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‘Fantasy and Reality often Overlap’: How have Disney changed over the century?

How have Disney characters developed over the century? What have Disney done to address racism and misogyny in their older movies?

Walt Disney and his ‘World of Tomorrow’ vision for Disney has been a great inspiration to me since I was a small child. One of the first reports I did in grade school was on Walt and the newspaper route that he and his brother used to pull themselves out of poverty. Family seemed to be the main focus and priority of everything Walt did, with his brother Roy being his biggest supporter. The massive expansion of Disney as a multi-billion-dollar corporation didn’t actually occur until after Walt’s death and Roy’s completion of Florida’s Walt Disney World. After that report, learning about Walt’s life and his impact on the world has been a fascination for me.  

Since 1923, Disney has been a household name and quickly became a worldwide dynasty. Under the magnifying glass of Hollywood, Walt Disney Studios have been at the forefront of discussion around racism and misogyny. Its early depiction of women and race, in works such as the Song of the South, are testament to its controversy and criticism for being outdated. In recent years, however, Disney’s content has taken a deeper route to embrace beliefs from a variety of cultures and theologies. 

Movies like Soul, Coco, Onward and a half a dozen other examples, leave us wondering whether Disney is pushing viewers towards a path of higher consciousness. Concepts like reincarnation, equality, and spiritual growth are becoming more regular themes in Disney movies, as spirituality is becoming a more popular in Western culture. But has Disney shown their own spiritual growth as a company leading the pack, or are they just jumping on the Spirituality Train for popular gain? 

Disney’s Colourful Past 

While the blunt truths of the original tales were often underrepresented and taken out of literary interpretation, some of Disney’s earlier pieces have been reconsidered for exploits of racism and questionable content. In today’s age, the works that were redacted are hard to find, for good reason. I think this reflects the growth the company has experienced. Last year, in 2020, Disney announced they would be removing Splash Mountain which still had the last traces of the racist 1946 film Song of the South, and in its place, would rightfully be a tribute to the independent and fiery Tiana, Disney’s first African American princess straight from the heart of New Orleans, and one of my daughter’s personal favorites.  

In the 90s, discussion arose surrounding Disney’s role in stifling the position of women in society. At the time, my mom had Women’s Studies class in college that delved into this topic in depth. There was much argument into how Disney’s typical Princess Archetype had damaged the ideas of what women were capable of. The princesses of the 30’s and 50’s, represented a much more ‘domestic’ interpretation of women, similar to the roles they were given in society at the time. Yet Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all broke from those homemaking roles for something greater. 

The princesses of the 80’s and 90’s were even more daring and brought diversity to the Disney Company. Pocahontas and Mulan are two prime examples of courageous women who stood against their whole communities and families, to do what was right. In today’s world, a new role of independent young women have emerged to break the stereotypical Disney princess role. With princesses like Merida and Moana, and a queen like Elsa, there is a fresh new wave of representation for the younger generations.  

A Story of Growth

While there has yet to be an LGBT Disney Princess, Disney has done a lot of growth in terms of representing LGBT characters. As a part of the LGBT community, I’ve noticed more characters across their Television Networks and movies appearing. Officer Specter in Disney’s Onward has one of my favorite LGBT moments when she talks about her girlfriend’s daughter. The simple everyday inclusion had an element of reality I have yet to see in other pieces. Onward was also the first Disney movie to make head-on reference to living in a society that had lost its magic, a strong parallel to our culture today.

On top of this, movies have begun to introduce other concepts of a deeper thinking and cultural awareness. Coco’s beautiful representation of the Mexican Dios de los Muertos and the Land of the Dead was riveting. Not only did it bring the Hispanic culture to Disney’s growing diversity, but Coco was a great reminder of our spiritual connection with the dead. Alejibres brought the concept of spirit animals to our homes. Similarly, Moana’s grandmother’s death shows a beautiful reincarnation into a stingray, an animal Gramma Tala felt was her spirit animal. The plot in Frozen 2 is based on Elsa’s path of self-realization and awakening, and takes inspiration from Sámi Natives of Norway and their beliefs. In her self-discovery, Elsa finds out that she is the fifth spirit, after earth, air, water and fire. This ties into the theme of self-love that is established in the first film as the lake Ahtohallan can be viewed as a metaphor for enlightenment and the Divine Feminine.

Yet by far, Disney’s greatest venture into Spirituality has been with their newest animated film, Soul. Soul is the story of Joe, a pianist who finds himself crossing into The Great Beyond after a tragic accident. Not ready to leave Earth, Joe gets lost trying to return and finds himself in the place where Souls find their Spark – The Great Before. As Joe helps 22 – a lost soul – try to find his spark, he realizes he has a lot to learn himself. 22 also happens to be a ‘Master Number’ for those who didn’t catch the nod to Numerology.Soul also embraces the ideas of one’s purpose, the astral, “The Zone” and the risks of what happens to a soul that is in despair.  

Have Disney’s Developments been Positive?  

As society has grown to embrace humanity, equality, and spirituality, Disney has been doing the same, even before we were aware. If you go back and look closely across the century, you will see an effort to make amends for past wrongs and, attempts to focus on Disney’s own progression and growth. Now, it has been made so that there is a seat at the table for all and every seat has an opportunity to be heard. 

Disney’s influence on the hearts and minds of children all over the world, generation after generation, has been around for nearly a century. It’s clear that the Disney legacy has a reach and impact that not many possess, as people all over the world have fallen head over heels with Disney’s inspiring children’s tales filled with adventure and love. With the works that have come out in the past few years, I look forward to what has yet to come. I am excited to see how Disney’s evolving, progressive beliefs will shape the next generation and, from what I have seen as a parent, I have faith that a more accepting and loving generation will emerge.  

Whether it has been a ‘Mirror on the Wall’ side-by-side reflection of the world we live in, or the ‘World of Tomorrow’ that Walt envisioned, I think an element of spirituality always existed in the ‘Happily Ever Afters’ that Disney has given us. As society has acknowledged the influence Disney has, it seems more likely to me that Disney has been on the course of spirituality for a very long time rather than simply jumping onto the trending bandwagon. Perhaps the future of Disney is even brighter than its past. As a parting thought, I will leave you with two quotes that illuminate the care and consideration Walt put into creating Disney. 

“Fantasy and Reality often overlap.” – Walt Disney 

“Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” – Walt Disney

Destiny Webb

Destiny Webb is a Young Adult Fiction Author, whose debut title (‘My Wish For You') has hit the Amazon Bestseller List, and the creator of EverybodysMama, a family and self-care blog. She is an avid crafter and artist with an interest in spirituality, world religions, astrology, and metaphysics.