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Walt Disney Accused

In the spring of this year Max Rafferty, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, wrote an article praising Walt Disney as “the greatest educator of this century.” Frances Clarke Sayers challenged Dr. Rafferty’s stand in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, which we reprint with Mrs. Sayers’ permission.

It is a pity, in this fairest of springs, to break into the idyllic world of Dr. Max Rafferty and Walt Disney with a blast of anger, but it must be done.

I, too, am an educator, and because I am, it will take more than “a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down” — the medicine of Dr. Rafferty’s absurd appraisal of Walt Disney as a pedagogue.

Mr. Disney has his own special genius. It has little to do with education, or with the cultivation of sensitivity, taste, or perception in the minds of children.

He has, to be sure, distributed some splendid films on science and nature, but he has also been a shameless nature faker in his fictionalized animal stories.

I call him to account for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes:

He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends.

His treatment of folklore is without regard for its anthropological, spiritual, or psychological truths. Every story is sacrificed to the “gimmick” (Dr. Rafferty’s word) of animation.

The acerbity of Mary Poppins, unpredictable, full of wonder and mystery, becomes, with Mr. Disney’s treatment, one great marshmallow-covered cream puff. He made a young tough of Peter Pan, and transformed Pinocchio into a slapstick sadistic revel.

Not content with the films, he fixes these mutilated versions in books which are cut to a fraction of their original forms, illustrates them with garish pictures, in which every prince looks like a badly drawn portrait of Cary Grant, every princess a sex symbol.

The mystical Fairy with the Blue Hair of the Pinocchio turns out to be Marilyn Monroe, blonde hair and all.

As for the cliché-ridden texts, they are laughable. “Meanwhile, back at the castle . . .”

Dr. Rafferty finds all this “lone sanctuaries of decency and health.” I find genuine feeling ignored, the imagination of children bludgeoned with mediocrity, and much of it overcast by vulgarity. Look at that wretched sprite with the wand and the over-sized buttocks which announces every Disney program on TV. She is a vulgar little thing, who has been too long at the sugar bowls.

FRANCES CLARKE SAYERS
Senior Lecturer, School of Library Service
and Department of English, UCLA

The controversy culminated in an interview with Frances Clarke Sayers, conducted by Charles M. Weisenberg, Public Relations Director of the Los Angeles Public Library. The interview was published in the August issue of F. M. and Fine Arts and is reprinted here with the permission of Mrs. Sayers, Mr. Weisenberg, and F. M. and Fine Arts.

CMW: Your criticism of Walt Disney has created a considerable stir among Los Angeles parents and educators, many of whom feel that the twenty-five million children’s books published by his companies are bringing good literature and culture to the young people of the twentieth century.

SAYERS: I think the number of books published by Mr. Disney has nothing to do with whether or not he is bringing literature to children. That judgment has got to be based on quality rather than quantity. It’s the same old problem that continually plagues American culture. I would rather have children playing their own games out of doors in the sunlight than getting the misrepresentation of literature as given by Walt Disney.

CMW: I wonder if we might look at what he is giving them in rather specific terms. I’m talking about Walt Disney’s use of folk tales and his reinterpretations of standard children’s literature. In terms of quality and style, to what do you object?

SAYERS: I find almost everything objectionable. First let’s take the folklore. One of the great faults he has is to destroy the proportion in folk tales. Folklore is a universal form, a great symbolic literature which represents the folk. It is something that came from the masses, not something that is put over on the masses. These folk tales have a definite structure. From the folk tale, one learns one’s role in life; one learns the tragic dilemma of life, the battle between good and evil, between weak and strong. One learns that if he is kind, generous, and compassionate, he will win the Princess. The triumph is for all that is good in the human spirit. There is a curious distortion of all these qualities in Disney’s folklore. He does strange things. He sweetens a folk tale. Everything becomes very lovable. In Cinderella, for example, the birds are too sweet, and a great deal of attention is paid to the relationship of Cinderella to the birds and the mice. You realize this technique gives animation a chance to operate, but it destroys the proportion and purpose of the story, the conflict and its resolution. Folk tales are so marvelous in structure and symbolism that this distortion of the elements is particularly bad.

