By Mary Cuff
Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age.
As the calls to boycott Disney grow ever stronger, many young parents are no doubt worried that this might be too great a sacrifice for their children. It’s one thing for adults to give up something we enjoy for the sake of sending a message, but how can we ask our young children to throw out their favorite princess or toy spaceman, especially when they do not even know about those issues that have sparked the boycott? Disney is so iconic that, at times, it feels like the only real option in children’s entertainment. Is there any alternative for families who are repulsed by the corporate media that delivers their children’s entertainment?
Boycotting Disney will only be a great burden on young children and their families if viewed strictly as a sacrifice. Instead, we should view the boycott as a great good in itself. Breaking up with Disney can afford families the opportunity to cultivate richer forms of entertainment and storytelling that are not simply enjoyable, but soul-crafting.
Disney has been providing our children with shoddy entertainment for decades. The entire Disney model revolves around capturing impressionable children’s tastes for the sake of advertising—in both the moral and material realms. You cannot buy bananas from the grocery store without encountering Disney character product placement geared to young shoppers, never mind lunch boxes, shirts, sneakers, bedspreads, and bike helmets. This is one of the great dangers of Disney’s merchandised model of children’s entertainment: it is explicitly designed to stimulate the twin vices of consumerism and materialism in very young children.
Another evil lurking in this corporate model of children’s entertainment is that it breeds conformity. Beneath the glitz, Disney cultivates an underlying bland cultural uniformity that limits creativity and diversity in taste or attitudes. Disney’s monopoly on child entertainment demands children’s attention and participation. As the father of media studies (and devout Catholic) Marshall McLuhan asserted, “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”
But encouraging our children to opt-out of consumerism, materialism, and conformity are all admirable and worthy goals, especially when those aspects of Disney’s model are geared toward ensnaring children in woke identity politics, either subtly, as they have done for the past forty years, or overtly, as their policy has now become.
Naturally, it is more difficult to find alternative children’s programs. While Disney offers easy, prepackaged options, finding healthy options requires a bit of leg work. A good rule of thumb? Avoid any children’s program that has a lot of accompanying merchandise. This trains your children’s taste to appreciate classic stories, not advertising gimmicks. For example, when girls do not have emotional attachments to a particular Disney princess, they appreciate beautiful, high-quality dress-up clothes rather than cheaply made (and more expensive) merchandise.
Pop culture needs to be limited. Superheroes do have a certain appeal and, to paraphrase McLuhan, total resistance to Marvel movies is often as impossible and as dangerous as total surrender. The best way to fight conformity is to not accidentally create an alluring taboo that arouses the interest of children. Rather, parents who want to minimize the impact of corporate entertainment should treat the best of what it has to offer as one in a line-up of diverse options. In that way, modern pop culture is put in its place: it does not monopolize our children’s attention, but the discerning child knows how and when to enjoy it.
In our family, that means no to Disney but yes to a few well-loved old action cartoons, like the surprisingly wholesome and instructive Samurai Jack. Mixed in with these carefully curated pop-culture creations are old-world folktale cartoons, which present many familiar stories: Cinderella, Snow White, Jack, and the Beanstalk. The great benefit of finding non-corporate versions of these stories is that, often, the old-fashioned versions contain incredible elements or morals that modern retellings find embarrassing. So, for instance, my children, having watched an English-language Hungarian cartoon of Cinderella, know a story where God works alongside the magic to reward a virtuous young girl who meets her prince first at Mass.
We have also rethought what counts as children’s entertainment. So many parents assume that young children will only find things made explicitly for children entertaining. However, much of this is only true if we have made it so. With the proper preparation, children can enjoy a higher caliber of entertainment than what “children’s programming” thinks they can handle. As one of Disney’s earliest critics J.R.R. Tolkien enjoined us, “we all need literature that is above our measure—though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time. . . I think we only are really moved by what is at least in some point or aspect above our measure.”
To take a family favorite as an example, my 3-year-old and my 6-year-old adore old musicals and can belt out the songs from Singin’ in the Rain and State Fair better than any adult. Even my 18-month-old is enraptured by Gene Kelly’s tap-dancing skills. Old adventure movies from the silver screen, with their slower pacing than the madcap programs of today, are also a hit, such as James Mason’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Can they understand all the themes? Of course not. But adults do not (or should not) limit our consumption of the classics to things that we can understand right away, and neither should our children.
Boycotting Disney can revolutionize a family’s entire approach to children’s entertainment. It can become an opportunity to introduce our children to a greater wealth of stories. As part of this push for better entertainment, we should also remember that some of the most memorable and soul-crafting activities for our children can only occur when we unplug and move away from the screens. Reading aloud together does not have to end when our children are able to read to themselves. C.S. Lewis confessed that being read to was one of his chief pleasures as an adult.
Whatever ends up working best for your family, remember that children’s entertainment sets many of the tastes, habits, and expectations for much of adult leisure time. Opting out of the corporate “fast food” entertainment for the sake of well-crafted, beautiful, and wholesome stories can never ultimately be a sacrifice too hard to bear.