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Disney, Militarization and the National Security State After 9/11

Tuesday, 23 August 2011 11:20 By Henry A Giroux, Truthout | Book Excerpt

Walt Disney’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee on October 24, 1947—in which he declared, "Everybody in my studio is one-hundred-percent American," while he also named a number of former employees who had organized a labor strike as "Communists"—signified the culmination of a long-standing relationship of collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and the American government.2 Disney told the committee that he felt the best strategy for safeguarding "all of the good, free causes in this country, all of the liberalisms that really are American" would be to uncover the "un-American" labor activists who had infiltrated the motion picture industry and had propagated their Communist "ideologies," which in turn were directly responsible for activities such as the 1941 strike at the Disney studio in Burbank, California.3 Meanwhile, other reasons cited for the strike, such as the company’s "arbitrary and manipulative pay structure" and the illegal firing of union activists working with the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild, were simply ignored.4 According to Walt Disney in 1941, individuals such as the labor organizers who had "called my plant a sweatshop" needed to be "smoked out and shown up for what they are" in order to "keep the American labor unions clean" and to preserve "good, solid Americans" from "the taint of communism."5 Disney’s justification of the state’s use of repressive force in order to secure American freedom may not sound quite so unfamiliar today, following the events of September 11, 2001. Since 9/11, several reports have emerged exposing a U.S. government that used illegal wiretapping with impunity, lied about the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003, sanctioned the torture of alleged terrorists, and imprisoned socalled enemy combatants—including children—denying them basic legal rights such as the right to a fair trial.6 Indeed, state repression and patriotic correctness at their most extreme became the normal state of affairs in a post-9/11 world characterized by domestic surveillance, the erosion of civil liberties, and an ideological and military campaign waged against the threat of "terrorism" that involved the construction of a vast secret and illegal apparatus of violence.

Despite the Disney corporation’s perennial claim that its products are simply about entertainment, Disney/ABC’s The Path to 9/11 (2006) and Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) both attest to the company’s endorsement of, if not active participation in, partisan political issues, especially the "war on terror" and the emerging security culture in the United States. Disney’s history of making alliances with state power is not surprising, given its corporate interest in reaching large audiences and perpetuating dominant cultural forms, but not since its production of several films for the U.S. military during World War II has Disney participated in the dissemination of such overt political propaganda. While the Walt Disney Company’s patriotic fervor during World War II has generated little critical response over the years, Disney’s productions since 9/11 have been more controversial, yet few critics have gone so far as to argue that the messages produced by The Path to 9/11 and The Incredibles do not support the status quo as much as they present a reactionary politics, which not only justifies U.S. military power abroad but also suggests deeply authoritarian ideas and practices are the best way to secure the ongoing domination of American cultural identity at home. Both films solicit their viewers’ support and appear to occupy solid (and therefore unquestionable) moral ground by taking a critical stance that positions the lone protagonists outside repressive cultures dominated by mindless bureaucracies. The films ultimately sacrifice an understanding of the systemic causes of war and violence in favor of blaming individuals who exhibit pathological behaviors that go far beyond character flaws or mere cowardice. Of course, the demonization of the other and the representation of individuals who challenge institutional stagnancy as heroic are not new to those familiar with discourses of hyperindividualism, competitiveness, and jingoistic nationalism in the dominant media in the United States, but the justification of violence as the primary means to achieve these goals has not been asserted so boldly as before, except perhaps if one considers the history of Disney films.

At the onset of World War II, Walt Disney was not alone in his belief that film should play a dominant role in the teaching process or, as he claimed, in "molding opinion."7 He was, however, at the forefront of a movement to recognize a "new aspect of the use of films in war": training industrial workers and soldiers.8 Some historians try to account for Disney’s participation in generating military propaganda by claiming that the studios were "taken over by the military as part of the war effort"9 on December 8, 1941. But Richard Shale has meticulously documented Disney’s much earlier attempts to court contracts with the aircraft industry, the U.S. Council of National Defense, and Canadian military supporters.10 Indeed, despite a "popular (and frequently quoted) misconception" that the relationship between Disney Studios and the U.S. military was "unexpected or unsolicited," Shale observes an explicit shift in Disney’s focus from "entertainment values to teaching values" that occurred before Disney acquired his first U.S. military contracts in December 1941.11 For instance, in 1940 Disney approached the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation with the idea of generating a training film on flush riveting. And in the spring of 1941, with Canada already engaged in war, Disney convinced the commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada, John Grierson, that animated films were better positioned as teaching tools than documentary films because of their "capacity for simplifying the presentation of pedagogical problems."12 Grierson then bought the Canadian rights to Four Methods of Flush Riveting and commissioned Disney to produce an instructional film that taught soldiers how to use an antitank rifle and four short films that encouraged Canadians to purchase war savings certificates.

Then, in the fall of 1941, Walt Disney toured South America at the bequest of the U.S. Office of Inter-American affairs, which was attempting to establish good relations and "hemispheric unity as explicated in Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy."13 With material collected on the trip, Disney proceeded to generate two feature films, Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945), both intended to celebrate Latin American culture while accentuating its similarities with North American culture (and downplaying or ignoring issues like national politics and poverty).14 Born out of U.S. fear of a Nazi alliance with countries like Argentina, the films aimed to "enhance the Latin American image in the United States," while also "enhanc[ing] America’s appreciation of Latin American Everymen."15 Yet, in making The Three Caballeros palatable to white Middle America and American imperialism less threatening to southerners, Disney more often than not caricatures Latin American culture as a voluptuous, exotic female who is fleeing the attentions of a libidinous, but comically ineffectual Donald Duck.16 There is little doubt that a relationship between Disney Studios and the U.S. government had been fully cemented by 1943, when 94 percent of the footage produced by Disney was under government contract.17

From 1941 to 1945, the Disney Studios produced dozens of short educational films, with their subjects ranging from aircraft and warship identification to dental hygiene to the household conservation of cooking oil for the making of military weapons. The studio also produced a number of anti-Nazi short films, including Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943), and Reason and Emotion (1943), two of which were nominated for Academy Awards. In these shorts, Hitler is depicted as waging a mind-control campaign over the German people based on the manipulation of emotions such as anger, love, fear, sympathy, pride, and hate, while also occasionally employing force, regimentation, depravation, and false rewards. Of course, the success of the films’ efforts to expose Nazi propaganda overwhelmingly relies on the use of comic devices, caricatures, and stereotypes to make Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito seem irrational and absurd. Demonizing the enemy, according to Disney historian Leonard Maltin, "relieves aggression."18 This claim, suggesting that the films function to disperse rather than focus emotional energy, clearly sidesteps the multiple ways in which the films, much like the propaganda they critique, attempt to shape their audience’s emotional responses, such as when Donald Duck, clad in starred-and-striped pajamas, croons to the Statue of Liberty, "Oh, boy, am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" Most significant about the techniques used by these Disney shorts is how they embody animation’s capacity to draw clear, simple lines and present a selective representation of an otherwise complex reality. Through the use of comedy and comedic violence, in particular, Disney films are often released from the expectation that they might be attempting to do more than entertain. Viewers wooed by animation’s unique capacity to create novel images through exaggeration, distortion, and aesthetic style are easily absorbed into an imaginary world that quite deliberately focuses their eyes on a constructed reality to the exclusion of other possibilities. The value of the anti-Nazi short films for today’s audiences lies in their obvious attempt to win the hearts and minds of American viewers through clever visual and ideological manipulation, while ironically issuing repeated warnings to viewers not to allow emotion to short-circuit their critical faculties. A historical perspective on the subject matter sets in relief how Disney’s critique of propaganda using the medium of animation inevitably ventures into the realm of propaganda itself.

Also Read: Truthout's Book Review of "The Mouse That Roared"

And, Also See: "How Disney Magic and the Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age"

During the war, a significant number of the studio’s resources were devoted to making another feature-length propaganda film, Victory through Air Power (1943). The film, based in part on a book written by Major Alexander P. De Seversky, advocates the development of airplane and weapons technology as the means to win the war against the Axis powers. We are told the airplane will not only "revolutionize warfare" but is "the only weapon of war to develop such usefulness during peacetime." Dramatic music punctuates scenes that explore new models of airplanes with increased bombing potential. The United States as the "arsenal of democracy" is represented as a giant heart comprising factories that pump "war supplies" through "the arteries of our transport lines over distances that actually girdle the globe." This organic, humanizing image of "the great industrial heart of America" contrasts with the mechanical image of a spoked wheel used to represent the Nazi war industries, which are also vividly portrayed in dark reds and blacks suggestive of a hellish inferno. Japan is represented as a deadly, black octopus extending its "greedy tentacles" over its "stolen empire." We are told of the necessity for U.S. long-range bombers to strike at "the heart and vitals of the beast." With the lethal combination of the "superior" American "science of aviation" and "science of demolition," the "enemy lies hopelessly exposed to systematic destruction." At the same time, the film announces that "scientific bombing" will enable a "minimum investment in human lives," an oddly ambiguous use of language suggestive of two possible meanings in the context in which it appears: the assertion that aerial bombing of enemy territories requires a "minimum investment" of American soldiers and, what is both more sinister and perhaps in need of such coded language, the claim that bombing the enemy entails such "total destruction" that no human lives requiring "investment" will be left in its wake. Indeed, the film’s climax consists of a montage of exploding bombs among Japanese cities and factories, which begin curiously unpopulated and end utterly annihilated. At the pinnacle of the climactic violence, the screen resolves into an image of a bald eagle descending upon and crushing the land-ridden octopus, which then dissolves into a dark cloud of smoke rising above Japan as "America the Beautiful" plays in the background.

Walt Disney believed that Victory through Air Power convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support to long-range bombing.19 For a contemporary viewer who has the benefit of hindsight, the unquestioned propaganda offered by Victory through Air Power leaves one with the eerie feeling that the perspective being shaped by the film would not only fail to question the use of technology such as the atomic bomb but even wholeheartedly celebrate it as the quickest and most effective way to win the war. Indeed, it is precisely the film’s unflinching support of the development of bigger and better bombing technology, from small hand-dropped bombs to ten-ton delayed-action bombs and armor-piercing bomb rockets, that might seem most disturbing given the devastating effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the postwar escalation of arms development during the Cold War and the ongoing expansion of the military-industrial complex in the United States.20 But Walt Disney did not just support the development of larger weapons; he was a firm supporter of what might be called the atomic age and made the classic 1956 propaganda film Our Friend the Atom, which was also produced as a book and appeared as an atomic submarine ride in the Tomorrowland section of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In this instance, as Mark Langer points out, Our Friend the Atom was designed to "counter opposition to the military use of atomic weaponry."21 The Magic Kingdom became an outpost for leading young people and adults to believe that an "Atomic reactor . . . is like a big furnace. An atomic chain reaction is likened to what happens when a stray ping-pong ball is thrown at a mass of mousetraps with ping-pong balls set on each one."22 Disney played a formidable role in convincing every school child that atomic energy was central not merely to winning the Cold War but also to preparing them for a future that would be dominated by the United States and its use of new energy sources, which incidentally could be instrumental in elevating the United States to the position of the world’s preeminent military power. Mouse power easily and readily made the shift to celebrating atomic power and militarism while enlarging Disney’s role as a major purveyor of propaganda.

