It can’t be a coincidence that the moment the world feels as far from safe as can possibly be, Disney has come out with a platform for us all to be able to look back on our childhood years and reminisce. And as much as Disney remains a platform for children, let’s be honest, Disney + isn’t for today’s 6 year olds. It’s for the 6 year old in all of today’s 25-40-year olds, all avidly reliving their childhood through the cartoons that created them.
So what is it about Disney that brings about such love and loyalty and has allowed it to seep into our print and popular culture? For it to have become something we visit and revisit when feeling down, out of place, or lost, even at our big ages. It was a question I posed to a few different people.
I asked them what Disney meant to them as a child and who their favourite characters were. Their answers were revealing.
One person said that their favourite character was Quasimodo because he physically stood out as different, and this person saw themselves reflected in this character. Being a “chubby child”, to use her own words, “my size, and the fact that it wasn’t looked at as conventionally beautiful, came to be what others used to define me. But the story lines of Quasimodo, of being true to yourself and celebrating your differences, always made me feel a little bit better. It was nice to see the underdog come out on top, because they rose above the social disapproval of their physical form. This helped me to believe that everything I want to achieve and everything I am, starts, and ends with me.”
Another person expressed to me that her favourite character was Mulan because she was a “self-made princess and she worked for her status”. Despite being unconventionally feminine; masculine-presenting and going against socially constructed gender norms, she was able to gain recognition and respect, “not just because she’s a pretty face, but because of her mind”.
And for my brother, Mushu was always his favourite Disney character. Because, “even though Mushu is a dragon, the voice of Eddie Murphy makes the character black,” and my brother has always been drawn to characters which he felt represented himself “as a black man”. “For me, seeing, or hearing, a black man in a fairytale, being portrayed positively, made watching TV all the more fun, because I felt like I was being included in that fairy-tale, and the success of that characers”.
As for me, Belle was always my favourite character. A book lover, who wouldn’t settle for anything less than what she felt she deserve. And in the end, being different, being worldly, and being true to her decisions, meant that she was the one who prospered.
When you look over all of these responses, it is clear that, for a lot of people, Disney symbolises being true to yourself, in some form or another, and braving the consequences that come with that, to conquer any adversity that follows. It is for this reason that Disney has endured for all of these years and seems only to have gained more of a following through the social media era and with the Millennials and Gen Z, instead of declining. Today, the questions of identity, gender, entrepreneurship, being your own boss and making your dreams come true no matter what, are big on everyone’s minds. We may not immediately think of them as Disney issues because we associate them with our own current very adult lives, but the core ideas of Disney still manage to inspire us to do all of those things.
For me, Disney is an escape to magical worlds, and a reminder that dreams can come true. I grew up with a lot of restrictions in my childhood and a vision of being a writer that very few people believed in. I suffer from depression and deep chronic anxiety. I felt alone a lot of the time, unable to talk to anyone and stagnating after graduating from university, unable to find a job and struggling to come to terms with the thoughts that I was wasting what could have been a promising life. I lost friends in the pursuit of being true to myself whilst having the realities of love and loss hit me. Disney is a children’s platform, and in a lot of ways, it doesn’t deal with these issues outright, but as we can see from the testimonies, Disney presents us with ideas and self-beliefs that remain central to our quest for ourselves, and, if nothing else, it provides us with the escapism to get us through times like this. For some, these feelings of uncertainty are an everyday occurrence. Others may only be confronting these sentiments now that COVID-19 has bound them to their homes. But Disney knows when it’s needed and when the child in all of us needs to be coddled and reassured that their dreams can be achieved and that safety is only around the corner. It might a massive coincidence, or a deliberate move on the part of Disney. It might be a move to profit off the current climate that scientists saw coming from last year, or it could genuinely be a move to ease the boredom and loneliness of millions in isolation, I don’t know. But I don’t think any of us are complaining.