Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  3

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“Doing Disney” Fosters Media Literacy in Freshmen


Virginia Crank, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


Crank, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English and teaches courses in rhetoric and composition and American literature.



Media-literate citizens understand that cultural productions transmit ideologies and influence private and public life. The Disney assignment sequence uses academic and non-academic sources to engage college freshmen composition students in reading and writing about Disney in order to develop media literacy, helping them become more critical consumers and helping them understand the cognitive dissonance that leads to real learning.



Having been avid consumers of media for eighteen years or more, most college freshmen have unconsciously absorbed a worldview which endorses consumerism, validates the most ubiquitous messages of culture, and balks at criticizing the producers of media.  Developing an understanding that media productions are ideological and that profit, not social or personal development, is the driving factor behind those productions may help them see that a quite limited range of acceptable emotions, behaviors, and futures are being sold to them in supposedly ideology-free packages.


Developing media literacy in college students also serves my disciplinary goals for freshman composition by reinforcing that writing is inquiry, that writing is a tool for learning and a tool for change. I introduce the students to Kenneth Burke’s idea of the parlor, the ongoing conversation. Burke writes

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. . . .You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110-111)

What I want to do is prepare students to join the social construction of our world by becoming media-literate citizens.  


Using documentaries and articles, I engage my freshman composition students in critical analysis of Disney films, focusing particularly on images of women and minorities in their most popular animated features.  “Doing Disney” while teaching the basic writing strategies of summary, paraphrase, and synthesis allows students to read and write about a topic they already have familiarity and experience with while achieving my larger mission of making students into more critical consumers of the media by helping them see that ideologies inform every public message.


This media literacy project is inspired in part by Henry Giroux’s The Mouse that Roared,  which recommends examining

how media culture has become a substantial, if not the primary, educational force in regulating the meanings, values, and tastes that set the norms that offer up and legitimate particular subject positions – what it means to claim an identity as male, female, white, black, citizen, noncitizen. The media culture defines childhood, the national past, beauty, truth, and social agency.  (2-3)

Disney programming is, he asserts, “largely aimed at teaching young people to be consumers” (3). Giroux acknowledges that Disney is not a monolithic evil giant, conspiring against democracy, but he urges us to examine the powerful and appealing images Disney projects of fun, magic, and innocence “for the futures they envision, the values they promote, and the forms of identifications they offer” (7).


Narrowing this charge to a specific analysis of values and identifications associated with gender and race provides an easily-discerned framework for developing media literacy. Introducing students specifically to some feminist responses to Disney illuminates not just the ways the physical bodies of the heroines offer limited options for acceptable womanhood, but also how the personalities, social positioning, and life choices of the heroines perpetuate a narrow range of acceptable female behavior by reinforcing the cultural notions that women are compliant, pleasant, malleable, and male-focused. The young women and men I teach need to learn to interrogate such media stereotypes against reality and possibility.


Resistance and Cognitive Dissonance

Many students initially resist feminist readings of Disney, offering several categories of protest: that women are no longer oppressed or limited in our society and that these images are part of our cultural history and cannot be judged by our modern, enlightened mindsets; that the critics “overanalyze;” that the limited gender formulations of the romance plot are appropriate and/or harmless; that Disney is “better” than anything else available for kids; that they watched a lot of Disney growing up and they turned out okay; that children aren’t really picking up on the larger messages or double meanings in the Disney films; that Disney really means well, really wants to offer kids some good lessons and that the good outweighs the bad.


The sources and our class discussions usually present a number of rebuttals for these protests, but I begin by turning the students toward the idea of how Disney’s images are consumed by our culture. I ask, if these portrayals are, in fact, simply quaint and outdated representations of a previous generation of women, why are they still consumed by millions of children around the world every year? Are they consumed as historical documents, as far-fetched and ridiculous examples of how women were once treated in the United States?


No, the students admit; these images are mostly consumed with no critical dialogue, no questioning of the gender roles promoted.  Mostly, they agree with the thesis of Jill Birnie Henke, Diane Zimmerman Umble and Nancy J. Smith’s “Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine” that

Although heroines have expressed self and voicehood in some of the later films, Disney’s interpretations of children’s literature and history remain those of a white, middle-class, patriarchal society.  (335)

But, they protest, what harm do these representations do? We begin then to talk about the images of women’s bodies that they see in the media now and of their own experiences with friends who struggle with eating disorders, low self-esteem, destructive behavior, distorted body image, and frustrated ambition. We talk about the passivity of the Disney heroines and their inability to help themselves, except by being kind, obedient, and patient. Although I try to turn the discussions toward cultural dicta about behavior and ambition, the students are most engaged by the discussions of bodies and sexuality, and in these exchanges, I can begin to see the seeds of media literacy germinate.  One student described her burgeoning understanding of the media by writing

The relationship between the media and women is like that of a fluorescent blue

 light and mosquitoes. Women can see that the media’s heightened female images are harmful to our society, yet they are still in awe of it and drawn in.