The Disney films discussed above alert us to the fact that Disney animators honed their skills and gained widespread popular appeal in the 1940s by first producing propaganda films for the U.S. government. This often neglected reality underlying Disney’s origins as a cultural entertainment icon should make us all the more careful to heed Janet Wasko’s warning that Disney encodes preferred readings of both its animated films and its own brand image to such an extent that "one of the most amazing aspects of the Disney phenomenon is the consistently uniform understanding of the essence of ‘Disney.’"23

Attuned to Disney’s willingness to assume an overt pedagogical role during World War II, several critics of a more recent Disney film, Aladdin (1992), noted that the timing of the film’s production and release coincided with U.S. military efforts in the Persian Gulf war. According to Christiane Staninger, Aladdin is "a propaganda movie for Western imperialism" that "shows the supposed unworkability of Middle Eastern traditions and the need for American intervention."24 Dianne Sachko Macleod takes this critique a step further, suggesting a link between Disney’s "revival of British and French colonial stereotypes of Arab traders, fanatics, and beauties" and the "storehouse of racial and cultural images" used by the Pentagon to justify the war.25 Macleod notes that regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the film had the general effect of "privileging the American myths of freedom and innocence at a time of nationalist fervor."26 Other connections between the film and the first Iraq war are not especially subtle: in addition to locating Aladdin in the fictional city of "Agrabah," it makes the villainous Grand Vizier Jafar look like a combination of Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini, while the two young heroes, Aladdin and Jasmine, not only look American—Disney animators made it publicly known that Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise27—but also, as Brenda Ayres suggests, display their heroism by "contesting (and changing) Arabian law and Islamic religious tradition."28 While it is impossible to discern the actual motives of the Disney animators, it is equally impossible to ignore the cultural context in which the American public viewed Aladdin. At the time of the film’s release, the dominant media were aggressively promoting similar images of liberation from barbaric traditions in order to justify the United States’ "right to intervene in Middle Eastern politics."29

Disney's Conservative Path

Despite the well-documented history of collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and U.S. military and state institutions, Disney has more recently claimed to have no interest in politics. How Disney’s decision in May 2004 to block its Miramax division from distributing Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 might qualify as a nonpolitical gesture is uncertain. At the time, a senior executive stated that "it’s not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle."30 Not only were a number of Disney’s top executives known to be campaign contributors to the George W. Bush administration,31 but then CEO Michael Eisner was reported to have said that any criticism of the Bush administration might "endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush’s brother, Jeb, is governor."32 Miramax arranged privately to buy Moore’s film and distribute it independently, and in 2005, the founders of Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, did not renew their contracts with Disney.33

As suggested above, the company’s alleged desire to remain outside politics contradicts the reality of Disney’s historical pattern of intervening in political matters. It is hardly surprising, then, that in the wake of the unprecedented success of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary, Disney/ABC decided to produce its own account of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. A $40 million miniseries titled The Path to 9/11, originally touted as a docudrama "based on the 9/11 Commission Report" and later as the "official true story," constituted a blatant political move on the part of Disney/ABC.34 In addition, Scholastic, Inc., the educational distribution partner for Disney/ABC, sent one hundred thousand letters to high school teachers across the United States encouraging them to use The Path to 9/11 in the classroom curriculum and directing them to online study guides.35

The miniseries was billed by its self-labeled conservative writer Cyrus Nowrasteh as an "objective telling of the events of 9/11"36 but faced severe criticism for its partisan depiction of events and actors. The Path to 9/11, directed by evangelical Christian filmmaker David Cunningham,37 depicted members of the Bill Clinton administration as totally incompetent, having repeatedly ignored opportunities to capture Osama bin Laden and overlooked warnings of an incipient attack before September 11, 2001. When prescreened to a select number of film reviewers before it aired on television, the miniseries was received with skepticism and outrage, not merely from Democrats and Clinton supporters. Robert Cressey, a top counterterrorism official to both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, argued that a scene depicting the Clinton administration’s refusal to pursue bin Laden was "something straight out of Disney and fantasyland. It’s factually wrong. And that’s shameful."38 Nearly one hundred thousand readers of the online journal Think Progress sent protest letters to Robert Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, stating that the film inaccurately "places primary responsibility for the attacks of 9/11 on the Clinton administration while whitewashing the failures of the Bush administration."39 According to Tom Shales, writing for the Washington Post, the miniseries qualified as an "assault on truth."40 Shales added, "Blunderingly, ABC executives cast doubt on their own film’s veracity when they made advance copies available to such political conservatives as Rush Limbaugh but not to Democrats who reportedly requested the same treatment. . . . Democrats have a right to be suspicious of any product of the conservative-minded Walt Disney Co."41 A group of academic historians led by Arthur M. Schlesinger sent a letter to ABC calling for the network to "halt the show’s broadcast and prevent misinforming Americans about their history."42

The film presents a number of clichéd stereotypes of "big government" and bureaucratic incompetence, depicting paper-pushing officials as woefully indecisive at crucial moments, primarily because they are too self-interested to put their necks on the line. Clinton, for example, is represented as not wanting to issue orders for military action against al-Qaeda because he’s too worried about the effect such decisions might have on the polls, that is, when he is not caught up in dealing with the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In one scene, General Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, which waits for U.S. approval to go after bin Laden, asks in a scornful tone, "Are there any men left in Washington?" Individuals working on the ground who buck procedure and orders from their superiors are, by contrast, willing to "take the heat." So, apparently, is George W. Bush, whose decisiveness in giving a strike-down order to the military after the 9/11 attacks really functions as the climax of the whole miniseries. One could imagine Bush political supporters cheering as this scene unfolded: finally, they could rest assured that there was a real man in Washington. Meanwhile, several FBI and U.S. customs agents recognize the nature of the "new kind of war" being waged against America, and their appeals to racial profiling and domestic spying appear justified in the film. For example, in a brief dialogue, one FBI agent states, "Americans have the right to be protected from domestic spying," and the central protagonist of the film, FBI counterterrorism agent John O’Neil (portrayed by Harvey Keitel), replies, "Do they have the right to be killed by terrorists?" Heroic individuals such as O’Neil are willing to bypass "red tape" and stand in stark contrast to (1) politicians who are too worried about public opinion not to bow to the pressures of "political correctness," (2) uncooperative CIA officials who jealously guard intelligence when they are not mindlessly adhering to obsolete federal legislation that protects individuals’ rights, and (3) various utterly casual security officials and workers who would rather appease suspicious-looking members of the public than be confronted with a situation that might embroil them in conflict. And that is not all. The film contrasts the coolness of John O’Neil’s astute judgments with the irrationality of emotionally overwrought women, such as the ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine (Patricia Heaton), and the fanatic zeal of the terrorists. In fact, many of the characters who represent terrorists such as Mohamed Atta (Martin Brody) and Ramzi Yousef (Nabil Elouahabi) share the same intense stare, bristly mustache, and swarthy skin exhibited by Hitler in Disney’s World War II propaganda films. While it might be possible for a viewer to overlook insipid dialogue, fallacious logic, melodrama, and weak narrative structure, it is virtually impossible to ignore the film’s use of racist and sexist stereotypes to lend legitimacy to all the standard bogeys of extreme right-wing ideology. And, most importantly, there remains the film’s utterly deceptive self-presentation as a historically accurate depiction of events. Even lead actor Harvey Keitel told a CNN interviewer prior to the airing of the miniseries,

I had questions about certain events—material I was given in The Path to 9/11 that I did raise questions about. . . . Not all the facts were correct. . . . You cannot cross the line from a conflation of events to a distortion of the event. No. Where we have distorted something, we made a mistake, and that should be corrected. It can be corrected, by the people getting involved in the story that they are going to see.43

In response to the controversy surrounding The Path to 9/11, Scholastic, Inc., announced that its online study guide did not meet the company’s "high standards for dealing with controversial issues" and would be replaced with new materials that would focus more on media literacy and critical thinking.44 ABC also responded to protests by broadcasting disclaimers about the miniseries’s "fictionalized" representation while airing a minimally reedited version on September 10 and 11, 2006. But ABC’s rather inexplicable decision to air the broadcast without commercials—entailing a loss of $40 million45—fostered an illusion of the film’s closer proximity to real life, if not also conveying the impression that it was a public service announcement. Most significantly, the broadcast that aired on the second night was framed by a strategic interruption—George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation—prompting one journalist to note the "thematic synchronicity," as the president’s speech called for ongoing support for the war on terror.46 It is difficult to deny the political synergy suggested by the combination of the rightwing The Path to 9/11 and Bush’s speech—synergy being a profitdriven marketing strategy by no means unfamiliar to a megacorporation like Disney47—as Bush appealed to Americans to recognize the ongoing threat of terrorism and the necessity of preemptive action as the only way to safeguard "advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism."48 When placed in the context of the film, Bush’s success could be measured in terms of how the post9/11 decisions made by his government succeeded where Clinton’s administration apparently had failed. Furthermore, the timely juxtaposition allowed the film to gain a greater veneer of authenticity from the speech’s presentation of topical and really existing political concerns, while the film in turn provided credible images and points of reference for listeners trying to engage the highly rhetorical, often self-referential use of language characteristic of Bush’s speech. Additionally, the blurring of fact and fiction embodied by the film lent to the speech the mythic or symbolic power generated by extended narrative, and the grandeur of the presidential address added authority to the film.

As a context for Bush’s speech, The Path to 9/11 made an effort to point out some of the problems in law enforcement and governance that preceded the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but the nature of the critique—although presented as objective and all encompassing—never rises above criticizing particular individuals for their character failings. The film was cleverer, however, in the way it indicated the supposed gaps in the system and advocated taking a hard line, but offered no concrete alternatives. In doing so, the film left it to Bush to emerge as the ultimate hero, opening up a space for a timely description of the measures instituted since 9/11:

We’ve created the Department of Homeland Security. We have torn down the wall that kept law enforcement and intelligence from sharing information. We’ve tightened security at our airports and seaports and borders, and we’ve created new programs to monitor enemy bank records and phone calls. Thanks to the hard work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, we have broken up terrorist cells in our midst and saved American lives.49

If The Path to 9/11 presented a single narrative perspective (the "path" taken) as the infallible "truth," then Bush’s speech, with a similar kind of religious confidence, also took for granted that only one predetermined course could secure the nation from the terrorist threat. At no point did the film or Bush’s speech suggest that the situation was complex enough to necessitate the consideration of several possible paths; indeed, both narratives closed off the possibility of questioning the effectiveness of the security measures endorsed and instituted. Difficult questions—such as the extent to which freedom should be limited in order to be secured or the kinds of sacrifices entailed by "national security"—were simply ignored in favor of the message that Americans must do whatever it takes to defeat the "enemy." It is hard to believe that the gross trivializations of the complex issues surrounding terrorism and the war in Iraq in The Path to 9/11 and Bush’s address could almost escape public protest only five years after the horrifying events of September 11, 2001.

