Teaching with Disney

by Julie C. Garlen (Volume editor) Jennifer A. Sandlin (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook IX, 229 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 477


Teaching with Disney, the first comprehensive volume on Disney as cultural pedagogy and classroom praxis, explores what it means to teach, learn, and live in a world where many familiar discourses are dominated by The Walt Disney Company. The book analyzes the ways in which the powerful messages of Disney shape the way we teach and learn. Featuring scholars from a wide range of educational contexts, including educational foundations, art education, higher education, K-12 contexts, adult education, media literacy, critical pedagogy, and curriculum studies, this book is accessible and interesting to a global audience of educational researchers and practitioners as well as undergraduate and graduate students in educational foundations, curriculum and instruction, curriculum theory, critical media education, art education, sociology of education, and related fields. Discussion questions are provided for each chapter to help facilitate class discussions and assignments. This is an excellent assignment text for education classrooms.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Introduction: Popular Culture and Disney Pedagogies
  • Part One: Teaching Gender
  • Chapter Two: Awakening Rebellion in the Classroom: Analyzing and Performing Disney
  • Chapter Three: The Disney Princess Dilemma: Constructing, Composing, and Combatting Gendered Narratives
  • Chapter Four: An Encouraging Evolution Among the Disney Princesses? A Critical Feminist Analysis
  • Part Two: Teaching Race
  • Chapter Five: Disney’s (Post?)-Racial Gaze: Film, Pedagogy, and the Construction of Racial Identities
  • Chapter Six: “I don’t think Disney has anything to do with it”: Unsettling Race in a White English Classroom
  • Chapter Seven: Disney and the Ethnic Other: A Semiotic Analysis of American Identity
  • Part Three: Teaching Consumers
  • Chapter Eight: Teaching Disney Critically in the Age of Perpetual Consumption
  • Chapter Nine: “How many do you have?” Disney English (as a) Language (of) American Acquisition
  • Chapter Ten: Images of Teachers: Disney Channel Sitcoms and Teachers as Spectacle
  • Chapter Eleven: Gaia Taking Back Disneyland: Regenerative Education for Creative Rewilding
  • Part Four: Teaching Ourselves
  • Chapter Twelve: “But He Was Your Prince Charming!”: Accounting for the End of “Ever After” with a Divorce Fairytale
  • Chapter Thirteen: Dis(ney)ability: Reconceptualizing Normalcy Through an Embodied Arts Research Curriculum
  • Chapter Fourteen: Online Fan Activism and the Disruption of Disney’s Problematic Body Pedagogies
  • Chapter Fifteen: Learning to Live as a Disney Villain
  • About the Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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We dedicate this book to our older sisters, Jennifer C. Garlen and Cindy Sandlin, who were our first pop culture pedagogues. It was Jennifer who first introduced Julie to the weird and wonderful worlds of Monty Python, Doctor Who, Star Wars, The Muppet Show, and of course, all things Disney. At the Magic Kingdom, Jennifer patiently endured Julie’s early obsession with Dumbo and the People Mover as well as her lifelong fear of costumed characters, and eventually introduced a slightly older Julie to the thrill of Space Mountain. Jennifer also shared her love of musical theatre with Julie, who still knows almost every song from the Cats soundtrack. Jennifer, who is not only a Disney fan extraordinaire, but also a brilliant writer and literary scholar, taught Julie to question, challenge, and critique traditional norms and familiar narratives and inspired her toward an academic career. Cindy introduced Jenny to the wonders of popular culture, directing her in stupendous reenactments of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, which led to a lifelong love of show tunes, show choir, and karaoke. Jenny also has many fond childhood memories of reading and singing along with the “Disney Little Long Playing Records” played on a little plastic Fisher Price record player, as she and Cindy belted out songs from Davy Crockett, The Hobbit, the Jungle Book, and more, and waited patiently to turn the page only when Tinkerbell “waved her little wand like this.” Cindy was also Jenny’s companion on her first and only trip to Walt Disney World when they were in Junior High, where they endured getting stuck on the It’s a Small World ride, and came home in love with Figment, the little dinosaur they encountered at EPCOT. Above all, Cindy has always and ← VII | VIII → continues to gift Jenny with an appreciation for the pleasures and joys popular culture can bring, as she tempers her critique and at times curmudgeonly ways, reminding her that it’s okay to critique and question, but it’s also okay to have a little fun.

In addition to our sisters, there are many others to whom we are grateful for their contributions to this book. We want to say a special thank you to the editor of this series, Shirley Steinberg, for her enthusiastic and unflagging support of our work. We also want to thank all of the authors who are featured in this book—your dedication to this work as well as your careful attention to our (endless and probably annoying) editorial requests has produced what we believe is a valuable contribution to the Disney studies literature. We feel especially grateful to Misoo Filan, the brilliant artist who so graciously allowed us to feature her work on the cover of this book.

Julie would also like to thank the Department of Teaching and Learning and the College of Education at Georgia Southern University (GSU) for supporting this work. She is also appreciative of her GSU colleagues for the support and encouragement they have offered, especially her mentors, John Weaver and Bill Reynolds, who introduced her to cultural curriculum theory and encouraged her to pursue her interest in popular culture. Julie is also extremely grateful for the patient support and encouragement of her family, especially her children, Taylor, James, and John, and her parents, Bill and Virginia Garlen, who funded many childhood trips to Walt Disney World and provided important emotional support during the final phase of this project. Finally, there is a saying that I have come to cherish: If I am ready to learn, anyone can be my teacher. I came to this project with a desire to learn, and I encountered many teachers—contributors, colleagues, and friends—who informed, motivated, and challenged me along the way. May you always know how grateful I am for what you have inspired in me.

Jenny would like to thank the students in her recent Disney, Culture, and Society class at Arizona State University, who helped challenge her to create a meaningful and critical space within which to both critique and to find pleasure in Disney, and to explore the tensions between those two practices. I would also like to thank Mary Margaret Fonow, Daniel Schugurensky, and Bryan Brayboy from ASU’s School of Social Transformation for allowing me to take a year sabbatical to work on this and other Disney projects—the time away was healing to my soul and allowed me to dive fully into this Disney scholarship. I also want to thank friends who have supported me in these last few years, both professionally and personally: Jake Burdick, Will Letts, Jory Brass, Sandro Barros, Deb Freedman, Jennie Stearns, Erik Malewski, Cole Reilly, George Bey, Melinda Hollis Thomas, Jeff Johnson, Torie Lynch, Lyndee Kelver, and Christian Payne—I love y’all truly and deeply. Special thanks also go to Julie Garlen for enduring countless hours of work with me on this and on so many other exciting ← VIII | IX → popular culture projects—your friendship over the years has meant so much to me. Finally, I want to thank my parents, Richard and Patricia Sandlin, and my uncle, Marcel Bloch, for their unwavering support, and my son, Grant St. Clair, who always introduces me to new arenas of popular culture and is a constant source of laughter, love, and life.

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Popular Culture and Disney Pedagogies


In their groundbreaking work on the impact of Disney’s global media domination on the lives of children, Giroux and Pollock (2010) argue that Disney is a “teaching machine” that “exerts influence over consumers but also wages an aggressive campaign to peddle its political and cultural influence” (p. xiv). The purpose of this volume is to further interrogate this notion of Disney as a pedagogical force and to explore what it means to teach, learn, and live in a world where many familiar discourses are dominated by the global media conglomerate. Giroux and Pollock encourage citizens to ask themselves, “How does the power of a corporation like Disney affect my life and shape my values as a citizen, consumer, parent, and individual?” (p. xv). In this volume, we ask, How do the powerful messages of Disney shape the ways we teach and learn? As a multinational entertainment conglomerate that is represented in almost every media platform, generating over $48 billion per year (Iger, 2014) through its various products, movies, and theme park experiences that are consumed by hundreds of millions of people, The Walt Disney Company is one of the most influential contributors to the global landscape of popular culture. Considering Giroux’s (1999) assertion that “media culture has become a substantial, if not the primary, educational force in regulating the meanings, values, and tastes that set the norms that offer up and legitimate particular subject positions” (p. 2), the ubiquitous culture of Disney has profound potential to shape how we think, learn, and live. The Walt Disney Company is a major cultural force that shapes everyday life practices and identity formations through its representations of family values, gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, ← 1 | 2 → “Americanness,” childhood, pleasure, entertainment, education, and community. Thus, Disney operates as pedagogy—both inside and outside of schools—that helps teach us into particular ways of understanding the world, our selves, and others.

Underlying our desire to better understand how Disney functions as pedagogy is a belief in the study of popular culture as an ethical imperative. As Miller (1999) explained, “it is increasingly important for educators to take seriously the processes by which media texts are produced and disseminated, and to understand the ways in which media images and constructions pervade all our lives” (p. 234). Echoing this sentiment, Steinberg (2007) argued that it is the responsibility of educators to “prepare our student/citizens to learn how to use it, consume it, and to have personal power over it” (p. xiv). The study of popular culture helps us understand and perhaps intervene in how we, through our interactions with popular culture, produce, reproduce, and re-imagine social life and everyday social practices and relations. As Hall (1992) asserted, studying popular culture can help build understandings about “the constitutive and political nature of representation itself, about its complexities, about the effects of language, about textuality as a site of life and death” (p. 285). We believe these understandings to be significant to the educative process, particularly in a media-saturated consumer society in which representation, language, and identity interact in complex ways.

The landscape of Disney as a site of popular culture is difficult to concisely map because the age of digital media has produced a wide range of cultural artifacts that include not only films, theme parks, and branded toys, clothing, and accessories, but also blogs, interactive websites, mobile applications, and on-demand entertainment. Within the vast cultural landscape of Disney, each of these varied and numerous artifacts are “texts” with which consumers engage and through which they produce new negotiated meanings. That is, these texts provide information we view, listen to, read, consume, interpret, negotiate, and produce. Of particular interest to us in this volume are the Disney texts in which children and adults actively and intentionally invest by devoting their time, money, and attention. However, Disney also operates as pedagogy—rather powerfully, we assert—through more passive interactions that occur through prolonged exposure to a Disney text. We do not need to have actively and intentionally “engaged” with a Disney text or be a fan of Disney to learn from it. The rapid (and we would argue, annoying) ubiquity of the recent Disney animated musical fantasy, Frozen (2013), propelled by viral videos of its theme song, “Let It Go,” which, in 2014, won an Academy Award, provides an example of the way a text can become embedded in an individual’s popular culture landscape even in the absence of an intentional or conscious engagement. Yet, where Disney is concerned, these opportunities for secondary exposure emerged long before the digital age. As Marsh and Millard ← 2 | 3 → (2001) note, even in the era of the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), children who did not see the film might have received the accompanying picture book, “which required the famous red and green glasses to produce three-dimensional versions of key scenes” or “a packet of Snow White fruit pastilles, with a cut-out figure of the heroine inside” (p. 2). By the 1950s, a new generation of Snow White products appeared, including paper dolls, comic books, collectible cards in cereal boxes, and dress-up clothes (Marsh & Millard, 2001). Of course, the information age has multiplied exponentially the number of opportunities that Americans have to engage with Disney texts, whether actively or passively. By investigating these engagements, both our own and those of our students, we can better understand how The Walt Disney Company “represents the new face of neoliberal power, capable of not merely providing entertainment but also shaping the identities, desires, and subjectivities of millions of people across the globe” (Giroux & Pollock, 2010, p. xv).

In this book, we analyze those identities, desires, and subjectivities to explore the ways Disney teaches, in order to inform an understanding of how teachers, as well as learners, interact with Disney within the classroom and beyond. We believe that understanding how Disney works pedagogically is important for educators across all levels and disciplines, not only because of Disney’s cultural ubiquity, but also because of the long-standing relationship between The Walt Disney Company and education. During World War II, Disney was educating the American public through propaganda shorts and health education films, such as The Winged Scourge (1943), a film about malaria that featured the seven dwarfs (Robb, 2014), and Cleanliness Brings Health (1945), one of many educational films about “health and hygiene” that were distributed throughout rural Latin America as part of the U.S. government’s Center for Inter-American Alliance (Griffin, 2000, p. 35; see also Cartwright & Goldfarb, 1994). Walt told a national radio audience in 1943 that he anticipated “the use of our own medium in the curriculum of every schoolroom in the world” (quoted in Gabler, 2006). Indeed, Disney touts itself as the first studio to bring educational films into schools, as the company created the Educational and Industrial Film Division in 1944 (Mannheim, 2002), which, during 1945–1951, produced a series of educational films that were funded by corporate sponsors and then rented to American schools. These films included The Story of Menstruation (1946), which was shown to over 100 million American students in health classes through the 1960s (Griffin, 2000; Vostral, 2008). Walt Disney was recognized for his contributions to education in 1954, when he was awarded the American Education Award by the National Education Association (Watts, 1997). More than 70 years after it was founded, the special division, now called Disney Educational Productions, continues to produce educational videos, toys, furniture, and instructional supplies for the classroom. Today, the division website provides free lesson plan guides to accompany many of the products for ← 3 | 4 → sale and offers access to some free educational content, most recently a video series produced in cooperation with Disney’s corporate ally, Siemens, called “Real Disney Theme Park Science,” in which Disney Imagineers teach viewers about force and motion, electricity, and magnetism through an insider’s look at the inner-workings of the theme parks. Featuring the logo, “Building thinkers every day,” the website reminds visitors of the company’s “legacy of education,” noting that “Education has always been a core value of the Walt Disney Company” (Disney Educational Productions, 2014).

