North Korean supreme leader Kim-Jong Un included Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and other Walt Disney characters in a recent stage performance, which the state-run television station broadcast on Monday.
Some speculate that the totalitarian regime may be opening up to the West by embracing these symbols of U.S. mass media so enthusiastically. The Hermit kingdom will in fact see major changes in cultural policy, as the state-run Korean Central News Agency has reported Kim has a “grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year.”
But Disney and Stalinist dictatorship are more similar than we’d like to admit. The world’s largest media corporation has controlled our perception of gender, race, and other social constructs - for better and for worse. While the powerhouses don’t promote the same beliefs themselves, they both have the immense power to shape beliefs.
Since 1923, The Walt Disney Company has expanded from animated films to live-action films (Pirates of the Caribbean), television (ABC, ABC Family, A+E Networks, ESPN, and Disney Channel), theater, publishing, radio, music, online media, amusement parks, and consumer products. Disney is the largest media conglomerate in the world with respect to revenue, which was close to $41 billion in 2011. Even I earn a few dollars off Disney every year from the one stock my dad bought to teach me about investment. Most of us don’t even realize how much Disney owns.
Walt Disney Studios, the company’s most well-known branch, has portrayed girls in problematic ways. Female characters in classic movies such as The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are all princesses, queens, or homemakers; Ariel the Mermaid is wonderfully curious, but in the end must be saved by Prince Eric and King Triton, the men in her life, while Snow White can’t stop talking about how much she loves cooking and cleaning. None of the girls have strong female figures such as mothers.
The films also propagate negative racial and cultural stereotypes. In Aladdin, Arabs are portrayed as dirty and barbaric; the “Indians” in Pocahontas are “savages, savages, barely even human” to the white settlers; and in The Lion King, the evil hyenas have Black and Hispanic voices.
To be sure, Disney is not North Korea and sends many positive messages. The fact that Disney animated films have female protagonists at all is more progressive than most Hollywood blockbusters; especially later Disney films, such as Princess and the Frog, Mulan, and Pocahontas, encourage girls to work hard and fight for their beliefs. North Korea’s more interested in Disney’s portrayal of elephants, bears, and mice than women, anyway.
Still, Disney controls these messages viewed by audiences around the world. Our assumption that Disney means Western ideals of democracy, liberalization, and equality reflects that we don’t realize that the corporation is a cultural monopoly. Of course, we still champion the mass media company in moments such as these out of nationalistic pride - celebrating a powerful American company from America, rather than an Eastern, formerly Marxist-Leninist nation.
It’s true that compared to North Korea, Disney is everything Americans are proud of. The creators of High School Musical are certainly not looking to put their audience in concentration camps. But, we should remember that the media empire has controlled our understanding of men, women, love, parents, children, races, religion, and other social norms.