One notable exception to the general complaisance with which the public received The Path to 9/11 involved a group of students at Ithaca College who protested the college’s acceptance of a private donation from Robert Iger on the grounds that The Path to 9/11, touted as a docudrama, was actually an egregious display of media bias. Students argued that "accepting Disney money would send the wrong message about the importance of objectivity to the school’s journalism and communications students."50 Although a Disney spokesperson responded to the student protesters by calling them "people who can’t distinguish between fact and fiction," Ithaca College president Peggy R. Williams lent credence to the students’ concerns by reassuring them that Iger’s donation "does not buy Disney any influence on campus. . . . Our curriculum decisions are our own."51 Although certainly admitting no wrongdoing, Disney has uncharacteristically and tellingly opted not to sell The Path to 9/11 on DVD—defying the expectations of both those who assumed the company would try to recover the costs of making the miniseries and vociferous right-wing groups who continue to support the film’s representation of the events leading to 9/11.52

The National Security-Family: Meet The Incredibles

As films like Aladdin and The Path to 9/11 suggest, the Walt Disney Company has an impressive ability to revise more or less familiar stories, updating the issues to make them resonate in people’s lives at the current moment. It is how Disney offers audiences not simply escape but also a mode of relating to the real conditions of their existence that makes Disney films such a long-lived and potent force in U.S. and global popular culture. As Louis Marin suggests regarding the powerful cultural role of Disney theme parks, Disney represents both "what is estranged and what is familiar: comfort, welfare, consumption, scientific and technological progress, superpower, and morality." Importantly, Marin adds, "These are values obtained by violence and exploitation; [in Disney culture] they are projected under the auspices of law and order."53 Marin’s framework is especially useful for understanding a film such as The Incredibles as mediating the "imaginary relationship that the dominant groups of American society maintain with their real conditions of existence, with the real history of the United States, and with the space outside of its border."54 In a post-9/11 world, Academy Award winner The Incredibles brings home the need not only to reclaim "superpower" identity as a quintessential American quality but also to recognize that American soil is not immune to the threat of violent attacks. In response to the forces threatening America—internally, the weakening of superhero resolve in the face of excessive bureaucracy, public cynicism, and unthinking adherence to the law; externally, enemies whose infantile resentment at being "not super" results in a genocidal campaign against everything "super," even to the extent of terrorizing an innocent public—the PG-rated film sanctions violence as a means to establish a new brand of "law and order." Although hearkening back to the nuclear family as the source of America’s security and strength, the film diverges from past narratives in its emphasis on a natural order in which authority and power belong in the hands of the few strong leaders left in America, while the rest of us must duly recognize our inevitable "mediocrity." This overall message is especially disturbing in light of the events following 9/11, when the United States witnessed a growing authoritarianism throughout the larger culture.55 Some consequences of the American response to the tragic terrorist attacks have been a general tolerance for the use of preemptive violence and coercion, control of the media, the rise of repressive state power, an expanding militarization, and a thriving surveillance and security industry that is now even welcomed in public schools. And these are only some of the known consequences: many of the effects of the Bush administration’s policies are still coming to light. In 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the release of top-secret Bush administration memos that sanctioned the CIA’s use of torture on terror suspects. A year previous, New York Times reporter David Barstow wrote an exposé of "independent" military analysts who appeared on television networks to inform the public with their expert and objective impressions of the war in Iraq (many were retired army generals and had direct ties to corporations that were courting government military contracts). It turned out the Pentagon was coaching the military analysts behind the scenes to put a favorable spin on the Bush administration’s "wartime performance," with the apparent collusion of U.S. media networks, including ABC, which failed to check for, or simply ignored, evident conflicts of interest.56 In addition to calling into question the journalistic integrity of the media, the scandal made it seem as if the Bush administration’s public relations machine was taking its cues from corporations such as Disney by not only launching a marketing campaign carefully tailored to uphold its public image but also secretly controlling access to information and limiting public discourse, all in order to sell a sense of security to the American people.

An emphasis on controlling public speech and public spaces—not to mention autocratic rule, secrecy, and the appeal to security—is nothing new to Disney, whose theme parks, according to Steven Watts, "blur the line between fantasy and reality by immersing visitors in a totally controlled environment."57 Disneyland is a useful space, apparently, to undertake surveillance, and Walt Disney offered the FBI "complete access" to Disneyland facilities in the 1950s for "use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes."58 Indeed, the development of a cordial relationship between Walt Disney and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is now better understood not only in relation to Walt Disney’s fervent anticommunism but also in light of revelations that he may have served as "a secret informer for the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."59 Certainly, as Watts indicates, it is known that Disney was appointed a special FBI agent in part because of his desire to root out so-called communist agitators from the film industry.60 More recently, Eric Smoodin notes that the Disney corporation remains "interested in constructing surveillance as entertainment," as suggested by the marketing of products such as a Mickey Mouse doll with glow-in-the-dark eyes that illuminate sleeping children for the benefit of parental scrutiny.61

The Incredibles, with its complex appeal to several levels of audience, received overwhelming praise from film critics, who admired not only its retromodern aesthetic and detailed animation but also its "stinging wit."62 However, most reviewers who observed an "edge of intellectual indignation"63 focused on the first thirty minutes of the film in which the main character, Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), is forced to conceal his superhero identity as a consequence of public disaffection and a string of lawsuits (he is sued after rescuing a suicidal man named Sansweet who claimed Mr. Incredible had "ruined [his] death"). With "average citizens" now proclaiming they want "average heroes," Mr. Incredible; his superhero wife, Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter); and their children become the middle-of-the-road Parr family, trying to maintain a normal suburban lifestyle by suppressing their superpowers in what one reviewer suggests is a "suspicious society that’s decidedly below-Parr."64 As suggested by a Boston Globe film review, Bob Parr’s cubicle office job as a claims adjuster at Insuricare is designed to evoke identification with the "middle-age blues felt by audience members."65 But many reviewers, in choosing to highlight the film’s critique of suburban conformity and corporate greed, misread or overlook the film’s central message, which does not elicit identification on the part of a mere newspaper journalist or academician: in fact, normal people who wrongly identify with superheroes and devalue their worth are society’s worst threat. The film’s villain, Buddy aka Syndrome (Jason Lee), begins as Mr. Incredible’s "number one fan" but then transgresses the boundary between admiration and emulation. Conflict arises when Buddy asserts that his rocket boot technology enables him "to be super" without being born with superpowers. When rejected by Mr. Incredible, who prefers to "work alone," Buddy turns the pathological injury into villainy with an ideological goal: to provide the technology "so that everyone can be superheroes. . . . And when everyone’s super, no one will be." The connections between Buddy and the dominant media’s portrayal of international terrorists are multiple: his fixation on demolishing a superpower, his development of hightech weaponry, his narcissistic rage, his ideological purpose, and, what resonates most clearly, his plan to gain power over a fearful public by launching a plane at Manhattan. At one point, Buddy even tells Mr. Incredible, "Now you respect me, because I’m a threat. . . . It turns out there’s a lot of people, whole countries, who want respect. And they will pay through the nose to get it." Given the film’s resounding judgment of Buddy/Syndrome—he is shredded by a jet turbine while attempting to kidnap the Parr baby—it is difficult to understand how the film’s message could be interpreted, as one reviewer suggests, as empowering viewers to recognize the "secret identities we all keep tucked away in our hearts."66 Even if one were to extend an allegorical reading of The Incredibles to argue that all Americans are super, it would not be possible to elide the film’s clear validation of a social hierarchy along primordial lines.

Throughout the film, the plight of the super family is closely linked to their superiority. The Incredibles’ son Dash (Spencer Fox), frustrated by not being able to demonstrate his speed in school sports competi-tions, acts out in his fourth-grade class by playing pranks on his teacher. Dash wins his father’s admiration, but the thought of a graduation ceremony for fourth-graders leads Mr. Incredible to burst out, "It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional . . . " Later in the film, Elastigirl reassures daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), "Your identity is your most valuable possession. . . . Doubt is a luxury we can’t afford anymore. You have more power than you realize. Don’t think. Don’t worry. If the time comes, you’ll know what to do. It’s in your blood." As A. O. Scott astutely recognizes in a New York Times review, the movie argues, "Some people have powers that others do not, and to deny them the right to exercise those powers, or the privileges that accompany them, is misguided, cruel and socially destructive."67 Being "super" in such a framework does not mean being smart or being virtuous; it simply means possessing innate power. The highly advanced modern society produces mediocrity because its ethics (a belief in social justice and equality) counter the effects of natural selection by nullifying Darwinian fitness as the condition for survival.

If the film indeed offers up "the philosophy of Ayn Rand"—who opposed collectivism, altruism, and the welfare state in favor of egoistic individualism—then it turns to violence as the means to achieve supremacy.68 At no point during The Incredibles’ "eardrum-bashing, metal-crunching action sludge" and its self-referential mockery of "monologuing" does the film suggest that reasoning, discussion, or any other form of peaceful resolution might be pursued instead of violence. More in keeping, however, with Disney conventions than Rand’s philosophy is the film’s conflation of the pursuit of individualism with the protection of the nuclear family. One reviewer cleverly summarizes the film’s main theme as "the family that slays together stays together."69 In this way, the white, nuclear, middle-class family becomes the ethical referent for a bombproof collectivity: only a muscular protection of one’s own will ensure stability, identity, and agency, not to mention consumerism, heterosexuality, clearly defined gender roles, parenthood, and class chivalry. The result is that the film brings "individuals and their families to the centers of national life, offering the audience an image of itself and of the nation as a knowable community, a wider public world beyond the routines of a narrow existence."70 But the American nation drawn by the film is imaged as one that neither shies away from use of force nor requires any justification for its display of blatant chauvinism when confronted by others.

The Incredibles further contrasts the banality of suburban life with the glamour and excitement of "hero work." The elaborate security compounds of Syndrome’s island and the home of fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) are suped up with the latest high-tech gadgetry, the exhilarating navigation of which bears a close resemblance to video game playing, particularly in the medium of computer-generated animation. And even if the filmmakers’ intended to parody gated homes à la Hollywood Hills in their representation of Edna Mode’s mansion, the cumulative message makes security and surveillance systems seem not only unthreatening but also quite normal—at least as familiar as, say, the presence of gates and cameras at Walt Disney World. In fact, Syndrome’s island has a developed monorail system, which implies a double reference both to the James Bond movie Dr. No (1962) and to Disney World itself. Referentiality seems to come full circle as The Incredibles’ island imitates Bond films that likely drew on the model of Disney theme parks in portraying the villain’s lair. For instance, Bond’s antagonist in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) "inhabits a politically autonomous island that features an amusement park funhouse,"71 an allusion that betrays cultural anxiety about a rigidly controlled theme park environment governed by an autocrat who deliberately toys with defenseless people’s perceptions and plays upon their fears. The Bond films were tapping into a darker side of the Disney-designed spaces, also noted by M. Keith Booker, who writes, "The fictional utopias portrayed in the [Disney] parks have a definite dystopian side, as anyone who has ever been bothered by the efficiency with which the parks are able to control and manipulate the vast populations who visit them has noticed."72 Yet, the lush tropical island in The Incredibles works less to expose the dark side of a totally regulated world than to associate it with exotic thrills and gamelike suspense as the superheroes infiltrate Syndrome’s compound—a brilliant advertisement for a family adventure at Walt Disney World, if there ever was one. More disturbing is the recognition that as dominant culture in the United States accepts the expansion of a security-military-surveillance-intelligence complex, negotiating such altered environments can be reduced to slapstick comedy (when, for instance, Elastigirl finds herself stretched between two security doors and must fight against a number of armed guards). Not rendered entirely harmless, the island environment also represents the ideal locale for the Incredible children to rise to the challenge of a real danger—their mother tells them that unlike "the bad guys" on "Saturday morning cartoons . . . these guys will kill you"—and to engage the enemy in a display of family loyalty and heroic exceptionalism.

Because "calls to action litter the film," critics such as David Hastings Dunn have suggested that The Incredibles is "an allegorical tale justifying U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush."73 Indeed, the only imaginable way the "slightly fascist" Incredibles could be labeled a "family-friendly film,"74 as one critic claims, is if one assumes the "super" refrain throughout the film is an oblique reference to American superiority and supremacy, such that viewers are included as part of one big national family, a family that has recently demonstrated its mettle on the world stage by waging wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Mr. Incredible repeatedly argues for an ethic of intervention and pushes aside anyone who poses an obstacle to action. Those individuals who wish to prevent superheroes from acting are fundamentally weak: people who claim their right to noninterference, politicians who cravenly seek public approval, lawyers who succumb to financial pressures, teachers who suppress any challenges to their authority, and employers who expect blind obedience to corporate policy. Interventionism is legitimated when Bob/Mr. Incredible helps an elderly woman with her insurance claim, only to face his irate boss, who indicates that Bob’s loyalties must be redirected to one specific purpose: "Help our people! Starting with our stockholders." While the diminutive Mr. Huph (Wallace Shawn) launches into a speech about the necessity for the "little cogs" in the company machine to "mesh together," Mr. Incredible is prevented from saving a man in the street who is being mugged. The film deserves credit for extending a clichéd critique of office work as crushing of individual creativity to a representation of greed and corruption plaguing private corporations charged with providing public services. Unfortunately, the only solution to the social ills of exploitation and dehumanization proffered by the film is to put one’s faith in the individuals who have the power to subjugate a clear and unambiguous enemy, in other words, a militaristic version of the old adage "Father knows best." Before we join the throngs of enthusiastic reviewers who laud the film for its exposure of corporate abuses of power, it should be understood that the film is as much invested in showing how postindustrial capitalism—and liberal democracy even more so—elevates the weak manipulators above the authentic strongmen. Instead of presenting a viable solution to the ravages of neoliberal economics on social democracy, The Incredibles offers only one reactionary alternative devised in the realm of fantasy: superheroes will save us as long as we recognize our natural inferiority and give them our unqualified vote of confidence. The huge, hard-bodied Mr. Incredible is ready to rescue America from the city slicker, ladies’ man softness of the postwar era. (Admittedly, this superhero for a "postfeminist" generation has an exceedingly competent female sidekick/wife, but one who tellingly possesses the complementary superhero power of extreme malleability).

When considered alongside the blockbuster success of The Incredibles and its overarching message in 2004, it probably should not surprise us that George W. Bush was reelected the same year—in part because his public relations team managed to convince voters that, in an insecure world rife with terrorist threats, they should depend on his uncompromising judgments of good and evil, his impervious cowboylike manner, and his "strong, stable personality." What makes The Incredibles appear to be superheroes is the same quality that apparently made George W. Bush seem presidential: the ability to act free from the paralyzing effects of thoughtful consideration. This orientation toward decisive action in the film becomes an end in itself since, as Jeremy Heilman points out, "There are no scenes in which characters learn to use their power responsibly (except for those that extol conformity), and no moments in which loss of life is felt."75

According to George Soros, the events of 9/11 renewed a "distorted view" of American supremacy that "postulates that because we are stronger than others, we must know better and we must have right on our side."76 If American patriotism reached a fever pitch in the aftermath of 9/11, then The Incredibles clearly tapped into a desire to assert U.S. preeminence on the world stage. Indeed, all the superheroes are American, and the only non-American with any power is a villainous French mime named Bomb Voyage. The overall message of the film, as Hastings Dunn points out, is a perennial neoconservative theme: "America’s failure to spread its values can lead to ‘blowback’ from former clients and protégés."77 The only response offered by the film to a society supposedly weakened by a misguided egalitarianism and the post–Cold War softening of American resolve is to minimize in-stitutional and legal controls while letting unrestrained power achieve its deserved place of domination. For "supers" to dictate the common good once again, The Incredibles concludes, "it’s up to the politicians." It is difficult to imagine a more resounding dismissal of democratic processes than this final assertion, suggesting less the need for political accountability and public participation than the need for emboldened leaders whose decisive action should be divorced from the values and constraints imposed by the mediocre masses.

Disney and the Rhetoric of Innocence 

The bizarre way in which The Incredibles marries two dangerous social ideals—a Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest and a retrograde identity politics based on biological superiority—can verge on acceptability when it is packaged as a Disney animated film that carries the overarching association with childhood innocence. Audiences are meant to appreciate the fact that if in a fit of rage Mr. Incredible destroys a car, or another human being for that matter, then it is simply a natural expression of his innate "super" identity and not something that requires moral assessment. Or, worse yet, it is something that can only be considered as intrinsically good. By appealing to the view that "might is right," the film fails to open up the possibility that values and ethics are constituted by various social mechanisms and material relations of power. Instead, the tautological rationale suggests that being "right" is simply entailed by being "super," such that the imperative to conquer the enemy who threatens one’s way of life remains not only above question but also without any negative consequences (after all, the enemy is not "super" like us). The presumption of innate American benevolence is implied by a reading of The Incredibles as a national allegory. At stake in this concept of America as a superpower is the belief that its leaders and the entire populace are incorruptible and therefore exemplify absolute goodness.78

As we have seen in previous chapters, this notion of a benign, incorruptible nature is nothing new to Disney, whose cultural productions rely on innocence as a rhetorical tool to legitimate dominant relations of power. The Incredibles slightly modifies the concept of childhood innocence by linking it to a citizenry in need of a blameless and absolute paternalistic authority to safeguard its interests. The appeal to innocence often enables animated Disney films to fly below a critical radar. The Incredibles probably does so, despite its authoritarian overtones, because of the historical and cultural context in which it was received. After the tragic events of 9/11, Americans sought an opportunity to envision themselves as proactive agents of history rather than its passive victims and as part of a community with strong leadership that could instill hope for security and redemption in a world that seemed hostile to such desires.

However, when politics is cloaked in the guise of innocence, more is at stake than a simple affirmation of desire. At stake is the way in which Disney films garner the cultural power to influence how people think not simply through their particular mode of representation but also through shaping the knowledge and subjectivities of their viewers in order to valorize some identities while disabling others. Film watching involves more than entertainment; it is an experience that reproduces the basic conditions of learning. To understand Disney films, we need to understand how Disney culture influences public understandings of history, national coherence, and popular values in ways that often conceal injustice, dissent, and the possibility of democratic renewal. While the retro style and clever allusiveness of The Incredibles appeal to what is aesthetically pleasing about America’s past, there is no acknowledgment of an underlying totalitarian ethos driving, for instance, U.S. military and imperial expansion during the Cold War. Although weakling institutions and individuals hinder all things "super," Mr. Incredible, as an exemplary cultural icon, enables the reconstruction of American history purged of its seamy side, not least of all through an appeal to nostalgia, stylized consumption, and a reinvigorated patriotism. Moreover, The Incredibles’ comic representation of 1950s suburban mediocrity does little to challenge the prevailing discourses of patriarchy, class, and sexism. In fact, the film pays tribute to the consumerism, patriarchy, and family values associated with 1950s sitcoms by suggesting that the failing of such a family orientation lies not in its oppressive control but in how settling into a mundane reality and accepting the onset of complacency sap its inherent magisterial vitality. Taking what it considers best from that era, the film revitalizes conservative ideology for a new generation of video-gaming kids, sexing up the suburban doldrums with designer superhero garb and high-tech stunts that substitute spectacle for critical engagement.

The Incredibles and The Path to 9/11 are films produced at a particular historical moment that share the theme of defending U.S. hegemony and values against the insidious forces of a weak-willed political correctness at home and envious terrorists determined to destroy the American way of life abroad. One interesting outcome of the comparison can be seen in the way the different film genres elicited much different responses from the public despite their thematic similarities. The Path to 9/11’s claim to portray historical events objectively in the form of a documentary-style ABC miniseries drew some public resistance, whereas the animated Disney film whose very representation defies objectivity drew virtually none. But the messages of The Incredibles are no less persuasive for being more fantastic.

Clearly, The Incredibles’ inscription of biological supremacy represents not only an assertion of dominant family values but an ideological justification for genderand race-based conceptions of U.S. global imperialism and national identity. The Path to 9/11 is less clever in concealing its affirmation of racist and sexist attitudes and its legitimation of violence, but The Incredibles is far more dangerous in that it has been viewed in a generally unfiltered manner by millions of children and adults worldwide. Recognizing the conservative influence of Disney films—a conservatism that manifests with unprecedented boldness in The Incredibles—should not entail avoiding them, suppressing them, or complacently accepting their cultural ascendancy. It should involve making explicit how and what we learn from the very political messages being taught by Disney films, rather than accepting them at face value or dismissing their existence altogether.

Consuming culture even as a form of entertainment is fundamentally a pedagogical experience, and the more educators, parents, students, and other cultural workers become active in their attempts to decode the complex representations being offered by Disney, the more rich and rewarding our experiences with popular culture will become. For this reason, a nuanced criticism of Disney films would not assume that they inherently disempower the audience but would instead view such cultural encounters as opportunities that can empower children and adults by creating the conditions that give people control over the production and types of knowledge and values arising from their experiences as cultural consumers. Being resisted here is the attitude that turns Disney’s native utopianism into an excuse to adopt a stance that willfully overlooks the risks incurred by allowing a multinational corporation to escape any critical scrutiny as it reproduces dominant forms of identity, authorizes particular forms of history, and validates "hierarchies of value as universally valid, ecumenical, and effectively consensual."79 Nothing could be more dystopian in its consequences than the abdication of our responsibility to be critical and thoughtful of the ways the U.S. media represents America to itself and others. Disney should not be allowed to dictate, limit, and monopolize the only current and future possibilities imaginable for an increasingly global culture that must be able to imagine a better life—a life built upon the precepts of compassion and justice rather than American-centered images of power, nostalgia, insularity, and world domination.

