Like many families, we have visited Disney World to satisfy our children’s fascination and enjoyment with all things Disney. Whether it is Buzz Lightyear for boys or the slew of princesses for girls, every child has a favorite character, story, or film associated with that fantasy world surrounding a castle. The recent and continuing phenomenal success of Frozen only reminds us that this Disney machine is nowhere near the end of its run.
We have all read the litany of debates regarding the moral themes of these films, stories, and characters, but I think that such arguments truly miss the point of this discussion. At the end of the day, the inherent danger of Disney seems not so much in its productions, story lines, or characters but, rather, in where it places the steering wheel of the ship we sail through our lives, and where it maps our ultimate destination to be.
Psychologists cite locus of control as a person’s perceived control over his or her environment, situation, and life. Persons are said to have an internal locus of control when they feel that they control their destiny. Those with an external locus of control, on the other hand, feel that others have the real power over their life journey and events.
A journey into the heart of Disney’s fantasy land is an immersion into the battle of good versus evil, with good usually ultimately winning, which is nice, if not a bit simplistic. The power of dreams is another popular theme, as we are told that dreams can come true, if only we dream hard enough.
There is definitely a flavor of the notion that, if we are good and we dream good things and are willing to work hard for those things, such dreams can be realized. Personally, I find nothing wrong with such messages I agree with Walt Disney that adults can often be people who forget to dream.
I am not sure when yet another Disney theme, that of an independence almost transforming into outright defiance of convention, of tradition, of structure, evolved, but it has, and Frozen is just the latest and most powerful example of that theme. Again, everything is a matter of degree. It is one thing to be independent-minded, proactive, and self-assured. It is quite another thing to be insolently defiant of everything beyond one’s personal agenda.
Therein lies the problem with Disney’s message. It is steeped in humanistic themes which, in modern times, are typically associated with secularism and incompatible with religion. Where religion is portrayed, as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the underlying characterization implies, either directly or indirectly, that religion can often be limiting, controlling, stifling, and even hypocritical. Ultimately, religion is portrayed as chains which seek to confine and direct human potential.
All of this, of course, is bathed in nice and positive images and plot developments. Even a casual review of Disney’s agenda reveals that only the naïve would assume it is wholly compatible with traditional, devout, Catholicism and core Christian ideals.
At the heart of the issue, then, is not that there is anything wrong with being proactive over one’s life and future. The problem lies when one sees the solution to all problems and the realization of all dreams as entirely and nicely within one’s locus of control, to the exclusion of external forces, including God. Ultimately, the locus of control in Disney is completely oneself, and one’s life task is to achieve personal happiness, goals, dreams without letting outside limits and conventions intervene. Yes, there is good versus evil, but one might ask, how are these two eternal constructs defined?
It is my contention here that Disney defines good as what is good for me and my agenda and evil as whatever contradicts me and my agenda, or puts a damper on my parade. Disney’s is a selfie philosophy keenly fitting in an increasingly selfie society.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying Disney movies, stories, and characters. There is nothing wrong with taking occasional trips into fantasy and creativity. In a real sense, Disney is a powerful drink best handled by those — children and adults — who have a context, and who have their feet on the ground.
For children, this means having parents who build a home life which places Disney messages in the context of wholesome and constructive life lessons and themes. For adults, this means having the intellectual and moral maturity to take Disney themes and characters with a grain of salt, and to be able to discuss and contextualize these things to their children.
What does all of this mean for the devout, practicing Catholic in particular and the serious Christian in general? At the end of the day, I think this is about stressing to oneself and one’s children that we have the internal locus of control within the external locus of control of God’s Word and Christ’s example and guidance. In other words, we have a proactive duty to seek salvation within the context of obedience to and respect of God’s Word as demonstrated by Christ.
Our life task, then, is not to find happiness or satisfaction external to glorifying God but, rather, through glorifying God. It is recognizing that any happiness or satisfaction which distances us from God is inherently false, superficial, temporary, and destructive.
What is good, then, is not what I want, or what makes me happy, but rather what brings me closer to God. If something makes me happy, or makes me feel good, but distances me from God, its effect is evil, no matter what I, society, or the media thinks about it. My internal locus of control is the free will which allows me to surrender my talents and life purpose to the service and glory of God, thus finding salvation. I also, then, have the internal locus of control to reject all of the above, and find eternal separation from God.
What does this all mean for the Catholic parent and the Christian household? Perhaps the more reasonable and realistic approach is to allow your children to enjoy Disney movies and characters within the context and foundation of sound Christian principles and teaching. This means discussing movies and stories with your kids, including how a movie or character fits, or does not fit, with what you have taught your children about their faith. This includes recognizing that even apparently good characters can have bad traits not to be imitated, and harmful flaws to be avoided.
It does not hurt to teach kids that it\’s not always and only about what one wants, or reaching all of one’s dreams regardless of their value in bringing one closer to God. Armed with sound teaching, Disney can be enjoyed as a source of entertainment without becoming a tool of indoctrination inconsistent with serving God.
When I was in Catholic grade school, the popular Disney song, “It’s a Small World” was taught to me as “Yes, It’s God’s World”. While it took me years to realize that my school had taken liberties with the original lyrics and title, it now occurs to me that what I was taught in grade school perfectly spins Disney toward God.