented to come on an increasingly global scale. Despite the dreams and fantasies Disney has taught us to chase, it is inevitable to avoid the dark side of its magic; its controversial portrayal of racism and sexism, exercised through the power over the entertainment franchise. To evaluate the Power of Disney, this argument follows the interdisciplinary fields between sociology and cultural studies. One can disclaim the scope of this argument restrained, due to the neglect of non-Western media cultures.

This evaluation of Power with regards to The Walt Disney Company's controversial past seeks to delve into the interdisciplinary issues of cultural appropriation, sexism and the effect of media on children. We were prompted to write this report based on Disney's recent addition of a 'warning' as a disclaimer that attempts to apologise for the outdated stereotypes portrayed.

Sociocultural impact (Consequences of POWER)(include HOW the charcters are depicted and WHY they influence society in a negative way)[edit]

(1) RACE[edit]
  • ISSUE 1: Fetishizing 'exotic' culture

Film studies show Disney's graphic language depicts foreign cultures through the Western lense. Architecture and traditional outfits are translated into stereotypes, known to the general public (e.g. the Sultan's palace in Aladdin is similar to Taj Mahal). Furthermore, characters assigned pejorative features are problematic. In Peter Pan, Indians are called "red skins", while Dumbo shows Black workers singing their happiness of being enslaved and illiterate.[1] Similarly in Aladdin, the average Arabic man is represented as a dirty thief, and seducer. The first version of the film (1992) goes so far as to include the lyrics "Where they cut off your ear/If they don't like your face/It's barbaric" in the song Arabian nights.[2] [3]

Their filmmakers rewrite tales and historical facts using "happy endings" that fits in the western patriarchal society. It causes a conflict between initial stories and the aesthetics of the company that reinforces Christian family values. In the movie, Pocahontas who represents the "wise" princess, honours her family and beliefs by not leaving with John Smith.[1] History shows she was a child when she met Smith and eventually married another colonizer, before dying around the age of 21[4], which does not correspond to the American family values of the 1990s.

  • ISSUE 2: Whitewashing industry

Many films exclusively feature white characters, such as Cinderella, Snow White, 101 Dalmatians. When several origins are depicted, in most cases the Americanocentric approach remains as protagonists are white and the stories focus on their dream of a nuclear family.[5]

Frequently, characters physically and mentally different from white women/men want to be like them at all costs. Their stereotypical features are used to highlight what to aspire to. The ape King Louie sings his desire to be human, noting that he has an African-American voice [6][7], The Little Mermaid's biggest dream is to become human -white beautiful female- despite losing her voice and tail.[1] The explicit message conveyed by these artistic decisions is all the more influential because it affects children.

(2) GENDER[edit]

  • ISSUE 1: 'Princess Culture' Correlation between Disney Princess culture (merchandise, media) and young children's behaviour, self esteem
  • ISSUE 2: Underrepresentation of masculinity Boys being thrusted into the role of heroes

The sexist themes that occur in almost all of Disney's films remain unaccounted for by the recent disclaimer. [8] This reinforces the view that the warning of cultural appropriation is not good enough, for there is evidence to suggest that the gender stereotypes depicted in movies such as Aladdin, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty could be detrimental to children's psychology. By portraying the female characters as being emotionally and physically reliant on the male characters for safety and happiness, the gender imbalance that is already present in society will be maintained in the highly impressionable minds of children, and therefore translated into the way in which these children treat one another in real life.[9]

Aesthetically, the way in which the characters drawn by Disney Inc. artists encompass ideas of an inappropriate sexualisation. The Disney Princesses, for example, are drawn and animated in such a way that makes their physical attributes pleasing to the male gaze (small waist, full breasts, long muscular legs etc), for example Cinderella and Snow White.[10] Parallel to this, the male heroes are often symbolic of hyper-masculinisation, with muscular, strong bodies and typically 'handsome' facial features, for example the characters Gaston and Hercules. The fact that there is an obvious element of the male gaze within cartoons of the time is representative of the gender imbalance within the animation industry itself.[11] In this instance, the power that art and visual form have over the psychology of children is evident, for visual information is absorbed most easily by the developing mind of an infant.[10]

