Walt Disney, I think, is probably more influential than Jesus. So why do I feel like critics shy away from critical analyses of Disney films, especially the classics? Just because they are cute and enormously popular to the point of being mythologized does not make them safe from insufferable people like me. In fact, I have never seen a Disney film in the same light after taking U-M class FTVM 333, or Fascist Cinemas. My capacity to enjoy these films without picking them apart to a pulp has significantly reduced. I’m not talking about The Lion King — that would be too easy — but about the much more subtle ways that Disney flirts with fascism. If your favorite form of escapism is a Technicolor song and dance, be warned: The innocence of any Disney classic crumbles under just a little socio-historical scrutiny.
Consider the bare-bones plot of any Disney fairytale. The protagonist — usually a young woman — wants relief from her current situation, whether she is poor, her family is mean to her or her life is boring. She is surrounded by cute little bunny rabbits and birds as she sings about her fantastical hopes and dreams. Except they aren’t so fantastical, because she always gets married in the end, hence “happily ever after.” How far is this from the myth of the American dream? How many Disney films can you name that don’t have a rags-to-riches story, an emphasis on benevolence and “good morals” over ambition and individualism? Furthermore, how does this relate to fascism?
“Fascist” might be a flashy buzzword, but it shouldn’t be thrown around indiscriminately; it is a set of ideas, an amalgamation of strategies, that a dictator or governing body might employ. It’s not just in the leader, though — for a society to be considered “fascist,” a set of values is deeply embedded into its culture. In the most simplistic way possible, fascism is characterized by a cult of tradition, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, contempt for the weak, selective populism and a frustrated middle class. But the list goes on. There are ten pillars that contribute towards a more general fascism, according to Yale professor Jason Stanley’s book “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us And Them.” Any of history’s fascist dictatorships you might think of may use five or six or seven of these strategies, but not necessarily all of them. In a similar fashion, Disney films do the same thing.
Of course, I could get specific with it. Let’s go back in time to 1937, the year of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” As a juicy time capsule of escapism demanded by the Depression-era U.S., the film is consistent with several of Stanley’s fascist tendencies. Our protagonist, Snow White, is a princess by birthright but a lowly maid by the order of her evil stepmother. But she doesn’t mope and whine about her situation — instead, our princess is complacent and pleasant. Snow White fits nicely into the natural hierarchies of worth that a fascist society demands: She recognizes that her role as a woman is one of submission and patience, and as a perfect fascist woman she is virtuous and pure. The film also makes an “us versus them” distinction; the stepmother-slash-queen is evil because of her individualistic values of selfishness and ambition, values that threaten the altruistic purity of Snow White and the rest of the “good guys.” And don’t forget the dwarfs themselves — Grumpy and the other guys are just cartoonish iterations of the fascist “everyman,” with their admirable work ethic and apparent infatuation with labor. The dwarves valorize self-sufficiency and give rise to the distinction of hardworking versus lazy. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” puts forth a damning thesis of rural idealism and rejection of modernity, a tale of happy endings and a mythic utopia over a backdrop of tragedy and loss of hope during the Great Depression.
It doesn’t stop here — ask me to consume any piece of media that holds significant cultural power, and I will find a source of propaganda. Don’t even ask me about Marvel’s big fat crush on the military (surprise, Disney also owns Marvel). You might be reading this and notice that the films I describe as “fascist” don’t exactly align with textbook examples of fascism. But that’s the problem. Fascism is often understated. It slips through the cracks — it’s something that doesn’t get noticed until it’s too late, and that’s the point.
Lest we forget that films, especially fancy ones from big studios, were probably (and still might be) the most effective mediums of cultural influence. Through these films, micro-signs of nationalism and indulgences in utopia — the core ideas of fascism — are flirting with American audiences. I’m not arguing that Disney movies are abundant sources of propaganda, but that inklings of fascist ideas might wriggle their way into our minds so that we don’t see much of a problem.
Digital Culture Beat Editor Laine Brotherton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.