Hegemony Cricket: Exploring Disney as an Agent of Hegemonic Power

“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.” These words are sung by Jiminy Cricket, the animated insect that serves as Pinocchio’s conscience in the 1940 Disney movie Pinocchio. The tune of the song also serves as the theme for the Disney display during the opening of every major Disney film released since. While many find the lyrics to the song inspiring, the fact that Disney has grown into a corporate conglomerate grossing revenue of over four billion dollars in 2008 [1] suggests to this author that perhaps Disney is selling something more than fun movies and catchy, inspirational songs.

In fact, Disney has become so good at producing cultural products of every form (media, material, experiential) that it is now a purveyor of American hegemonic beliefs.

The first section of this paper will give a brief history of the Disney corporation and examine how its marketing and production patterns place it in a position of dominance as described by Antonio Gramsci’s conceptions of social structure. The second part will use the 2007 Disney release Enchanted to break down the Disney construction of romantic relationships and the female role within them. Finally, the last section will use Gramsci’s theory of hegemony to demonstrate how the consumption of Disney products secures a market of complicit subordinate consumers to maintain its cultural and economic dominance in the United States.

Disney as a Member of America’s Ruling Class

The people of the United States take great pride in our democratic-republican roots. Early colonists settled this New World in an attempt to escape the power wielded by relentless monarchs back in Europe and in turn, find a place where they could pursue a future unfettered by the interests of the King. Alexis de Tocqueville described this uniquely American identity with the term. “American exceptionalism.” John Fonte, dissects American exceptionalism further by breaking it into three distinct parts, the first of which is characterized by “support for equality of individual opportunity, entrepreneurship and economic progress.” [2]

Using Fonte’s reading of de Tocqueville as a frame, it is easy to see how the Disney Corporation embodies a distinctly American character. The first line of the Company History section on the Walt Disney Company website reads: “From the very beginning, Disney’s founder Walter Elias Disney fostered the spirit of creativity, innovation and excellence that continues to underlie all of the company’s success.” [3] This almost exactly parallels the description of American exceptionalism that heralds “entrepreneurship” (which Disney calls “innovation”) and “economic progress” (which Disney calls “the company’s success”). The history continues to describe how Walt came to California in 1923 “with dreams and determination, but little else.” [4] His subsequent success therefore, demonstrates that Disney enabled Walt to maximize the “equality of individual opportunity” which was afforded to him as an American citizen.

American exceptionalism goes beyond the democratic ideal of equality of opportunity however, as the cultural identity of the United States is as deeply rooted in the practice of capitalism as a socio-economic system as it is in democracy. Therefore, while Americans are free from the power of a single “ruler” of the United States of America, a “ruling class” has evolved through the practice and development of the American capitalist system. The Company History on Disney’s website continues to trace the company’s growth starting in its early years of cartoon production, through the first full feature films and the invention of Disneyland, up until today. As the history progresses, the capitalist spirit of Disney becomes clearer and clearer.  According to the following anecdote, the creation of Disney consumer products had a humble beginning:

As Walt recounted, “A fellow kept hanging around my hotel waving $300 at me and saying that he wanted to put the mouse on paper tablets for school children. As usual, Roy and I needed money, so I took the $300.” This was the start of Disney’s consumer products business. Soon there were Mickey Mouse dolls, dishes, toothbrushes, radios, figurines — almost everything imaginable bore Mickey’s likeness. [5]

The construction of Disneyland, the success of the early animated films, and the popularity of consumer products secured Disney a place in the world entertainment market. Starting in the late 1970s, what began as a way to make 300 bucks transformed into calculated economic and cultural expansion. Disney took every opportunity to “expand its business” and “maximize its assets.” [6] Today, Disney is the proud owner of many affiliates including Walt Disney, Touchstone and Miramax Pictures (a home entertainment distribution arm) three live entertainment companies, three record companies, countless parks, resorts and cruise lines, consumer product affiliates (which produce everything from clothes to food and beauty supplies), several radio and major television networks including those for adult programming like ABC, ESPN and SOAPnet. [7]

It would seem that British writer George Manbiot hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “while there is something very old about Disney, there is, or was, something very new about it too. It welded commercial, cultural and political power in a way the world had never seen.” [8] This combination embodies the American entrepreneurial spirit and strengthens the power of Disney’s brand to play a dominant role in popular culture. By emphasizing its foundation in humble roots and through its popularity as a producer of children’s entertainment, the Disney Company has protected its aura of innocence and creativity. At the same time, it has capitalized on its success through accumulating smaller companies in order to extend the reaches of its economic and cultural power.

