Walt Disney just released concept art for a CG film adaptation of Rapunzel, which prompted me to think about the role the company plays in the current American psyche. The message of so many recent Disney products has been, I feel, muddled and in conflict with other projects that were created just to be vehicles for promising young performers.
Take Hannah Montana, for instance. Miley Cyrus’ character repeatedly reinforces the concept of hiding oneself in a false persona. Granted, it’s for purposes of avoiding throngs of stampeding fans, but the message is the same: it’s okay to have a double personality. While this could be considered as a positive message in the context of acceptance for those with mental illnesses, in this case she makes a conscious choice to fragment herself, denying herself the happiness and stability which comes with whole personhood. Now, contrast this with Sharpay’s brother in High School Musical. Instead of fragmenting his personality, he just is never acknowledged as what he really is: a gay teenager. This juxtaposition communicates to children that hiding yourself from fame, something regarded as positive in our society, is okay, but hiding yourself from homosexuality is not — instead, you should not even acknowledge it. Which is kind of mind-boggling, as one would think something considered positive would want to be openly and unabashedly reinforced.
Classic Disney was all about embracing undervalued aspects of one’s personality. Pocahontas glorified the naturalistic world-view of Native Americans, introducing children to a different belief system and a host of worldly spirits. Cinderella taught children to embrace their true selves, regardless of their current station in life; be a princess, even if you’re temporarily scrubbing floors. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming Princess and the Frog enters into this discourse, especially as Disney’s first black princess spends so little of the film in that form. Disney has always been about a decade behind the curve of acceptance, not wanting to alienate the conservative families which powerfully support their enterprise. But wouldn’t it be nice to expect something more of the people on whom many of our childhoods were built?