Moving Beyond the Consumption Myth

Consumption: the act of consuming. Americans lead the world in consumption (in many different ways) and we consume just about everything. Even those who think they aren’t consumers actually are. There are the commodities we consume, the food we consume, entertainments, education, office supplies, clothing, cleaning and beauty products, and we could probably argue that we even consume our pets.

In writing a dissertation about Disney, the Consumption Myth is something I keep running into. The Disney Critics are quick to point out that the only thing Disney offers us is stuff to consume, thus Disney cannot provide anything of significance beyond that. So, I’m constantly having to defend this point.

There are two components to Disney consumption:

  1. Disneyfication – This is when a story or fairy tale is adapted into a Disney-style visual program (such as a film or television show) that is sanitized and remarkably less “Grimm.” This process takes a story and makes it acceptable for the American mind-set, including emphasizing cultural mores that are not otherwise present in the “original” story. This is the core of the PCA paper that I realize I haven’t posted here yet. I’ll get to that one another time.
  2. Disneyization – This is the impact of the Disney Corporation’s business model on the larger society. Coupled with the McDonald’s/Ford assembly line, Disneyization has created two delivery systems for consumption: the themed environment, in which a particular theme is maintained throughout the entire experience, from the attitudes and behaviors of the employees to the general ambiance of the place; and the notion that consumption is a fun experience. Increasingly, businesses have turned to the specialized theme environment to compete for our attention, and increasingly they’ve gone out of their way to entertain us. This is, according to George Ritzer, one of the reasons why small business are getting run out by Big Box – they just don’t have the ability to keep us amused while we consume.

So then, what are some examples of Disney that I am consuming in my own home?

  • My annual D23 membership and subscription to the twenty-three magazine.
  • My Disney dvd/blu-ray collection, including the D23 exclusive Walt Disney Treasures Box Set.
  • Mouse Ear hats.
  • Mickey Mouse kitchen accessories, including apron, oven mit, and soap dispenser.
  • Epic Mickey video game and collector’s edition walkthrough guidebook.
  • Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series, in hardcover with a couple autographed.

And more, but there’s also the indirect Disney consumption that is found on my Disney shelf: books and articles devoted to all things Disney, and not necessarily published by Disney. So in this respect, I’m consuming the idea of Disney.

But rather than criticize Disney for its mode of consumption, I think it’s time to accept that consumption is a key part of the modern American psyche. And, instead of criticizing us for imposing our modes of consumption on the entire world, consider that the entire world is guilty of linking consumption with democracy since World War II. To be able to consume is an act of empowerment and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But this equation dates back to the early eras of American history. From the first landings of pilgrims on the Atlantic coastline, we have been consuming the land. Manifest Destiny is a theory of consumption that pushed us West under the guise of a “civilizing mission.” First we consume the land. Then we consume the industries that make things more pleasurable – running water, gas light/electricity, public transportation. And so on, until we start consuming stuff. Early Mickey Mouse merchandise was not limited to only toys, but also to stuff people use: watches, writing tablets, drinking glasses, etc. Tourists would come to this country to buy these symbols of empowerment, so corporations thought to make it easier for them and sent their respective consumption modes over there.

The danger of the Consumption Myth is when the consumption turns into an addiction, which is part of the underlying message of 1999’s Fight Club. This has gotten much easier in the last 20 or so years with the push of credit cards onto younger people, who then grow up to have kids and fail to teach these new kids about the dangers of credit cards, and so on. Couple with that this pervasive illusion within America that all people should have a higher education, which has lead to a greater consumption of education (and educators, I might add…), which, in turn, has lead to greater numbers of student loan debt. Or the other channels of debt: good luck trying to buy a car or house with cash (as our grand-parents tried to encourage us) when they cost of these commodities is through the roof (and don’t get me started on Home Owner’s Associations). This is when consumption becomes worth of all of the criticisms.

I’m sure there’s something to be said about an overload of pleasure and something about fetish, but that’s an area of Freud I’m not as familiar with yet.


Fairy Tales and Utopian Ideals

There are some scholars that, as much as I would like to try, I just cannot avoid. They are the ones that add conversation and dialogue to my research, taking it to a deeper level. Sure, it would be easy to ignore them, but then I’d be just as shallow a researcher as the Shallow Researcher “archetype” at the core of my academic shadow projections. Today’s unavoidable researcher: Jack Zipes.

