Walt Disney: the father of the ideal American Child

May 18th, 2015

(Figure a)


(Figure b)

By: Cat Lincoln

Walt Disney has been noted as one of the most influential figures in American consumer culture. Specifically, his vision for fantasy and imaginative play for children established the significance of the child market sector that continues to dominate modern day advertising strategy. While Disney seems to operate solely on childlike fun to attract and influence children as consumers, a closer look into Disney during the 1930s reveals the science behind the company’s approach to grab control of both parents and their children as consumers. In Babes in Tomorrowland, Nicholas Sammond analyzes Disney’s role in creating the ideal American child, the illusion of which solidified the company’s immense and ever growing consumer population. During the Great Depression, the mold of the American became very malleable in a country that stood waiting for a solution to severe social and economic problems. The child, overall, was raised to the highest level of concern as the belief emerged that “the fate of the nation now hinged on the well-being of all children”. (1, 111) Studies and popular cultural opinion revealed the vulnerability of America’s youth to an atmosphere of little to no job opportunities and the social problems (violence, depression, a lack of sufficient family and care) that came with it. With the idea that consumption directly influenced the child’s growth and development, parents became responsible for their children’s consumption.

Walt Disney seized the opportunity to become the imagined “father” of the ideal American child that every parent should want theirs to be. As opposed to “bad” media parents, Disney became the “good parent” with a promise to “keep youngsters away from sex-filled pictures, eternal triangle and adultery themes, horror films”. Disney took advantage of its position and produced commodities of “domestic fantasy” for the parents to “properly create…the natural, middle-class environment of the normal child.” (1, 112) Yet Disney film seemed to be the primary mechanism of the company’s consumerism. When children watched “Pinocchio”, for example, they consumed the character as a “real body” or “real American child”, thus consuming “Walt Disney [and] ingest[ing] the qualities essential to American-ness”. (1, 113)

In the mid 1930s, Disney advertised the behind-the-scenes work that went into their film masterpieces. Walt Disney stepped into the “father” role of the ideal American child by communicating to parents that “like parenting, animation was a difficult and extremely labor-intensive art.” (1, 115) The company, according to Sammond, prided itself on its scientific approach to animation and cartoon that set it apart from others in terms of properly educating America’s children on American values. The attached clip of a 1997 video reveals the original behind-the scenes recording of “Bambi”. (Figure a.) Walt Disney address us to reveal the impressive science behind the film and the hard, dedicated work put in by his staff. “Bambi”, a notable Disney masterpiece, features animal characters within an natural landscape. Disney says “we knew that to retain the charm of these creatures, our animated drawings must fully capture the natural movements and attitudes of living animals”.

He then emphasizes how they went one step further: “the trouble with pets is they act like pets and that wasn’t what we were looking for. So we tried a new approach. We would study motion pictures of wild animals in their natural state” Even for the animation of the rain storm in the film, the staff looked at “slow motion photography of drops of milk”, mastering the exact science behind basic animation. It is clear in this footage that Disney pushed the meticulous scientific work of his enterprise to be the best “father” of child consumption. In the second clip of the “Snow White” premiere, the spokesperson refers to “the genius” of Walt Disney for creating “lovable characters” that “brings to motion pictures a new medium for a greater art.” (Figure b.) Walt Disney emerged during this time as an idealized father who had mastered the parenting of ideal American children. It is not hard to see how the company exploded in American consumer culture with powerful and unceasing influence.

(1) Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.

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