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Reversing the "Disneyfication" Process: Using Disney Films to Debunk Stereotypes and Oversimplification In Middle and High School Social Science Courses

John Murnane
Worcester Academy


     Ask any parent. Disney films are pervasive. In a review of "Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power," a documentary film by Chyng Sun, Barbara Meltz explained the ubiquitous nature of Disney today. "Disney holds a position unique in the world. As the biggest player in children's entertainment (it owns the Disney Channel, ABC-TV and radio, ESPN, Miramax, Touchstone and Disney Pictures), it sets the agenda for everyone else. With 660 stores worldwide, Disney's reach is international."1 More important than Disney's reach, however, are the messages found in its films. In his 1999 book, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, for example, Henry A. Giroux is critical of the role Disney plays "in shaping public memory, national identity, gender roles, and childhood values; in suggesting who qualifies as an American; and in determining the role of consumerism in American life." Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells and other scholars share Giroux's concerns.2

     Defenders of Disney, and critics of this postmodern trend of "deconstructing" traditional narratives and popular culture, claim that scholars often read too much into these films, that Disney films are simply meant to provide entertainment. True enough. But who can deny the fact that Disney provides many young children in the United States with their first glimpse of the larger world, some of their first ideas about people and cultures in the Middle East (Aladdin), Africa (The Lion King, Tarzan), India (The Jungle Book), China (Mulan), as well as Native American (Pocahontas, Peter Pan) and African American culture (Dumbo, The Lion King)? These films are certainly not the only forces shaping young minds today. Everything from religious teaching to comic books to popular music and family upbringing plays a role in forming children's views of the "other." Yet Disney films provide a "backdrop" for students taking social science courses in middle school and high school; they—and the images found in them—are part of a common cultural experience. As Benjamin Schwarz recently explained, "for better and for worse, Walt Disney (1901-1966) implanted his creations more profoundly and pervasively in the national psyche than has any other figure in the history of American popular culture."3 It stands to reason, therefore, that analyzing, or at least acknowledging, the potential impact of Disney films on student perceptions is a good place to start middle school and high school history and social science courses.

A number of colleges already critically examine Disney films as part of their academic programs. Richard D. Sherman's "Advanced Social Psychology" course at the University of Miami, Robert B. Pettit's "Disney and American Culture," at Manchester College, Virginia Crank's "Doing Disney" at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and Martin Schoenhals' and Joseph Behar's introductory courses in Sociology and Anthropology at Dowling College are a few examples.4 Virginia Crank explains the objectives of her course:

     What I want to do is prepare students to join the social construction of our world by becoming media-literate citizens. Using documentaries and articles, I engage my freshman composition students in critical analysis of Disney films, focusing particularly on images of women and minorities in their most popular animated features. "Doing Disney" while teaching the basic writing strategies of summary, paraphrase, and synthesis allows students to read and write about a topic they already have familiarity and experience with while achieving my larger mission of making students into more critical consumers of the media by helping them see that ideologies inform every public message.5

     This kind of critical analysis would certainly benefit middle school and high school social science courses as well. Without necessarily deconstructing Disney films—this is probably best left to cultural studies, sociology, media literacy, and other such courses at the college level—middle school and high school students could gain considerable insight by simply comparing and contrasting Disney depictions of various cultures and people with the information found in their textbooks and other scholarly works.

     Such comparisons would not always entail an attack on Disney. Take Mulan, a 1998 Disney movie about Chinese legend Hua Mulan (or Fa Mulan). Granted the film's primary message of female equality, something that is given a nod-and-a-wink in China today, was a not-too-subtle subversive political film directly challenging China's current political situation. Nonetheless, the film is still helpful in illustrating some of the social ramifications of Chinese Confucianism. The heroine of a famous Chinese poem written during the Northern Dynasties (CE 420-589), the story of Mulan was expanded into a novel during the late Ming Dynasty (CE 1368-1644). It is a drama that relies on the tensions found in traditional Chinese gender roles—the Confucian edict to "act as a son should act, act as a daughter should act," and so on. Disney's Mulan struggles to bring honor to her family—another key component of Confucianism and Chinese culture in general. She must learn the intricacies of etiquette expected of women especially. She must follow the exact steps, for example, involved in making and serving tea. She must attract and win over a suitable husband. She ends up breaking out of her role as a daughter and a woman; disguised as a man, she fights in the army in the place of her elderly father. She helps fend off an attack by the Huns—this is another major theme of Chinese history. Obviously, this Disney film compliments and reinforces some important aspects of Chinese culture and history and may serve as a jump-off point for exploring important issues in more depth.