I discovered Jack Zipes when I was doing the Pacifica preview day, which I’d timed on purpose to coincide with my admissions interview. As part of the preview day, they were giving out a $25 gift certificate for the Pacifica bookstore. One of the unspoken secrets of the Pacifica bookstore is that the really good books all cost exactly $25 or more, and that it is neigh impossible to exit the bookstore without spending at least $45. I blew my travel budget many times in that bookstore… Anyway, I chose Zipes’ Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale, because the title seemed to be dealing with some residual questions I had lingering from my MA thesis. I read 3 pages before shelving the book to prepare for Pacifica, and there the book stayed for 3 years until one day I brought home his book, Happy Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry from the Pacifica library. Revisiting Jack Zipes revealed two things: 1. he is no lover of Disney and 2. he fails to make the distinction between Grimmified fairy tales and literary fairy tales in his criticism of the Disneyfication of fairy tales. Before leaving this point, I must emphasize how much it annoys me that people criticize Disney for “sanitizing” or “trivializing” fairy tales, making “the one true version” that most kids today know and realize, but fail to criticize the Brothers Grimm for doing the EXACT same thing. AND, I would further point out, that Disney’s fairy tale films until The Little Mermaid were anything BUT sanitized.

Anyway, the point of this post is a couple of questions that Zipes poses in Happily Ever After that I think need to be addressed, though I’m not sure my dissertation is the place to do it.The quote is this:

Indeed, ever since World War II the fairy tale as live-action film or animation has become one of the most successful genres in the culture industry. Perhaps, given the barbarism of World War II, the need for fairy tales in the mass media became greater afterward, for it is through the fairy tale that hope for happy endings is kept alive. The question we must ask, however, is whether it is a false hope. Do fairy-tale films project false utopias through amusement? Have fairy-tale films contributed to the destruction of community and the deception of the masses? (70).

The hope for happy endings that these films project is not limited to the barbarism that upset the American psyche following World War II. In fact, Snow White and Pinocchio were promising us happy endings before we even entered the war. However, the potency of the genre took off following the war, but I don’t think the war is to blame for this. Instead, I suggest turning to the Cold War. After World War II, America was on a high – we had come out of the war the victors and we were one of the most prosperous nations in the industrialized world. But we were afraid of “communism,” a fear of our individuality being compromised and a fear that still resonates today. We projected this fear onto the Russians, and what followed was an absurd decade of drills, bomb shelters and the illusion that if your school gets hit by a bomb then your school desk will protect you. Out of this fear, we get science fiction films, film noir, suspense thrillers and fairy tale films. The first three deal with confrontation with the unknown, while the last on the list deals with the happier side of the imagination. So it makes sense that Disney would experience a surge of popularity, being one of the few media outlets that gave us fluffy bunnies in a time of constant fear. The Cold War fear led to Vietnam, which was a major blow to the American psyche, from which we sort of recovered from after the fall of the Berlin wall. But as we were leaving our fear of communism behind, we were turning it instead into a fear of “terrorism,” which we believe compromises our identity with oil. This is the mode we’re still deeply swimming in.

Do fairy tale films project false utopias? YES, but these false utopias offer hope. The American Dream is a projection of a false utopia. The country was founded on utopian ideals, conquered by utopian ideals, and industrialized under utopian ideals. We have always attracted immigrants who are searching for utopia. Utopia is at the deep, buried core of American mythos. Since World War II, we have seen an increase in apocalyptic films. Cold War films projecting the fear of our destruction. Then after the fall of the studio system and Woodstock, films reflected a dystopian disillusionment. Films since the 80s have tried to offer hope for a savior hero, but that savior hero has yet to manifest in the culture (another discussion for another day). Throughout all of this, fairy tale films have given us happily ever afters. Sure, there is some saving going on – the princess needs some kind of rescue, or more recently the prince does – but what is being saved is hope for new beginnings. As Doug Brode points out in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, Disney films don’t have happy endings. They don’t end. They offer, instead, new beginnings. One that takes place off screen. “And they lived happily ever after” is very different than “The End.”

Have fairy tale films contributed to the destruction of the community? I think asking this question is blowing everything out of proportion. Many factors contribute to the destruction of the community. If anything, fairy tale films reinforce community. Walt Disney said somewhere that his goal was always the family, which is the core of any community.

Have they contributed to the deception of the masses? Again, I think this is blowing everything out of proportion. Sure, they project false utopias, but they speak to the mythic imagination, not to the reality of our lives. If the masses are deceived, it’s a failing of the education system and community network. America does have a propaganda machine, but it does not operate the same way as other propaganda machines have, fully pulling the mask over our eyes. This country benefits from the fact that we allow both sides of the conversation to happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re listening. That’s not Disney’s fault. If anything, Disney films are more subversive than we realize.


