Whether it was frequent visits to Disneyland or watching classic Disney animation, one professor’s childhood memories planted the seed that would soon blossom into a passion for examining Disney and its effects on pop culture.
English Professor Tim Melnarik combines the culture of Disney and argumentative writing in his English 1A classes titled “Disney and American Values.” The class discusses Disney’s influence on American culture, perceptions of identity, and character analysis.
Before settling on Disney, Melnarik taught with general examples of pop culture, such as movies, television shows, video games and comic books. However, he ran into difficulties when students wouldn’t understand some of the references he would make. In order to keep everyone involved in the discussions, Melnarik immediately thought of Disney as a common ground.
“Occasionally I’ll have students in [the class] that hear this is what we’re reading about and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to do 15 weeks on Disney, it’s sugary and cute’ but I always tell them ‘good, then I want you here, this class isn’t meant to be a Disney fan club,’” he said. “It’s just saying the company is big, its products are everywhere, what effect does that have?”
Just because Disney is a central theme to the class doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. Students still create critical interpretations of the material as they would in any other English class. The first essay, a character analysis, requires students to flesh out deep connections between Disney characters and the concepts of American culture they symbolize.
“It really needs to be an analytical approach to the character so they can get into the relationship between the larger culture and this particular character as an embodiment of it,” he explained. “Because we are talking about the values and beliefs, we’re kind of playing amateur anthropologist.”
Although most might focus on classic Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, the typical Disney universe isn’t the only option to choose from. With Disney’s recent purchases of Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012, the extensive list of characters is expanded to include those from movies such as “The Avengers” and “Star Wars.”
One such character analysis discussed Boba Fett from “Star Wars” as a representation of capitalism and the free market. Other analyses might take a more direct approach with some of the more well-known Disney characters.
Perspective plays an important role when it comes to writing about such a prominent cultural institution. Melnarik noticed a recurring difference between how critical students were of the company. His international students would respond with deeper critiques while American born students were less critical, due to cultural differences.
“If we’re raised with it, we have that tendency of ‘oh, I remember watching that as a kid.’ You know, we have all the nostalgia for it, and they may not,” he said. “They can kind of approach [the prompts] from a purely adult perspective rather than having it colored by warm and fuzzy childhood memories.”
Current student Ala Damra chose to analyze Cinderella and how her actions reflected American women during the time period when the movie was released compared to women today.
“I realized that there was a lot more to Cinderella than what meets the eye,” she said. “Back in the day, when ‘Cinderella’ originally came out, women didn’t have much freedom, so Cinderella looked for a prince to save her from those circumstances. Nowadays, women are so much more independent, so just seeing that transition from then until now…we’re more outspoken now.”
Prior to the class, Damra didn’t know much of the personal history behind Walt Disney. Now, she finds Walt Disney as an interesting and inspirational person because of his determination to create memorable characters.
As a child, Disney faced everyday struggles as he came from a middle class family that hardly had the income to spend on luxuries. He distributed newspapers and sold early artwork in order to help his parents provide for the rest of his siblings. Eventually he pursued a career as an artist and created the entertainment empire that we know today.
The histories behind Walt Disney and Michael Graves speak particularly deep to Karla Padilla, an eager student fascinated with researching everything related to Disney. Padilla chose Graves, an architect, for her research paper since Graves worked on Disney projects such as the Dolphin and Swan Resorts for Walt Disney World.
In the early 2000s, Graves became paralyzed from the chest down. He did not give up on his architecture career, however. Graves continued to design facilities with greater accessibility for others with limited movement.
“What strikes me the most is learning about people who go through things and they don’t get set back. We have some many things that can bring us down, but [these] people, for some reason, came out on top,” said Padilla. “This class has me on my toes all the time … when I’m in class my brain opens up, it’s so interesting and I want to go and find out more.”