More than family friendly

Can Disney still occupy a holy space in American culture?

Sarah Barlow spent Sunday evenings in her family’s living room enchanted by the stories of her people. She was Sarah Flynn back then, still wearing her Sunday-best black leather shoes, her belly stuffed with pot roast and potatoes. This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, in Spanish Fork, Utah, and the rest of the week might bring canned beans for six nights straight. Especially in winter, when her dad’s work pouring concrete dried up and the family had to skimp and scrap for every penny. But Sunday! Sunday was the Sabbath. Sunday meant church clothes and fancy food and even fancy snacks, like olives and sliced pickles carefully arranged on the family’s gold-plated heirloom serving tray. And back then, there was only one way to end the week. 

With ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Nothing about the show was overtly religious. “Disneyland,” as the series was called when it premiered in 1954, wasn’t aimed at Latter-day Saints like Sarah any more than any other denomination — which is to say, not at all. But each Sunday night it gave the Flynns and many others like them trustworthy programming that was pro-family, pro-marriage and pro-virtue. Over the years, that’s meant everything from theatrical releases like “Cinderella” and “The Parent Trap” to cartoons set in the Donald Duck Universe to American folklore productions about Davy Crockett and Huck Finn. The latter ranked among Barlow’s favorites, along with the princess pantheon. “Those old ones just hit it right,” she says, in large part because they often lacked ambiguity. “There’s good and bad. It’s clear-cut. And nowadays, I don’t know. It just seems a little murky.”

Many have recently lambasted Disney for a host of perceived offenses to traditional sensibilities. Complaints escalated earlier this year in the wake of a leaked meeting in which a Disney animation director spoke about her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” — meaning, in the full context of her remarks, producing content that might feature LGBTQ background characters. That backlash followed another controversy over Pixar’s “Turning Red,” a coming-of-age film that some parents criticized for its portrayals of menstruation, teenage romantic desires and rebellion against authority. And when the company feuded in April with Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, it provided critics the most visible hint yet that the traditional values and sensibilities many once counted on were no more. In much of red America, audiences and park patrons are reexamining the company’s family-friendly reputation. 

It’s true that many of today’s Disney stories no longer reflect the cultural hegemony that Barlow remembers. Today’s stories are more diverse and less formulaic, like with the solo, don’t-need-no-man Polynesian heroine in “Moana,” or the physically imposing secondary character Luisa in the heavily Latino-influenced “Encanto,” whom The Federalist decried as “way too beefy for a woman.” The reactions to such changes have been, in some ways, predictable. “It’s partly a reflex that has to do with our sentimental relationship to childhood stories,” says Maria Tatar, professor emerita in Harvard’s Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and one of the world’s foremost experts on fairy tales and folklore. “(They’re saying), ‘Don’t mess with that.’”

Drawing from the cannon of European tales from Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and others, Walt Disney told stories that became 20th-century folklore.

But the backlash is about more than a longing for childhood nostalgia alone. “(Disney) is a cultural transmitter and translator of deep truths found in fairy tales,” says Chloe Valdary, a writer and entrepreneur whose company uses Disney stories to teach personal development, “and that is a sacred thing that comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility.” 

Indeed, fairy tales are more than children’s stories. For a fairy tale to endure, it needs to have substance. A moral. A lesson not easily forgotten. That’s what fairy tales do when they work; they stick around. They become part of the story we tell ourselves as people — as a people — about what it means to be honest, or beautiful, brave or fair. About, as Valdary puts it, “the perennial aspects of the human condition.” 

Yet one contradiction at the core of fairy tales, say these experts, is that in order to accomplish their mission, they must evolve. They must reflect the culture they inhabit, even if topics covered and the truths transmitted remain the same. Which is why, amid these new strains of viral criticism, one question worth asking is whether the nature of fairy tales have changed, or we have. 

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Fairy tales have existed nearly as long as humans have been able to speak. “(Fairy tales) began as somewhat realistic stories, which would be then embroidered by people who have heard these stories and want to take them on,” explains Jack Zipes, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and another of the world’s foremost fairy-tale experts. “They remember them, and they give them a new twist, and the stories build on themselves as they’re passed on from family to family, village to village, city to city.” 