CMW: But aren’t folk tales currently being criticized because they are terribly gory, and doesn’t Walt Disney eliminate the gore?

SAYERS: He eliminates it on one hand, but on the other, he will accentuate it. In Snow White, for example, he makes a sentimental world where the little animals are all so cute, so curved, so soft; and then on the other hand, the villainess is depicted with such exaggerated realism that many children lose the whole point of the story in their concern over the terrible witch. The difference is partly between something that is heard and something that is seen. When a child reads about a witch, a child knows immediately that a witch is evil. But when he sees the terrible witch in detail, it has greater impact. It’s as if a musician were playing and simply distorting the music by making it loud where the composer called for it to be soft, and by playing the whole thing out of key with no respect for the mood or the message or the markings of the composer.

CMW: You talk about the message. Isn’t it true that in Disney books good always triumphs? Don’t we always get a moral lesson before we’re done?

SAYERS: That’s another thing he does, always making it so obvious. In Pinocchio, which is one of the children’s classics, he labels everything. He leaves nothing to the imagination of the child. In the original story of Pinocchio, there is a cricket. The cricket gives Pinocchio good advice, to which he pays no attention. In the Disney book, it’s labeled that this cricket is the conscience of the child. That’s sort of overworking the idea.

CMW: Are you saying Disney restricts the child’s need to think as a child does when he reads the more traditional versions?

SAYERS: Yes; precisely. Disney takes a great masterpiece and telescopes it. He reduces it to ridiculous lengths, and in order to do this he has to make everything very obvious. It all happens very quickly and is expressed in very ordinary language. There is nothing to make a child think or feel or imagine.

CMW: Another book that comes to mind, perhaps the one that is receiving the most current attention, is Mary Poppins. I noted there are several editions put out by Disney, apparently aimed at different age levels. Do you feel there is an attempt being made to bring stories like Mary Poppins down to children who are really not ready for them?

SAYERS: I think Mr. Disney is basically interested in the market. He sees this all as a means of reaching a wider audience. With Mary Poppins, again, I’m talking of the book as it was originally conceived; in this form it is one of the most creative, imaginative and original efforts in the field of children’s literature. In an effort to reach all the children, Disney belittles them. Mary Poppins is a story that almost anyone would be interested in from the age of four to eighty. It could be read aloud to a child of four. Like all great books, it is without age limits. What I deplore about Mr. Disney is his tendency to take over a piece of work and make it his own without any regard for the original author or to the original book.

CMW: Then he takes a book like Mary Poppins or Treasure Island and simplifies it. Might not the child be introduced to the book at too early an age and then not bother with it later because he thinks he has read that book?

SAYERS: This would be a great loss. The same problem exists in certain rewriting of the classics in order that everyone can read them. You know, some educators believe in this. They believe that it is important for a child who has no skill in reading to read a rewritten Treasure Island or a rewritten Tom Sawyer so that he can have the book. I think that this is a false concept of education because all children have in the rewritten edition is the plot, and the plot is the least important part of a great book. Much of the book — the atmosphere, the feeling, the emotion, the language, the skill and artistry of the writer — is lost. It’s like reading the Reader’s Digest. When you ask someone if they read such and such a book, they will never say, “Yes, I have read it.” They will say, “I read the Reader’s Digest edition,” because, as adults, they know the difference. Many educators say that it’s better that they at least know that such a book exists. I don’t agree. There is no reason why good books should be lowered or lessened to meet the demands of people who are not ready or interested enough to make the effort to read.

CMW: What about the children who are not ready to read quality literature; isn’t Disney fulfilling a need?

SAYERS: There are books for such children and I don’t think Disney has any place in that field. It seems to me that it’s a matter of merchandise with Mr. Disney. He is seeking that which sells quickly and easily to the mass market. What I deplore is that such books seem to show so little respect for the imagination of a non-reading child and so little respect for the capacity of a reading child.

CMW: Let’s turn to art and matters of illustration. What about Disney’s art? You spoke of his illustrations of the witches being particularly devastating and his illustrations of the birds being too sweet; how would you rate the artistic or aesthetic quality of the drawings of the Disney books in comparison with what is available in other children’s books?