As a Disney-lover, dissertater, and thinker, I find myself constantly defending the Disneyfication/Disneyization of fairy tales. Fairy tale theorists have a difficult time accepting Disney’s films as one version among many, but rather see them as being the harbingers of the death of fairy tale culture. I hold the position that Walt Disney and Disney Corp translated written fairy tales into film to a) translate the fairy tale genre to the new medium that has now become predominant throughout our society and b) translate the fairy tales from an Old World/European sensibility to the American sensibility, making them rich and potent for us today. In this sense, Disney’s fairy tales are just one version adding to a millennia-old tradition of storytelling. What I tend to fail to do, and what theorists fail to see is the Grimmfication of fairy tales. I can’t decide if it should be spelled Grimmfication or Grimmification. So you heard it here first, folks! Let’s see if we can coin a term.

When the Brothers Grimm went around Germany collecting fairy tales, they were setting out to collect German culture and capture it into a handy anthology of story. Unfortunately, what they did was write down a literalized version of the fairy tales. They weren’t alone. It became vogue to do this very thing during the 1800s, in an early process of ethnography.

Fairy tale tradition stems from the oral folk tales that are transmitted from generation to generation, from elder to child. These stories often take a particular flavor specific to the region or era of the storytelling, but this is what makes them so rich and potent. So the Grimm Brothers wrote down a version which has now become to dominant version.

[Marie-Louise von Franz talks about the abstractness of fairy tales, citing this as the cause of their archetypal nature, in The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Perhaps this abstractness is really more due to the fact that that is how the Grimms wrote down the story….)

So why are the Disney Critics so concerned with the Disneyfication of fairy tales, but fail to acknowledge the Grimmification? That’s the answer I haven’t unpacked yet.

Disney and Sex–A Misguided Interpretation of Princesses

So I’m at the PCA/ACA conference, which so far is a really fascinating experience. Being an introvert, I haven’t made any new professional best friends yet, but I have bought three books, which I will review once I read them because they just sound like the perfect way to spend my dissertation research time. Of course, they’re dissertation-worthy, but yet not dissertation-necessary, which is the case of just about all books.

Anyway, there was this panel about Girl Power, which involved some misguided, shallow approaches to feminist theory. Specifically, looking at girls in literature and how they are awesome. No context, no theory, no analysis. To close the panel was a presentation about Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Tutu, three Japanese fairy tales.

But here’s the annoying part: This presentation did not incorporate fairy tale theory, feminist theory or any cultural analysis into its thesis. Instead, it made some grandiose claims about how the images of Disney caused our sexual culture. The presenter specifically looked at The Little Mermaid. The assertion is that a) Disney images portray women as sexy, quoting a study of how much skin between the upper thigh and bust women show, and b) the “Princessfication” it portrays limits women.

In response to A: The portrayal of women as sex objects is NOT Disney, it’s the larger culture. BUT, to read Disney characters as sexual (and only directed at children, hence the problem) is a misreading of Disney fairy tales. Walt Disney retold fairy tales using traditional models, which did include arguably “weak” princess characters, but gave them a voice long before the birth of the Feminist Movement. PLUS, Disney’s goal was to define family entertainment as something adults and children could equally enjoy together, not as tamed down stories that are more palatable to children. It is important, Oh Disney Critics, to define the era of Disney fairy tales in your analysis and to take into account the goals of the company at the time of the fairy tale release, because those factors greatly influence the marketing of the film. The era in question influences the portrayal of the characters, which is the crux of the argument I am making during this conference.

In response to B: really? Just because the Princess is the over-used marketing campaign of Disney does not mean that Disney holds a negative view of women.

Now, the comparison to three Japanese fairy tale films to Disney Princesses is just plain shaky territory in a 15 minute/6 page presentation. In order to make a sound argument (especially if one is relying on films distributed by the Overtakes of the Mouse), it is essential to take cultural differences into account. One could easily argue that Ponyo portrays a fetishized child (thanks Rebekah!), which is far more sexual in nature than the portrayal of a Mermaid, whose bare midriff is a side-effect of the fact that she lives underwater and whose story is about her failure of finding love with only her slim, red-headed figure as her tool.

On one hand, it really bothers me that Disney Critics are so shallow. But on the other hand, I appreciate the opportunity to be the voice of the opposition. There is so much more to Disney than one’s fear for the brand, but this is a different conversation all together. Eventually, I hope that Disney Critics will start to recognize their shadow and work accordingly. Then I might have more respect for their arguments.

The Three Temptations of Snow White

Last night, I gave a talk for the Jung Society of Austin as a practice for both next week’s PCA/ACA conference presentation and the whole dissertation business. To underscore my argument about why Disneyification of fairy tales isn’t a bad thing (which I contend it isn’t), I decided to look closely at Snow White. As a Disney movie, this was the first of the animated features, and it is one of the stories that was further Disneyfied into theme park attractions. I’ll skip over my cultural analysis of the Disneyification process for now (and my excitement about having my research validated).

