- Domesticating Dreams in Walt Disney’s Cinderella
Teaching children’s literature to elementary education majors at my state university, I inevitably encounter Walt Disney’s legacy. After dutifully reading the variants of “Cinderella” by Perrault and the Grimms, my students will often politely tell me that these new versions are all very well, but that they prefer the “original,” by which they mean Disney. Though I am uncomfortable with and distrustful of the Disney hegemony, I have come to understand that, for better or worse, the Disney Corporation has defined children’s film and by extension children’s literature for the last 50 years. To overlook this fact is to hide my head in the sand. Protestations of professionals (educators, librarians, and critics—myself) notwithstanding, I believe that Disney’s work ought to be treated with the same close attention that any other literary text receives—not simply to be dismissed as ideologically incorrect (after all, Perrault, the Grimms, and others are hardly “PC”) or unfaithful to the original (since, in folklore, there is no original) 1 or formulaic (what are fairy tales if not clichés?), 2 but to be evaluated first as animated film and then as a version among other versions of American märchen.
In the last fifteen years, surprisingly few articles published in the major children’s literature journals have presented close readings of individual Disney animated feature films. 3 This is a pity, because one of the strengths that literary critics have to share with other professionals in the field of children’s literature is an ability to read and interpret texts in ways that illuminate their workings and orientation. There is more to a Disney film than many of Disney’s detractors are willing to admit. 4 Disney’s ideology is conservative and anti-intellectual, but that conservatism is by no means doctrinaire or without its own surprises and contradictions. Disney’s choices about how to present his material grow out of both the requirements of his medium and his ideological framework and they can [End Page 25] illuminate his relationship both to American cultural work, and also to the traditions, literary and filmic, that he draws upon. 5 Understanding what Disney does in his own medium equips us to make informed decisions about his place in the children’s literature canon in its broadest sense. Children’s literature critics need to acknowledge that Disney, just like any other artist, had the right to adjust written and oral stories to the demands of his medium and audience, but we also have the right—once we have acknowledged the constraints and capacities of that medium—to criticize its success and effect. By doing this, we can appreciate the impact the Disney corporation has had on American children’s literature without resorting to knee-jerk vilification on the one hand or sycophancy on the other. By focusing on what Disney does rather than what he does not, we become more credible and relevant critics of consumerist culture for children—critics in the truest sense of the term.
I want to begin this “appreciation” of Disney by looking critically at Cinderella (1950). Most commentators of children’s literature who mention it at all call Disney’s heroine “insipid,” and remark that it has been taken from Perrault’s version of the story rather than from the Grimms’. 6 However, the film is much more interesting than that. Just as Charles Perrault sought “to reinforce the standards of the civilizing process” (Zipes, Fairy Tales 26–27) in his 1697 collection of fairy tales, Disney too civilizes by entertaining—presenting examples of ideal types modeling proper behavior and comic anti-types showing us the results of improper behavior.
The changes Disney makes in the plot are informative: they not only highlight the differences between the media of storytelling, literary fairy tale, and movie, but also give us insight into the cultural work Disney does. Like Perrault in his context, Disney’s work presupposes a normative standard of American-style “civilité”—a standard that values reason and realism over mystery and irrationality, sentiment over calculation, the morally right over the temporally powerful. Although the Perrault version...