In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Walt Disney

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Collections
  • Television
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • Merchandise
  • Technology
  • Marketing

Childhood Studies Walt Disney
Brenda Ayres
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0093


Walt Disney was born in Chicago on 5 December 1901, the youngest of four sons, with a sister to follow. In 1906 the family relocated to a forty-acre farm in Marceline, Missouri. Disney’s father, Elias, was a strict Congregationalist who neither drank nor smoked, and was a relentless disciplinarian to his children. After four years of proving unsuccessful as a farmer and then being stricken with typhoid, Elias had to auction the farm and eventually move the family to Kansas City, Missouri. Walt would always speak of life in Marceline with a great sense of nostalgia. To him the small town represented what was best about America. In Kansas City, Walt and his brother Roy helped their father deliver papers every morning and evening. A few years later they returned to Chicago, and while working several jobs, Walt took classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, the only art training that he would ever get. At the age of twenty-two he moved to Los Angeles, where his uncle Robert lived, and with his brother Roy as manager, he began creating cartoons with people in them, the first of many technological innovations that would make Walt a pioneer in the industry. In 1924 the brothers hired Lillian Bounds as a cel painter, and on 13July 1925 Walt married her. Disney’s first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, previewed 15 May 1928. In November, Steamboat Willie premiered and was called by the New York Times the “first and only synchronized-sound animated cartoon comedy.” On 19 December 1933 Diane Marie Disney was born, and three years later the Disneys adopted six-week old Sharon Mae. The full-length animation film that would make Disney a household word was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered on 21 December, 1937 and became the highest-grossing American film up to that date. It ran in forty-nine countries and spawned over 2,183 different products. Thus, the Disney empire—a global marketing of “American” ideology—was born. When Disney received the George Washington Award in 1963, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower praised him for “communicating the hope and aspirations of our free society to the far corners of the planet.” The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Disney died of lung cancer on 14 December 1966. He was the recipient of fifty-nine Academy Award nominations and twenty-two Oscars, and he created a multibillion-dollar, multinational entertainment empire.

General Overviews

It is often impossible to separate any person from his or her works. In fact, when we refer to “Disney,” we often mean the man’s values represented in his works, even those produced after his death. The overviews listed in this section each address a number of films by Disney, and they allude to his life at the same time. Most scholarship on Disney’s film animations takes the position, as does Giroux and Pollock 2010, that Disney’s films are not innocuous, that they do provide or reinforce cultural images to children that inculcate hierarchical systems of gender and race. Bryne and McQuillan 1999 identifies unhealthy sexual stereotypes being taught to children. Forgacs 1992 is more analytical, with less bias about the films’ messages on children’s sexual growth. Smoodin 1994 approves of Disney’s more recent messages of inclusivity. Wasko 2001 offers an overview of many of the controversial issues. Other works serve as reference tools: Grant 1993 describes Disney’s characters, and Sinyard 1988 provides a brief history of the making of Disney films up to 1985.

  • Byrne, Eleanor, and Martin McQuillan. Deconstructing Disney. London: Pluto, 1999.

    Investigates the social, historical, cultural, political and philosophical contexts of The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Snow White, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Dumbo, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Hercules, and Mulan. Also addresses the exportation of Disney ideology to other countries.

  • Forgacs, David. “Disney Animation and the Business of Childhood.” Screen 33.4 (Winter 1992): 361–374.

    DOI: 10.1093/screen/33.4.361

    Forgacs studies the sexual innuendos of characters and concludes that most Disney stories end with the maturation of the child and with an adolescent separation from the parent.

  • Giroux, Henry A., and Grace Pollock. The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

    Debunks the notion that Disney’s products are innocent. Giroux and Pollock are alarmed at Disney’s misrepresentation of the past and the present in order to be more marketable, all the while feeding children with cultural messages that are neither democratic nor socially and psychologically wholesome.

  • Grant, John. Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. New York: Hyperion, 1993.

    Illustrated guide to every Disney character created for film and television before 1997. Includes plot synopsis, history of production, analysis of characters (but without great depth), and critical reception.

  • Sinyard, Neil. The Best of Disney. New York: Portland House, 1988.

    History of Disney’s films from 1937 to 1985, with brief commentary about each and without analysis.

  • Smoodin, Eric. “Introduction: How to Read Walt Disney.” In Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom. Edited by Eric Smoodin, 1–22. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Covers, briefly, everything about Disney: his life, his films (including all genres), and the theme parks. Although Smoodin acknowledges the history of colonizing strategies and effects of Disney, he recognizes a post–Cold War ideology that is more universal and inclusive, regardless of political undercurrents, in its guiding mission to provide “fun family entertainment.”

  • Wasko, Janet. Understanding Disney. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

    Interdisciplinary analysis of Disney as a cultural phenomenon, focused on Disney’s history, company products, and theme parks. Analytical tools used are political, economic, cultural, and reader response.

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