In order to prepare for this talk (and PCA paper), I re-read the Grimm Brothers’ tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This is the story that Disney gives credit for inspiring the film, and indeed the stories have a lot in common. One thing that Disney altered is the three temptations of Snow White. In fairy tales, it is not uncommon for the hero to undergo three tasks before they can achieve “happily ever after.” Three is the realm of the masculine, however one wishes to interpret it, while four is the realm of the feminine, again, however one wishes to interpret it. That most fairy tales have the hero undergo three tasks suggests that they operate in the realm of the masculine, or that the idea is that one has to go through the masculine to get to the feminine, but that isn’t up for discussion here. (3 + 4 = 7 Dwarfs. I’m sure that’s not a happy accident.)

The three temptations/trials of Snow White a la Grimm are the lace, the comb and the apple. All three of which point quite nicely to an interpretation pointing to budding womanhood. The lace is essentially a corset, which the Queen disguised as the old woman laces so tightly that Snow White passes out as though dead. No young girl likes the initial confinement of her first bra, so Snow White’s reaction really isn’t that surprising. The 7 dwarfs find her and cut her out of the corset, bringing her back to life. The corset here symbolizes the restrictions that come with womanhood that limit a girl’s freedom to her duties as a woman. It is also a symbol of perceived beauty; a corset having the ability to shape a woman’s torso in an attractive way to grown men.

The comb is poisoned, and is placed in Snow White’s hair by the Queen and causes her to pass out as though dead. Young girls in the era of the Grimms wore their hair long and free, but women were expected to pull their hair back and cover it upon marriage. The comb is another example of the confinement of womanhood. In many cultures, hair is sensual. Confining her hair hides her sexuality behind sexual mores. The comb is also a symbol of perceived beauty.

The apple, on the other hand, is a little more tricky. In the Grimm tale, the apple is only half poisoned. Originally it is a white apple, but the Queen poisons half of it, which turns it into an alluring red. When feeding the apple to Snow White, she keeps the white half for herself and gives the red half to Snow White. Red and women becomes a symbolism of mensuration, the physical transition into womanhood. But the apple also holds other loaded symbolism: Apple of Eden, Apple of Discord. So one way or another, the apple is supposed to represent Snow White’s loss of innocence, something else that occurs with the transition into womanhood.

So, in short, for all the bruhaha (mostly on the part of Campbell) about there not being any myths for women and their transition into womanhood, here’s a really good one handed to us on a golden platter. Or perhaps a golden pie crust? Hmm.. apple pie….

Disneyization versus Disneyfication

I was recently having a chat with a friend. When asked about my dissertation, I made some comment about the “Disneyization fairy tales.” My friend subtly corrected me, “Disneyification, yeah.” Since I use this term a lot throughout my dissertation, I thought I should make a public statement about what that means.

Alan Bryman in his most excellent book, The Disneyization of Society, defines Disneyization as the process whereby everything becomes..well, Disneyized. He proposes a formula that is applicable not only to Disney, but to other entities (including scuzzy tourist traps) that seek to accomplish a particular experience for the visitor. Bryman uses this term, and I believe coins this term, in order to distinguish this formula from “Disneyification,” which is a term with some serious negative connotations.

“Disneyification” implies the process whereby Disney takes a story (usually a fairy tale) and butchers it, sanitizing it and trivializing the child imagination. These are critiques against all thing Disney, and are thrown around within the fields of literature/fairy tale studies, child development, and culture commentators.

One of the things I hope to transcend by using Bryman’s term rather than “Disneyification” is the anti-Disney stigma. There are a lot of vocal people out there who don’t like Disney, and I’m sure this is for good reason. I definitely don’t deny that Disney’s motives trend towards control and manipulation of experience – perhaps we could call it institutionalized mythmaking (hmm, that opens several doors of possible discussion!) – but that do not mean that Disney’s motives should be seen as necessarily evil, negative, or the like. I firmly maintain (believe, whatever) that Disney is responding to the collective American psyche, and has been since Walt launched the company. As far as the whole Globalization business, consider this: with the exception of Nazi Germany, the rest of the world embraced Mickey Mouse (the Nazi’s thought he was a spy, according old newspaper headlines). The spread of Disney across the world has been welcomed by more people than not. For the countries who are completely opposed to the Disney presence, they have the power to shut the corporation out. If Disney Globalization is such an issue, then why hasn’t Disney been shut out of more countries, hmm?

I’ve developed a nasty habit with this blog of googling images that relate to the theme of the blog and I keep finding so many fun ones! Here’s a closing image for today’s post: