In middle school and high school, I was a bit of a Disney geek. I admit this. I memorized every song in the first two High School Musicals and Camp Rock. I can jam out to the theme songs of Phil of the Future, That’s So Raven, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, The Suite Life on Deck, Hannah Montana, Phineas and Ferb, Jessie, Wizards of Waverly Place, Sonny with a Chance, So Random!, and Shake It Up!, if not others as well. I have turned several Disney songs into Christian songs. Oh, and I still kind of am one now. I still watch every new Disney movie when I get a chance.
Despite my general enjoyment of Disney, there is one issue I have with them that irks me more and more over time. Now, I find Michael Patton’s article on movies and Christians rather accurate and enlightening (read it here). He mentions how the mere presence of immoral content is not necessarily a reason not to watch a movie or a show (if so, the Bible would be off-limits, since much immorality–even swearing according to some!–can be found in its pages), but the portrayal of immoral content makes a massive difference. If the immorality within is celebrated, accessible (as in someone might actually be able to imitate it under normal circumstances), or normalized, then the problem begins. For the most part, I agree with this.
Having established that, here’s the problem with Disney: Disney media promotes a completely anti-Gospel value system. Imagine Matthew 22:36-39 if Disney were teaching instead of Jesus:
Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Disney said unto him, Thou shalt believe in and express thyself with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt help thy neighbor believe in and express himself as thou dost thyself.
This is my problem with Disney. The morals that Disney movies and TV shows promote these days are no longer any good (stuff like don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t get revenge), but are entirely centered around the exaltation of the self. In the world of Disney, showing off to everyone who you really are and what all you can do is the ultimate virtue.
So the gospel of Disney, which exalts the self, is diametrically opposed to the true Gospel, which exalts Jesus Christ.
In fact, I could even go so far as to say that Disney preaches self-worship. The most common sentiments heard on Disney are “express yourself,” “believe in yourself,” “stand up for yourself,” and “fulfill yourself.” Oh, and be nice. That’s what they tag on to their moral system, even though naturally genuine love and kindness are excluded from such a framework. Actually, though, even “be nice” is heavily qualified, so much that the idea becomes more like, “Be nice to people, at least if they aren’t jerks, and if they’re mean to you, make sure you ultimately show them up, and maybe get a little bit of revenge in the meantime, as long as you’re not too mean.”
These themes run through almost everything on Disney, but perhaps the best (or should I say worst?) example of this kind of thinking is in the movie Lemonade Mouth. The movie starts with five random outcasts getting detention for various reasons (some for decent reason, others unjustly). When the teacher leaves the room they somehow start playing a song using the various items in the room, and from there a band is born (and new friendship). While I can certainly applaud the themes of friendship and loyalty in the movie, the excessive promotion of self-expression is sickening. The instigator behind all the band’s exploits is a rebellious girl who makes a show of fighting the school authorities over ridiculous matters (i.e. t-shirts and vending machines). She demands that her right to express herself be honored, all the while completely disrespecting everyone in charge. Her spirit becomes infectious and binds the band together in a cause to liberate those in the school with “no voice” so that they can express themselves freely. Except somehow this is accomplished by performing onstage when expressly forbidden from doing so, and by protesting the removal of lemonade vending machines from the school, leading to a physical confrontation that lands the band in a holding cell. Then when they are picked up by their parents, interestingly enough there are no serious issues. Instead hugs abound, along with cheesy and unexpected reconciliation. The stereotype repressed Indian girl is the only one to get in any trouble, but even that is a sidenote after she convinces her father about why she deserves to express herself. The ringleader girl mentioned before is actually commended by her mother for “standing up for what she believes in” (i.e. protesting the removal of lemonade vending machines from a public school).
Not all Disney movies are as bad on these points as Lemonade Mouth, but the same themes runs through every show and movie. How are these morals portrayed in line with the criteria mentioned at the beginning?
- Celebrated? Very much so. Believing in yourself enough to conquer the norms or opposing authorities and so express yourself is shown as a heroic act, worthy of all praise and imitation.
- Accessible? Most certainly. While not anyone can start a popular band or make their way on a teen dance show, challenging authority for the sole purpose of being able to freely express yourself is easy to start trying. Making your own glory and talents king is completely natural. Anyone can learn to exalt themselves around others and receive praise.
- Normalized? Not exactly, but somewhat so. While not portrayed as commonly exemplified, the Disney values are shown to be not unusual or strange, and they are held as a standard of what everyone should follow. In fact, the fact that these traits are shown to be somewhat unique lends to their celebration.
So by all measures, the values Disney promotes are gravely wrong and dangerously portrayed. The sins of pride, self-sufficiency, and self-glory are the most powerful forces which restrain men from Christ. Faith starts at the end of us. When we are humbled, insufficient, and lowly, we find grace. The Gospel speaks to the broken sinner, not those who believe in themselves. Self-exaltation blinds us to the glory of Christ, which is our only source of grace and salvation. Therefore with Disney constantly promoting the self as the ultimate value, children are taught that they are enough, and that they are basically good, and that their dreams are the most important pursuit, when they need to know that they are helpless, that they are naturally fallen, and that their dreams must give way as they find true purpose and pleasure in the mission of the Kingdom of God.
Now, all this does not necessarily mean that I won’t let my kids watch Disney when that day comes. However, this does mean that if I do, they’re in for way more commentary than they would ever want. The anti-Christian message coming from that media will be more than overwhelmed by the Gospel of God. So they might get sick of the sermons and quit watching Disney. In that case I couldn’t complain.