Notes:

1. Robert E. Stripling and H.A. Smith, “The Testimony of Walter E. Disney Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities,” in Walt Disney: Conversations, ed. Kathy Merlock Jackson (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006), 40.
2. Ibid., 36.
3. Ibid., 40.
4. Kevin Shortsleeve, “The Wonderful World of the Depression: Disney, Despotism, and the 1930s. Or, Why Disney Scares Us,” The Lion and the Unicorn 28 (2004), 13. For more information on current Disney labor relations, see Jane Kuenz, “Working at the Rat,” by The Project on Disney, Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 98–109.
5. Stripling and Smith, “Testimony,” 38, 40–41.
6. See Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, forthcoming from Paradigm Publishers.
7. Disney, quoted in Richard Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up: The Walt Disney Studio During World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 12.
8. Ibid., 16.
9. This statement can be found on the dustjacket of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years, produced and released by Disney Studio in 2004.   
10. Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up, xv.
11. Ibid., xv, 22.
12. Grierson, quoted in ibid., 16.
13. Ibid., 43–44.
14. Ibid., 41–49.

15. Dale Adams, “Saludos Amigos: Hollywood and FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24 (2007), 289.
16. The films, produced for adult audiences and occasionally verging on the psychedelic, are indeed a departure from traditional Disney fare, as explained by Julianne Burton-Carvajal, “‘Surprise Package’: Looking Southward with Disney,” in Disney Discourse, ed. Eric Smoodin, 131–147. Not only does the mix of cartoon and live action create an uncanny effect for the viewer, as Burton-Carvajal suggests, but The Three Caballeros is fascinating because it so irrepressibly, if unconsciously, captures only to comically defuse the colonial desires of the United States towards the Latin American “other.” On the complex role of gender in these films, see José Piedra, “Pato Donald’s Gender Ducking,” in Disney Discourse, ed. Eric Smoodin, 148–168.
17. Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up, 24.
18. Leonard Maltin, introduction to “From the Vault,” Disc One, Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years.     
19. Film historian Leonard Maltin makes this assertion in his introduction to Victory Through Air Power on Disc Two, Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years.    
20. On the growing militarization of American culture, see Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007) and Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008).
21. Mark Langer, “Disney’s Atomic Fleet,” Animation World Magazine 3:1 (April 1998), http://www.awn.com/mag/issue3.1/3.1pages/3.1langerdisney.html.
22. Ibid.
23. Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 218.
24. Christiane Staninger, “Disney’s Magic Carpet Ride: Aladdin and Women in Islam,” in The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 69.
25. Diane Sachko Macleod, “The Politics of Vision: Disney, Aladdin, and the Gulf War,” in The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 180.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid., 182. See also, Leslie Felperin Sharman, “New Aladdins for Old,” Sight & Sound (November 1993), 12–15.

28. Brenda Ayres, “Introduction,” in The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 10.
29. Macleod, “The Politics of Vision,” 185.
30. Jim Rutenberg, “Disney Is Blocking Distribution of Film That Criticizes Bush,” New York Times, 5 May 2004, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B01E2DB1E3DF936A35756C0A9629C8B63.
31. See Ted Hearn, “Cablers Are Ponying Up Presidentially,” Multichannel News, 26 July 2004, http://www.multichannel.com/article/CA438589.html?display=Top+Stories.
32. Jim Rutenberg, “Disney Is Blocking Distribution of Film.”
33. Sharon Waxman and Laura M. Holson, “The Split Between Disney and Miramax Gets a Little Wider,” New York Times, 7 June 2004,  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E3D71131F934A35755C0A9629C8B63; and Laura M. Holson, “Hollywood Ending for Weinsteins and Disney?” New York Times, 22 February 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/22/business/media/22movie.html.
34. See David Bauder, “ABC Airs 9/11 Film With Changes,” Herald-Tribune.com, 11 September 2006, http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20060911/FEATURES/60911005/-1/MULTIMEDIA0201. The BBC promotional trailer promoting the miniseries as the “official true story” is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHgbeJu1WGk. For more on the controversy surrounding the sources for the miniseries, see Jesse McKinley, “9/11 Miniseries Is Criticized as Inaccurate and Biased,” New York Times, 5 September 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/06/us/06path.html?ex=1315195200&en=efca0d9281dd6d4c&ei=5088; “ABC Tells Fox That Path to 9/11 ‘Is Based Solely and Completely on the 9/11 Commission Report,’” ThinkProgress.org, 6 September 2006, http://thinkprogress.org/2006/09/06/abc-fox/; and “European ‘Path to 9/11’ Trailer Promotes ‘Official True Story’ Which Falsely Blames Clinton Officials,” Rawstory.com, 9 September 2007, http://www.rawstory.com/news/2006/European_Path_to_911_trailer__0909.html.
35. John F. Borowski, “ABC/Disney and Scholastic, Inc. Solicits Teacher to Peddle Lies with ‘The Path to 9/11,’” CommonDreams.org News Center, 7 September 2006,  http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0907-32.htm.
36. Govindi Murty, “Interview: Writer-Producer Cyrus Nowrasteh on his ‘Into the
West’ & ‘9/11’ Miniseries,” Libertas: A Forum for Conservative Thought on Film, 9 June 2005, http://www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas/index.php?p=462.
37. On Nowrasteh’s and Cunningham’s connection to right-wing activists such as David Horowitz, see Max Blumenthal, “Discover the Secret Right-Wing Network Behind ABC’s 9/11 Deception,” The Huffington Post, 8 September 2006, http://huffingtonpost.com/max-blumenthal/discover-the-secret-right_b_29015.html; and Max Blumenthal, “ABC 9/11 Docudrama’s Right-Wing Roots,” The Nation, 11 September 2006,  http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060925/path_to_911.
38. “Top Bush Counterterrorism Official: ABC’s Path to 9/11 is ‘Shameful,’ ‘Straight Out of Disney and Fantasyland,’” ThinkProgress.org, 6 September 2006,  http://thinkprogress.org/2006/09/06/bush-official-blasts-abc/.
39. “Tell ABC to Tell the Truth About 9/11,” ThinkProgress.Org, available online at http://thinkprogress.org/tellabc.
40. Tom Shales, “ABC’s Twisted ‘Path to 9/11,’” Washington Post, 9 September 2006,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/08/AR2006090801949.html.
41. Ibid.
42. See “Leading Historians Call for Cancellation of ‘Fraudulent’ ABC 9/11 Docudrama,” 8 September 2006, http://openlettertoabc.blogspot.com/2006/09/leading-historians-call-for.html.
43. Harvey Keitel, “Showbiz Tonight Exclusive,” 7 September 2006, video and transcript at http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/09/07/harvey-keitel-speaks-out-on-path-to-911-it-turned-out-not-all-the-facts-were-correct/.
44. Scholastic Press Release, “Scholastic Replaces ‘The Path to 9/11’ Classroom Guide with New Discussion Materials Focusing on Critical Thinking and Media Literacy Skills,”  http://www.scholastic.com/aboutscholastic/news/press_09072006_CP.hrm.
45. PR Newswire, “The Free Enterprise Action Fund: Disney CEO Shouldn’t Put Personal Politics and Favorite Presidential Candidate Over Shareholders,” Reuters.com, 26 February 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS176919+26-Feb-2008+PRN20080226.
46. Benjamin Toff; “Arts, Briefly; Ratings Ride Coattails,” New York Times, 13 September 2006,  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D02E7D71531F930A2575AC0A9609C8B63.
47. Michael Eisner once conveyed the corporate idea of synergy in the statement: “The Disney stores promote the consumer products, which promote the theme parks, which promote the TV shows. The TV shows promote the company.” Mike Budd defines Disney synergy as the process through which “every Disney product [exists as] both a commodity and an ad for every other Disney commodity,” in Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions, ed. Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), 1.  For another discussion of synergy, see Frank Roost, “Synergy City: How Times Square and Celebration Are Integrated into Disney’s Marketing Cycle,” in Rethinking Disney, 261–298.
48. George W. Bush, “President’s Address to the Nation,” 11 September 2006,  http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/09/20060911-3.html.
49. Ibid.

50. Sara Ivry, “Disney Chief’s Gift to College Draws Students’ Ire, Briefly,” New York Times, 16 October 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/business/media/16iger.html.
51. Ibid.
52. PR Newswire, “The Free Enterprise Action Fund: Disney CEO Shouldn’t Put Personal Politics and Favorite Presidential Candidate Over Shareholders,” Reuters.com, 26 February 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS176919+26-Feb-2008+PRN20080226.
53. Louis Marin, “Utopic Degeneration: Disneyland,” Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces, trans. Robert A. Vollrath (New York: Humanity Books, 1984), 240.
54. Ibid.
55. See Henry Giroux, Against the New Authoritarianism: Politics After Abu Ghraib (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2005.
56. David Barstow, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” New York Times, 20 April 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/us/20generals.html.
57. Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 390.
58. Disney memo cited in ibid., 349. See also Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), especially chapter 5.
59. Herbert Mitgang, “Disney Link to the F.B.I. and Hoover Is Disclosed,” New York Times, 6 May 1993, B1.
60. Watts, Magic Kingdom, 349.
61. Eric Smoodin, “Introduction: How to Read Walt Disney,” in Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom, ed. Eric Smoodin (New York/London: Routledge, 1994), 7–8.
62. Ty Burr, “Inventive ‘Incredibles’ May Be Pixar’s Most Family-friendly Film Yet,” Boston Globe, 5 November 2004, http://www.boston.com/movies/display?display=movie&id=2593.
63. A.O. Scott, “Being Super in Suburbia is No Picnic,” New York Times, 5 November 2004,  http://movies.nytimes.com/2004/11/05/movies/05incr.html.
64. Jessica Winter, “Full Metal Racket,” Village Voice, 1 November 2004,  http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0444,winter2,58041,20.html.
65. Burr, “Inventive ‘Incredibles.’”
66. Ibid.

67. Scott, “Being Super.”
68. Ibid.
69. Jeremy Heilman, “The Incredibles,”  MovieMartyr.comhttp://www.moviemartyr.com/2004/incredibles.htm.
70. David Morley and Kevin Robins, “Spaces of Identity: Communications Technologies and the Reconfiguration of Europe,” Screen 30:4 (1989), 31.
71. Shortsleeve, “Wonderful World,” 3.
72. M. Keith Booker, The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002), 144.
73. David Hastings Dunn, “The Incredibles: An Ordinary Day Tale of a Superpower in the Post 9/11 World,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 34:2 (2005), 560, 559.
74. Burr, “Inventive ‘Incredibles’”; Heilman, “The Incredibles.”
75. Heilman, “The Incredibles.”
76. George Soros, “The US is Now in the Hands of a Group of Extremists,” Guardian/UK 26 January 2004, http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0126-01.htm.
77. Hastings Dunn, “The Incredibles,” 561.
78. On the history of America’s self-perception as a moral exemplar, active crusader, and benevolent superpower, see Susan M. Matarese, American Foreign Policy and the Utopian Imagination (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), especially chapter 3, “Visions of World Redemption.”
79. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), xxii.
 

Henry A Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include:  On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), and The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His web site is www.henryagiroux.com. Truthout readers receive a 30% discount by clicking the link and inserting the Code: TOGIR (please note that this code is cap-sensitive) on the following books: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, March 2013; The Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Politics in an Age of Disposability, April 2012; Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, August 2010; Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy, April 2010; and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, June 2007.


