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Mouse Morality

Mouse Morality
The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film
Foreword by Clifford Christians

An examination of the mixed moral messages in five Disney animated films.

December 2002
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200 pages | 6 x 9 | 7 tables |

Kids around the world love Disney animated films, and many of their parents trust the Disney corporation to provide wholesome, moral entertainment for their children. Yet frequent protests and even boycotts of Disney products and practices reveal a widespread unease with the sometimes mixed and inconsistent moral values espoused in Disney films as the company attempts to appeal to the largest possible audience.

In this book, Annalee R. Ward uses a variety of analytical tools based in rhetorical criticism to examine the moral messages taught in five recent Disney animated films—The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan. Taking the films on their own terms, she uncovers the many mixed messages they purvey: for example, females can be leaders—but male leadership ought to be the norm; stereotyping is wrong—but black means evil; historical truth is valued—but only tell what one can sell, etc. Adding these messages together, Ward raises important questions about the moral ambiguity of Disney's overall worldview and demonstrates the need for parents to be discerning in letting their children learn moral values and life lessons from Disney films.


2004 Clifford G. Christians Ethics Research Award
Carl Couch Center for Social and Internet Research

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Disney, Film, and Morality: A Beginning
    • Disney as Moral Educator
    • Concern for Morality
    • A Unique Audience
    • Method of Research
    • Definitions
    • Reading the Texts
  • 2. The Lion King: Moral Educator through Myth, Archetype, and Ritual
    • Film Background
    • Mythic Narrative
    • Archetype
    • Ritual
    • Communication Tools
    • The Lion King as Moral Educator
  • 3. The Symbolic Boundaries of Moral Order in Pocahontas
    • Film Background
    • Disney and History
    • Symbolic Boundaries of Moral Order
    • Conclusion
  • 4. Comically Framing Virtue and Vice in The Hunchback of Notre Dame
    • Film Background
    • Interpretive Frames
    • Virtue Ethics
    • Conclusion
  • 5. Hercules: A Celebrity-Hero
    • Film Background
    • Identification through Narrative Strategies
    • Conclusion
  • 6. Mulan: East Meets West
    • Film Background
    • Interculturalism
    • Moral Tensions
    • Conclusion
  • 7. A Disney Worldview: Mixed Moral Messages
    • A Disney Worldview
    • Implications of the Disney Worldview for Culture
    • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Annalee R. Ward is Chair and Associate Professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.


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Storytelling is vital to every society as a way of searching for and sharing truth, but the role of storyteller in culture has changed, affecting what is told. Today, popular film has become a central storyteller for contemporary culture. It communicates myths and fairy tales, entertains, and educates the audience for better or worse. One company in particular has had tremendous audience appeal and enjoys brand-name popularity: Disney.

The Walt Disney Company is a powerful economic and cultural phenomenon known throughout the United States and the world as a provider of family entertainment (Maltin 1, 308). Its media and entertainment holdings establish it as a central communicator in contemporary life. Yes, the Walt Disney Company has become the "Stories R Us" store, particularly for children. As such, it provides many of the first narratives children use to learn about the world. In light of Disney's popular appeal and pervasiveness, and given a cultural climate that issues frequent calls for evidence of a moral society, I take Disney's presence as being worthy of serious consideration. Thus in this book I am going to closely examine five animated films to unearth the messages—particularly the messages about how we ought to live, about morality—that are being taught to the audience. In order to look for not only the obvious but also the more subtle lessons on life, I approach this from the perspective of rhetorical criticism. My understanding of that approach is to carefully study which messages are embedded in the text by describing what I see, to use theories to help orient the descriptions, and finally to draw some evaluative conclusions about those messages.

Disney as Moral Educator

Generations are now raised on Disney fairy tales, and original story lines are forgotten or dismissed as not the real thing. Disney rewrites the original tales for its particular version of American values. For example, Disney's Hercules creates an amalgamation of myths that confuse the original story of Hercules' parentage, exploits, and motivations. Or consider Disney's Pocahontas. The movie changes Pocahontas's age, looks, and accomplishments from the few historical facts that we do have to a romanticized beauty. Disney is a central storyteller in our society, aiming its messages at families with children. And families have responded with overwhelming acceptance of Disney products and, by implication, Disney messages. William Powers of the Washington Post writes,

Here is where we reach the absolute center of Disney's power. It begins with the children, for whom Disney's products are so powerful; they teach life's lessons (think of Pinocchio's nose) and they build dreamscapes. Children grow into adults, who are fond of Disney because it shaped the way they think about the world. (G1)

Disney helps shape children's views of right and wrong, their morality.

