What is Disneyfication?
Most people have an idea of what Disneyfication means, even if they aren’t familiar with the specific definitions. This term and its variations have been around since 1959. It eventually made it into the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
Definition of Disneyfication:the transformation (as of something real or unsettling) into carefully controlled and safe entertainment or an environment with similar qualities
This definition specifically references the most common use of the term, which is relevant to the subject matter at hand. Sometimes it’s used to refer to the excessive commercialization of something. Although the terms Disneyfication and Disneyisation are used interchangeably, the latter is typically associated with commercialization.
A good example of Disneyfication is what we have done with the imagery of pirates, specifically those most active during the 17th and 18th centuries. Pirates were responsible for a considerable amount of crime and violence throughout history. I suppose one could also argue that ‘legal’ merchant ships were sometimes guilty of the same given their human cargo, pillaging of sacred artifacts, and murderous tendencies. That, of course, is an entirely different dissertation. We know that some pirates stole goods and, when necessary, resorted to murder to protect their haul. While other pirates did operate on behalf of certain colonial governments, most of them were criminals destined to hang if captured or shot on sight.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and we now have children dressing as criminals who were known for pillaging and homicide. We romanticize pirates as adventurous and even heroic. Now imagine if we were to bring victims of pirates to the present day. People who lost their livelihoods, friends, and relatives to acts of piracy would think we’re insane for celebrating thieving murderers as folk heroes. This is Disneyfication at its finest. We see no fault in it but would lose our minds if the hottest Halloween costume of 2040 ends up being ‘Adventurous al-Qaeda Terrorist.’
If you read the original versions of folk tales on which many Disney films are based, you’ll notice a striking difference between them and their Disney versions. Disney takes stories that some might believe to be less than wholesome and sanitizes them for palatability. The end results are delightful tales that stay with people for many years, along with a dependable formula that works for just about any narrative.
This dependability compels modern writers to produce similar works to primarily generate revenue, which practically takes innovation and risk out of the equation. We are stuck in a rinse-repeat cycle in literature and cinema. Old stories are retold over and over. New stories are just modern concepts wrapped around the same old framework. The words groundbreaking and innovative have now taken on entirely new yet banal meanings. The plots, themes, and story arcs of Disneyfied stories are almost always predictable. If something makes a ton of money, why not stick to it?
Of course, there were times when this cycle didn’t work as planned. All we have to do is look at Disney’s perceived embarrassments. Song of the South was banned because people viewed it as putting a happy face on slavery. The Uncle Remusstories on which it was based actually took place years after slavery ended. Even so, that was hardly a pleasant period for most black people in the Old South. There are many other criticisms, but a full analysis of this film’s societal effects is beyond the scope of this essay. The “fix” for these issues was simply to ban the movie. Problem solved. Right?
Burying what one perceives as a troubled past is pretty much what Disney did within many of their storylines. They retell old folktales without the bad stuff. If one is making a G-rated film for kids, this makes sense. The Walt Disney Company decided to take this a step further by editing their own history of using racial stereotypes for comedic relief. This wasn’t just a Disney thing. It was a film industry thing. The fix? Edit those scenes out or ban the entire movie.
A hundred years from now, after the people who grew up with those films are dead and gone, they can say this part of the company’s history never happened. Would anyone ever try to bury the past? One example is the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the only successful overthrow of a local government within the US. The gory details of the event were buried for one hundred years. Thankfully, the records weren’t destroyed, and many more people are now aware of what truly happened.
Whitewashing a fictional story is one thing. Whitewashing real life because of embarrassment is practically a crime. No crisis should be ignored because it only affects ‘others.’ No films should be banned because they are deemed problematic. Doing so is merely an attempt to escape one’s troubled history. We’ve done that for far too long in this country and have, on occasion, repeated those same mistakes. By not Disneyfying our world, we see the problems within their naked reality. That’s when we’re able to solve them openly. By suppressing the content, we’re suppressing the discussion. That’s wrong on many levels.
