The Guardian August 25, 1999


The Magic of Disney?

Barbara McCaul, argues  in Education for the Future that to 
transnational entertainment corporations like Disney, children are a vast 
and expanding market to be exploited and milked of a real childhood.

Last Christmas, the average child in Britain would have received over $600 
worth of goodies, according to a report in the British Guardian 
Weekly.

This consumer bonanza is not just at Christmas. Childhood itself has become 
a consumer experience.

Food products, drinks, clothes and entertainment are all manufactured 
outside the home. Through intense advertising, children are programmed to 
pressurise parents (in the advertising world it's called the nuisance 
factor) to part with their hard-earned cash.

There has been a phenomenal surge in children's consumption over the last 
30 years. Spending on clothing and toys more than trebled and spending on 
sweets, ice-cream and soft drinks went up by one third.

This growth is in no small part a direct response to advertising campaigns 
directed specifically at children.

In Britain, most children over the age of eight have a TV in their bedroom 
and watch on average 900 hours of TV each year (which is more than the 750 
hours they average actually being taught in schools). So these children 
could see in excess of 10,000 adverts each year.

James McNeal, a marketing guru, describes the powerful effect of 
advertising on children like this: "Children under the age of eight 
believe advertising unconditionally, tend to see it as a logical part of 
programming and tend not to perceive the selling intent of it.

"Advertising to children is virtually all emotion and persuasion. 
Advertisers put to work all the creativity they can muster to create a 
fantasy environment."

And speaking of fantasy, that brings me neatly to the magical world of Walt 
Disney.

"The magic starts before you know it. You've barely stepped off the plane 
in Orlando's dazzling, hi-tech airport before you've been whisked into a 
Disney-like blender.

A smoothly efficient monorail glides to the terminal building, while a 
silken recorded voice welcomes you to the home of Walt Disney World.

"Below, the shimmering pools, waving palm trees and manicured green grass 
of the landscaped grounds reinforce the message that you've made it to 
fantasy land, a bounded and cloistered universe isolated from the cares and 
concerns of real life" (from the introduction to a series of articles on 
Disney in the December 1998 issue of the New Internationalist).

The Disney Corporation

The Walt Disney Corporation is a $23 billion media conglomerate only 
marginally behind Time-Warner, the world's number one media group. Disney 
is expanding steadily to all parts of the world, exporting so-called 
Western culture.

There are Disneylands in Florida, California, Tokyo and Paris. The company 
is keen to break into the potentially lucrative Chinese market of 1.2 
billion people.

In 1996, they launched a Chinese language radio station, broadcasting from 
Hong Kong and reaching more than 400 million Chinese.

The Disney Corporation has interests in book, magazine and newspaper 
publishing, mainstream feature film production and distribution, cable TV, 
music recording, live stage shows, real estate developments, major league 
baseball and ice-hockey, video production and sales, retail stores, product 
licensing, computer software and on-line services  pretty all-pervasive.

Fantasy

Disney's animated films, for which it is probably best known, never set out 
to offend  that would be bad for business. But of course animators and 
songwriters internalise racism and sexism and the imagineers at 
Disney look to reinforce cultural assumptions in order to boost audiences.

The latest Disney animated film, Mulan, is based on Chinese legend 
about a woman warrior who disguised herself in order to fight in the 
imperial army. She wasn't found out until after the war when her comrades 
found her in women's clothes.

Of course, Disney gave her their own special treatment: she is discovered 
after being injured in battle and is sentenced to die but the hero, her 
commanding officer, can't kill her.

She's expelled from the army and after the war he seeks her out and sweeps 
her off her feet.

Pocahontas was another example of the Disney fantasy machine. 
Pocahontas' real name was Matoaka, and the film was very loosely based on 
the story of her life.

Disney's "buckskin Barbie" bears little resemblance to Matoaka, who married 
a colonist, John Roche, and died of smallpox in England. In the drive to 
maximise profit, the Disney Corporation cares little for cultural heritage, 
even that of north America.

Racism

Racism and ethnic stereotyping also thrive in the world of Disney. In 
Aladdin, the dastardly characters  like Jafar, the vizier  are 
decidedly Arab-looking, while Aladdin (call me Al) is an all-American boy.