SAYERS: Here again I think that a major crime has been committed. In the first place, you cannot attribute these pictures to any one artist; the pictures in the books are done by the Disney staff. The minute you have a collective illustration, you lose one of the great qualities of an illustrator, which is his own style, his own conviction. In every book, you get the “Disney look.” The simpering female, the badly drawn prince, a cartoonish nature, and a lack of respect for the anatomy of animals. This is a particularly tragic aspect of Mr. Disney’s books because the illustrations in children’s books, especially in America during the last twenty-five years, have made a golden era in picture books. Some of our finest artists — not only our great illustrators, but the great artists, men and women whose pictures hang on the walls of museums — have illustrated books for children. Each book is a separate and individual experience, and the children who have access to these books are learning about all the subtleties of art and subtleties of appreciation and enjoyment.

CMW: What do you say to those who say that the cartoon style of drawing is really a form of American art and that you simply aren’t willing to accept it?

SAYERS: I’m willing to accept certain cartoons. I just can’t accept Disney. I have been accused of being the sort of person who would take the blanket away from Linus in Peanuts because I object to Walt Disney. I think that Peanuts is absolutely perfect in its conception and in its drawing. It is so close to children and so close to the universal experience. It isn’t that I’m anti-cartoon. Some of our great picture book artists, Robert McCloskey, for example, have the same marvelous stern, sharp lines; the same beautiful control of line, strong and definitive; and the ability to exaggerate certain aspects of a person. These are the makings of a fine cartoonist. Here again, I think there’s a quality of muddy color in Disney pictures, mushy outlines and nebulous design.

CMW: There’s another aspect of a book that I think we should cover. We’ve talked about literary style; we’ve talked about illustrative styles; but how about things like characterization? Do you find significant differences in the characterization of people and creatures in the Disney version of standard children’s works and folk tales?

SAYERS: Yes. Disney seems to think that the names he gives creatures are better than the names the original author gave them. A pertinent example is in Pinocchio. There is one chapter in Pinocchio in which he goes to a land where there are no schools and no tasks to be done — every child’s ideal of how the world should be. Let me tell you how Carlo Lorenzini, the author of this book, describes the land where they do nothing but play.

“The population was composed entirely of boys. The oldest were fourteen, and the youngest scarcely eight years old. In the streets there was such merriment, noise, and shouting, that it was enough to turn anybody’s head. There were troupes of boys everywhere. Some were playing with nuts, some with battledores, some with balls. Some rode velocipedes, others wooden horses. A party were playing at hide-and-seek, a few were chasing each other. Boys dressed in straw were eating lighted tow; some were reciting, some singing, some leaping. Some were amusing themselves with walking on their hands with their feet in the air; others were trundling hoops, or strutting about dressed as generals, wearing leaf helmets and commanding a squadron of cardboard soldiers.”

From Pinocchio by Carlo Lorenzini (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1948).

It’s true that there are some old-fashioned toys mentioned here, but this is a description of a world from a child’s point of view. The boys are amusing themselves with boylike games. Now, here’s what Disney does with this same country.

“One day, down in Tobacco Lane, Jiminy came upon Pinocchio puffing on a corncob pipe; Lampwick had a big cigar; Jiminy lost his temper and shook his little fist angrily. ‘This has gone far enough; throw away that pipe; come home this minute.’ Pinocchio looked sheepish, but Lampwick began to snicker; ‘Don’t tell me you’re scared of a beetle,’ he said.”

And then there’s an illustration of Pinocchio smoking the pipe and Lampwick playing at billiards. The description of Lampwick is supposed to be childlike, and these are the games that they play: billiards and smoking pipes.

CMW: Some might say that Disney has updated the story and introduced a degree of sophistication that is necessary in the twentieth century.

SAYERS: I don’t think it is necessary. What if a child does meet a game he’s not known before? What if he doesn’t know what battledores are? There are other things mentioned here such as hide-and-seek, balls, strutting about wearing hats, whistling and shouting. I think the truth is that Walt Disney has never addressed himself to children once in his life — never. This material is made to reach an adult audience. This is the whole trouble. Everything is made to reach everyone, and in order to reach everyone, he must introduce the Hollywood touch. Every illustration of a girl in Disney’s books looks like the Hollywood queen and every picture of the hero looks like a badly drawn Cary Grant. Obvious symbols of an adult world.

