A Sociology of Disney course makes sense because Disney itself claims an influential legacy

I recently saw a story about a new Sociology of Disney course. Is such a course helpful or a good use of time? Some might see this as frivolous, perhaps the same people who sound the alarms about sociology courses about celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Jay-Z. I would argue otherwise: not only is it a good means to introduce students to sociology but Disney itself claims it is an influential factor in American life.

First, a quick description of the Sociology of Disney course:

A classroom case study: A young woman stuck in an abusive home escapes her family through marriage. Fast forward 60 years: Another young woman calls off her wedding to a deceptive fiance and focuses her time on her older sister and a new partner from a lower social class.

If these two fictional examples came from the same writer, what does this say about how the author’s attitude toward women changed?

They may sound like a classic comparison of gender roles, but they’re actually the plot of two Disney movies — “Cinderella” and “Frozen.”

Heather Downs, a Jacksonville University sociology professor, is using such examples in her “The Sociology of Disney” summer course, which she created last year as a way to get students interested in common sociology topics. The course has gained popularity since, and 16 students completed their final Friday by running around the Magic Kingdom and taking photos of examples of sociology topics discussed in class.

Second, I recently saw the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Lots of people know Disney and like Disney but I was particularly interested in how Disney itself was presented. And the legacy-building was thick. It included: the early life of Walt Disney in the heartland of America (Chicago, small-town Missouri); his early forays in Hollywood with interesting cartoon work and new ideas; the formation of the Disney company; all sorts of new techniques in animation (matching sound with drawings, coloring, a multi-plane camera, reintroducing fairy tales); innovative work matching animation and live-action (think Mary Poppins); the construction of iconic characters and theme parks; and best-selling movies. All throughout, there were videos and quotes from Walt Disney talking about what the company was trying to do and how they accomplished it.

Connecting this to the Disney course, it is worth studying Disney because this successful international corporation itself recognizes its influence. Walt Disney is held up as an American success story, a Midwestern boy who followed his dreams and helped enrich the lives of millions. Individuals don’t have to like the films or themes or what Disney stands for but it is hard to refute that most, if not all, Americans have interacted with Disney in one form or another. While people are certainly influenced by other sources, Disney capitalized on a number of trends – generally, adapting to new mass media forms – and is worth examining.

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