Tale as
Old as Time

How Disney casts its spell

The screen starts out a tranquil blue, somewhere on the spectrum between sky and ocean. Quickly, a glowing white flag appears and a castle cascades into formation, followed by a signature that’s as familiar to most Americans as the Coca-Cola logo, and finished by a star shooting right to left. As the Disney castle slides into place, my 6-year-old daughter rises from the couch and rushes to the screen as if she is greeting a friend. “This is the best part,” she says. “That is my castle.”

She and I are watching Beauty and the Beast, she for the first time and I for roughly the 20th. The film opens, like many Disney films do, in a forest. The lush, hand-drawn animation and haunting score, which echoes The Carnival of the Animals, the musical suite by Camille Saint-Saëns, pull me viscerally back to my childhood and to seeing the film for the first time, snuggled close to my own mother.

This sensation is part of what UVA professor Carmenita Higginbotham calls the Disney myth—“that realm of innocence and innocence lost, and that pure joy you feel when you come back to a Disney film,” she says. Higginbotham, an associate professor of 20th century art, teaches a course on the cultural and visual effects of Disney in American popular culture, as well as a class on Disneyland.

She sees Disney as a three-part system. “There’s Disney the man, Disney the company, and then there’s Disney the myth,” she says. “And it’s into the myth that we put all of our ideas. We insert ourselves into it. It’s that sensation you feel when you revisit a Disney film.” The Disney company “is the machine that feeds us,” with films, toys, theme parks and the deeply recognizable logo that my daughter jumped up from the couch to greet. But it’s the Disney myth that moved her to jump up in the first place, and gave her the idea that the castle was her own.

Higginbotham spoke about Walt Disney’s life and legacy—particularly his risk taking and artistry in his early full-length animated films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia—in PBS’s American Experience documentary “Walt Disney” in September 2015. To Higginbotham, Disney was an innovator, a control freak and a lucky guy. “He was doing the right things at the right time for the right audiences,” she says. “He understood, really in a smart way, that he could pull people over to his vision if they had a talisman or a touchstone.”

Carmenita Higginbotham
Stacey Evans

Carmenita Higginbotham, a UVA associate professor of art, teaches a course on the cultural and visual effects of Disney in American popular culture.

Most of Higginbotham’s students grew up watching Disney films and show up to her class still under their spell. Each year, Higginbotham says, she discovers a film that the class has great difficulty talking about because the students are too close to it. When she began teaching the class, it was The Little Mermaid, in later years Beauty and the Beast. “The connection is very deep,” Higginbotham says. “And when you teach it, you have to be really respectful of people’s attachment. When the fandom is so big, clearly, it’s tied into something.”

That’s why Higginbotham opens her course with Disney’s biography. “We use the historical to create critical space in which they can begin to ask questions,” she says. The class then moves to the corporation and mass marketization of Disney products, and finally to the cultural constructs that Disney upholds and perpetuates—princesses, ideal communities and the concept of living “happily ever after.” It’s then that students examine the Disney myth—the ways the films and products connect to “our desire for community, for family, for love, in a way that speaks to our inner child.”

For children learning to express and regulate their emotions, Disney films often become their models, Higginbotham says.

Walt Disney, Higginbotham says, understood that certain primal emotions connect everybody—childhood, fear, loss, the searches for happiness and family. Disney’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), allows its audience to feel loss when Snow White “dies” after eating the poisoned apple. “The emotional investment is crafted through the dwarfs. They allow us to both laugh and cry with them,” she says.

Bambi (1942) made audiences weep when the tiny fawn lost his mother, and 52 years later, The Lion King touched the same emotions and took it even further. “Disney films like The Lion King have a high emotional content,” Higginbotham says. “Simba experiences a significant loss with his father dying in front of him, and on camera,” whereas Bambi’s mother’s death was not. “It plays into a number of fears we have as children about our parents being taken from us, triggering a deep set of feelings that unites viewers.”

The Disney company capitalizes on this effect, Higginbotham says. For children learning to express and regulate their emotions, Disney films often become their models. When parents watch the films with their children and repeat certain phrases to them (“let your conscience be your guide” from Pinocchio, “the dream that you wish will come true” from Cinderella, “let it go” from Frozen), “they’ve created an emotional loop that can’t exist without Disney,” she says.