The song lyrics don't escape this treatment either: "I come from a land ... 
where they cut off your ears if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, 
but hey, it's home."

The term "Disneyfied" has entered the language and also into the lives of 
our children. It's the process of turning the real world into a replica of 
Disneyland  sanitised, safe, entertaining and predictable but also highly 
destructive and debasing.

Needless to say, the cuddly, sanitised Disney fantasy crumbles when put 
under close scrutiny. What is exposed is the drive to extend markets and 
maximise profits at any price.

The workforce

Disney World Florida has 50,000 employees. That is the largest number of 
employees in the US at a single worksite.

The Disney Corp pumps out all kinds of statistics to leave people with a 
sense of awe  but some things they are not keen to talk about. Like the 
sweetheart deal they managed to swing with local and state authorities when 
they first floated the Orlando scheme in 1965.

In a nutshell, in exchange for the promised millions of tourists, the state 
gave the company all the rights and powers of an independent municipal 
government.

Part of the deal included creative accounting in relation to local taxes, 
all very legal and saving the company millions every year.

The workers, of course, don't benefit from these tax dodges.

Employees are given jobs according to age and experience  the company 
calls this "casting". However, even when you've been "cast" in a front line 
job (reserved in practice for pretty, young people), the wages are still 
low.

The starting rate of US$5.95 an hour hasn't changed for five years. You can 
earn US$10 an hour after ten years, but the turnover rate is so high that 
two thirds of the workforce make US$6.75 an hour or less.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's former union, the Service Employees' 
International Union (SEIU), represents 22,000 full-time and 5,000 part-time 
workers at Disney World.

Disney boasts of being a progressive employer offering competitive 
salaries. Mike Cohen, President of the local union branch, doesn't agree.

"Sure, they're competitive compared to the minimum wage which is at the 
poverty level. And sure, we get 30 percent off Disney merchandise, stuff 
that's already priced way beyond what we can afford."

Cohen is especially annoyed about the company's "benchmark" system of work 
monitoring. Time and motion experts keep constant track of the number of 
people using each attraction and all the turnstiles are computerised.

"We have to push as many visitors through each ride as we can. That's their 
main concern", complains Cohen.

"If we don't, we hear about it from the management: `The counts are low, 
you need to pick up the counts.' You hear that constantly.

"They talk about the hourly operational ride capacity, but they never say, 
`are you being safe enough?' At Big Thunder Mountain (that's one of the 
rides) I'm supposed to handle 2,000 visitors an hour.

"It's just like a factory with assembly line production, only this is a fun 
factory."

It is clear Disney is prepared to jeopardise safety in the drive to 
increase profit margins.

Workers producing merchandise for Disney in different parts of the world 
are even worse off than those in Florida. Much of the merchandise work is 
sub-contracted to companies in places like Haiti paying poverty level 
wages.

In Haiti, Remi, a young sewing machine operator making Disney T-shirts, has 
been a machine operator for five years but still earns only 30 cents an 
hour  that's the official minimum wage in Haiti  US$2.40 a day or 
US$624 a year.

The plight of these Haitian workers, and others in the estimated 3,000 
Disney-contracted factories around the globe, shows the power of footloose 
capital in a world hungry for work.

Disney's Chairman, Michael Eisner, received over US$185 million in pay and 
stock options in 1996. It would take Remi, the machinist, 156 years to earn 
what Eisner earns in one hour.

Ideology

In the battle of ideas, teachers have a vital role to play in countering 
these American fantasies. We have to give children back their childhoods, 
help them to celebrate their own achievements, have a sense of their own 
worth and not be in awe of glitzy show biz personalities.

We have to equip children to enjoy literature, train them to read and be 
critical and ask questions and above all give them a sense of pride in 
their rich cultural backgrounds and a respect for the cultural backgrounds 
of people around the world.

Transnational corporations have occupied the territory of childhood. We 
have to reverse that  and be alert to the warning signs that 
international business is now trying to occupy the world of education.

Unchecked, they will debase and destroy our education system in the same 
way.

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