For this reason, Marxist philosophy, and Gramsci’s expansion of it, is particularly useful for examining the real reach of Disney’s power because these theories explore the relationships between the bourgeois owners of production (The Disney Company, in this case) and the proletarians (the consumers of Disney’s products). By definition, the bourgeoisie establish themselves as a ruling class by owning the means of production within a society. [9] Disney has done exactly this by absorbing smaller companies and starting new ones as well as by using its wide network of resources to stay on top of up and coming technologies and products. However, it is not enough to own the means of production. Marx and Engels continue, saying that in order to maintain a dominant status, the bourgeoisie must “constantly expand” the market for its products. [10] Disney found a way to do this too by developing a “vertically integrated business in which his [the company’s] TV programs sold [its] films, and [its] films sold [its] theme parks and toys.” [11]

How then does Disney, as a bourgeois entity, exert control over the consumers of its products? Turning to the writings of Gramsci will help to answer this question. Antonio Gramsci “identified two quite distinct forms of political control,” explains Barry Burke of the Encyclopedia of Informal Education. “Domination, which referred to direct physical coercion…and hegemony which referred to both ideological control and more crucially, consent.” [12] While Disney has certainly enforced its power through more “domination” type practices such as aggressive prosecution of copyright infringement and stringent control over material in the Disney archives, [13] much of the company’s influence is created through the construction of hegemony.

As the bourgeoisie are in a relationship with the proletarians, Disney is in a relationship with the consumers of its products. Tony Bennett’s essay Popular Culture and the ‘turn to Gramsci’ discusses the limits of culturalist and structuralist analyses in the study of popular culture. On the one hand he argues that structuralism is applied with “scant regard to the conditions regulated either the production or the reception” [14] of cultural products. On the other, Bennett criticizes culturalism of being uncritically romantic in its celebration of popular culture as expressing the authentic interests and values of subordinate social groups.” [15] In other words, culture and cultural power cannot be derived from the top of a society or the bottom of a society alone. Rather it is created by an on-going dialogue between different subgroups within a given society.

T. J. Jackson Lears elucidates Gramsci’s theory of hegemony by explaining more clearly how this dialogue is created using the concept of “spontaneous philosophy.” Gramsci classifies spontaneous philosophy as contained in language, conventional wisdom, empirical knowledge and beliefs. In Lears’ words: “spontaneous philosophy embodies all sorts of sentiments and prejudices that have private, subjective meanings apart from the public realm of power relations, yet it can never be divorced entirely from that realm.” [16] As a group or class develops, spontaneous philosophies of the individuals within it start to form in common based on values that are “more resonant with [the group’s] own every day experience.” [17] When this happens, the group is then classified as an “historical bloc” according to Gramsci, united by both “cultural and economic solidarity.” [18] Essentially, power is formed when individual beliefs become group beliefs and then group beliefs become systemic, societal beliefs.

The hegemonic success of the historic bloc is then constituted by its ability to convince other groups—groups that hold different philosophies and ideologies—that its own views are the same. In Lears’ words:

“to achieve cultural hegemony, the leaders of a historical bloc must develop a world view that appeals to a wide range of other groups within the society, and they must be able to claim with at least some plausibility that their particular interests are those of the society at large…The emerging hegemonic culture is not merely and ideological mystification but serves the interests of the ruling groups at the expense of the subordinate ones.” [19]

This is the essence of hegemonic power: the ability of the ruling class to make it appear as if their interests are shared with the subaltern class and in turn, for the subaltern class to accept the beliefs of the dominant class as their own, even to the detriment of themselves.

A Recipe For Romantic Love

In a book chapter entitled “Are Disney Movies Good For Your Kids?” Disney researcher Henry A. Giroux asserts: “Disney does not represent a cultural monolith ignorant of different contexts; on the contrary its power in part rests with its ability to address different contexts and be read differently by transnational formation and audiences.” [20] Returning to Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic power, Disney’s “ability to address different contexts and be read differently” allows Disney, as an historical bloc to “develop a world view that appeals to a wide range of other groups within the society.” [21] But how, specifically does Disney do this? Drawing of examples from Enchanted [22] as a case study, this section of the paper will demonstrate how Disney has created its own expectations for the role of the woman in romantic relationships that have filtered into the belief systems of its consumers.

