Mon & Wed 6:30-9:00
University Hall 312
Despite the Walt Disney Company’s massive media presence today, little attention is paid to the rich history which built it, dating all the way back to its origins as Laugh-O-Gram Studios in Kansas City during the 1920s. What visible glimpses we have today tend to be shaped by the market imperatives of corporate re-branding and the sentimental simplicity of nostalgic hazes. As such, this course will focus on the many ups and downs over the decades of Disney’s slow aesthetic, economic, and cultural growth, providing a foundation for better understanding the company today. In addition to analyzing particular Disney texts (some well-known and many not well-known), special emphasis will be paid to the many facets of the studio’s first critical and commercial success in the 1930s, its struggles with bankruptcy throughout the 1940s, and its hugely successful re-branding as a prominent component of a new post-war leisure culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Extensive attention will also be paid to the company’s considerable revival and expansion under the “Team Disney” leadership of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as some reflection on the recent investment in once-competing brands such as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. This course is designed as a smaller-scale class for a limited number of undergraduates, which thus will require active and informed participation from all students who enroll. For instance, every student will be expected to lead discussion on a designated course reading during an assigned day.
By the end of the term, students should be able to: 1) identify the cultural, technological, and economic histories of the Disney Studios itself; 2) reflect critically and in writing on how these histories helped shape many of the well-known, but also lesser-known, films and television shows from the company’s past; 3) articulate the aesthetic and commercial particulars of the larger “Disney Universe” beyond individual texts; 4) engage critically on questions of race, gender/sexuality and class which are reflected, and often informed by, these aspects of the Disney empire; and 5) classify the aesthetic and thematic characteristics of the “classic” Disney text.
Final grade will be based on two short papers, discussion report, research essay (w/ proposal), participation and serving as reading discussion leader on assigned days.
Required Class Materials
Assigned readings will be posted to Canvas.
Movies and television episodes will be screened in class.
Response Paper 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10%
Response Paper 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%
Discussion Leader . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10%
Discussion Report . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%
Research Proposal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5%
Research Essay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30%
Participation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15%
*Completion of all assignments in a timely fashion is required to pass the course.
Grading Scale: A = 100%; A- = 93%; B+ = 88%; B = 85%; B- = 82%; C+ = 78%; C = 75%; C- = 71%; D+ = 68% D = 65%; D- = 62%; F = 50%
General grading criteria for both include:
Originality of argument (which means avoid summarizing sources, plots, lecture notes, etc); clarity of argument/organization; effective incorporation of textual evidence from both the readings and the selected film (when required); and general writing concerns (typos, sentence structure, etc.).
*Other notes: typed; 3-4 full pages, double-spaced; 1” margins; no cover page is needed.
1st Paper: Audience responses to Disney movies, shows, music and theme parks over the years tend to follow a lot of similar patterns—appeals to childhood memories, generational relationships, established patterns of consumption, and so forth. But some responses can also be surprising and counterintuitive—truly unexpected ways of looking at, or reading, Disney texts. For the first response paper, interview someone a different generation than you (a relative, friend, etc.) about their relationship to Disney—regardless of their level of interest (as in, they do not have to be a hardcore fan, and it might even be more fruitful if they are not). Some questions to consider (though you are welcome to come up with your own):
· How would you define your level of Disney interest (fanatic, fan, consumer, resistant, cynic, indifferent)? Why?
o (NOTE: Feel free to skim the Wasko reading online for a description of these categories—they may also help you generate additional questions)
· What are your earliest memories of Disney?
· Has your interest in Disney changed over time? If so, how? Why?
· Do you prefer some aspects of the Disney “Universe” more than others? Certain movies? Parks?
· Have you been to the parks? Why or why not? Does it matter to you?
· Has family and/or nostalgia played a part—good or bad? Why or why not?
· In addition to familial relationships and nostalgia (presumably, but of course not necessarily), what factors do you feel might explain your level of interest (consumerism, peer pressure, etc.)?
Some other tips for the interview itself: be clear upfront that this is for an assignment; let the subject talk as much as possible (don’t interrupt, but also pay attention to any ideas for possible follow up questions); and record the conversation, if possible, for personal reference later.
Then, for your paper, look for dominant trends in the interviewee’s narrative, highlight things expected and unexpected, and compare and contrast their sense of Disney with your own. For a thesis, argue for what you see as an important insight or two in regards to the Disney audiences historically (as in how things change, or remain, over time). Try to be as specific as possible—avoid broad generalizations such as “everyone loves Disney’s magic” or “Disney’s appeal is timeless,” etc. While Disney’s impact is undeniable (though not universal), there’s a lot of room for nuance and distinction. The idea is to be reflexive about people’s engagement with Disney in dialogue with, but also beyond, your own experiences. In any event, an important goal is not just to think about how someone interprets Disney, but why.
2nd Paper: One difficulty in studying Disney’s history is the temptation to equate watching old movies with studying the company’s past, when there’s so much more going on. Select any one of the films screened in class to that point (up to the 1950s), and write a paper which places that movie within an important historical context beyond just Disney’s role. Incorporate at least one outside source which you found on your own (you may also use a course reading, if relevant, but you must still find an additional scholarly source too). Pick one other development going on at the time within the industry, or the country as a whole (culturally, politically, etc.), which helps shed further light on the film, and explain why. For example, what changes in animation techniques affected the aesthetics of a particular early Disney short? What role did the Great Depression play in affecting audiences’ relationship to Three Little Pigs? How might Disneyland fit within the early days of television? And, so forth. You are not restricted to these titles. Any historical title screened in class up to the due date is fair game. The goal is to think about these films historically—what else should we need to know about them in order to understand them beyond just watching the movie itself?
