Disney and the American Dream
The influence of the Disney enterprise cannot be ignored. Every child growing up in America since the 1940s is very familiar with this ubiquitous empire. Disney films are known to portray and reinforce many American virtues and ideals, particularly the idea of the American Dream. The American Dream is the ideology that America is the land of opportunity in which individuals can rise from rags to riches if they are willing to work hard enough, have the right attitude, and take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. The American Dream is a myth because it is a narrative that seems utterly natural to a great number of people, despite it having no measurable validity. It has been accepted as a truth, and the driving force that motivates many people. The uniqueness of the United States, being isolated from the rest of the world, having a strong influence despite its short history, and the unprecedented opportunities and freedom that the country promised, all contributed to the formation of this myth.
The idea of the dream has been naturalized over the course of time, and Disney films are one of the forces that contribute to this. According to Barthes, a myth is a message that is received rather than read. When watching Pinocchio or Cinderella, the dream myth being natural and possible is received without any obvious explanation or statement. There are many ways in which Disney presents the dream myth to the audiences that make the conveying of the ideology seem innocent. In both films, the dream resonates especially well with the American audience because each story seems to be a form of the original myth that has been re-written for the events happening at the time.
Pinocchio begins with one of the main characters, Jiminy Cricket, singing the song that played during the opening credits, “When you wish upon a star/your dreams come true.” He addresses the viewer in a way that makes him seem friendly, modest and wise, ready to share his wisdom. Jiminy tells us he didn’t believe in wishes coming true until something made him change his mind. Opening up a storybook, he begins to tell us the story of Pinocchio, a puppet who is on a quest to become a human boy because his father-creator, Geppetto, wished upon a star to have a boy of his own.
Pinocchio was released when America was in the midst of World War II and still significantly weakened the Great Depression. The American people were hard at work, striving to rise above the Depression while constantly contributing to the war efforts from home. It was a time when propaganda grew stronger and America started becoming a consumer society. Supporting the troops was heavily promoted and people began buying for a cause. Women were going to work in the factories for the first time as their husbands went off to war, opening the door for new aspirations and financial freedom that had not been available before. In other words, the American dream was changing as capitalism and feminism began to play a role.
The story of Pinocchio is a reinforcement of the capitalism that is beginning to take over America, as well as the idea that if you work hard enough, no matter at what point you start, you will rise in social class. It is a reinforcement of capitalism because Pinocchio must work hard and prove his worth in order to get what he wants. The ability to rise in social class was made possible by capitalism. It didn’t matter anymore in which class you were born but rather what skills you possessed and how hard you worked to make something of yourself. This idea resonated with the American audience because most Americans had suffered significantly from the Great Depression and were working hard to make a better life for themselves and for their children. Similarly, women were, for the first time, able to make small movements in their position in society. As Barthes says, myths “act as conceptual maps of meaning by which to make sense of the world.” At a time when the American people were sacrificing a great deal, being presented with the idea that these sacrifices and hard work would pay off resonate well.
Pinocchio was not born human, he started as a puppet and through the wish of Gepetto was made into an animated puppet, and from there it was up to him to prove himself worthy of becoming a real boy. Pinocchio’s task is to prove himself to be brave, truthful and unselfish. These traits resonate with a Western audience of the time because they are characteristics that people were supposed to have in the time of war. The American soldiers were supposed to be brave and the people at home waiting for the return of their soldiers were supposed to be brave. The men going to war were unselfishly fighting for their country, while the people on the home front were unselfishly rationing and contributing to the efforts. Pinocchio ultimately proves himself after making a few mistakes along the way, as any normal person would. Despite the troubles, Pinocchio’s desire to make his father happy and become a real boy is what drives him to make the wish come true. When Pinocchio becomes a real boy it is because he has worked for it. The story teaches that humanity it not something that is given; achieving your dream is not an easy thing to do. Similarly, the American dream carries a certain chance of failure.
The presentation of the dream in Pinocchio can be understood as the re-writing of a myth for an audience in the 1940s. By showing that Pinocchio started as a wooden puppet, as low in social class as you can get considering a puppet is not even human, and worked his way all the way up to becoming a real, human boy, the movie is selling the idea of unlimited vertical mobility, that anyone can move as far upward in society as they wish if they work hard enough. Further, it is promoting ideological principles that should be embodied by Americans and taught to the children of the time. The American dream is being modified, echoing the desires and traits of the 1940s America while still promoting the original ideology of achievement.