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Disney, Militarization and the National Security State After 9/11

Tuesday, 23 August 2011 11:20 By Henry A Giroux, Truthout | Book Excerpt

Walt Disney’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee on October 24, 1947—in which he declared, "Everybody in my studio is one-hundred-percent American," while he also named a number of former employees who had organized a labor strike as "Communists"—signified the culmination of a long-standing relationship of collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and the American government.2 Disney told the committee that he felt the best strategy for safeguarding "all of the good, free causes in this country, all of the liberalisms that really are American" would be to uncover the "un-American" labor activists who had infiltrated the motion picture industry and had propagated their Communist "ideologies," which in turn were directly responsible for activities such as the 1941 strike at the Disney studio in Burbank, California.3 Meanwhile, other reasons cited for the strike, such as the company’s "arbitrary and manipulative pay structure" and the illegal firing of union activists working with the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild, were simply ignored.4 According to Walt Disney in 1941, individuals such as the labor organizers who had "called my plant a sweatshop" needed to be "smoked out and shown up for what they are" in order to "keep the American labor unions clean" and to preserve "good, solid Americans" from "the taint of communism."5 Disney’s justification of the state’s use of repressive force in order to secure American freedom may not sound quite so unfamiliar today, following the events of September 11, 2001. Since 9/11, several reports have emerged exposing a U.S. government that used illegal wiretapping with impunity, lied about the reasons for invading Iraq in 2003, sanctioned the torture of alleged terrorists, and imprisoned socalled enemy combatants—including children—denying them basic legal rights such as the right to a fair trial.6 Indeed, state repression and patriotic correctness at their most extreme became the normal state of affairs in a post-9/11 world characterized by domestic surveillance, the erosion of civil liberties, and an ideological and military campaign waged against the threat of "terrorism" that involved the construction of a vast secret and illegal apparatus of violence.

Despite the Disney corporation’s perennial claim that its products are simply about entertainment, Disney/ABC’s The Path to 9/11 (2006) and Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) both attest to the company’s endorsement of, if not active participation in, partisan political issues, especially the "war on terror" and the emerging security culture in the United States. Disney’s history of making alliances with state power is not surprising, given its corporate interest in reaching large audiences and perpetuating dominant cultural forms, but not since its production of several films for the U.S. military during World War II has Disney participated in the dissemination of such overt political propaganda. While the Walt Disney Company’s patriotic fervor during World War II has generated little critical response over the years, Disney’s productions since 9/11 have been more controversial, yet few critics have gone so far as to argue that the messages produced by The Path to 9/11 and The Incredibles do not support the status quo as much as they present a reactionary politics, which not only justifies U.S. military power abroad but also suggests deeply authoritarian ideas and practices are the best way to secure the ongoing domination of American cultural identity at home. Both films solicit their viewers’ support and appear to occupy solid (and therefore unquestionable) moral ground by taking a critical stance that positions the lone protagonists outside repressive cultures dominated by mindless bureaucracies. The films ultimately sacrifice an understanding of the systemic causes of war and violence in favor of blaming individuals who exhibit pathological behaviors that go far beyond character flaws or mere cowardice. Of course, the demonization of the other and the representation of individuals who challenge institutional stagnancy as heroic are not new to those familiar with discourses of hyperindividualism, competitiveness, and jingoistic nationalism in the dominant media in the United States, but the justification of violence as the primary means to achieve these goals has not been asserted so boldly as before, except perhaps if one considers the history of Disney films.

At the onset of World War II, Walt Disney was not alone in his belief that film should play a dominant role in the teaching process or, as he claimed, in "molding opinion."7 He was, however, at the forefront of a movement to recognize a "new aspect of the use of films in war": training industrial workers and soldiers.8 Some historians try to account for Disney’s participation in generating military propaganda by claiming that the studios were "taken over by the military as part of the war effort"9 on December 8, 1941. But Richard Shale has meticulously documented Disney’s much earlier attempts to court contracts with the aircraft industry, the U.S. Council of National Defense, and Canadian military supporters.10 Indeed, despite a "popular (and frequently quoted) misconception" that the relationship between Disney Studios and the U.S. military was "unexpected or unsolicited," Shale observes an explicit shift in Disney’s focus from "entertainment values to teaching values" that occurred before Disney acquired his first U.S. military contracts in December 1941.11 For instance, in 1940 Disney approached the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation with the idea of generating a training film on flush riveting. And in the spring of 1941, with Canada already engaged in war, Disney convinced the commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada, John Grierson, that animated films were better positioned as teaching tools than documentary films because of their "capacity for simplifying the presentation of pedagogical problems."12 Grierson then bought the Canadian rights to Four Methods of Flush Riveting and commissioned Disney to produce an instructional film that taught soldiers how to use an antitank rifle and four short films that encouraged Canadians to purchase war savings certificates.

Then, in the fall of 1941, Walt Disney toured South America at the bequest of the U.S. Office of Inter-American affairs, which was attempting to establish good relations and "hemispheric unity as explicated in Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy."13 With material collected on the trip, Disney proceeded to generate two feature films, Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945), both intended to celebrate Latin American culture while accentuating its similarities with North American culture (and downplaying or ignoring issues like national politics and poverty).14 Born out of U.S. fear of a Nazi alliance with countries like Argentina, the films aimed to "enhance the Latin American image in the United States," while also "enhanc[ing] America’s appreciation of Latin American Everymen."15 Yet, in making The Three Caballeros palatable to white Middle America and American imperialism less threatening to southerners, Disney more often than not caricatures Latin American culture as a voluptuous, exotic female who is fleeing the attentions of a libidinous, but comically ineffectual Donald Duck.16 There is little doubt that a relationship between Disney Studios and the U.S. government had been fully cemented by 1943, when 94 percent of the footage produced by Disney was under government contract.17

From 1941 to 1945, the Disney Studios produced dozens of short educational films, with their subjects ranging from aircraft and warship identification to dental hygiene to the household conservation of cooking oil for the making of military weapons. The studio also produced a number of anti-Nazi short films, including Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943), and Reason and Emotion (1943), two of which were nominated for Academy Awards. In these shorts, Hitler is depicted as waging a mind-control campaign over the German people based on the manipulation of emotions such as anger, love, fear, sympathy, pride, and hate, while also occasionally employing force, regimentation, depravation, and false rewards. Of course, the success of the films’ efforts to expose Nazi propaganda overwhelmingly relies on the use of comic devices, caricatures, and stereotypes to make Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito seem irrational and absurd. Demonizing the enemy, according to Disney historian Leonard Maltin, "relieves aggression."18 This claim, suggesting that the films function to disperse rather than focus emotional energy, clearly sidesteps the multiple ways in which the films, much like the propaganda they critique, attempt to shape their audience’s emotional responses, such as when Donald Duck, clad in starred-and-striped pajamas, croons to the Statue of Liberty, "Oh, boy, am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" Most significant about the techniques used by these Disney shorts is how they embody animation’s capacity to draw clear, simple lines and present a selective representation of an otherwise complex reality. Through the use of comedy and comedic violence, in particular, Disney films are often released from the expectation that they might be attempting to do more than entertain. Viewers wooed by animation’s unique capacity to create novel images through exaggeration, distortion, and aesthetic style are easily absorbed into an imaginary world that quite deliberately focuses their eyes on a constructed reality to the exclusion of other possibilities. The value of the anti-Nazi short films for today’s audiences lies in their obvious attempt to win the hearts and minds of American viewers through clever visual and ideological manipulation, while ironically issuing repeated warnings to viewers not to allow emotion to short-circuit their critical faculties. A historical perspective on the subject matter sets in relief how Disney’s critique of propaganda using the medium of animation inevitably ventures into the realm of propaganda itself.

Also Read: Truthout's Book Review of "The Mouse That Roared"

And, Also See: "How Disney Magic and the Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age"

During the war, a significant number of the studio’s resources were devoted to making another feature-length propaganda film, Victory through Air Power (1943). The film, based in part on a book written by Major Alexander P. De Seversky, advocates the development of airplane and weapons technology as the means to win the war against the Axis powers. We are told the airplane will not only "revolutionize warfare" but is "the only weapon of war to develop such usefulness during peacetime." Dramatic music punctuates scenes that explore new models of airplanes with increased bombing potential. The United States as the "arsenal of democracy" is represented as a giant heart comprising factories that pump "war supplies" through "the arteries of our transport lines over distances that actually girdle the globe." This organic, humanizing image of "the great industrial heart of America" contrasts with the mechanical image of a spoked wheel used to represent the Nazi war industries, which are also vividly portrayed in dark reds and blacks suggestive of a hellish inferno. Japan is represented as a deadly, black octopus extending its "greedy tentacles" over its "stolen empire." We are told of the necessity for U.S. long-range bombers to strike at "the heart and vitals of the beast." With the lethal combination of the "superior" American "science of aviation" and "science of demolition," the "enemy lies hopelessly exposed to systematic destruction." At the same time, the film announces that "scientific bombing" will enable a "minimum investment in human lives," an oddly ambiguous use of language suggestive of two possible meanings in the context in which it appears: the assertion that aerial bombing of enemy territories requires a "minimum investment" of American soldiers and, what is both more sinister and perhaps in need of such coded language, the claim that bombing the enemy entails such "total destruction" that no human lives requiring "investment" will be left in its wake. Indeed, the film’s climax consists of a montage of exploding bombs among Japanese cities and factories, which begin curiously unpopulated and end utterly annihilated. At the pinnacle of the climactic violence, the screen resolves into an image of a bald eagle descending upon and crushing the land-ridden octopus, which then dissolves into a dark cloud of smoke rising above Japan as "America the Beautiful" plays in the background.

Walt Disney believed that Victory through Air Power convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support to long-range bombing.19 For a contemporary viewer who has the benefit of hindsight, the unquestioned propaganda offered by Victory through Air Power leaves one with the eerie feeling that the perspective being shaped by the film would not only fail to question the use of technology such as the atomic bomb but even wholeheartedly celebrate it as the quickest and most effective way to win the war. Indeed, it is precisely the film’s unflinching support of the development of bigger and better bombing technology, from small hand-dropped bombs to ten-ton delayed-action bombs and armor-piercing bomb rockets, that might seem most disturbing given the devastating effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the postwar escalation of arms development during the Cold War and the ongoing expansion of the military-industrial complex in the United States.20 But Walt Disney did not just support the development of larger weapons; he was a firm supporter of what might be called the atomic age and made the classic 1956 propaganda film Our Friend the Atom, which was also produced as a book and appeared as an atomic submarine ride in the Tomorrowland section of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In this instance, as Mark Langer points out, Our Friend the Atom was designed to "counter opposition to the military use of atomic weaponry."21 The Magic Kingdom became an outpost for leading young people and adults to believe that an "Atomic reactor . . . is like a big furnace. An atomic chain reaction is likened to what happens when a stray ping-pong ball is thrown at a mass of mousetraps with ping-pong balls set on each one."22 Disney played a formidable role in convincing every school child that atomic energy was central not merely to winning the Cold War but also to preparing them for a future that would be dominated by the United States and its use of new energy sources, which incidentally could be instrumental in elevating the United States to the position of the world’s preeminent military power. Mouse power easily and readily made the shift to celebrating atomic power and militarism while enlarging Disney’s role as a major purveyor of propaganda.