The particular brand of education advanced by The Walt Disney Company, grounded in Walt Disney’s ideologies of white middle-class American heterosexual domesticity and child rearing (Griffin, 2000), emphasized “a model of learning based on practical work, fun, morality, and the wise counsel of parents and teachers” (Watts, 1997, p. 359). In an essay entitled, “Deeds Rather Than Words” (Disney, 1963), which appeared in an edited collection on the religious philosophies of great Americans, Walt Disney described the pedagogical potential of his productions in moral terms, explaining that his animated features and live action films reflected the virtues that make individuals desirable and were designed to keep children out of trouble, not by lecturing them, but by keeping them interested. Disney saw himself as the ultimate father figure, admonishing the parents of troubled children with public pronouncements against juvenile delinquency that emphasized the core American values of God, family, and country (Griffin, 2000; Watts, 1997).

In the decades since, The Walt Disney Company has explored a number of educational reform initiatives, most notably the establishment of a master teacher institute in the planned “New Urbanism” town of Celebration that was developed in the 1990s. The Celebration Teaching Academy, a joint project of the National Education Association and Stetson University, was housed within what was envisioned as a “school of the future” with experiential methods and state-of-the-art facilities (Giroux & Pollock, 2010, p. 67). The Celebration Teaching Academy and K–12 school, built in conjunction with the Osceola County School District, was designed to attract teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents from all over the world to learn about best practices in education and see them being implemented in real classrooms (Marcus, 1997; Natale, 1995). However, parents, who wanted a more traditionally structured curriculum, eventually rejected the school’s progressive curriculum (Giroux & Pollock, 2010; Ross, 1999), and the teaching academy suffered costly delays due to disagreements between The Walt Disney Company and Stetson University. While both the plans for a more innovative school and the Celebration Teaching Academy failed to significantly influence public education reform writ large, they perhaps achieved the Disney Development Company’s goal of increasing Disney’s credibility in education (Natale, 1995). Since then, The Walt Disney Company has continued to ← 4 | 5 → develop that reputation by focusing on more lucrative educational products such as the Disney Imagicademy line of learning tools launched in 2014. Designed for children ages 3 to 8, Disney Imagicademy learning tools currently include 4 interactive games that teach math, science, and art skills, along with an additional mobile application that allows parents to track their children’s progress and access daily tips for family-friendly learning activities, reflecting an ongoing commitment to the family values that drove Walt Disney’s early educative ideals. The initial line of apps will gradually be expanded to include products designed for older children as well as other products such as books and interactive toys (Ortutay, 2014). Although there are over 100,000 educational applications to choose from in the interactive media market, it’s not hard to imagine that parents and children alike will be drawn to apps that feature familiar characters and storylines (Ortutay, 2014).


The Walt Disney Company’s long-standing and ongoing interest in education, as illustrated above, positions Disney as a rich source for understanding the relationship between popular culture, teaching, and learning. Scholars writing and teaching across many different disciplines and locations and utilizing a wide range of practical and theoretical perspectives have explored this relationship in the academic literature. These texts, which are primarily articles appearing in academic journals, tend to approach Disney’s pedagogical potential through one of three perspectives on popular culture: as a tool for instructional engagement, as a form of multicultural education, and as a source for teaching critical literacies. In the sections that follow, we describe among these perspectives some notable academic texts in order to position this volume within educational scholarship on Disney and to place it within the context of work that, like this volume, offers critical approaches to and insights on learning and teaching with Disney.