     More often, however, comparing Disney with history, cultural geography, or other social studies texts and scholarly works would alert students to the dangers of oversimplification and stereotypes in the study of the social sciences. This is the most valuable aspect of using Disney films in this manner, as this is certainly one of the chief goals of the social sciences: the cultivation of critical thinking skills and the ability to see and understand nuances regarding the human condition. Take, for example, Disney's Aladdin. The film's opening song, "Arabian Nights," originally went:

Oh, I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face.
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

Here, stereotypes abound. In 100 Myths About the Middle East, Fred Halliday exposes inaccuracies and misconceptions regarding the Middle East. High on his list is the belief that the "Arabs are a desert people," (myth number 7 in Halliday's book) as well as the notion that "contemporary political and social developments can only be understood by reference to ancient, centuries-old—if not millennia-old—conflicts" (number 77) and the corollary, "the peoples, and states, of the region have been more or less at war for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years" (number 78). "The whole perception of the Arab world through the desert and its nomadic inhabitants is a grotesque distortion of the reality of these societies," Halliday explains. "Most people in the [Arabian] Peninsula are not nomads, but are either agricultural laboures (Yemen, Oman) or inhabitants of the eight or so major maritime and cosmopolitan cities that mark the coast of the Peninsula, from Kuwait City in the northeast via Manama, Dubai, Muscat, Mukalla, Aden and Hodeida to Jeddah in the southeast." The Middle East is clearly not simply a place "where the caravan camels roam"—not now, and not during its long history.6

     And what of the "barbaric" nature of the Middle East, the second point in the theme song of Disney's Aladdin? Again, Halliday's book is useful:

There have been many wars in the Middle East, in the distant and more recent past. There may well be more. But in modern times the Middle East has been no more riven by war than other parts of the world such as Africa and East Asia, and, in the past century, much less than its neighbouring continent to the northeast, Europe. For all the wars between the Ottomans and Safavids (later Qajars), the two empires coexisted reasonably well for four centuries (1500-1914). In the period since 1945 there have been five Arab-Israeli wars but these, while catastrophic for the Palestinians, have been confined in time and space. Only the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8 escaped external and regional state control and involved, by modern standards, high levels of casualties.7

Beyond the theme song, an analysis of the characters in Aladdin would reveal other stereotypes and misinformation—the "good guys" in the film (Jasmin, the Princess, and Al' Aladdin, a street urchin who rescues the princess) have lighter skin and speak without accents. The "bad guys" are quite another story. Yousef Salem, a former spokesperson for the South Bay Islamic Association, characterized the film as follows:

All of the bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they're wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn't have a big nose; he as a small nose. He doesn't have a beard or a turban. He doesn't have an accent. What makes him nice is they've given him this American character. . . . I have a daughter who says she's ashamed to call herself an Arab, and it's because of things like this.8

With a focus on "good guys" and "bad guys," as well as the supposed "barbaric" nature of the Middle East, students are apt be surprised when they encounter information regarding the contributions of Arab scholars in the perfection of mathematics (particularly the refining of Algebra), astronomy and medicine as well as the intricate body of Arab and Persian literature (most notably in poetry). They might be surprised to learn of Arab accomplishments in architecture and art too. Clearly, there is much for students to ponder here. 9

     The same is true of Disney depictions of Africa. In the case of Africa and the 1999 movie Tarzan, Disney made an understandable decision to deviate from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original depiction of Africans in his 1912 novel, Tarzan of the Apes. The original reflects the racism of Burroughs' generation (particularly ideas associated with Social Darwinism). In one instance, when the young Tarzan had to flee in the face of a dominate male ape, Burroughs wrote: "Had Tarzan been a full-grown bull ape of the species of his tribe he would have been more than a match for the gorilla, but being only a little English boy, though enormously muscular for such, he stood no chance against his cruel antagonist. In his veins, though, flowed the blood of the best of a race of mighty fighters [emphasis added]." Describing Tarzan's first encounter with Africans, Burroughs painted a crude picture, riddled with words and phrases like "kinky wool of their heads," "protruding lips," and "bestial brutishness."10

     Disney's solution? Show no Africans at all. By doing so, however, the film plays into another misconception regarding Africa: the idea that nothing really happened in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans. A glance at most any history, geography or anthropology text would dispel this notion. The civilization at Axum (present day Ethiopia), the grandeur of Timbuktu or Great Zimbabwe or early evidence of iron smelting among the ancient Bantu are just a few examples.

     Bringing Disney's The Lion King into the mix could highlight another misunderstanding about the nature of African societies. In The Lion King, Disney helps further three sets of stereotypes and misinformation—(1) that the West is the font of all notions of equality and democracy, (2) African societies are tyrannical and hierarchical, and (3) African cultures are warlike. Comparing The Lion King with John Reader's book, Africa: A Biography of the Continent could prove insightful in terms of all three of these misguided notions. Reader explains the Age Grade system in West Africa (sometimes called Gerontocracy), where "chiefs had status, but little authority or power over the community in general. . . . Indeed, as though to counter friction likely to arise if authority and power were vested in certain chiefs and lineages and thus flowed vertically, from the few at the top to the majority at the bottom, a system emerged [in West Africa] whereby authority and power were spread horizontally throughout the group as a political structure uniquely suited to the social and economic conditions of sub-Saharan Africa."11 This is certainly a contrast with The Lion King, where the animals are happy in a hierarchical order—ruled by the "king of the jungle." Moreover, unlike the scorched earth scene after the epic battle between the "bad" lion (Scar) and the new, "good" king (Simba) in Disney's Lion King, people in the Niger valley lived in peace and cooperation in order to survive in a harsh environment. To quote Reader again:

     The people who inhabited the inland Niger delta left no monumental public architecture, extravagant burials, or incised tablets praising kings and recording feats or conquest, but the archaeological record speaks no less eloquently (and certainly more impartially). The history of Jenne-jeno appears to have been extraordinarily peaceful. While evidence of dwellings razed to the ground is commonplace at urban sites elsewhere, with level after level of burning, not a whiff of such disaster is evident at Jenne-jeno throughout it 1,600 years of occupation.12

     The point here is not to take Disney to task, but to show the rich opportunity for student analysis and the recognition of stereotypes and oversimplification in the study of history and the social sciences.