Nearly every company uses emotional ploys to pull in consumers, Higginbotham says. “But the ways in which Disney masks the encouragement to consume in messages of innocence, hopes, dreams and childhood, well, that’s where it gets trickier.” And some of the messages the films push are troubling, she says.

Disney’s princess films often present marriage as more important than any other set of circumstances, she says. Cinderella (1950) “is a primary example of that; marriage is her sole quest, the only way in which happiness can be defined.” Underlying that, though, Higginbotham says, is the quest for family: Most of the princesses are orphans. “That need for familial love that we all have, in these films, is tied directly to the acquisition of a mate. True happiness is tied directly to getting married.” Even in nonromantic Disney films, the quest for family drives the plots. Take Mary Poppins (1964) or The Parent Trap (1961): in both, happiness is tied to the healing of the family.

“These are primal desires that are linked to social and cultural practices, and that are re-created regularly in all of Disney’s products,” Higginbotham says. The company thrives on a systematic building of experiences, she says, starting with films and culminating in a visit to a theme park, where the entire experience is marketed toward family and the desire to belong. “All of the ads and messages in the parks are about moments of family fun and family interaction. There’s an emphasis in that visual presentation that this is the appropriate kind of experience to have. And that’s replicated in the films. It’s a wonderful, beautiful form of coercion, the way it affects you.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind (Col ’81), who was also featured in the American Experience documentary, Disney films and their emotional effects have played an unexpectedly vital role in his family’s life. In 1994, Suskind’s 3-year-old son, Owen, suddenly lost language and retreated emotionally; he was later diagnosed with autism. For more than a year, Suskind and his wife struggled to communicate with their mute, often inconsolable boy. Disney videos were the only things that seemed to calm Owen. Suskind and his wife hadn’t been “huge fans of Disney, but the comfort and convenience of these videos was overpowering,” he writes in his book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.

Within a year, a startling thing happened—Owen began to relearn language by mimicking dialogue from Disney films. And eventually, by pausing, rewinding, rewatching and memorizing scenes, Owen studied and came to understand emotions. Most children take in the world as they move through it, testing out what’s good or bad, painful or joyful, through sensory experiences, but Owen “can’t process onrushing sort of inputs and reality as the rest of us might,” Suskind says. Yet through Disney movies, Owen lives inside of the characters. “He can see the very complex interplay socially and emotionally between them.”

Ron Suskind (Col ’81)
Séan Alonzo Harris

Life, Animated, written by Ron Suskind (Col '81), describes how his autistic son learned language and emotion through Disney films.

Suskind stresses that while Owen, who now lives independently, had many influences surrounding him to study and memorize, he chose Disney. “Disney feeds Owen’s brain and his psyche the way he needs it to be fed,” he says. This, Suskind thinks, is because Disney “manages to shape these iconic, deeply rooted human narratives into a language that we have embraced in this time and place.” And, Suskind says, while most people who go to a Disney World or Disneyland may see it as an escape from reality, Walt Disney himself did not see his theme parks that way. “He saw them as places where we can arrive at a deeper reality of the way we yearn to feel, as a place where we feel whole and where we feel a sense of home and comfort. It’s very complicated in its way and very simple in its way at the same time.”

Higginbotham confesses she still engages in the Disney myth even though she deconstructs it for a living. “I went to Disney World, and I spent $9 on a Rice Krispies Treat because the packaging said it was made with magic. But I could not taste the magic. It tasted just like every other Rice Krispies Treat I’ve ever had.”

She keeps the snack’s packaging in her office as a sort of emblem of the Disney myth. “Disney is full of contradictions,” she says. “But you can’t study Disney rigorously without having some element of fandom there. If you just hate on Disney, you can’t really appreciate how marvelously it’s working on people, how beautifully it manipulates.”

When I admit to Higginbotham that after seeing Disney’s live-action Cinderella (2015) with my daughter, I began using the film’s motto—“have courage and be kind”—as actual parenting advice, I feel a quick surge of embarrassment.

“No, it’s perfect,” she replies. “They’ve primed the pump. It connects her to you, but also connects her back to the movie. Welcome to the club.”