CMW: Mr. Disney is a free enterprise agent in a very competitive line. Do you feel that Mr. Disney has any responsibility or obligation to preserve the traditional or the original? Does he have any responsibility or obligation to further what would be considered quality literature?

SAYERS: I feel that anybody who addresses himself to children has a responsibility, and that responsibility is to make available to children the very best that has ever been produced and to sustain the distinction of what has been produced. Everybody in the popular entertainment field or in the popular arts has a responsibility. It’s not that I want everybody to be precious or snobbish; it’s that I want everybody to be sincere. They should present what is individually their own point of view instead of taking someone’s point of view and distorting it and even profaning it.

CMW: Are we making a distinction here between destroying or profaning something and simply modernizing it? In the last fifty years the American language has changed enormously. Is there a distinction here between the destruction of something and the updating or modernizing of it to make it more acceptable?

SAYERS: I’ve heard people ask, What’s so sacred about a classic that you can’t change it for the modern child? Nothing is sacred about a classic. What makes a classic is the life that has accrued to it from generation after generation of children. Children give life to these books. Some books which you could hardly bear to read are, for children, classic. Black Beauty is dated, Victorian, and a tear jerker, but it has an enduring life because when you read Black Beauty — you feel like a horse. This is the quality that must be preserved, that makes a classic. A lot of people living in an ivory tower saying a book is a classic doesn’t make it one. To be a classic means that it has enduring life which is given to it from its readers.

Now, on this matter of updating and changing the language. As a teacher at the university level, I see that one of the great lacks in the modern college student is a knowledge of the past. He lives in a kind of vacuum between birth and death with very little relationship to anything that has gone on before. I think you can overdo this updating. If something seems dated to you, then it’s dated and you don’t have to read it. But there will be many children who do like it. Children always ask Mother to tell about the olden times when she was little. There is a genuine interest in olden times with old language, with the language of Howard Pyle in his King Arthur stories and Robin Hood. We’re caught in the pace of modern living — this emphasis on the “quick take,” on the magazine that says it will take you eight minutes to read an article. It seems to me that here is a tendency that ought to be denied in part. Certain children do read in the past; they love the old language; they love the sound of words. I don’t think it’s good enough to say something is better because is it updated and modern.

CMW: You talk about the “quick take”; are you suggesting that the kind of rewriting that Disney engages in accustoms young children to wanting everything that way? And that their future reading might also be limited by this background?

SAYERS: Precisely. That’s it exactly. If everything is made so obvious that it asks nothing of the readers, then after a while, their ability to respond is atrophied. And they grow up as young people unable to take anything from a printed page, or they become bored because they haven’t discovered the nuances, the differences of opinion, the differences of approach between one author and another. Children can be trusted to skip what they don’t like in a book. That’s perfectly all right. But to have it all reduced to the supposedly twelve-year-old mind of the adult public is what I object to. I think the great skill of the animators in the Disney films and the control of all the techniques of animation and drawing are interesting in themselves; but they should be subordinate to the material, and I think that, too often, they are not.

CMW: In all honesty, do you think quality children’s literature is marketable to a mass audience in America today?

SAYERS: I think you can find the answer to that in the public libraries all over the country. The folk tales, the fantasy, the fiction, as well as the great and wonderful field of non-fiction, circulate by the millions. These books are marketable because children consume them.

CMW: Walt Disney has been praised by a great many people. One of them was Max Rafferty, Superintendent of Public Instruction in California. Not too long ago, he wrote a column about Walt Disney in which he called him a great educator. He said: “Disney’s live movies have become lone sanctuaries of decency and health in the jungle of sex, sadism and pornography created by the Hollywood producers. His pictures don’t dwell on dirt; they show life as something a little finer than drunken wallowing in some gutter of self-pity. The beatniks and degenerates think his films are square. I think they’re wonderful.”Couldn’t this quotation perhaps be applied to the books of Walt Disney? Aren’t his books also an oasis in a field of smut that fills the newsstands from one end of the city to another?

