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.