Walt Disney and his company were no different. Drawing from the canon of European tales from Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and others, he told stories that became 20th-century folklore. “Disney has managed to enchant the United States of America,” Zipes says. “Most children still grow up, I think, having been impacted by the way Disney tells tales.” Part of Disney’s dominance was its artistry — fairy tales of the past couldn’t compete with the masterful drawings that now accompanied the stories on film. The stories were also well-crafted, with easy-to-follow, cohesive plots to distract from the horrors of the Second World War and, later, from communism. But Disney’s feel-good approach was largely something new — and often the opposite of how fairy tales had operated in the past. “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, once functioned as a graphic warning to young women about rapists. By turning these stories into feel-good tales, Zipes argues, “you’re covering up the real conflicts in society,” leaving children unprepared. Those early productions also exhibited what many recognize today as rampant sexism. “If you look at the films produced by the Disney Corp., they tend to portray women as Barbie dolls, as little sexy things that need the help of a man.” 

Disney has adapted before, and that approach made it a cultural juggernaut throughout the 20th century, back when the nation was much more homogenous — especially in terms of prevailing religious and cultural sensibilities and ideas. But the country’s population diversity has since exploded, bringing new ideas, new customs and ultimately, new understandings of what it means to be “family-friendly” and what forms fairy tales should take.

The original introduction to ABC’s “Disneyland” begins with sweeping orchestral music and a black-and-white Tinkerbell fluttering across the screen. She taps her wand, sparks fly and a bright light twinkles. Jiminy Cricket sings about wishing upon a star. “Each week as you enter this timeless land,” explains a deep-voiced narrator, “one of these many worlds will open to you.” Fantasyland. Adventureland. Tomorrowland. Frontierland. All of them places where anything seemed possible, where audiences encountered heroes and villains, good and evil. The intro evolved over the years, but this one is basically what Barlow remembers. It felt like childhood. It felt like magic. 

One contradiction at the core of fairy tales is that in order to accomplish their mission, they need to change constantly. They must evolve. They must reflect the culture they inhabit.

Today, her family still watches Disney. But, “It used to be if it was Disney, you were safe. You knew as far as morality and what you did and didn’t want your children to be exposed to — it used to be a safe thing. We don’t feel that way anymore,” Barlow says. 

Barlow’s concerns point to Disney’s challenge to still appeal to a singular “America.” The 21st century is different from the previous, and to stay relevant Disney must be different, too. Luckily, Tatar says, the company has proven quite capable of adapting many times within the last decade. She’s particularly encouraged by “Frozen,” which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Disney, she explains, sought feedback from employees not about what their version should look like, but about what they liked about the old one — what parts resonated most. The answer was the sibling relationship, which Disney turned into a sister-sister relationship, thus adding a modern twist to a very old story. “Disney’s talking to its audience and finding out, what are people interested in? What do they want to think about? What do they want to work through?” Tatar adds. “And sure enough, they delivered with not just ‘Frozen,’ but ‘Moana’ and ‘Encanto.’ They’ve come a long way from ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and the way they refashion those stories.”

“While Disney should evolve with the culture,” Valdary says, “it should also not forget its anchor, its guiding north star, which is to reflect and transmit perennial truths about the human condition which do not change no matter how much our culture changes and morphs.”

Indeed, many things have changed since Barlow’s childhood Sundays. Her five kids, for example, no longer have to rely on network television to get their fairy-tale fix. Now, the Barlows have streaming service Disney+, along with DVDs, DVRs and the rest of it. “They’ve all watched the Disney movies forward and backward,” she says. “We own everything. We’ve seen everything. We’ve seen extended versions and bloopers of everything.” Including stories both old and new. Despite some trepidation, she admits that most of Disney’s content still nourishes the soul. How long that will remain true, though, she isn’t sure. Which is why she occasionally throws in a little supplement of her own: Reruns of “Little House on the Prairie.” It isn’t Disney, but it might as well be. It feels like those childhood Sunday evenings. It feels like the stories of her people. And while her kids may grow up and feel the same way about “Frozen” or “Moana,” for her, it’ll always feel like home.  

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.