Old Habits Die Hard
A profound example of life imitating art is the ‘good versus evil’ trope. Long before written language, cultures preserved their histories through oral tradition. Many of these stories were not only meant to entertain, but they could also inspire action. Stories about heroism in the face of danger may have been a mixture of actual events and wild exaggerations. Present-day fiction can have a similar effect.
I believe that movies and literature can influence the masses, but not in the ways traditionally understood. People work hard to consume that which reinforces beliefs they already have. But where did those beliefs originate? We aren’t born knowing our family and societal histories. That knowledge comes from our upbringing and formal education. Once we leave home, our social circles play a major role. From there, we actively consume media based on our upbringing.
We grow up on these stories and believe that the overly simplified, sanitized versions should apply to real life. We see ourselves and our people as good, while those who disagree with our actions are bad. Walls are built around certain communities to keep out the undesirables. Those labeled as undesirables then develop a profound disdain for the wall builders. The result is a landscape that resembles some of the most prominent Disney imagery, the castle surrounded by a moat.
Our Disneyfied mindset has created an atmosphere where some can only view the real world through that lens. People with different views from ours are seen as villains. We allow social ills to linger while accusing those who try to correct them as spreading negativity. The inescapable ills are never dealt with or solved. Instead, we find a group of ‘them’ to blame for our problems. New villains are perpetually created within the public psyche. Reality is far more complicated than that, and it takes hard work and cooperation from ‘others’ to solve problems.
Breaking Old Habits
Is Disneyfication the ultimate evil? The answer to that is an unequivocal no. As a matter of fact, it is essential to maintaining some level of civility. It’s difficult for people to focus on the brutality of the real world without becoming collectively jaded. What we call Disneyfication today was probably called something else during the early days of storytelling. It is a tool that enables us to keep a greater audience engaged. Just like any tool, it can also be misused.
When the full details of the Wilmington Insurrection were suppressed, the victors spun what they believed to be a more acceptable tale. The insurrectionists painted themselves as heroes protecting their heritage and the virtues of their women. With ‘heavy hearts,’ they ‘grudgingly’ engaged in harsh acts that were unavoidable. The names of the leaders were immortalized on buildings, bridges, and monuments. When the truth was eventually released to the public, it was the candid words of the insurrectionists themselves that damned them to infamy. Some literally bragged about committing horrible crimes against black citizens who were just trying to survive the violence. The damage from this type of whitewashing, or lying, can last for several generations.
The toxic sociopolitical climate of today is informed by a similar type of spin. Many people stay within their own silos and constantly devour self-confirming media. I don’t expect people to change their beliefs after watching a few films. One thing that I hope to do is encourage people to stop creating more echo chambers. If someone watches a film I produce, they might be encouraged to explore multiple aspects of a particular story. If they happen to experience it from only the perspective which they identify, that’s fine too. The whole idea is to create art that doesn’t preach to the audience. I hope that it provides the incentive for people to experience viewpoints that differ from their own. Even if people never accept the opposing view, it could still open more productive dialog. If it doesn’t serve that purpose, it will at least be a unique form of entertainment.
“1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission.” NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, viewed 16 Feb 2021, https://www.ncdcr.gov/learn/history-and-archives-education/1898-wilmington-race-riot-commission.
“Disneyfication.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, viewed 15 Feb 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Disneyfication.
“Disneyfication.” TVTropes.com, viewed 16 Feb 2021, https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Disneyfication.
“Piracy.” en.wikipedia.org, viewed 14 Feb 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piracy.
Wallenfeldt, Jeff, “Wilmington coup and massacre.” Britannica.com, Encyclopædia Britannica, 11 Nov 2020, viewed 19 Feb 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Wilmington-coup-and-massacre.
“Wilmington insurrection of 1898.” Timothy Hughes Rares & Early Newspapers, original pub 11 Nov 1898, viewed 19 Feb 2021, https://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/617784.