SAYERS: I once heard Jessamyn West give a marvelous address at an American Library Association meeting in which she said there was only one kind of dirty book, and that was a book which falsified life. I think Disney falsifies life by pretending that everything is so sweet, so saccharine, so without any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence. I think that even in the lines of Mother Goose you find an element that is in all great literature, and that is the realization that in life there is a tragic tension between good and evil, between disaster and triumph, and it isn’t all a matter of sweetness and light. The first people to know this intuitively are the children themselves. In my experience as a children’s librarian in the public libraries in New York City, I’ve had children come to tell me things that happened in their homes that are as tragic and as dreadful as anything that ever appeared in a book. We can’t make them think everything is sweet and lovely. This, I think, is the tragic break in Disney. He misplaces the sweetness and misplaces the violence, and the result is like soap opera, not really related to the great truths of life. It’s set up so that you can sit there quietly and take on Peyton Place and all that utter nonsense without really feeling a thing.

CMW: By way of closing I’d like to look to the positive side of children’s literature. You’ve talked about the inadequacy of Disney’s illustrations, but who are the good or even great illustrators? Who can reach the child of today with drawings that have the quality you think should be found in a children’s book?

SAYERS: Robert McCloskey — we’ve already spoken of him. Maurice Sendak is an outstanding illustrator. There is Marcia Brown, who’s doing marvelous illustrations in wood blocks, who changes her style for every book she illustrates. When she illustrated Cinderella she went into a French period because the earliest version of that story was a French version. Here in Los Angeles we have Taro Yashima, the great Japanese illustrator of children’s books. There are hundreds of them, really: Louis Slobodkin, the sculptor who makes children’s picture books; James Daugherty, a famous muralist, whose Andy and the Lion is a great classic of picture books — it’s the old-story of Androcles and the Lion which he’s turned into a piece of Americana.

CMW: Do you distinguish between the Disney work we’ve been talking about and the Mickey Mouse material?

SAYERS: Yes. I remember vividly the Three Little Pigs, one of the early animated films of Disney which I thought was absolutely enchanting, and the Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse stories. In the early days I found them most original and pleasing. What I am eager for people to do is to realize that in his own medium Walt Disney has made a great contribution to the humor of the world. What I object to is his treatment of traditional literature and of the great books of childhood.

CMW: Do you have an objection to the contemporary Donald Duck and Pluto and other standard characters that he has created?

SAYERS: On the screen, no. That’s what they were created for and that’s where they should be enjoyed. What I do object to is the milking of everything. For instance, that terrible organization of children, The Mouseketeers, which makes me cringe. It’s making everything a gimmick. In the early days and in certain other films, Disney is a master in his own field. I just would like to have him stay in that field and not attempt to impose his particular gifts on the literature and the arts of children.

CMW: What do you say to those people who say you are tearing down and attacking a great American? Walt Disney has become more than just a man, hasn’t he? He’s almost a household word. The Walt Disney imprint is accepted far and wide as a sign of quality, and certainly the Disney imprint is accepted immediately as something good for children.

SAYERS: You’re like the manager of a radio station who said to me, “It’s like attacking motherhood to attack Walt Disney.” Just let me say that I am attacking Walt Disney in relation to children’s literature, not in relation to many other things that he has done. I think he is a genius in many ways. To the people who think that I am tearing down an American institution, that he is a great educator, and that he is a great patron saint of childhood because he’s put these books into his pictures, I have just one thing to say to those people: If you read Mary Poppins, you will see what has happened to it in the film. If you read Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wind in the Willows, you will see for yourself how Disney has destroyed something which was delightful, which was an expression of an individual mind and imagination. I would say that before you condemn anyone who attacks Disney, read the original classics and compare. Form your own opinion. We all have that right.

From the December 1965 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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Comments

  1. I had a recording of Mary Poppins read by Maggie smith and her former husband Robert Stephens and you have to give maggie credit bcause she played pl travers creation just spot on and when I saw the film it was to trivial to simple but they are two great works of art pamela travers was wrong about certain elements in the film bcause after all Mary Poppins is the story of her life

  2. Mr disney was a sweet person the disneys loved pl travers stories you do not understand these filmmakers walt would have seen the commercial and he knew what would and what wuldent work and I can symphise with mrs pl travers she had every right to be angry

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