Miley Cyrus, star of the Disney Channel’s widely watched television series Hannah Montana, has a pile of teenage problems. Should the pop star persona endorse a perfume, even though she doesn’t like it?
And will her “inner diva” be okay with a billboard picture of her face with a large zit on it? These, in the Disney universe, are an imaginative take on the typical problems an ordinary teen encounters. And 16-year-old Cyrus, Disney declares, is an ordinary girl. Never mind that she has been obsessively groomed by a set of ambitious parents to play pop star princess. Or that she will, if the price and publicity are right, pose sensuously in a sheet, on the cover of Vanity Fair, cleverly call it “artsy and not obscene” and, when that does not work, apologize.
Disturbing Disney: Cyrus as Hannah Montana is no ordinary girl Photograph by Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images/ AFP
But, then again, this is Disney for you. Mass marketer, mercenary and materialistic. Sure, some of their creations are clever. I have to confess, despite being a Disney disdainer, that I loved movies such as Cars. Still, there is much about Disney (and I realize this every time I step into a toyshop or a bookstore) that is just plain bad. Maybe that is why I am never surprised to hear of Disney disasters. Like the one about being stuck in a broken ride in a Disney theme park.
Someone I know was. And got to see a side of Disney rarely on display. Their group was taken through a warren of dark and dingy tunnels filled with machinery and then bribed with a fast pass not to go public with the story of how Adventure Land Boat Ride suddenly stopped in its tracks, left them stuck for half an hour, and ended in an evacuation.
Disney, despite its dazzling dressed-up-ness, is devious. Even dangerous. Disney characters—from Mickey Mouse to Hannah Montana—are such a clear case of the spider and the fly. Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly; it is the prettiest, most-packaged parlour that ever you did spy. And, once you are in this parlour, my princesses and pixies and pirates will ply you with so much plastic, you will soon forget what is real. Not that you will ever feel you are stuck—you can progress too, from Mickey and Goofy to fairies and pixies and then to the Cheetah Girls (for the uninitiated, this is a girlie group of four teenage pop stars. Their lives revolve around fame and fashion).
Big deal, you may say—in a world of Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, what is a little dieting and dressing up? What is the harm in half an hour of Hannah Montana on TV, holidays spent in Disneyland and a plethora of Disney branded products?
You would be surprised. It is a big deal. Especially where Disney is concerned. Never mind that it is taking a set of impressionable minds and subjecting them to cliché country. Where the only paradigm worth striving for is the princess or the pop star. Where all characters look the same—wherever they come from. Aladdin, the young boy from Arabia, comes dressed in the same flowing robes as Snow White’s prince. “Wow,” he says to princess Jasmine, when she tells him her father is forcing her to get married, “that’s awful”. This is good old American teen-speak and really, I would have no quarrels if I encountered it in a high school musical or even in a Laura Ingalls Wilder. But Arabia?
It is aggravating, this racialism (light-coloured Aladdin and dark-coloured villain Jafar) and this literary robbery. But it is also what Disney does best. It wanders the world for other people’s stories and rehashes them through its own mincer of marketability.
Imagine my disappointment then when I picked up a childhood favourite, Winnie the Pooh, to read aloud to my baby daughters. Gone were all the wonderful E.H. Shepard line illustrations; this Winnie the Pooh sported the same cherubic bonhomie as Bambi. Or Goofy or Mickey Mouse. And where were all those wonderful stories—the one in which Piglet and Pooh go around in circles over their own footprints in the snow, looking for a Heffalump; or the one in which Pooh floats up the tree on his balloon looking for honey and finds only a buzz of angry bees? This orange and yellow Pooh Bear never had to go looking for honey; he already had it clutched in his paws. As for the balloon story, I barely recognized it, baldly butchered as it had been to a “sharing balloons with friends” fable.
It is much the same for Hercules. Disney has turned him into a Superman clone—a teenage geek troubled by bad man Hades. Naturally, the Disney version has a happy ending. As Disney tells us, “Hercules becomes a superstar and media darling—but what makes him a real hero is his self-sacrifice for Megara, the woman he loves.”
Please, nobody tell the kids who lap up the film as the true story of Hercules that he killed Megara in a fit of induced madness, and that all his labours (such as the Augean stables, the hydra-headed monster and the capture of Cerberus) were really atonement for this.
Wander the Disney universe then, if you will. But be warned —the Disneyland holiday you treat your kids to, at the cost of a thousand dollars or more, will probably do them less good than a walk in the park. Or a forest. Or a trip to the zoo.
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