Disney as Instructional Engagement

Surprisingly, in spite of Disney’s long-standing association with education, most of the scholarship that explores, critically or otherwise, the role of Disney within the classroom has emerged within the last few decades, particularly within the last five years. This timing may be attributed to the rise of what Budd (2005) calls “Contemporary Disney Studies” in the late 1980s, which helped legitimate Disney as a source of scholarly interest. In particular, the relative density of twenty-first-century Disney scholarship, by enthusiasts and critics alike, might be due ← 5 | 6 → to the polemical and highly influential work of Henry Giroux, whose book, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, harshly critiqued Disney’s corporate ideologies and their destruction of American democracy and childhood. Whatever the reasons for the particular timing of the body of literature we describe here, all of these texts emerged at a time when it was widely accepted that the use of popular culture in educational settings motivates students of all ages to be more engaged in learning (Dyson, 1997; Marsh, 2000; Marsh & Millard, 2001). This belief was recently further validated by Dunn, Niens, and McMillan (2014), who, utilizing a children’s rights approach, conducted a participatory study on children’s views on the use of popular culture to motivate students and engage them in writing. They found that, when given a choice, children were more motivated to write about popular culture, particularly their favorite Disney characters. Educational psychology has long recognized the impact of interest on student motivation—as Hidi and Renninger (2006) note, “The level of a person’s interest has repeatedly been found to be a powerful influence on learning” (p. 111). It is the powerful influence of interest that drives many educators to utilize Disney as a tool for instructional engagement.

Margaret K. King (1994), a nationally recognized expert on theme parks and consumer behavior, published one of the first academic articles that explored Disney as a way of engaging learners. King described how a theme park could be a medium for bringing popular culture into the classroom. She considered the Disney theme park a model curriculum and a sort of modern museum where children could learn about history, science, communications, technology, and design in a highly engaging setting. Applying King’s recommendation to the college classroom, Bouzarth, Harris, and Hutson (2014) described Math and the Mouse: Explorations of Mathematics and Science in Walt Disney World, a course offered by Furman University in South Carolina as part of their May Experience program. Students enrolled in the course travel to Epcot to study the complex mathematical and scientific protocols in operation there. While King suggested that teachers bring the classroom to the theme park, other scholars focused on ways to bring the theme park experience into the classroom, such as adding Disney music to the educational environment and embedding theme park elements into the curriculum. Giles, Cogan, and Cox (1991), for example, tested the effectiveness of music from Walt Disney films in promoting the emotional health of elementary students and found that Disney music was more likely than classical music to positively alter a child’s mood. Their findings suggest that playing Disney music in the classroom can promote emotional health by raising students’ spirits. Presenting another use for theme park content, Hoge and Perry (2012) described a math activity program for students in kindergarten through the sixth grade that uses word problems about Disney theme parks to teach multiplication, addition, and subtraction concepts. ← 6 | 7 →

The literature on Disney as a source of instructional engagement focuses primarily on the use of Disney’s films, particularly popular animated features, as a motivating context for teaching particular content; educators at all levels of schooling have found ways to do this. For instance, within the context of a medical school, Winter (2013) examined the use of video and song clips from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and A Day for Eeyore (1983) to teach resident physicians in a Family Medicine program habits of mindfulness to help decrease the burnout associated with the stresses of residency training. Similarly, Guerrero (2015) described a method for observing family structure at the beginning and the end of Disney films, as well as the developmental characteristics and growth of the film’s protagonist in order to teach psychiatric students concepts of family and child development. Finding yet another use for Disney films in a high school context, Nikirk (2011) described how Toy Story 3 (2010) was used to introduce interactive media to secondary students in a Computer Game Development and Animation program clause by teaching them about media development, production, and promotion.

Within Disney educational scholarship, it is often language and language arts educators who write about engaging with Disney content to capture student attention in both domestic and international contexts. Khoshniyat and Dowlatabadi (2014), for example, tested the effectiveness of a strategy for using Disney films to teach English idiomatic expressions, which they found to be highly successful with Iranian students learning English as a second language. Similarly, De Cunto and Garcia (2014) described a classroom project implemented in a bilingual elementary school in Buenos Aires, in which the Disney animated film, Tangled (2010), along with the Grimm Brothers version of “Rapunzel” was used to teach the characteristics of fairy tales as a literary genre. Interested in the ways students make meaning of such visual texts when they are used to teach reading and writing concepts, Ajayi (2011) analyzed drawings and explanations produced by third-grade students who had been taught reading comprehension skills through Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). In a study that explored English instruction at the undergraduate level, Matthew and Greenberg (2009) described how Disney films were used alongside traditional texts to introduce students to literary criticism and theory.


IX, 229
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Villain Prejudice Popular Culture Semiotics Gender
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. IX, 229 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Julie C. Garlen (Volume editor) Jennifer A. Sandlin (Volume editor)

Julie C. Garlen is Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Georgia Southern University. Jennifer A. Sandlin is Associate Professor in the Justice and Social Inquiry program in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. They are also the editors of Disney, Culture, and Curriculum (2016).


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