The Walt Disney Company's animated films established Disney in the cultural mainstream, beginning with the 1937 release of Snow White, and they continue to make a vital contribution to Disney's financial success. Blockbuster films provide additional characters for Disney theme parks and a plethora of material for merchandising. The popularity of home videos and DVDs means that the messages can be heard repeatedly—almost propaganda-like. Henry Giroux, in a critical article, makes the following observation:

[There is a] largely unquestioned assumption that animated films stimulate imagination and fantasy, reproduce an aura of innocence and wholesome adventure, and, in general, are good for kids. . . . [O]ne of the most persuasive [roles] is the role they play as the new "teaching machines." . . . [T]hese films inspire at least as much cultural authority and legitimacy for teaching specific roles, values, and ideals [as] more traditional sites of learning such as public schools, religious institutions, and the family. ("Animating" 24-25)

The extreme popularity of these films and associated merchandise propels them into the critical spotlight. For if millions of children are viewing these films once or even repeatedly, what messages might they be internalizing? John Taylor in Storming the Magic Kingdom observes, "The [Disney] company's executives saw Disney as a force shaping the imaginative life of children around the world. It was woven into the very fabric of American culture. Indeed, its mission—and it did, they believed, have a mission as important as making money for its stockholders—was to celebrate and nurture American values" (viii). Media critic Michael Real argues the point: "Disney instructs through morality plays that structure personal values and ideology" (Mass-Mediated 48). Similarly, Benjamin Barber argues in the New York Times, "Whether Disney knows it or not, it is buying much more than our leisure time. It has a purchase on our values, on how we feel and think and what we think about" (15). Disney films are a significant force in children's moral education.

Concern for Morality

In recent years we hear an increasingly loud call for a return to valuing morality as an end in itself. From Bellah et al.'s discussion of virtues in Habits of the Heart and The Good Society to Alan Wolfe's Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, William Bennett's collection of virtuous stories in The Book of Virtues, and Stephen Carter's plea for people of integrity in Integrity, many people criticize current morality and argue for better moral education. The Chicago Public School system, for example, developed a new curriculum that interweaves values into a variety of subjects (Rossi, "Schools" 8). Moral education is a concern for society. That concern naturally raises questions about the messages of a popular cultural phenomenon like Disney. Do its films contribute positively to children's moral education?

Kenneth Burke, in discussing literature, observes Disney's power to provide "equipment for living" (Philosophy 253-262). I like this phrase and find that expanding it describes well one of the goals of this book: seeking to discover how Disney films provide equipment for moral living and what equipment that might be. Given the growing concern for moral awareness, there is a certain exigency to which Disney, in its desire to provide family entertainment—entertainment that is not morally offensive—is responding with its animated films.

A Unique Audience

Because Disney aims its films particularly at children, additional issues are involved in its persuasive role. Always challenged by the perception of manipulation, persuasive attempts must be ready to justify both the means and the ends—particularly with an audience of children who are still forming their moral vision. Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children reflects, "How young we are when we start wondering about it all, the nature of the journey and of the final destination" (335). Children are concerned about moral issues.

For Disney, the issue faced is that children "are more vulnerable, more persuadable, than adult audiences" (Schrag 221) and therefore require greater care. If, as Coles believes, movies help both adults and children "try to figure out the moral significance" of their lives, Disney has a great burden to present a responsible moral vision (Moral Life 90).

The fact that film not only has dialogue but also uses visuals and music to add to its potential power is an observation of which Disney is well aware. Cochran states, "He [Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg] works entirely by instinct when it comes to the animated stuff—it's all about 'is this telling the story, is it holding together, is there an emotional core to this thing?' He's a great emotional foil. If it moves Jeffrey, it'll move other people" ("Hans Zimmer" 34). Disney wants powerful emotions at work in its films. Cochran also comments on the visuals: "What intrigued Hans [composer Hans Zimmer] was that animation, especially animation with animal characters, works its audience magic on a purely subconscious level." For, Cochran observes, "what animation does is present emotional truth, not 'realistic' truth" ("Hans Zimmer" 35). Not only do the words and the visuals combine to tell the story, but the music is also a conscious part designed to follow "the emotional structure of the story itself" ("Hans Zimmer" 36). Cochran gives the following example:

Zimmer composed a theme for Mufasa which he believed should not be played after he died—except when he appears in the sky. "You hear this theme when Mufasa explains the kingdom and responsibility to Simba, but it basically dies with Mufasa, and doesn't return until Mufasa reappears as a ghost. But it isn't linked to Mufasa. It's linked to the whole idea of being King, and Simba has to earn the right to have that theme, because he has forgotten all about responsibility and his role in life." ("Hans Zimmer" 37)

Film is a powerful storyteller; employing narrative, visuals, and music enhances its power to communicate a vision of moral living.