The Disney films discussed above alert us to the fact that Disney animators honed their skills and gained widespread popular appeal in the 1940s by first producing propaganda films for the U.S. government. This often neglected reality underlying Disney’s origins as a cultural entertainment icon should make us all the more careful to heed Janet Wasko’s warning that Disney encodes preferred readings of both its animated films and its own brand image to such an extent that "one of the most amazing aspects of the Disney phenomenon is the consistently uniform understanding of the essence of ‘Disney.’"23

Attuned to Disney’s willingness to assume an overt pedagogical role during World War II, several critics of a more recent Disney film, Aladdin (1992), noted that the timing of the film’s production and release coincided with U.S. military efforts in the Persian Gulf war. According to Christiane Staninger, Aladdin is "a propaganda movie for Western imperialism" that "shows the supposed unworkability of Middle Eastern traditions and the need for American intervention."24 Dianne Sachko Macleod takes this critique a step further, suggesting a link between Disney’s "revival of British and French colonial stereotypes of Arab traders, fanatics, and beauties" and the "storehouse of racial and cultural images" used by the Pentagon to justify the war.25 Macleod notes that regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the film had the general effect of "privileging the American myths of freedom and innocence at a time of nationalist fervor."26 Other connections between the film and the first Iraq war are not especially subtle: in addition to locating Aladdin in the fictional city of "Agrabah," it makes the villainous Grand Vizier Jafar look like a combination of Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini, while the two young heroes, Aladdin and Jasmine, not only look American—Disney animators made it publicly known that Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise27—but also, as Brenda Ayres suggests, display their heroism by "contesting (and changing) Arabian law and Islamic religious tradition."28 While it is impossible to discern the actual motives of the Disney animators, it is equally impossible to ignore the cultural context in which the American public viewed Aladdin. At the time of the film’s release, the dominant media were aggressively promoting similar images of liberation from barbaric traditions in order to justify the United States’ "right to intervene in Middle Eastern politics."29

Disney's Conservative Path

Despite the well-documented history of collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and U.S. military and state institutions, Disney has more recently claimed to have no interest in politics. How Disney’s decision in May 2004 to block its Miramax division from distributing Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 might qualify as a nonpolitical gesture is uncertain. At the time, a senior executive stated that "it’s not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle."30 Not only were a number of Disney’s top executives known to be campaign contributors to the George W. Bush administration,31 but then CEO Michael Eisner was reported to have said that any criticism of the Bush administration might "endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush’s brother, Jeb, is governor."32 Miramax arranged privately to buy Moore’s film and distribute it independently, and in 2005, the founders of Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, did not renew their contracts with Disney.33

As suggested above, the company’s alleged desire to remain outside politics contradicts the reality of Disney’s historical pattern of intervening in political matters. It is hardly surprising, then, that in the wake of the unprecedented success of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary, Disney/ABC decided to produce its own account of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. A $40 million miniseries titled The Path to 9/11, originally touted as a docudrama "based on the 9/11 Commission Report" and later as the "official true story," constituted a blatant political move on the part of Disney/ABC.34 In addition, Scholastic, Inc., the educational distribution partner for Disney/ABC, sent one hundred thousand letters to high school teachers across the United States encouraging them to use The Path to 9/11 in the classroom curriculum and directing them to online study guides.35

The miniseries was billed by its self-labeled conservative writer Cyrus Nowrasteh as an "objective telling of the events of 9/11"36 but faced severe criticism for its partisan depiction of events and actors. The Path to 9/11, directed by evangelical Christian filmmaker David Cunningham,37 depicted members of the Bill Clinton administration as totally incompetent, having repeatedly ignored opportunities to capture Osama bin Laden and overlooked warnings of an incipient attack before September 11, 2001. When prescreened to a select number of film reviewers before it aired on television, the miniseries was received with skepticism and outrage, not merely from Democrats and Clinton supporters. Robert Cressey, a top counterterrorism official to both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, argued that a scene depicting the Clinton administration’s refusal to pursue bin Laden was "something straight out of Disney and fantasyland. It’s factually wrong. And that’s shameful."38 Nearly one hundred thousand readers of the online journal Think Progress sent protest letters to Robert Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, stating that the film inaccurately "places primary responsibility for the attacks of 9/11 on the Clinton administration while whitewashing the failures of the Bush administration."39 According to Tom Shales, writing for the Washington Post, the miniseries qualified as an "assault on truth."40 Shales added, "Blunderingly, ABC executives cast doubt on their own film’s veracity when they made advance copies available to such political conservatives as Rush Limbaugh but not to Democrats who reportedly requested the same treatment. . . . Democrats have a right to be suspicious of any product of the conservative-minded Walt Disney Co."41 A group of academic historians led by Arthur M. Schlesinger sent a letter to ABC calling for the network to "halt the show’s broadcast and prevent misinforming Americans about their history."42

The film presents a number of clichéd stereotypes of "big government" and bureaucratic incompetence, depicting paper-pushing officials as woefully indecisive at crucial moments, primarily because they are too self-interested to put their necks on the line. Clinton, for example, is represented as not wanting to issue orders for military action against al-Qaeda because he’s too worried about the effect such decisions might have on the polls, that is, when he is not caught up in dealing with the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In one scene, General Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, which waits for U.S. approval to go after bin Laden, asks in a scornful tone, "Are there any men left in Washington?" Individuals working on the ground who buck procedure and orders from their superiors are, by contrast, willing to "take the heat." So, apparently, is George W. Bush, whose decisiveness in giving a strike-down order to the military after the 9/11 attacks really functions as the climax of the whole miniseries. One could imagine Bush political supporters cheering as this scene unfolded: finally, they could rest assured that there was a real man in Washington. Meanwhile, several FBI and U.S. customs agents recognize the nature of the "new kind of war" being waged against America, and their appeals to racial profiling and domestic spying appear justified in the film. For example, in a brief dialogue, one FBI agent states, "Americans have the right to be protected from domestic spying," and the central protagonist of the film, FBI counterterrorism agent John O’Neil (portrayed by Harvey Keitel), replies, "Do they have the right to be killed by terrorists?" Heroic individuals such as O’Neil are willing to bypass "red tape" and stand in stark contrast to (1) politicians who are too worried about public opinion not to bow to the pressures of "political correctness," (2) uncooperative CIA officials who jealously guard intelligence when they are not mindlessly adhering to obsolete federal legislation that protects individuals’ rights, and (3) various utterly casual security officials and workers who would rather appease suspicious-looking members of the public than be confronted with a situation that might embroil them in conflict. And that is not all. The film contrasts the coolness of John O’Neil’s astute judgments with the irrationality of emotionally overwrought women, such as the ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine (Patricia Heaton), and the fanatic zeal of the terrorists. In fact, many of the characters who represent terrorists such as Mohamed Atta (Martin Brody) and Ramzi Yousef (Nabil Elouahabi) share the same intense stare, bristly mustache, and swarthy skin exhibited by Hitler in Disney’s World War II propaganda films. While it might be possible for a viewer to overlook insipid dialogue, fallacious logic, melodrama, and weak narrative structure, it is virtually impossible to ignore the film’s use of racist and sexist stereotypes to lend legitimacy to all the standard bogeys of extreme right-wing ideology. And, most importantly, there remains the film’s utterly deceptive self-presentation as a historically accurate depiction of events. Even lead actor Harvey Keitel told a CNN interviewer prior to the airing of the miniseries,

I had questions about certain events—material I was given in The Path to 9/11 that I did raise questions about. . . . Not all the facts were correct. . . . You cannot cross the line from a conflation of events to a distortion of the event. No. Where we have distorted something, we made a mistake, and that should be corrected. It can be corrected, by the people getting involved in the story that they are going to see.43

In response to the controversy surrounding The Path to 9/11, Scholastic, Inc., announced that its online study guide did not meet the company’s "high standards for dealing with controversial issues" and would be replaced with new materials that would focus more on media literacy and critical thinking.44 ABC also responded to protests by broadcasting disclaimers about the miniseries’s "fictionalized" representation while airing a minimally reedited version on September 10 and 11, 2006. But ABC’s rather inexplicable decision to air the broadcast without commercials—entailing a loss of $40 million45—fostered an illusion of the film’s closer proximity to real life, if not also conveying the impression that it was a public service announcement. Most significantly, the broadcast that aired on the second night was framed by a strategic interruption—George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation—prompting one journalist to note the "thematic synchronicity," as the president’s speech called for ongoing support for the war on terror.46 It is difficult to deny the political synergy suggested by the combination of the rightwing The Path to 9/11 and Bush’s speech—synergy being a profitdriven marketing strategy by no means unfamiliar to a megacorporation like Disney47—as Bush appealed to Americans to recognize the ongoing threat of terrorism and the necessity of preemptive action as the only way to safeguard "advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism."48 When placed in the context of the film, Bush’s success could be measured in terms of how the post9/11 decisions made by his government succeeded where Clinton’s administration apparently had failed. Furthermore, the timely juxtaposition allowed the film to gain a greater veneer of authenticity from the speech’s presentation of topical and really existing political concerns, while the film in turn provided credible images and points of reference for listeners trying to engage the highly rhetorical, often self-referential use of language characteristic of Bush’s speech. Additionally, the blurring of fact and fiction embodied by the film lent to the speech the mythic or symbolic power generated by extended narrative, and the grandeur of the presidential address added authority to the film.

As a context for Bush’s speech, The Path to 9/11 made an effort to point out some of the problems in law enforcement and governance that preceded the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but the nature of the critique—although presented as objective and all encompassing—never rises above criticizing particular individuals for their character failings. The film was cleverer, however, in the way it indicated the supposed gaps in the system and advocated taking a hard line, but offered no concrete alternatives. In doing so, the film left it to Bush to emerge as the ultimate hero, opening up a space for a timely description of the measures instituted since 9/11:

We’ve created the Department of Homeland Security. We have torn down the wall that kept law enforcement and intelligence from sharing information. We’ve tightened security at our airports and seaports and borders, and we’ve created new programs to monitor enemy bank records and phone calls. Thanks to the hard work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, we have broken up terrorist cells in our midst and saved American lives.49

If The Path to 9/11 presented a single narrative perspective (the "path" taken) as the infallible "truth," then Bush’s speech, with a similar kind of religious confidence, also took for granted that only one predetermined course could secure the nation from the terrorist threat. At no point did the film or Bush’s speech suggest that the situation was complex enough to necessitate the consideration of several possible paths; indeed, both narratives closed off the possibility of questioning the effectiveness of the security measures endorsed and instituted. Difficult questions—such as the extent to which freedom should be limited in order to be secured or the kinds of sacrifices entailed by "national security"—were simply ignored in favor of the message that Americans must do whatever it takes to defeat the "enemy." It is hard to believe that the gross trivializations of the complex issues surrounding terrorism and the war in Iraq in The Path to 9/11 and Bush’s address could almost escape public protest only five years after the horrifying events of September 11, 2001.

