- It’s a Dirty World after All
From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells. Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1995. 264 pages. $39.95 (cloth). $15.95 (paper).
It is important to note at the outset that this is a collection of essays on Walt Disney and the various activities and productions of the Disney Studios, including all their offshoots. The editors present a useful history of their choice of title, noting especially the stiff resistance and refusals they received from the Disney legal corps when they tried to include any significant mention of Disney in their book’s title. As an author who received the same refusals from Disney’s legal operatives when I asked for permissions to use some stills from Dumbo in a recent book project of my own, I sympathize with the editors’ plight, and appreciate the ingenious means Bell, Haas, and Sells deployed to present their work. As they suggest, “explicating Disney ideology through fifty-five years of feature films is an undercurrent of all the essays in this collection” (2). This collection does accomplish this goal in many respects, but it also offers more—a wealth of local insights into many specific Disney projects, from their animated classics up to and including their work produced and distributed under their various other corporate names such as Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood, Caravan, Miramax, Merchant/Ivory, and the Disney Channel and Buena Vista television.
In fact, approaching Disney by addressing the work produced by most of these disparate agencies and suggesting macro-level continuities and undercurrents of agenda and vision are this collection’s greatest strengths. [End Page 851] We can, as a result of this work, think about the animated child-goddess Snow White and the high-class hooker from Pretty Woman as part of a corporate (if not a coherent and unified) project. We can also think of animated witches such as Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty along with their “flesh and blood” weird sisters like Mary Poppins and, from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Eglantine Price. We learn how Disney translates various fairy tales from some earlier, usually non-visual, form into their animated tours de force, how the bodies of female characters are drawn (and by whom), how Disneyesque macho images respond to cultural and political changes through the decades, and how the production practices at Disney have an impact on the themes of some of their most popular films. The collection includes examples of folklore, cultural, gender, genre, ethnic, and racial criticism, and even a few fascinatingly developed and nicely intimate personal reflections in the form of autobiographical criticism. The readings range from micro-foci on individual texts to interrogations of Disney’s status as global-cultural icon. While the totalizing imperative discernible in many of these essays creates important space for re-thinking the Disney legacy, it also creates some of the conceptual problems to which some of the contributions fall prey.
From Mouse to Mermaid ranges widely throughout the Disney canon and includes extended interrogations of numerous films, including Aladdin, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Billy Bathgate, Captain E/O, The Cat from Outer Space, Cinderella, Flight of the Navigator, Good Morning Vietnam, The Good Mother, The Joy Luck Club, Jungle Book, Kindergarten Cop, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Moon Pilot, 101 Dalmatians, Pinocchio, Pretty Woman, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Song of the South, Stella, Three Men and a Baby, and briefer mentions and insights into scores of other Disney productions for television and the silver screen. Given this range, this collection adds a wealth of insights to our sense of Disney Studio’s impact on postwar culture in the United States and initiates many important themes and debates for future Disney studies. Together with Susan Willis’s special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly dedicated to the work of “the Disney project,” Alan Nadel’s exemplary work in Containment Culture (1995), and my own discussion of Dumbo and other Disney phenomena in Loose Ends: Closure and Crisis in the American Social Text (1996), this...