Works Cited list is only required on the second paper.
Discussion Leader & Report: As we are a very small group, I am encouraging students to take an active role in the direction of the class. During the first week, I’ll assign students to lead discussion during one class period throughout the quarter. You’ll want to prepare at least five substantive discussion questions based on the assigned reading for that day and the accompanying screening, which we’ll view during the previous class. So, you should have plenty of material to work with. Please bring copies of the questions to class for each classmate (and myself). I would encourage you to have tentative answers thought out in the back of your mind, in case conversation stalls, but they should also be broad enough to encourage any number of different responses. Of course, I will take an active role as well, so you won’t be on your own. But I really want to see students take the lead as much as possible.
Then, within a week of the class, submit a two page report over email which reflects back on both the substance of the class (reading, screening) and your own thoughts on the discussion itself—i.e., the challenges of preparing for the discussion, how did your perception of the readings/films change as a result of the discussion, how did classmates’ reaction affect your thinking, other unexpected discoveries, etc. For a thesis, think about how the experience in some way changed your perception of Disney in ways either subtle or perhaps profound. The points for being discussion leader are largely a full/no credit grade. The report, however, will be graded similar to the first response paper—emphasizing in particular the care of reflexive thought put into it. One big pitfall to avoid is simply summarizing the reading and/or class discussion—what larger value do you take out of it?
Research Proposal (1p)—A week before your research projects are due, I will ask each of you to submit a formal, typed proposal for your final project. The proposal should be a solid paragraph (at least 5-7 sentences) outlining the general topic, your tentative argument, and some of the specific texts (films, sources) you plan to explore. In addition to that paragraph description, you’ll also want a short bibliography of five scholarly sources (not the films) that you’ve already briefly consulted as you formulated your topic. The larger goal of the proposal is not to lock in a final argument, but to begin thinking about the project in earnest, while also doing enough tentative research to get a feel for whether or not the topic might be viable/focused/effective, and so forth. You will not be allowed to change topics without my approval once the proposal has been submitted.
Research Essay (8-10pp; 5 sources)—while the class emphasizes the history of the company, the subject of the research essay is open to any aspect of the Disney Universe, past or present—this includes not only the films, but also the parks, Broadway shows, ancillary markets, and so forth. You are also welcome to branch out to other brands such as Pixar, Marvel or Star Wars, etc., as long as the topic in some way ties back to Disney’s influence and/or connection. The final essay should be 8-10 pages, with at least 5 scholarly sources (at least three of which must be from outside course readings). These do not have to be the same five from the proposal, as it is expected that the paper will evolve over the writing and researching process. Outside sources and a works cited list (in proper format) are both required, but otherwise the grading criteria will be largely consistent with the response papers.
Notes: All assigned readings must be completed before class that day. All assigned readings will be posted to Canvas. Listed media titles will be screened all or in part in class. Readings and screenings may be tentative, but any changes will be announced well in advance.
June 22nd—Introductions; Journey into the Disney Vault (2006); Reading: Sun and Scharrer, “Staying True to Disney”; Screening: early Mickey Mouse shorts, Silly Symphonies
June 24th— Disney in the 1930s; Readings: Sammond, “In Middletown,” and Gabler, “The Mouse” (excerpt); Screening: The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
June 29th—Disney post-Snow White; Reading: Langer, “Regionalism in Disney Animation”; Screening: Fantasia (excerpts) (1941) and Saludos Amigos (1943)
July 1st— Reading: Luckett, “Cultural Constructions of Disney’s ‘Masterpiece’” and Sadlier, Americans All (excerpt); Screening: WWII propaganda films (1942-1944) and Song of the South (1946)
First Response Papers due via email (Word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 3rd
July 6th— Post-War Disney; Readings: Watts, “The Search for Direction” and Ohmer, “That Rags to Riches Stuff”; Screening: Seal Island (1948) and Disneyland (1954)
July 8th— Readings: Neuman, “Disneyland’s Main Street USA” and Sammond, “America’s True Life Adventure”; Screening: The Boys (2009) and The Love Bug (1969)
July 13th— What Would Walt Do?; Reading: Bryman, “Disney after Walt”; Screening: TRON (1982)
July 15th— Disney Post-Star Wars; Reading: Morris, “Computer Imaging, Realism, TRON”; Screening: Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
Second Response Papers due via email (word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 17th
July 20th—Team Disney; Reading: Grainge, “Media Branding” and Do Rozario, “The Princess and the Magic Kingdom”; Screening: The Pixar Story (2007)
July 22nd—Pixar; Readings: Ebrahim, “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?” and Herhuth, “Life, Love, and Programming: The Culture and Politics of WALL-E and Pixar Computer Animation”; Screening: Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Proposals due via email (word docs only): 3pm, Friday, July 24th
July 27th—Disney in the 21st Century; Reading: Pallant, “Neo-Disney” and Willis, “The Family Vacation”; Screening: Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
July 29th—Student Presentations
Research Essays due via email during finals week—
Deadline: 3pm, Friday, July 31st
(*- all missing work is due at this time)
Have a good break.