     Of course, the process outlined above could easily be applied to India (The Jungle Book) or depictions of race and gender in American society (Pocahontas, Brother Bear, Peter Pan, Dumbo, Song of the South, Sleeping Beauty). Given student familiarity with many Disney films and their applicability to so many areas of study (these films touch on many cultures around the world), Disney films provide an excellent resource as students learn to recognize, reject and debunk stereotypes and oversimplification. Clearly, it would not end there. The larger lesson involves developing habits of thinking and critical analysis regarding all types of information--from popular culture to text books to political speeches to scholarly articles. In short, reversing the "Disneyfication" process can be a vital step in shaping critical thinking skills, fostering a deeper understanding of the social sciences, and encouraging students to apply these skills beyond the classroom to the world around them.

Biographical Note: John Murnane began teaching history at Worcester Academy in 1997. He has a B.A. from Salem State College, an M.A. from the University of Massachusetts, and a Ph.D. from Clark University. Chair of both the History and Social Sciences Department and the Curriculum Committee, Dr. Murnane is a part-time Instructor of History at Fitchburg State College as well as an AP consultant to the College Board and a Reader in World History.

Appendix: Lesson Plan Ideas

Beyond the side-by-side approach suggested throughout this article, some suggestions for taking it a step further appear below:

1. Play the music from Disney's Aladdin, analyze it in small groups, as homework or as an entire class. Compare and contrast this depiction to Fred Halliday's book 100 Myths About the Middle East (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2005). A Venn diagram maybe useful here.

2. A next step could be to compare Disney's depiction of Arabs (again using Aladdin) to President George Bush's famous "Axis of Evil" speech and/or President Harry Truman's speech announcing the Truman Doctrine—both speeches sound the "us" and "them" alarm. Bush's speech, of course, depicts Iraq as evil.

3. Another direction might be to compare Disney's depiction of Arabs to the cartoon propaganda of the 1870 and 1880s depicting the Arab slave trade in Africa during the Scramble for Africa. Ali Mazrui's film series Africa: A Triple Heritage (BBC, 1986) is interesting here. Volume Four, "The Tools of Exploitation," presents an interesting analysis of these images and connects them to well know events such as the horrors of the Belgian Congo.

4. The cartoons found in Mazrui's film above could be compared to World War Two cartoons. For example, the Library at the University of California, San Diego has an on-line collection of Dr. Seuss political cartoons from the 1940s. See Mandeville Library Special Collections, "Dr. Seuss Went to War: A Catalog of Political Cartoons by Dr. Seuss." (

5. Students could easily be assigned a Disney film to review and then present to the class (this would probably work best with a partner). Students could be asked to present a powerpoint presentation or short film of their own.




1 Barbara F. Meltz, "Do Disney Fairy Tales Send Wrong Messages?" The Boston Globe, Monday, April 23, 2001.

2 In addition to Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999) see Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds., From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). Giroux quote is on p.10, The Mouse that Roared.

3 Benjamin Schwarz, "Walt's World," The Atlantic, December 2006, p. 121.

4Students in Richard Sherman's course created an interesting web page exploring Disney depictions of race and gender. See website (visited June 1, 2006). A very thorough study guide for using Disney films for generating critical thinking and discussion, a guide by Robert Pettit, can be found at

5 Virginia Crank, "Doing Disney' Fosters Media Literacy in Freshman," Academic Exchange Quarterly 9:3 (Fall 2005).

6 Fred Halliday, 100 Myths About the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) p. 33-34, 151-3.

7 Ibid., p. 153.

8 See Henry A. Giroux, "Animated Youth: the Disnification of Children's Culture" on line article

9 George Gheverghese Joseph's The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) is a great source of information on the Arab role in the development of mathematics.

10 This passage below, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes, can be found at

But as Tarzan of the Apes sat one day in the cabin of his father delving into the mysteries of a new book, the ancient security of his jungle was broken forever.
At the far eastern confine a strange cavalcade strung, in single file, over the brow of a low hill.
In advance were fifty black warriors armed with slender wooden spears with ends hard baked over slow fires, and long bows and poisoned arrows. On their backs were oval shields, in their noses huge rings, while from the kinky wool of their heads protruded tufts of gray feathers.
Across their foreheads were tattooed three parallel lines of color, and on each breast three concentric circles. Their yellow teeth were filed to sharp points, and their great protruding lips added still further to the low and bestial brutishness of their appearance.

11 John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 265.

12 Ibid. p. 236.



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