Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts on Giroux's book

I am the first to admit that I am sort of a Disney apologist in that I want to view the company in a good light. I am realistic in that I understand and accept that the first and main goal of the Walt Disney Company is to make money for its shareholders, and that some of the biggest shareholders are the board members and senior management. This arrangement is good and bad, I suppose, in that it rewards the decision makers (disproportionately, perhaps) for making the decisions that determine whether the company makes money, and thus whether the shareholders' value increases and their dividends are paid. On the other hand, perhaps it places too much a premium on making Disney a "growth" stock, with the emphasis on increasing share values, instead of an "income" stock, with the emphasis on providing a steady predictable dividend stream.

But I wasn't writing here to debate the pros and cons of the direction the Disney Company is taking, with respect to their business decisions. I was thinking about the subtle abuse of their "trust" that Giroux is alleging in his book THE MOUSE THAT ROARED. Specifically, I've been thinking about some of the evidence he puts out there to suggest that Disney has an agenda which includes promoting a specific set of values, including a rather sexist take on things and even a racist take on the world.

I returned the book to the library, so I may have some lapses in memory, but if I recall correctly, one of his main points to show that Disney was (in the 1990's) using racial coding was examining the movies ALADDIN and THE LION KING and looking at specific characterizations, especially vocally. He suggests that all the "bad guys" in ALADDIN speak with heavy Middle Eastern accents, and that the bad guys in LION KING speak sort of "ghetto" English, accented toward either African-American dialect or Hispanic dialect, while the good guys speak with English or American accents.

At first glance, this would seem to be true, especially when you consider that Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin voice the bad hyenas that do Scar's bidding. But then you look a little deeper, and you notice that Scar himself doesn't speak with this sort of accent, and no one's "badder" than him. Maybe they're given these voices in an effort to be, oh, say, maybe funny? Maybe less threatening? It would seem logical that they wanted these figures to be funny since they hired as voice actors a prominent African American comedian and a fairly prominent Hispanic comedian. And the accents distinguish these characters from others, give them their own persona. It's unfortunate that it can be taken as racial "coding", but if they made them all sound like Simba, what would set them apart?

Okay, so you could argue that maybe they should have reversed the accents. They could have given Simba the African American voice and the hyenas the "white middle class" voices. I suppose that might have worked, but Disney does know their audience, and Giroux is on target when he points out that "white, middle class" probably describes the main audience. Remember, this was in the 1990's, too. I can't counter the argument, except to say that perhaps they figured the hyenas wouldn't be funny enough to not be overly threatening with that vocal characterization.

And in ALADDIN, it might be true that many characters in the movie speak with Arabic accents, while Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan do not. (Neither does the "bad" bird, Iago - though we might wish he does after listening to enough Gilbert Gottfried.) Then I thought, does Jafar have a heavy Arabic accent? I admit it's been a while since I've seen the movie, but I thought he had a more cultured, almost British snob, accent. Am I wrong?

As for the rest of the characters, I just don't remember that many other "bad guys" in the movie. The guards? I don't remember what they sounded like, to be honest. But I probably wouldn't be surprised to listen to them and hear an Arabic accent, since they are, well, ARABS! Again we go to the fact that Aladdin doesn't speak with this same inflection. Again, I would suggest that they want to make him identifiable with their target audience.

Giroux points out early, and then reiterates throughout his book, that his is but one reading of these Disney texts, and others are possible, and not everyone will get this out of the movies. He also is careful to point out that he doesn't consider Disney to be some sort of "evil empire". I was sort of shocked (?) after reading some of his analysis because it was so far from my own experiences when watching (and enjoying) these two movies. He also discusses POCAHANTAS, MULAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, but his criticisms are not painted in the same racial brush. He accuses Disney of sexism in its portrayal of it's females through all of the movies, even Mulan, but in that I can more or less see his point. I even agree with it, even though I attribute their use of it in telling the stories they tell to something less sinister than trying to influence the values of their viewers. I figure it's got more to do with marketing the kind of stories they want to market, and tell the kind of stories they know how to tell.

All in all, it seems it's a lot of analysis to tell us something we already know: Disney is/was trying to sell more tickets, more home videos, and more merchandise, and is/was targeting the audience that they thought would give them the most of their hard earned money.

Giroux also analyzes PRETTY WOMAN and GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, and if I can come up with anything coherent about them, I'll write it up. (Not that this little essay was totally coherent...thanks for suffering through it if you got down here...)

No comments: