Engaging the Disney Effect: The Cultural Production of Escapism and Utopia in Media

  • Peter Trifonas

In a recent book, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, Henry Giroux (1999) analyzes the intentionality of corporate culture-making. That is, the “organization and regulation” (p. 2) of a political economy of signs as driven by a multinational media conglomerate that touches and teaches the everyday lives of children and adults alike. The Mouse that Roared presents a critical yet balanced view of the educational force of “[m]ass-produced images” (p. 2) that inform the “most intimate perceptions and desires” (p. 2) of our daily existence. As Giroux (1999) quite correctly explains, it would be too easy—unfair and unethical—to concoct conspiracy theories portraying Disney as “part of an evil empire incapable of providing joy and pleasure to the millions of kids and adults who visit its theme parks, watch its videos and movies, and buy products from its toy stores” (p. 4). There is an inconsolable temptation to overdetermine and therefore to overstate and simplify the effi- cacy of its role as an active agent of truth construction and a purveyor of a pedagogy of diversion. But there is also another side to gauging the influence of such an enormous media and entertainment company and investigating the way the signs it produces have functioned to educate the cognitive and affective dimensions of subjective agency in the shaping of popular culture. By using a critically balanced approach, Giroux (1999) provides the theoretical and methodological grounding and analytical framework for examining the ethical and moral force of Disney and its rendering of culture as a byproduct of “media culture” without dismissing the complicated value of its “public pedagogy” (p. 4) as a means of constructing a pleasurable escape “from the drudgery of work” (p. 5). The veneer of images Disney spins out simulates reality and stimulates the imagination. It garners responses. Here we must probe beyond the surfaces of corporate signs to show how the logic of representation is thoroughly and deeply infused with traces of ideological force and political power. Disney’s illusion is neither naïve nor innocent. As in all means of media production and representation, there is an element of intentionality involved. However, the creative impetus of the means of representation is neither technical nor technological as much as it is an instance of artifice that is poietic in nature. This extensional production is a neglected or understated aspect of media. It produces something other than the technology of itself, that is not remote controlled by the technology itself. We could not even call it technological because it is an independent production of meaning spawned from its interpretable nature. The medium is the message. Yes. Marshal McLuhan was correct in this observation. But the medium therefore becomes transparent, that is put in the background, forgotten, in its purely instrumental role as the visible reflection of content. A message has to be produced on a fundamental level to justify the conceptual and material resources expended to facilitate the attempt made at communication (Trifonas, 1998). What is the point of representation if not to engage the other in a reciprocal act of meaning making? This obvious fact of communication theory allows us, like Giroux (1999), to turn our attention to how the ideological impetus of this political economy of signification that Disney engages in facilitates the subjective interpretation of its signs. That is, how it is possible for a corporation to use the media as a pedagogical tool or device in order to convince the public of the redeeming cultural value of its idiosyncratic point of view. The effects of this form of expression constitute the real moments of teaching and learning: In short, they are (mis)educative in nature.


Political Economy Public Sphere Culture Industry Theme Park Symbolic Violence 
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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Trifonas
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TorontoCanada

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