Enchanted begins in the animated fairy-tale kingdom of Andalasia. Princess Giselle has been searching for her true love so that she can obtain his kiss and marry him in order to begin the rest of her life. She finds him almost immediately in Prince Edward, a brave and handsome (although not incredibly bright) young man. Upon first glance, the movie, which “draws inspiration from its classic heritage,” [23] seems almost satirical in the way it sarcastically presents some of the archetypal Disney characters, as if the Company is mocking the standards it has created.* However, it quickly falls back on the tradition of other Disney films when Giselle is pushed (poofy wedding dress and all) into a magical fountain that transports her to the “real world,” and ripping her from the grip of her true love. Even though it shares plot line, themes and characters with other movies in the “Disney Princess” genre, the Disney marketing department would have you believe otherwise as the Enchanted movie trailer states: “There has never been anything like ‘Enchanted’ because no other story has ever taken you to a land as strange and terrifying as ours.” [24]

Starting with the trailer, Disney is asking viewers to seek refuge in the fantasy world that it creates. After all, how many Americans—children and adults alike—would really classify New York City as “strange and terrifying?” Yet, for Giselle, New York is a vapid place devoid of the one thing she desires most: true love. Giselle is rescued from the terrifying city by Robert, a single father. Although his daughter, Morgan, believes she truly is a princess, Robert thinks Giselle is crazy. However, he agrees to allow her to stay in his apartment for the night. The next morning, Giselle wakes before Robert and Morgan, and upon seeing how filthy the apartment is, calls all of her animal friends (in true Disney fashion) to tidy the apartment. Soon, sewer rats, pigeons, and cockroaches (the forest-folk of New York City) fill the apartment folding linens, scrubbing floors and singing gaily. This scene is the first signal to viewers that Giselle’s true love is in fact Robert and not Prince Edward.

Lauren Dundes helps to shed light on exactly how we, as viewers, come to know this. Her article exploring gender stereotypes in the movie Pocahontas describes Disney’s archetypal role for lead women. Dundes argues that Disney’s princesses fill similar roles despite their apparent differences and all of them ultimately play the part of  “girls whose identity is determined first by romantic relationships and later by their role as a selfless nurturer.” [25] Giselle fills this role on several occasions. At the outset of the movie she achieves this through her clearly demonstrated domesticity and thrift (she repeatedly makes dresses out of curtains in Robert’s apartment, to his amusement). Despite the fact that she has lost her love and has no idea where she is or how she will get home, Giselle focuses on cleaning Roberts house and cooking breakfast for him and his daughter. Later, Giselle takes the role of nurturer farther as she helps care for Robert’s daughter Morgan and offers him advice about winning back the heart of the woman he loves (who is not her, by the way). Dundes’ critique of Pocahontas applies equally well to Enchanted: “Her actions…center around a relationship—her feelings for and urge to protect the object of her love.” [26]

The centrality of her romantic relationship with Robert to Giselle’s own identity and happiness comes to full fruition towards the end of the film when “in the culminating moment of the movie, she transcends her all-engrossing romance in favor of self-sacrifice.” [27] Although Giselle has fallen in love with Robert, she forfeits her own romantic desires because she believes that his happiness hinges on his marriage to another woman. Thus, Giselle is willing to settle for Prince Edward (whom she now realizes is not everything she originally expected him to be) in order to ensure her true love’s happiness and the security of his family.

Another key element of constructing romantic relationships in Disney movies is lending them magical power. Martin and Kazyak’s (2009) study on hetero-romantic love in G-rated movies explains that although romantic love between men and women is normal, and thus should be treated as ordinarily as eating or walking in movies, Disney constructs romantic relationships as extraordinary:

“In contrast, we find that in these films, while it is certainly assumed, hetero sexuality is very often not ordinary or mundane. Rather, romantic heterosexual relationships are portrayed as a special, distinct, exceptional form of relationship, different from all others. Characters frequently defy parents, their culture, or their very selves to embrace a hetero-romantic love that is transformative, powerful, and (literally) magical.” [28]

In order to create this magical love, characters are often surrounded by “music, flowers, candles, magic, fire, ballrooms, fancy dresses, dim lights, dancing, and elaborate dinners.” [29] This formula certainly holds true for Enchanted. In the climactic scene, Giselle ends up in a fantasy world within a real world when she attends a party to which Robert has been invited. Everyone is wearing fancy dresses, there is music and dancing, large chandeliers, sweeping staircases—everything you would expect to see in an animated film, but it live action. This is where the viewer’s heart skips a beat because we know what comes next: true loves kiss.