Hence, the implication for Disney is that it needs to take extra care in what it does, because its tools are powerful, and it is working with a vulnerable audience. As Robert Schrag concludes in a narrative analysis of Saturday morning television, "[T]hese first stories are not subjected, in the minds of those young children who view them, to the test of narrative fidelity. These children are in the process of constructing the criteria against which they will judge the narrative fidelity of other stories" (231). The stories children are exposed to will form the standards for testing the truth of other stories later in life. Consequently, charges of racism, sexism, misrepresentation of history, and so on, particularly in children's films, are not something to be taken lightly. If children believe that what they see represents a true picture of life, then the potential for cultural change and growth is diminished.

There is another side to this picture of film as moral educator, however. While acknowledging that it plays a role, Coles concludes that other factors are equally important in forming the moral life of children. The child "doesn't forget what he's learned in school, learned at home, from hearing people talk in his family and neighborhood" (Moral Life 80). In other words, it is possible for negative messages to be overridden by other influences in a child's life, as long as those other influences are both positive and strong. That those messages are there in the first place, however, raises warning flags.

As narratives, Disney films delight children while revealing insights into living. Those narratives reveal perspectives on morality, for, as historian Hayden White asks, "Could we ever narrativize without moralizing?" ("Value" 23). The popularity of Disney animated films and the growth in their production and rereleases affirm Disney animated films as significant communicators in the public sphere that beg to be examined more closely. Disney's influence in society is powerful. It can shape the way children think about who they are and who they should be. Understanding the values espoused by Disney as implied or overtly communicated in its films is vital for the conscientious viewer and parent.

Method of Research

This book focuses on five consecutive Disney animated films that represent diversity in story origination and reveal differing dimensions or perspectives of Disney morality. This study could fruitfully be applied to other texts, but these were chosen to provide both continuity over time and diversity in audience appeal. The Lion King (1994), one of the top ten films ever released, is an original story and focuses on a male hero. Because of that male focus, Disney tries hard to balance its releases to provide identification with the female gender. Pocahontas (1995) is loosely based on historical narrative and features a female lead. Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) is loosely based on Victor Hugo's novel and includes both male and female characters as the heroes of the film. Hercules (1997) is a melting pot of Greek myths designed to appeal to young boys (Tucker 38). Mulan (1998) is based on a treasured Chinese legend and highlights the courage of a young girl.

To identify the morality or moralities in these films, I use tools of the rhetorical critic that support a close reading. These tools enable me to go beyond a superficial glance at what the film teaches about right and wrong to a depth that unearths more messages, some that may even contradict each other. I uncover what understanding(s) of morality the texts invite, and I conclude by discussing how Disney's version(s) of morality signifies a Disney worldview. Note the word invite. Rather than testing one theory and applying it to every film, I begin with a close look at the film and then find the right tool to help open the text up. In this way, I take the each film on its own terms. I ask questions of the films such as, What is the overall theme or moral message? How does Disney communicate that? What other messages are coming through? Are the messages contradictory? The answer to the "how" question then leads me to use theoretical tools only as they mesh with what Disney says it wants to communicate and with the obvious ways it does communicate. Some of the tools could have been usefully employed more than once, but I found that, by applying a variety of methods, I could show how moral messages reveal themselves in diverse ways.


In questioning the text for Disney's messages, I've tried to focus on questions about right and wrong. In so doing, I use a number of terms. To clarify those terms, I offer several definitions. Moral, as I use it, refers to right or virtuous behavior, and morality thus means the principles of that virtuous behavior or conduct. Here, morals and morality differ from social mores in that mores are based on social customs of unique groups. Morality is related to ethics in that ethics is the systematic study of morals and values. Values are ideals that are important to a person or a society. They can include morals but can also include things such as being on time to work, exercising craftsmanship, getting a journalistic scoop, and so on. Occasionally I may use the terms morality and values interchangeably, in which case I am referring to the moral dimension of values.

Focusing on the morality espoused by Disney animated films necessarily leads to questions about how Disney sees the world—what assumptions does it make in the messages it sends? Chapter 7 looks back at the five Disney films studied and tries to make sense of Disney's moral messages. Questions of assumptions, of presuppositions, lead to questions of worldview. Another way of describing that worldview is to use Kenneth Burke's language of "terministic screen" (Permanence 7) or "frame of interpretation" (Attitudes 92-93), meaning that these assumptions create a "trained incapacity," or limit how a person is able to see the world. Each of these terms encompasses the way people think about their world and how their thinking shapes every part of their life. I particularly like Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton's definition of worldview: "A world view, then, provides a model of the world which guides its adherents in the world. It stipulates how the world ought to be, and it thus advises how its adherents ought to conduct themselves in the world" (32). In seeking to understand what morality or moralities Disney films advocate and how they do so, I will be examining Disney's worldview—something that is frequently overlooked when parents recommend Disney films to their children.

Worldview should not be neglected, because it has the power to shape attitudes and values, as well as the ability to determine what is important in cultural and individual living. Disney's influence on our culture is pervasive and powerful. Understanding its value system, particularly its worldview as implied in its perspective of morality, is a necessary ingredient for the conscientious viewer's understanding of its influence.

Finally, I also use the terms rhetoric and rhetorical. Numerous perspectives on the meaning of rhetoric exist. For the purposes of my research, I rely on Kenneth Burke's understanding of rhetoric as "the use of symbols, by one symbol—using entity to induce action in another" (Rhetoric 46). Burke sees persuasion, identification, communication, and rhetoric all as interrelated. In addition, Burke emphasizes the moral dimension of rhetoric when he observes, "Such considerations [that 'a man can be his own audience' (38)] make us alert to the ingredient of rhetoric in all socialization, considered as a moralizing process" (39). In that Disney films communicate to or identify with an audience, they use persuasion, which necessarily involves a moral process.

The Disney films studied here are examined as separate texts. Defining those texts has come to be a controversial task in and of itself, given the divergent views on rhetorical criticism held by people like Michael Leff and Michael McGee. The method for this study can best be defined by what it is not. It is not a broad cultural study in the tradition of McGee. It is not a "cookie-cutter" application of one textbook method to all of the films. It is, however, a rhetorical criticism in the historical-critical model of research.

Reading the Texts

In this book, each film is studied for what the moral messages might be and how they are being communicated. The book draws on rhetorical, sociological, philosophical, and moral development theories to facilitate the unearthing of the Disney morality portrayed in these films. It also involves a close reading in "Leff style" to understand how the individual parts of the film contribute to the whole message. In some senses, my method leans toward John Campbell's "House of the Middle Way" (346), in that I seek to understand the variety of critical responses and the cultural moral context in which the films participate. For that reason, I begin studying each film by looking at critics' responses to get a sense the film's reception. In addition, I study the film itself through a variety of theoretical tools to uncover how and what it communicates regarding morality. Those tools, however, are secondary to the interrogation of the text itself, for they are meant to shine light on the results rather than to determine what may or may not be examined.

In each of the next five chapters, I use a different theoretical grounding to illuminate what and how the particular film teaches. After examining the film and the critical response, I have ideas about what themes emerge. As I begin to study the film more closely, I find that using a theoretical approach to questioning the text opens it up for greater understanding.

Using different theories, then, I interrogate the text for its moral messages to better understand what Disney is teaching its audience about what is right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and worthless. The different narratives lend themselves to different approaches.

Chapter 2 demonstrates how The Lion King acts as a mythic moral narrative that taps into spiritual consciousness by drawing on biblical myth, universal archetypes, and sacred rituals. Chapter 3, on Pocahontas, identifies the messages sent by Disney's disrespect of history and uses symbolic boundaries of moral order to reveal Disney's attitudes about right and wrong, or acceptable and deviant behavior. Disney's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, studied in Chapter 4, overlays a comic frame on Victor Hugo's tragic story, requiring a morality that is clearly defined in terms of virtue and vice. Chapter 5 focuses on how Disney changed historical legend in Hercules to create moral identification through characters' actions, visual images, music, and symbolism. Mulan, the film studied in Chapter 6, is an intercultural text that incorporates both Eastern and Western values. Finally, Chapter 7 is a metacritical perspective on the work of the previous chapters that builds on the identified morality to construct a Disney worldview.

Much of recent Disney criticism (see particularly Bell, Haas, and Sells) is cultural criticism from a critical studies perspective of neo-Marxism and/or feminism. Although this is helpful in identifying the cultural dominance or hegemony of Disney productions and products, it can also be limiting. Consequently, I find myself approaching these texts on the narrow ridge of fence sitting. I do not wish to assume that Disney films are "only good entertainment," which many are, nor do I wish to assume that Disney is a "hegemonic, capitalistic structure" that manipulates the minds of children, which might also be true. Disney is a very real, very significant part of contemporary culture. As such, it functions rhetorically, influencing perspectives of morality either explicitly or implicitly. The research demonstrates what Disney's understanding of morality is and how it, as the dominant "Stories R Us" store, sells, through its films, its lessons on moral life.


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