The Cinderella story has been told many times. Disney’s 1950 adaption was based on the fairytale written by Charles Perrault in 17th century France, which is only one of hundreds of other Cinderella stories that have been identified by folklorists from all over the world. Telling the Cinderella story was a huge commercial and critical success for Disney. It became the most popular movie the company created since Snow White in 1937. The profits made from Cinderella’s release brought the company out of debt and enabled the continued production of films throughout the decade.
The success of Disney’s Cinderella has much to do with the condition of America in 1950. It was the postwar period, five years after World War II ended. Wartime had affected daily life in America, demanding a significant effort to provide materials on the warfront. While the war eventually ended the Great Depression and brought back many jobs to the American people, it also brought shortages that required them to ration items like food and clothing. As propaganda grew strong, the American mentality was that of rising to the challenge of doing all that was necessary on their part to win the war. It was not a time of celebrating and flaunting social status but rather of being a proud American citizen just like everyone else, working hard to do their part. The end of the war brought back the ideas of opportunity and success. As I mentioned before, capitalism was growing and as people began to make more money, the mentality of consumerism grew stronger. Consumer spending no longer revolved around supporting the war. As a kind of reward for the resilience of the American people in addition to their increased wages, many Americans were eager to spend their hard earned money.
The ball gown in Cinderella is one of the seemingly innocent ways Disney promoted the dream. Essentially modeled after Christian Dior’s “new look”, the dress was a revival of the hourglass figure, something that was lost during the war years. Wartime fashion had been drab and uniform, practical and restrained. The silhouette was undefined beneath the boxy outfits. Women were to dress simply if they were to be perceived as patriotic. Following the war, America was pushed into an economic boom. After working hard and rationing for years, people finally had enough money and the country had enough materials to return to expressive and luxurious fashion. Cinderella’s transformation from rags to riches, seen physically as a fashion transformation from dusty, nondescript workers clothing to the sparkling white ball gown, was exactly what American women at the time were looking for. Before the war only the rich could afford luxurious clothing, but the postwar economy allowed for the growing middle class to afford these kinds of items as well.
Cinderella, unlike Pinocchio, is a story about regaining social status. Cinderella was not born into the lower class but rather trapped there due to unfortunate circumstances. She represents all those who were trapped in poverty during the Great Depression, who were forced to ration and do what was expected of them rather than what they really desired during the war. The idea of poverty is constantly repeated in the film. The notion is echoed especially by Cinderella’s mice friends. They are trapped in cages, have to fight for food, and are constantly being chased by Lucifer, the cat that represents the force oppressing them in poverty. Cinderella was a story that reinforced to the American people the idea that things were getting better. Good had triumphed over evil (another myth that the American audience believes in and that was bolstered by the war) and now the people will be rewarded. By working hard and being good and kind, Cinderella is deserving of achieving her dream of having a better life. It is not only Cinderella’s personality traits of good virtue that drive her dream to come true. Her character at first seems passive, never able to do anything for herself and always relying on her animal friends to get the work done for her. However, she is not a passive character. She does try to be active but is constantly prevented by the stepmother. It is through her patience, perseverance and kindness that she is active and enables things to happen and, eventually, how her dream comes true.
Cinderella achieving a better life for herself resonates with the postwar American audience. The economic boom in America was proof that working hard leads to great rewards. As the country was experiencing progress it was the perfect time to emphasize the American Dream, as reality seemed to be emphasizing it as well, allowing the people to continue believing in the myth as it seemed like the progress being made was fate. Similar to Pinocchio, Cinderella can be understood as the dream myth being rewritten for the audience of the time. While Pinocchio promoted ideals of working hard, being selfless and brave during a difficult time in America when these traits were necessary to keep the American people moving forward, Cinderella promotes ideals of being good and kind, seizing opportunity and being restored to a higher social status that the American people believed they were deserving of.
American myths and ideologies are repeated in many Disney movies, and within each movie they are reinforced constantly. The dream myth is seen particularly well in Pinocchio and Cinderella because both films firmly and consistently push the idea that dreams can and will come true, using both somewhat direct messages, such as the opening song lyrics, as well as more subtle, seemingly innocent signs. Both Pinocchio and Cinderella can be seen as movies that were re-writing the myth of the American dream for the 20th century. By using social structures and habits that reflected what was happening in America at the time, they successfully resonated with Western audiences and reinforced the dream myth. Barthes says that mythical signs seem like they have been created particularly for the receiver, while the history which created the myth is not seen. Both Pinocchio and Cinderella’s dreams rely on the audience’s belief in the original myth of the American Dream, but by tailoring the stories specifically for the time they are making the stories seem personal and direct.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Web.