The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust
Mark I. Pinsky, the religion reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, is one of the foremost U.S. journalists covering religion today --- and I write that from personal experience, on two levels. First, as a former religion reporter for The Asbury Park Press, I know how challenging the job can be and how much open-mindedness and fair-mindedness it takes to do justice to various expressions of faith, given the highly personal and emotionally charged nature of the field of religion. Second, I live in the Orlando area and regularly read Pinsky's work. I know of no other religion reporter working today who puts so much effort into understanding the nuances of each stream of faith and every little rivulet that's part of each of those streams.
Pinsky's journalistic skills are enhanced by his analytical skills, and both are evident throughout THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO DISNEY. Pinsky understands the Disney "theology" as well as he understands the concerns of religious people who have taken that theology to task over the years. Contemporary readers may be most familiar with the failed Baptist boycott of a few years ago, but as the author points out, both Jews and Muslims have also attacked the entertainment giant. Back in 1933, the American Jewish Congress --- Pinsky is Jewish, by the way --- charged Disney with perpetuating a Jewish stereotype in the animated short The Three Little Pigs, in which the big bad wolf disguises himself as a Jewish peddler with a large hooked nose and a Yiddish accent. Similarly, Arab and Muslim groups expressed outrage over the Middle Eastern stereotypes portrayed in the 1992 feature Aladdin, which I suspect you would have to be blind not to see. As Pinsky points out, the villains are all stereotypical Arabs while the stars of the show, Aladdin and Jasmine, more closely resemble tanned Southern Californians, despite the surfer girl's almond-shaped eyes.
But just what is this Disney gospel --- this blend of "faith, trust, and pixie dust"? It's American cultural religion: belief in the ability of the self to overcome adversity, faith in faith itself, adherence to the American ethic of morality and hard work. Pinsky cites a wonderful quote from evangelicalism's Phil Vischer, of VeggieTales fame: "Like a house dressing designed to appeal moderately to almost everyone while offending no one, Disney created a sort of 'house religion,' absorbing much of the benefits of Judeo-Christian belief while leaving behind any 'unseemly' obligation to conform to the will of a higher authority…[appealing to] people who want to believe in something that doesn't require anything of them. That's the religion we've all been dying for."
Pinsky traces the evolution of the Disney gospel --- which includes the good news about inclusivism and environmentalism, two terms that rankle evangelicals --- from the studio's earliest releases to the 2003 release of Brother Bear and touches on Disney-related news as recent as the arrest several months ago of Tigger --- okay, the man who wore the Tigger costume, if you must get technical --- on a charge of fondling a young teenager. (Tigger was found not guilty, by the way.)
Some of Pinsky's analyses: The Black Cauldron: "The Judeo-Christian construct that frames most of Disney's animated features is wholly absent in this pagan fantasy…neither God nor stars nor fairy godmothers intervene"; The Little Mermaid: "…a seismic shift…in the way young women are portrayed. In contrast to her predecessors, Ariel acts rather than being acted on. She makes decisions and takes risks…[an indicator] of the changing role of women in the West" (a change some evangelicals denounced as radical feminism at the time); The Lion King: [the movie] "demonstrated that, after all the decades of caricature and stereotype, it was indeed possible for Disney…to reach beyond the Western experience and the Judeo-Christian construct."
Pinsky concludes that Disney's films are "useful tools in building a general, moral sensibility among children and in reinforcing parental and religious values" --- values that, if strong enough and communicated clearly enough, will not be undermined by the Disney theology. He draws this conclusion not only as a religion reporter but also as a concerned parent who has struggled with the effects of media saturation on young minds.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO DISNEY is an enlightening read for Disney lovers and Disney haters alike --- and for those who have become increasingly troubled by the media giant's seeming change in direction from the straight and narrow. You may reach a different conclusion from Pinsky's, but you'll do so armed with a wealth of information to defend your decision. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on July 14, 2004