WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN DISNEY would achieve the victory of total entertainment. In December, the Walt Disney Company offered $52.4 billion for most of 21st Century Fox. The deal would join Disney’s own assets—including Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, ESPN, and ABC—with Fox’s National Geographic, FX, its regional sports networks, and its television studio. A transparent bid to forestall the growing market share of Netflix, the merger would amass a horde of content meant to populate two planned streaming services—and a third if you include Hulu, which Disney would control with a majority stake. Should the acquisition be approved, a prospect made likelier by Trump’s friendship with Fox’s executive chairman Rupert Murdoch, the resulting company would be, according to the New York Times, “a colossus unlike anything Hollywood has ever seen.”
If Disney’s devil’s bargain with Murdoch is debated, it will be in terms of its possible repercussions for consumers, most of whom will not care. In some retrotopian past we might have talked about the values of the enormous media companies that determine what we see and read, but we no longer find such conversations important. To think of this differently: we once knew what was meant by the “Disneyfication” of some cultural artifact—it stood for sanitization and infantilization. Now, with the expected purchase of a large chunk of the Murdoch legacy, Disney comes to represent nothing less than the smooth functioning of media capitalism. Its brand, inasmuch as it needs one, is synonymous with market-savvy—its tactics are reportedly driving competitors to consolidate what’s left of the film and television industry.
In this respect, as Bethanee Bemis shrewdly wrote in January for Smithsonian.com, Disney defines what constitutes the American experience: it is “by design, the story of the ‘American Way’”—that is: manipulation, nostalgia, escapism, and profit. With these tools at its disposal, the victory of Disney over media was preordained in the mid-twentieth century. Nor would it have surprised early observers—especially artists and those sensitive to art—whose writings now appear as warnings from a more hopeful past.
“Mickey Mouse is all things to all men,” wrote film historian Terry Ramsaye in 1932. Earlier that year, in an essay published just after his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Diego Rivera predicted that the mouse would later be heralded as “one of the genuine heroes of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century.” One year before Rivera’s exhibition, in a fragment recording a conversation with his friends, Walter Benjamin wrote that “Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being,” adding that Disney’s animations offer a world in which “it is not worthwhile to have experiences.” The nonhuman escapism of Disney cartoons likewise intrigued Sergei Eisenstein, who visited Walt Disney in Los Angeles and considered him a “master.” Eisenstein found, in shorts like Merbabies, a gift to American audiences: a colorful, ideology-free respite from the grey exploitation of life under capitalism. Tellingly, both Eisenstein and Benjamin understood Mickey Mouse as the heir-apparent to Chaplin’s tramp.
The unreality of Disney’s original animations—the escapism, the elimination of meaningful experience, and the organized brutality—was now the stuff of American life.
All of these writers betrayed an urge to safeguard the innocence of Disney while acknowledging it as a corollary of American capitalism. The “drawn magic” of Disney, Eisenstein remarked, “had to arise at the very summit of a society that had completely enslaved nature—namely, in America.” More darkly, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in 1944, savaged the annoying figure of Donald Duck when they argued that Disney cartoons micromanage brutality. Cartoons, they wrote with a slow-burning sense of absurdity, “hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous attrition, the breaking of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate victim in real life receive their beatings so that the spectators can accustom themselves to theirs.”
For his part, Walt Disney described Mickey Mouse as a laugh-factory prole. “Perhaps it is one of the many paradoxes of the picture business,” he wrote in 1934, “that a star who has taken the screen by storm should receive no salary for his services, and should have been made, not born.” With the unsentimental detachment of a plant manager, Disney proceeds to marvel at the wealth produced by this free labor:
[Mickey Mouse’s] exploits have brought in many thousands of pounds, though the star himself is just something out of an ink-pot—if you view him in a literal light, which I don’t. Mickey Mouse is a very real personality to me. It has been said that Mickey is the only star who satisfies high-brows, broad-brows and low-brows alike the world over. Well, I am proud of him, and of the great success he has brought me personally. It was a pleasure to create him.
In the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard brought together Walt Disney’s own observation with the foregoing strands of 1930s and 1940s critique. The victory of the market economy, premised on cheap labor and the enduring passion of millions of American Mickeys and Donalds, had culminated in a hyperreality, one modeled by Disneyland itself. The theme park, Baudrillard wrote, provides “a play of illusions and phantasms” that exists to hide “all of ‘real’ America that is Disneyland.” For Baudrillard, the unreality of Disney’s original animations—the escapism praised by Eisenstein, the elimination of meaningful experience noted by Benjamin, and the organized brutality observed by Adorno and Horkheimer—was now the stuff of American life. Disneyland promised a vacation from this cartoon in the guise of another live-action cartoon, one that played out in a park of bobbleheaded mascots and real-pretend magical castles.
What was worse, Baudrillard lamented: Disneyland showed that there is no longer an exterior world available to adults. “The world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere.” I take Baudrillard’s grumpy, almost unseemly seriousness as a sad form of humor, an affect that does not really diminish the usefulness of his observation. As a matter of rhetoric, it’s ridiculous to write about Disney for the same reason he does so solemnly: it’s for children, and it’s everywhere.
If the Disney regime is poised to rule over entertainment—from streaming television to live sports to blockbuster movies—it will continue to do so according to the methods laid out by these early observers. To the extent that it does rely on its franchises, for example, Disney conforms to Baudrillard’s description. What is the live-action Beauty and the Beast but a simulacrum meant to replace the original? The new version tightly mirrors the cartoon, with minor variations, yet it surpassed its total earnings in a matter of days. Which is to say that Disney now supplies the nostalgia for Disneyfication, a magic which almost always works on viewers. Take the case of A.O. Scott, who writes that the Beauty and the Beast remake
is more than a flesh-and-blood (and prosthetic fur-and-horns) revival of the 26-year-old cartoon, and more than a dutiful trip back to the pop-culture fairy-tale well. Its classicism feels unforced and fresh. Its romance neither winks nor panders. It looks good, moves gracefully and leaves a clean and invigorating aftertaste. I almost didn’t recognize the flavor: I think the name for it is joy.
Under these conditions, when joy is a flavor, you would be forgiven for believing that all cultural products can find praise, no matter how baby-ready or preloaded with focus-grouped controversy (snatched up and spread by Twitter). And you’d be worse than wrong: you’d be right. It’s the very conditions of total entertainment, of a fake cultural democracy where users and consumers defend their viewing habits even as they mock them, that allow Disney to purchase the trashier bulk of Murdoch’s Fox without diluting its brand—we’ll watch anyway. The only question that remains, for most of us, is which episode to click on. Each decision to stream has become a personal Brexit, a referendum between dismal choices.
Meanwhile, Eisenstein’s delight—the pre-logical morphism of Disney’s early animals, its shapeshifting birds and beasts—has given way to a cynical post-logic. The magic kingdom now assembles films from readymade whimsy of children, who are bribed to participate in focus groups. It also passes off market research as storytelling, as in the case of Coco, which is now the highest grossing film in the history of Mexico.
Worst of all is Disney’s willful elimination of human experience, first observed by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. The company has become so skilled at shrinking human life that it is now praised for the opposite: for elaborating our interior worlds. But if you watched Inside Out and thought it was perilously restrictive with regard to human feeling, you might not be surprised to learn that Pixar whittled down the number of “emotions” experienced by its child protagonist from twenty-six to five. Yet of all recent Disney films, it’s the most revealing about contemporary life. Why so named? When it comes to Disney, our Tomorrowland of total entertainment, inside is out, and outside is in, and there is no escaping the child’s mind.