Martin and Kazyak explain: “the power of hetero-romantic love is often delivered through a heterosexual kiss.” The act of kissing is transformational in and of itself. It holds the power to change people in disguises back to their true forms and to bring people who are dead back to life. In Enchanted, the kiss happens just the way Disney created it to, and the way Martin and Kazyak describe. After collapsing from taking a bite of a poison apple, Giselle is kissed by Prince Edward so that she can be saved. While the characters are surprised that his kiss doesn’t wake her, viewers are not because we know by now that Robert is in fact Giselle’s true love, not Edward. When Robert sees that Edward’s kiss fails to do the trick, he runs to Giselle’s side and administers the kiss. It is a recipe that matches Disney’s own, right down to the angle of the camera by Martin and Kazyak starting “close-up and in profile and then moving outward to show the wider world that these powerful kisses are transforming.” [30]

People “conduct their sexual behavior according to gendered scripts. Schools, parents, peers, and the mass media guide young people into gendered work and family roles.” [31] As a major producer of entertainment and consumption products and a member of the “mass media,” the Disney Company has a profound impact on the scripts that viewers use to understand and act in their sexual relationships. Furthermore, Disney’s position as a member of the global bourgeoisie lends additional power to these scripts because they shape the beliefs of the people that consume them. Whether through movies, music, Broadway shows or trips to Disney land, the Disney Company has “[inserted] itself into a network of commodities that lends itself to the construction of the world of enchantment as a closed and total category.” [32] Furthermore, the fantasy world Disney has created has the “power to help define the boundaries of common-sense ‘reality.’” [33]

Securing the Market

The last key concept in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is the idea that the subaltern class enables the control of the ruling class through its acceptance of the dominant, hegemonic belief system. Lears explains that people “create their own symbolic universes (Gramsci’s spontaneous philosophy) to make life understandable and tolerable.” [34] These spontaneous philosophies may be similar or different to the beliefs of the ruling class, and may even be in conflict with them. However, because the ruling class is able to align the subaltern class with its own belief system by constructing hegemony, “subordinate groups may participate in maintaining a symbolic universe, even if it serves to legitimate their domination.” [35]

Now, domination may be a strong word to use in the context of children’s entertainment, but in fact it is startlingly accurate. The symbolic universe Disney creates through its entertainment and commercial products draws consumers into the experience of the characters themselves. Then, as viewers align themselves with the characters, they take on what Lears calls a “half-conscious complicity in their own victimization” [36] as their own ideologies alter in order to align with the hegemonic beliefs that are articulated in the movies.

Cultural consumers are then left to deal with what Gramsci described in the Prison Notebooks as a “contradictory consciousness.” [37] That is, the presence of personal beliefs or subordinate ideologies in the same plane as those of the dominating “historical bloc.” While many modern American parents, such as my own, believe in gender equality and encourage their daughters to become independent women who do not need romantic relationships to give meaning to their lives, they simultaneously teach them the opposite by enabling and indeed, encouraging the consumption of Disney products. In the capitalist system which dominates the United States, there is nothing that can give a group power and legitimacy like four billion dollars in revenue.

The Disney Company created culturally accepted norms by using scripts and recipes in their entertainment products. Through the consumption of these products, viewers have aligned themselves with the belief system the products represent. In particular, Disney’s constructions of romantic relationships and love have, over time and repetition, become less fantastical and more real, shaping and perhaps even altering consumers’ real-life feelings and actions about the place and pursuit of “true love.”

By consuming Disney products, members of the subaltern class are not only legitimizing the power of Disney they are perpetuating their own subjugation to it. Children who grew up watching Disney movies and dressing up as Disney princesses for Halloween (and on regular days too!) have now firmly established themselves as lifelong consumers of Disney products. “Which Disney Princess Are You?” quizzes have appeared on facebook, adults watch movies and TV shows produced by Disney affiliates like ABC Family and SOAPnet. Some adults even choose to participate in the ultimate consumption of Disney’s hegemony by having a Disney wedding. [38]

Disney has done exactly what Marx and Engels said the bourgeoisie would need to do in order to maintain power: “constantly expand” [39] the market for its products. According to the history on the Disney Company website: “Walt said that Disneyland would ‘never be completed … as long as there is imagination left in the world,’ and that statement remains true today.” [40] Likewise, as long as there are consumers left in the world, Disney, and certainly other companies like it, will continue to gain power through the consumption of its products. Unless of course the subaltern class can gain enough independence and build enough hegemony of its own to stage a counter-hegemonic attack. After all, according to Jiminy Cricket, “anything your heart desires will come to you.” But that’s a story for another day.