Unequal Script Writing

As well as a sexist stance in the way that the characters are visualised, the actual audio of the films is biased in the way that female voices are disproportionately heard in comparison to the male characters. For example, in Pocahontas, female voices make up 24% of the script, and just 10% in Aladdin.[9] A symbolic illustration of this idea is the fact that, in The Little Mermaid, Ariel chooses to give up her voice, therefore her independence, identity and intellect, for the purpose of winning over a love interest.[9] It is ironic that quite often, despite the stories being intrinsically focused around a female lead, the male hero ends up stealing the spotlight (for example the movie Cinderella, named after the female lead, ends up being focused around the journey of male protagonist Prince Charming).[12] This suggests the gender imbalance that has gone unnoticed within the world of literature and script-writing.

Political/economic currents (identifying the POWER)(HOW the corporation was organised and what political currents justified this thought)[edit]

(1) Industry - Reflection of each era and its perspective[edit]
  • BEFORE (white male dominated/ political use of the Disney company's soft power in foreign affairs)

Disney's first animated feature film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," drastically changed the animation industry. It was the most successful film of 1939, earning more than $8 million. Disney was given one full-size and seven miniature Academy Awards for the movie. "Snow White" began a period that was later referred to as "The Golden Age of Animation" for Disney's studio.

1989 Little Mermaid’s Ariel shows some degree of independence, although she does go on to give up her voice to get the man of her dreams.

1991 Belle in Beauty and the Beast also demonstrates a strong will – she doesn’t live up to the expectations of her community. But then she loses her identity as she starts seeing the world from the perspective of the beast.

  • NOW (much more diverse, see disneys latest statement)
  • THEN EXPLAIN HOW IMPACTFUL POWER IS and how impactful a "warning" and an "excuse" can be
(2) Consumer - Vulnerability of children[edit]
  • BEFORE (tv, rise of entertainment, the age of the USA being a "superpower" that granted impunity)

to be more passive

  • NOW (more emphasis on how to trust/control media consumption )
  • THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING AWARE OF POWER - A multipolar world that requires the representation of all populations, social networks that give voices to minorities (end of cultural imperialism)

Conclusion/Evaluation (how we can trangress this POWER)[edit]

The power remains strong (from the new disney worlds in the last 20 years).

Disney's solution is rather to stop commenting on nothing and stay in the politically correct in their new movies?

- more demand in CSR (corporate social responsibility) correlation with credibility/reputation . of . the company


  1. a b c Mia Adessa Towbin , Shelley A. Haddock , Toni Schindler Zimmerman , Lori K.Lund & Litsa Renee Tanner, Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length AnimatedFilms, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy (2004), 15:4, 19-44, DOI: 10.1300/J086v15n04_02
  2. Souad Belkhyr. "Disney Animation: Global Diffusion and Local Appropriation of Culture." Études Caribéennes 22.22 (2013): Études Caribéennes, 01 August 2013, Vol.22. Web. Avaliable from :,contains,Disney%20Animation:%20Global%20Diffusion%20and%20Local%20Appropriation%20of%20Culture&offset=0
  3. Fox, D. Disney Will Alter Song in ‘Aladdin’ : Movies: Changes were agreed upon after Arab-Americans complained that some lyrics were racist. Some Arab groups are not satisfied. Los Angeles Times. (1993) [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].
  4. Price D. Pocahontas | Biography, History, & Cultural Legacy [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2019 [cited 2 December 2019]. Available from:
  5. WILLS, J. ("Disney and Race" in Chapter Disney Values). Disney Culture (pp. 104-132). New Brunswick, Camden, Newark, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press. (2017) Available from:
  6. Clark E., Galella D., Jones S., Young C. ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ : Negotiating Race, Racism and Orientalism in the Jungle Book on Stage. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. Available from:
  7. Armstrong R. Time to Face the Music: Musical Colonization and Appropriation in Disney’s Moana. Social Sciences 2018 07;7(7). Available from:
  9. a b c
  10. a b