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  • How (Not) to Teach Disney
  • Jason Sperb (bio)

in her introduction to inside the mouse: work and play at disney world (1995), Susan Willis wrote about what she called “the problem with pleasure” (Klugman, Kuenz, Waldrep, and Willis 1)—the difficulty in analyzing something that is intended, or at least seen, as nothing more than innocent and harmless fun. More importantly, “the problem with pleasure” also refers to the challenge in acknowledging that such experiences are indeed often highly pleasurable while hoping that this recognition does not overwhelm, or block, spaces for critical analysis. The “problem,” very simply (or so I thought), is how to both enjoy and analyze highly pleasurable media texts. When sharing her research on the Disney parks, Willis noted how people would ask her why she was (in their eyes) so critical and cynical all the time about something as entertaining and seemingly carefree as a day at the world-renowned theme parks. I have often thought about Willis’s discussion in relation to my own teaching, and not just when it involves the sometimes dangerous terrain that is Disney—a subject I have published on and taught several times in the past several years.

How do we as teachers of film, television, and other popular media, as well as those who teach other areas of cultural studies, engage students in thinking critically about something that by its own design resists such analysis—where even the simplest interpretation can be rejected as “overthinking” or where the most basic questioning of media’s inherent ideologies can be seen as “cynical”? These questions in a media studies classroom may be self-evident and common enough. But then how do they become further magnified when especially powerful media brands with particular ideological connotations and their own pseudo-pedagogical strategies, as well as inevitable questions of many students’ own childhood nostalgia—all of which are increasingly central to the most prominent institutions of popular culture today—enter into the picture? Although Disney’s “magic” is highly constructed by the company itself, it is also a social construction with very real effects. Maybe thinking more carefully about the considerable challenges of teaching Disney—wherein all these contexts and others come to the fore—will offer a useful starting point for answering such questions.

In a fascinating essay on gender representations in Pixar animation (an essay otherwise unrelated to classroom matters), Haseenah Ebrahim opens with a thoughtful discussion about the task of teaching Disney and Pixar. In [End Page 47] her experiences, students predictably resisted any ideological analysis of what they perceived to be harmless kids’ entertainment, something wholly outside any need for critique. Moreover, she “sensed a hint of disapproval that the course would subject Disney and Pixar to the kind of analysis that might require students to reevaluate much-loved films associated with cherished memories of childhood” (43). This is a resistance that many teachers of children’s media will be familiar with, to some degree or another. But the essay is also unique in another regard. At times, a somewhat defensive tone frames the rest of Ebrahim’s ideological analysis of Pixar—she takes pains to establish her own Disney fandom and “make[s] no apology for sharing those pleasures, however mitigated those may be by [her] own position as a film scholar (and as a parent)” (43).

This apprehensive eye toward academia also echoes across Cher Krause Knight’s Power and Paradise in Walt Disney’s World (2014), where the author recalls “going to conferences, frustrated at being called the ‘Disney Girl’ and defending the inclusion of my work sessions instead of talking about its merits or lack thereof. I met many Disney detractors, who annoyed me as they proudly boasted of having never gone to the theme parks” (3). Although Knight acknowledges and embraces that Disney scholarship has since become more mainstream and accepted in higher education, a certain defensive suspicion frames much of the book’s research, as she insists that “Disney bashing is still a regular academic practice” (4). Given such unnecessarily contentious circumstances, where a certain anti-academic attitude permeates even ambitious and well-researched scholarship, teachers of Disney dealing on the ground level...


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pp. 47-60
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