If Disney ‘sanitizes poverty’, then I’m a singing teapot
By Gareth McLean
Poor people, stop being so happy! This is not a leaked memo from the office of Iain Duncan Smith but rather a conclusion that we might reach after reading the latest research to come from North Carolina’s Duke University.
According to the research, a certain section of the media – powerful, global, persuasive – presents an unrealistic portrayal of working-class life. Which is to say that such a life – as a poor person – can be tolerable, nay even rewarding. That being poor and happy is possible. That you can be content with your lot, even when your lot is not a lot.
So what is this malign media monster? Disney.
Yes, you read that right. According to the study from Duke – a university that I’m surprised is actually real given that it was mentioned only last week in The Good Wife – Disney films don’t reflect real life in that the majority of protagonists are wealthy and the poor characters, such as they are, are unrealistic in that “nearly all perceive their jobs as invigorating”.
Apparently, the likes of Mary Poppins and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suggest that class inequality is benign, and this “sanitises poverty”. In other words, Grumpy the dwarf is way too happy for someone who works in a diamond mine and lives in an overcrowded cottage. (Seven to a room! What indignity!) Meanwhile, Poppins’ consort, Bert the chimney sweep, is delusional as he sings that he’s “as lucky as can be” when he’s working for a pittance in a service industry before the first world war.
Where to begin? Well … you bring the barrel of fish, I’ll get the gun. I would say that I hate to shatter the illusions of those who are living their lives in the hope that it will all work out in the style of a Disney film, but who I am kidding? I love shattering illusions. But I don’t need to shatter anyone’s illusions that life is like a Disney film or indeed like a fairy story – on which so many are based. Real life is more than capable of doing that all on its own. There are no happy-ever-afters. There is no such thing as hakuna matata – just mucho matata. And you’ll be a long time waiting for a handsome prince to come and sweep you off your feet. (Believe me. I’ve waited. So on the off chance that one does come along, take a ticket and get in line).
We could spend all day ripping this research to bits and poking fun through the holes. Suffice to say that those in search of gritty kitchen-sink realism tend to head for Ken Loach films and not movies that feature talking crockery. But there is a nugget of interest hidden among the stating of the obvious in this research: that fiction – especially the sort that promises a happy ending – has such a pull on our imagination despite us living with the all too painful knowledge of how fictional it truly is.
Be it film, fairytale or song, a story that someone, somewhere, lives happily ever after can be enough to light our way through the grim, glum slog that is real life. As author Janice Galloway notes in her novel Foreign Parts, fairytales “get stuck in your innards” and despite everything life throws at you – the disappointment, the dismay, the disabusing of every romantic notion you’ve ever had – the yearning for happy-ever-after lingers long, even when you know it’s never coming.
What the research from Duke points out is that Disney films – and, by extension, all fiction – can be a means of social control: control the narrative and you control the thinking of those who consume it. This is true up to a point. But what this research, or at least the reporting of it, doesn’t acknowledge is that fiction is open to interpretation. So, yes, we might read chimney sweep Bert’s happy-go-lucky demeanour as sanitising poverty – and so reinforcing a conservative world view. But we might also read Bert as a character who knows that money doesn’t buy you happiness – which is, essentially, a liberal view.
Indeed, the unhappiest characters in Disney movies tend to be rich, concerned with the acquisition or consolidation of power, and consumed with fear of being usurped (usually by younger, kinder, prettier models). So wicked queens, regicidal lions and Sith lords – yes, the new Star Wars is technically a Disney film – are basically Tories.
So is Disney subduing and deceiving the masses by telling us that our overlords are secretly miserable and that we should feel sorry for them? Or do they bring home that tale as old as time that true happiness comes from within? Don’t ask me.
If only I had a big friendly bear who could teach me about life through the medium of song or, better still, the heretofore untapped feminine powers that would allow me to construct a mighty, isolated ice palace so that I didn’t need to deal with other people. Especially do-gooders with suspiciously intimate relationships with reindeers.