The End

Notes


[1] “Walt Disney 2008 Revenue Profit 2009 Fortune 500 Rank.” Retrieved from http://finance.econsultant.com/walt-disney-2008-revenue-profit-2009-fortune-500-rank/

[2] Fonte, J. “Why There Is A Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville in America.” Retrieved from http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/FonteCultureWar.shtml on 2009, November 24, Originally published in Policy Review.

[3] “Company History.” The Walt Disney Company Website. Retrieved from http://corporate.disney.go.com/corporate/complete_history_1.html, p. 1

[4] The Walt Disney Company Website, p. 1

[5] Walt Disney Company Website, p. 2

[6] Walt Disney Company Website, p. 4

[7] “Company Overview.” The Disney Company Website. Retrieved from http://corporate.disney.go.com/corporate/overview.html

[8] Monbiot, G. (2004, February 17). Of Mice and Money Men: The Sinister Grip that Disney Exerts on Children’s Imaginations May Finally Loosen. Guardian/UK. Retrieved from http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0217-05.htm on 2009, November 24

[9] Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978. 2nd edition., p. 473

[10] Tucker, p. 476

[11] Manbiot

[12] Burke, B. (1999, 2005) Antonio Gramsci, schooling and education. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-gram.htm on 2009, November 24

[13] Steinberg, S.R. & Kincheloe, J.L., (Eds.). (1997). Kinderculture: the corporate construction of childhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

[14] Storey, J., (Ed.). (2009). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, p. 82

[15] Storey, p. 82

[16] Lears, T. J. Jackson. (1985). The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities. The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (Jun., 1985), p. 570

[17] Lears, p. 571

[18] Lears, p. 571

[19] Lears, p. 571

[20] Giroux, Henry A., “Are Disney Movies Good For Your Kids?” in Steinberg, S.R. & Kincheloe, J.L., (Eds.). (1997). Kinderculture: the corporate construction of childhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 64

[21] Lears, p. 571

[22] “Enchanted.” (2007). Bill Kelly (writer) and Kevin Lima (Director). Walt Disney Studios

[23] “Enchanted” Movie Homepage. Retrieved from http://disneydvd.disney.go.com/enchanted.html

[24] “Enchanted” Movie Homepage.

[25] Dundes, L. (2001). “Disney’s modern heroine Pocahontas: revealing age-old gender stereotypes and role discontinuity under a façade of liberation.” The Social Science Journal. 38 (2001) p.354

[26] Dundes, p. 356

[27] Dundes, p. 354

[28] Martin, Karin A. and Emily Kazyak. (2009). “Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in Children’s G-Rated Films.” Gender & Society. Retrieved from http://gas.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/23/3/315, p. 324

[29] Martin & Kazyak, p.325

[30] Martin & Kazyak, p.328

[31] Grusky, David B. & Szonja Szelenyi, Eds. The Inequality Reader: Contemporary and Foundational Readings on Race, Class, and Gender. Westview Press, 2007. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Geg19mcwmAMC&oi=fnd&pg=PA276&dq=%22Lorber%22+%22The+social+construction+of+gender%22+&ots=vKK_mOfvCQ&sig=WHeqqfIbhh2QHPLigLUQj9RxSIA#v=onepage&q=gender&f=false

[32] Steinberg & Kincheloe, p. 54

[33] Lears, p. 572

[34] Lears, p. 573

[35] Lears, p. 573

[36] Lears, p, 573

[37] As quoted in Lears, p. 569

[38] “Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings and Honeymoons.” http://disneyweddings.disney.go.com/

[39] Tucker, p. 476

[40] Walt Disney Company Website, p. 3

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~ by ettaqueen on December 27, 2010.

3 Responses to “Hegemony Cricket: Exploring Disney as an Agent of Hegemonic Power”

  1. I love your essay! You explain Gramsci very well – a difficult task indeed!

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