It has been a lively month at the Walt Disney Company. Late February saw the release of the feature film Turning Red to the dismay of parents who believe that discussion of menstruation, sexualized drawings of middle-school crushes, and the phrase “I like gyrating” have no place in a children’s movie. Then, in early March, Disney CEO Bob Chapek requested a meeting with Governor Ron DeSantis to express his disappointment with Florida’s new Parental Rights in Education law, which rather mildly “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” (namely, pre-school through third grade). By mid-month, it was announced that a same-sex kiss would be included in the upcoming children’s film Lightyear – in part as a reaction to Florida’s new law. Today, a vocal subset of employees are demanding that Disney commit significant resources to advancing LGBT advocacy; Mr. Chapek has apologized for failing to do more in the past.
In the wake of all this, it has been easy to find critics who decry the company’s actions as a betrayal of its family-friendly legacy. While this objection is understandable, it seems to me fundamentally mistaken. Whatever Disney might have been in the mid-twentieth century, the studio has not been truly friendly to families for some time now. In fact, far from being a betrayal of the company’s history, it seem to me that Disney’s recent actions are nothing more than a wholly natural extension of the corporation’s clearly and consistently expressed ideology.
Permit me to illustrate the point by describing for you the plot of a movie. You’ve probably seen it before. The central character is a bright, sympathetic, and winsome young lady. She is strongly independent, somewhat different, and most certainly special. Alas, she lives in a rigidly traditional (probably, but not necessarily, patriarchal) society that fails to appreciate her gifts for what they are; instead, she is expected to conform to the conventional standards of her community. She succeeds, for a time – bearing the weight of her traditional duties and even appearing to follow to her elders’ plans for her life – until, at last, in an ecstasy of liberation, she casts them off and embraces her true self. The resultant journey of self-actualization coincides with some menace that threatens to destroy the heroine’s society; her quest culminates when she resolves the catastrophe and saves her people. She returns home to assume her rightful place in her community and to lead it into a new, more enlightened, future.
This is, as far as I can tell, the plot of Moana – but it is also Frozen and Encanto and Brave and Pocahontas and Mulan as well; there are elements of it even in films as early Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. The familiar plot structure is the product of a governing moral vision: one that exalts the individual at the expense of community, innovation at the expense of tradition, and youthful exuberance at the expense of aged wisdom.
In short, these films are an expression of what Russell Kirk called the idyllic imagination, “which rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.” This idyllic imagination is broadly antithetical to the settled order required by family life – and it is no exaggeration to say that it has been the governing ethos of Disney studios for the past thirty years (and perhaps beyond).
This is not to say, of course, that the idyllic imagination is the only idea in the films listed above, nor to ignore other, more positive messages in some Disney movies in the past generation or so – one thinks of the meditations on mortality, friendship, and family present in the early Pixar movies, or the tragic vindication of parental wisdom in The Lion King. But these are the exception. Self-focused liberation and rebellion are the rule and the unquestionable presupposition. Whatever other themes may be present, and however the film may play with the formula, the belief that a child must reject ancestral authority to become an adult is not so much argued as it is assumed.
One might well object that I am making much ado about nothing. These are only children’s movies, after all – and children surely don’t pick up on these things, do they? Children just want to be entertained by pleasant characters, flashy colors, and catchy tunes; the message doesn’t matter. A six-year-old does not walk away from Encanto railing against the oppressive evil of traditional family roles, after all, so why worry?
This is an understandable but fatal miscalculation – and very nearly opposite the truth. As philosophers and poets from Plato to Dante to C. S. Lewis recognized, stories are a foundational part of a child’s education: the story reflects the author’s understanding of reality and recreates in the minds of the audience. As a consequence, very few things matter as much as the stories we tell to the young. They shape the child’s identity, his notions of good and evil, and the how he understands his place in the world.
Thus, whether or not he consciously “picks up on” a film’s message is wholly irrelevant. He will still absorb it – and all the more powerfully because he is unaware that he is doing so. And so a child raised on a steady diet of these films is conditioned to regard any constraint on his freedom of expression as an exercise of tyranny, developing a habitual mistrust for authority, limits, and tradition – especially of the local and parental variety.
The idyllic imagination’s immediate assault on familial authority is not the only concern, however. An even greater danger lurks in the unthinking exaltation of rebellion, liberation, and autonomy. Put simply, such values are naturally and restlessly progressive. There is always a new taboo to be broken, a new frontier to be crossed – one last obstacle to be overcome before full human liberation can be achieved.
For this reason, as Russell Kirk pointed out, the idyllic imagination is inherently unstable. If it will not return to the order of the moral imagination (and it usually does not) it inevitably sinks down to the diabolic imagination, rejoicing “in the perverse and the subhuman.”
Brief acquaintance with Disney’s recent history leaves little doubt as to which path the corporation has chosen. The vague feminism and multiculturalism of the Disney 1990s has given way to strident LGBT and anti-familial advocacy in the 2020s. The signs of the shift are everywhere: whether in the rehabilitation of formerly diabolical characters, or in the increasingly obvious homosexual subtexts in its children’s movies, or in the overt political machinations mentioned above, the Disney Company has taken its stand. It is past time for parents to do so as well.
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