I seek to push them away from individual interpretations or reactions to individual films and more toward how these images interact with social practices;  as Giroux explains, “How audiences interpret Disney’s texts may not be as significant as how some ideas, meanings, and messages under certain political conditions become more highly valued as representations of reality than others” (8). This ability to see the larger socio-political repercussions of media productions is the media literacy that students lack.


The lack of a critical apparatus for reading the media reveals the homogeneity of the students’ cultural experiences, which manifests as resistance to media critique. Their resistance emerges partly from the cognitive dissonance created by challenging deeply-held notions of childhood and children’s entertainment, and their response to the dissonance is an insistence that our critiques of culture do not matter. In their frustration, they say things like, “Why do we even have to talk about this? We’re not going to change Disney by talking about it in this class.” They feel, in some sense, that their voices have no power in the culture, and that writing about such ideas doesn’t matter because it does not produce immediate, direct results.   I counter that it matters because it changes them to talk and write about these issues. It changes their innocent consumption of images.  A student who is also a mother wrote, “Examining Disney has opened my eyes further to the injustices of the media upon our society. I not only see it in Disney movies but in all forms of media as well.” At the same time, some students continue to express frustration with this discussion, writing, as one student did,

Until recently I never thought about the depiction of women and gender roles in Disney movies. To be honest I think there are very few people out there who do . . . . I think that it is just a few people, mostly child bearing women, who have a problem with this. I think they are overanalyzing and have gone way to [sic] far.


Even though many students find the reading and writing about Disney, at times, pointless and frustrating, I remind them that knowledge is power, that complacency is death, that if you change yourself, that’s real change. But I’m sure that at this point in their lives, most of them don’t believe me and some have become even stronger defenders of Disney. This defense serves my ends as well, because in defending Disney, they still must carefully examine their consumption of Disney and what messages Disney sends that they want their children to see, which is certainly a more critical position than blind allegiance. They learn about ideologies and agendas in all spheres, including the classroom they’re sitting in.


The Disney Assignment Sequence

To begin the assignment sequence in which I use critiques of Disney to teach summarizing, paraphrasing and synthesizing, I first show the Chyng Feng Sun and Miguel Picker documentary, Mickey Mouse Monopoly, which introduces critical perspectives on Disney, particularly in relation to corporate power and responsibility, representations of gender and the “other,” and the commercialization of children’s culture. Mickey Mouse Monopoly emphasizes that Disney is a corporation, not an educational institution, that their primary concern is making money, not teaching us how to be good people. The documentary, through Dr. Gail Dines, makes the critical point that it doesn’t really matter whether Disney does or does not intend to be sexist or racist or materialistic, because the end result is the same.


The documentary offers a friendly introduction to thinking more critically about Disney, nudging students toward suspending their resistance and preparing them for more analytical and academic studies of Disney, which come in a series of essays focusing on images of women and girls in animated Disney films. The first of these essays is Henke, Umble, and Smith’s “Construction of the Female Self,” which examines five popular “princess-centered” movies using standpoint feminist theories and research in women’s cognitive development.


Laura Sells’ “Where Do the Mermaids Stand?” examines The Little Mermaid as allegorical of tensions in contemporary feminism, viewing the movie as both insidious and liberatory in its contradictory messages that women must sacrifice their voices in order to gain access to power but that the understanding of the play of gender allows women to enter the male world of power with their (wiser) voices intact (357). Students have the most difficulty with this essay because Sells is not so much critiquing The Little Mermaid as using it to talk about the contradictions of feminism.


The third essay selection assuages some ruffled feathers; Steven Watts’ “The Disney Doctrine” describes, in a fairly objective tone, Walt Disney’s desire to promote a particular version of the nuclear family with women as the moral centers of the family (368). The essay reinforces what the previous authors have argued, but taking a more historical survey of the issue diffuses the students’ sense that the author has a political position about the subject.


Turning to an essay which critiques while praising, students read Mimi Nguyen’s  Who’s Your Heroine? Negotiating Asian American Superpower in Disney's Mulan.”  Nguyen writes about her reaction to Mulan, explaining her pleasure in seeing a Disney tomboy but acknowledging that Mulan is also a manipulation of pseudofeminist ideas. Her non-white feminist perspective encourages the students to examine how their own reactions to Disney might be different if they were not primarily whites of European ancestry.


