“Is the room actually stretching…or is it your imagination?” the narrator in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion asks its consumers. This is an important question in an America where every day the world becomes more like a theme park and a theme park becomes more like the world, which is why Henry Giroux, in The Mouse That Roared, exhorts his audience to read this “reality” carefully and to encourage others to do the same.
Giroux describes his proposed strategy early on: “I am suggesting a very different approach to Disney, one that highlights the pedagogical and the contextual by raising questions about Disney itself, (1) what role it plays in shaping public memory, national identity, gender roles, and childhood values; (2) in suggesting who qualifies as an American; and (3) in determining the role of consumerism in American life.” Rather than try to figure out what the constituent products mean, he advocates a more holistic approach to Disney (the parks, the merchandise, the media, the corporation) and its place in our culture. In other words, Giroux thinks that we should question popular culture and teach our kids to question it as a part of a “democratic” education.
While the reader perhaps couldn’t agree with Giroux more, one will find that his advocacy of the study of popular culture ultimately leads to a particular pedagogical approach, demonstrated through examples of readings which he so generously offers. On the one hand, he explains, “The role of the critic of Disney’s animated films…is not to assign them a particular ideological reading but to analyze the themes and assumptions that support these films, both within and outside of the dominant institutional and ideological formations.” But then he goes on to illustrate through several close readings that ultimately “[t]he strategies of escapism, historical forgetting, and repressive pedagogy in Disney’s books, records, theme parks, movies, and TV programs produce identifications that define the United States as white, suburban, middle class, and heterosexual.” In other words, it seems as though the institutional reading becomes the ideological reading or at least the only ideological reading that matters. Rather than permit readers to truly read Disney in all of its complexity (which is what he suggests early on), Giroux seems to say there is only one right conclusion that can be drawn.
Furthermore, many of the arguments used to support this ideological meta-reading do not account for the possibility of alternate readings. For example, The Lion King is criticized for its “undisguised celebration of antidemocratic governments.” Such a point of criticism, while reasonable, is only one of many. In another instance, he posits that Disney has exploited a “pedagogy of innocence” through the Touchstone release Pretty Woman. Certainly, the film does bear a close reading, and Giroux performs this task well: Disney is guilty of hiding behind a veil of innocence. But, again, Giroux misreads when he claims that people make any real connection between that film and Disney’s claims to innocence. In fact, Disney seems pretty vigilant about separating the animated Disney features from the more adult Touchstone features (although I wonder how well a Pretty Woman-themed ride would be received). It seems that Giroux is so concerned with making all the pieces fit that he slips at times.
As far as its stated purpose goes, The Mouse That Roared is a useful book. It asks the reader to look at Disney’s role within society (a point which Giroux made a few years earlier in the brilliant and succinct article, “Animating Youth: the Disneyfication of Children’s Culture”), and the argument for such a reading is compelling as we cannot really ignore the fact that popular culture does educate citizens in ways that are often highly questionable. More than that, Giroux’s book is an excellent resource for people who are interested in such study because of its comprehensive use of outside sources.
It is when Giroux strays too far from the stated purpose that the book gets into some difficult speculative territory, and it is in such territory that his claims become simultaneously more interesting and more questionable, where he gets away from the obvious idea that Disney is worth studying. It is strange, for example, that the most insightful original material pertains to Good Morning, Vietnam and Pretty Woman, works that don’t even aim to instruct the children about whom Giroux is so concerned. The logic of the book gets shaken when he tries to incorporate these close readings into the whole.
In the end, Giroux reveals the real reason for his critical pedagogy: “The aims of this struggle are (1) creating public spheres that educate for critical consciousness, (2) closing the gap in wealth and property between the rich and poor, and (3) providing the resources for creating a democratic media linked to multiple public spheres.” It is when he owns up to his Marxism and explains that he sees culture as a springboard into a larger discourse that his purpose becomes clear, and perhaps had he been more up front about the reading implicit in his pedagogy it would have all made more sense. But instead of being straightforward, The Mouse That Roared tantalizes us early on with statements such as “But questioning what megacorporations such as Disney teach also means appropriating the most resistant and potentially subversive ideas, practices, and images at work in their cultural productions.” Instead we get, as mentioned earlier, “identifications that define the United States as white, suburban, middle class, and heterosexual.” In addition to being a cliche, especially when it comes to Disney studies, Giroux’s monolithic reading is ultimately inadequate.
There is more than one way to read Disney, and if we are serious about asking people to read Disney, we should not strive for a common conclusion. Not only is it poor pedagogy, it threatens to produce weak and uninspired results. One cannot doubt Giroux’s spirit and commitment it shines through in the close readings but it is fair to question his authority. There are much more exciting ways to create your own “alternative” reading of Disneyland. Fortunately, Disney studies, although well-developed, really offer plenty of room for creative speculation. The definitive book has yet to be written, and one can’t imagine how it ever could be. What this means, then, is that we should take Giroux’s first exhortation to read Disney critically, skim through his text, and pay close attention to his references and then embark on our own radical pedagogical journey.