The final three essays, all movie reviews, integrate the examination of race and gender in more recent Disney films. James Bowman’s “Everything Old is New Again” reviews Beauty and the Beast; Richard W. Hill’s “The Pocahontas Phenomenon” discusses racism in Pocahontas; Elizabeth Chang’s “Noted with Resignation” describes her response to Mulan. Interspersed among these readings are some online resources: “Of Mouse and Magic” (a student project analyzing social and political messages in Disney), “Who Owns Whom?” (a list of all of Disney’s subsidiaries), and an online quiz about Classic Fairy Tales vs. Disney Fairy Tales.


My goal in introducing so much material is to offer students a range of critical perspectives on Disney, from academics, film critics, media consumers, and fellow students. The volume of material illustrates to students that media critique is not out of the mainstream, not simply the productions of bored or frustrated intellectuals, but that ordinary moviegoers can both enjoy and analyze media products.


When I first started using this material, my students used it to write a dialogue, in the tradition described by William Covino in Forms of Wondering. After choosing three of the source texts to be characters in their dialogue and creating two more fictional characters, students created a conversation about some common thread within all the material about Disney, using paraphrase and direct quotation to present the source materials. One student dialogue, for example, begins as a coffee-shop conversation between Sells, Henke, and Nguyen about how Disney films reinforce the marriage plot as the only happy ending, with the waitress joining the conversation as the student’s voice. The students struggled with this assignment, wanting to create characters who would defend Disney and express their objections to this cultural critique, but they were unable to develop the same kinds of arguments the critics did, and so they felt like they couldn’t really “win” (no matter how many times I told them that winning is not a goal of dialogue). When I realized they weren’t ready yet for the kind of critical thinking and writing I was expecting of them, I changed the essay assignment to a synthesis essay.


A synthesis essay replicates the kind of interaction with sources that students do in larger source-based writing; they must educate readers about the content of and discussions between secondary sources on a given topic. In writing a synthesis essay on Disney, my students still used at least three of the sources, and they still summarized, paraphrased, and used direct quotation to accurately present the ideas in the articles. In this assignment, however, they did not have to “talk back” to the sources, to craft intelligent, researched responses to the arguments in the articles.


More recently, seeing the difficulty students had understanding the concept of synthesizing sources, I have created an assignment sequence in which students write both a dialogue and a synthesis with personal commentary. Requiring the dialogue first taught students the importance of thoroughly understanding a scholar’s argument, leading to more interesting and sophisticated synthesis papers. By allowing students to add a personal commentary to the synthesis, I have granted them the space for “talking back” to the scholars without having to engage them as fully as in the dialogue. The success of this sequence shows in student responses such as “Disney does know how to entertain but, I do not respect Disney as much as I used to because of the issues that have been encountered.”



Students need to begin to change the way they think as they start college, to learn to ask larger questions about ideology and values, and, more importantly, to begin to feel comfortable dealing with cognitive dissonance, understanding that they will and should be challenged by their educations. Moving them into a more critical analysis of cultural critique and its value is difficult, but that’s what I seek: not just analysis and critique of Disney, but discussion of why we should analyze and critique all the cultural productions that surround us. In giving them some experience dealing with uncomfortable ideas, particularly about the culture, I want to enable them to recognize opportunities for learning in future classes, so they can open their minds to new ideas, to intellectual questioning. In educating students toward critical citizenship, teachers should strive to examine the ideologies inherent in all cultural institutions, even those which are considered “sacred.” Using Disney in this context develops methods of inquiry which increase media literacy.


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed.

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.

Giroux, Henry A. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham,

MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Henke, Jill Birnie, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Nancy J. Smith. “Construction of the

Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine.” Lardner and Lundberg 334-347.

Lardner, Ted, and Todd Lundberg, editors. Exchanges: Reading and Writing About

 Consumer Culture. New York: Longman, 2001

Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood, and Corporate Power. Prod. Chyng Feng

Sun. Dir. Miguel Picker. ArtMedia, 2001. Dist. by Media Education Foundation.

Nguyen, Mimi. “Who’s Your Heroine? Negotiating Asian American Superpower in

Disney's Mulan.” 5 January 2001. 10 October

2002. <>

Sells, Laura. “Where Do the Mermaids Stand?” Lardner and Lundberg 349-359.

Watts, Steven. “The Disney Doctrine.” Lardner and Lundberg 365-370.


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