One notable exception to the general complaisance with which the public received The Path to 9/11 involved a group of students at Ithaca College who protested the college’s acceptance of a private donation from Robert Iger on the grounds that The Path to 9/11, touted as a docudrama, was actually an egregious display of media bias. Students argued that "accepting Disney money would send the wrong message about the importance of objectivity to the school’s journalism and communications students."50 Although a Disney spokesperson responded to the student protesters by calling them "people who can’t distinguish between fact and fiction," Ithaca College president Peggy R. Williams lent credence to the students’ concerns by reassuring them that Iger’s donation "does not buy Disney any influence on campus. . . . Our curriculum decisions are our own."51 Although certainly admitting no wrongdoing, Disney has uncharacteristically and tellingly opted not to sell The Path to 9/11 on DVD—defying the expectations of both those who assumed the company would try to recover the costs of making the miniseries and vociferous right-wing groups who continue to support the film’s representation of the events leading to 9/11.52

The National Security-Family: Meet The Incredibles

As films like Aladdin and The Path to 9/11 suggest, the Walt Disney Company has an impressive ability to revise more or less familiar stories, updating the issues to make them resonate in people’s lives at the current moment. It is how Disney offers audiences not simply escape but also a mode of relating to the real conditions of their existence that makes Disney films such a long-lived and potent force in U.S. and global popular culture. As Louis Marin suggests regarding the powerful cultural role of Disney theme parks, Disney represents both "what is estranged and what is familiar: comfort, welfare, consumption, scientific and technological progress, superpower, and morality." Importantly, Marin adds, "These are values obtained by violence and exploitation; [in Disney culture] they are projected under the auspices of law and order."53 Marin’s framework is especially useful for understanding a film such as The Incredibles as mediating the "imaginary relationship that the dominant groups of American society maintain with their real conditions of existence, with the real history of the United States, and with the space outside of its border."54 In a post-9/11 world, Academy Award winner The Incredibles brings home the need not only to reclaim "superpower" identity as a quintessential American quality but also to recognize that American soil is not immune to the threat of violent attacks. In response to the forces threatening America—internally, the weakening of superhero resolve in the face of excessive bureaucracy, public cynicism, and unthinking adherence to the law; externally, enemies whose infantile resentment at being "not super" results in a genocidal campaign against everything "super," even to the extent of terrorizing an innocent public—the PG-rated film sanctions violence as a means to establish a new brand of "law and order." Although hearkening back to the nuclear family as the source of America’s security and strength, the film diverges from past narratives in its emphasis on a natural order in which authority and power belong in the hands of the few strong leaders left in America, while the rest of us must duly recognize our inevitable "mediocrity." This overall message is especially disturbing in light of the events following 9/11, when the United States witnessed a growing authoritarianism throughout the larger culture.55 Some consequences of the American response to the tragic terrorist attacks have been a general tolerance for the use of preemptive violence and coercion, control of the media, the rise of repressive state power, an expanding militarization, and a thriving surveillance and security industry that is now even welcomed in public schools. And these are only some of the known consequences: many of the effects of the Bush administration’s policies are still coming to light. In 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the release of top-secret Bush administration memos that sanctioned the CIA’s use of torture on terror suspects. A year previous, New York Times reporter David Barstow wrote an exposé of "independent" military analysts who appeared on television networks to inform the public with their expert and objective impressions of the war in Iraq (many were retired army generals and had direct ties to corporations that were courting government military contracts). It turned out the Pentagon was coaching the military analysts behind the scenes to put a favorable spin on the Bush administration’s "wartime performance," with the apparent collusion of U.S. media networks, including ABC, which failed to check for, or simply ignored, evident conflicts of interest.56 In addition to calling into question the journalistic integrity of the media, the scandal made it seem as if the Bush administration’s public relations machine was taking its cues from corporations such as Disney by not only launching a marketing campaign carefully tailored to uphold its public image but also secretly controlling access to information and limiting public discourse, all in order to sell a sense of security to the American people.

An emphasis on controlling public speech and public spaces—not to mention autocratic rule, secrecy, and the appeal to security—is nothing new to Disney, whose theme parks, according to Steven Watts, "blur the line between fantasy and reality by immersing visitors in a totally controlled environment."57 Disneyland is a useful space, apparently, to undertake surveillance, and Walt Disney offered the FBI "complete access" to Disneyland facilities in the 1950s for "use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes."58 Indeed, the development of a cordial relationship between Walt Disney and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is now better understood not only in relation to Walt Disney’s fervent anticommunism but also in light of revelations that he may have served as "a secret informer for the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."59 Certainly, as Watts indicates, it is known that Disney was appointed a special FBI agent in part because of his desire to root out so-called communist agitators from the film industry.60 More recently, Eric Smoodin notes that the Disney corporation remains "interested in constructing surveillance as entertainment," as suggested by the marketing of products such as a Mickey Mouse doll with glow-in-the-dark eyes that illuminate sleeping children for the benefit of parental scrutiny.61

The Incredibles, with its complex appeal to several levels of audience, received overwhelming praise from film critics, who admired not only its retromodern aesthetic and detailed animation but also its "stinging wit."62 However, most reviewers who observed an "edge of intellectual indignation"63 focused on the first thirty minutes of the film in which the main character, Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), is forced to conceal his superhero identity as a consequence of public disaffection and a string of lawsuits (he is sued after rescuing a suicidal man named Sansweet who claimed Mr. Incredible had "ruined [his] death"). With "average citizens" now proclaiming they want "average heroes," Mr. Incredible; his superhero wife, Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter); and their children become the middle-of-the-road Parr family, trying to maintain a normal suburban lifestyle by suppressing their superpowers in what one reviewer suggests is a "suspicious society that’s decidedly below-Parr."64 As suggested by a Boston Globe film review, Bob Parr’s cubicle office job as a claims adjuster at Insuricare is designed to evoke identification with the "middle-age blues felt by audience members."65 But many reviewers, in choosing to highlight the film’s critique of suburban conformity and corporate greed, misread or overlook the film’s central message, which does not elicit identification on the part of a mere newspaper journalist or academician: in fact, normal people who wrongly identify with superheroes and devalue their worth are society’s worst threat. The film’s villain, Buddy aka Syndrome (Jason Lee), begins as Mr. Incredible’s "number one fan" but then transgresses the boundary between admiration and emulation. Conflict arises when Buddy asserts that his rocket boot technology enables him "to be super" without being born with superpowers. When rejected by Mr. Incredible, who prefers to "work alone," Buddy turns the pathological injury into villainy with an ideological goal: to provide the technology "so that everyone can be superheroes. . . . And when everyone’s super, no one will be." The connections between Buddy and the dominant media’s portrayal of international terrorists are multiple: his fixation on demolishing a superpower, his development of hightech weaponry, his narcissistic rage, his ideological purpose, and, what resonates most clearly, his plan to gain power over a fearful public by launching a plane at Manhattan. At one point, Buddy even tells Mr. Incredible, "Now you respect me, because I’m a threat. . . . It turns out there’s a lot of people, whole countries, who want respect. And they will pay through the nose to get it." Given the film’s resounding judgment of Buddy/Syndrome—he is shredded by a jet turbine while attempting to kidnap the Parr baby—it is difficult to understand how the film’s message could be interpreted, as one reviewer suggests, as empowering viewers to recognize the "secret identities we all keep tucked away in our hearts."66 Even if one were to extend an allegorical reading of The Incredibles to argue that all Americans are super, it would not be possible to elide the film’s clear validation of a social hierarchy along primordial lines.

Throughout the film, the plight of the super family is closely linked to their superiority. The Incredibles’ son Dash (Spencer Fox), frustrated by not being able to demonstrate his speed in school sports competi-tions, acts out in his fourth-grade class by playing pranks on his teacher. Dash wins his father’s admiration, but the thought of a graduation ceremony for fourth-graders leads Mr. Incredible to burst out, "It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional . . . " Later in the film, Elastigirl reassures daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), "Your identity is your most valuable possession. . . . Doubt is a luxury we can’t afford anymore. You have more power than you realize. Don’t think. Don’t worry. If the time comes, you’ll know what to do. It’s in your blood." As A. O. Scott astutely recognizes in a New York Times review, the movie argues, "Some people have powers that others do not, and to deny them the right to exercise those powers, or the privileges that accompany them, is misguided, cruel and socially destructive."67 Being "super" in such a framework does not mean being smart or being virtuous; it simply means possessing innate power. The highly advanced modern society produces mediocrity because its ethics (a belief in social justice and equality) counter the effects of natural selection by nullifying Darwinian fitness as the condition for survival.

If the film indeed offers up "the philosophy of Ayn Rand"—who opposed collectivism, altruism, and the welfare state in favor of egoistic individualism—then it turns to violence as the means to achieve supremacy.68 At no point during The Incredibles’ "eardrum-bashing, metal-crunching action sludge" and its self-referential mockery of "monologuing" does the film suggest that reasoning, discussion, or any other form of peaceful resolution might be pursued instead of violence. More in keeping, however, with Disney conventions than Rand’s philosophy is the film’s conflation of the pursuit of individualism with the protection of the nuclear family. One reviewer cleverly summarizes the film’s main theme as "the family that slays together stays together."69 In this way, the white, nuclear, middle-class family becomes the ethical referent for a bombproof collectivity: only a muscular protection of one’s own will ensure stability, identity, and agency, not to mention consumerism, heterosexuality, clearly defined gender roles, parenthood, and class chivalry. The result is that the film brings "individuals and their families to the centers of national life, offering the audience an image of itself and of the nation as a knowable community, a wider public world beyond the routines of a narrow existence."70 But the American nation drawn by the film is imaged as one that neither shies away from use of force nor requires any justification for its display of blatant chauvinism when confronted by others.

The Incredibles further contrasts the banality of suburban life with the glamour and excitement of "hero work." The elaborate security compounds of Syndrome’s island and the home of fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) are suped up with the latest high-tech gadgetry, the exhilarating navigation of which bears a close resemblance to video game playing, particularly in the medium of computer-generated animation. And even if the filmmakers’ intended to parody gated homes à la Hollywood Hills in their representation of Edna Mode’s mansion, the cumulative message makes security and surveillance systems seem not only unthreatening but also quite normal—at least as familiar as, say, the presence of gates and cameras at Walt Disney World. In fact, Syndrome’s island has a developed monorail system, which implies a double reference both to the James Bond movie Dr. No (1962) and to Disney World itself. Referentiality seems to come full circle as The Incredibles’ island imitates Bond films that likely drew on the model of Disney theme parks in portraying the villain’s lair. For instance, Bond’s antagonist in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) "inhabits a politically autonomous island that features an amusement park funhouse,"71 an allusion that betrays cultural anxiety about a rigidly controlled theme park environment governed by an autocrat who deliberately toys with defenseless people’s perceptions and plays upon their fears. The Bond films were tapping into a darker side of the Disney-designed spaces, also noted by M. Keith Booker, who writes, "The fictional utopias portrayed in the [Disney] parks have a definite dystopian side, as anyone who has ever been bothered by the efficiency with which the parks are able to control and manipulate the vast populations who visit them has noticed."72 Yet, the lush tropical island in The Incredibles works less to expose the dark side of a totally regulated world than to associate it with exotic thrills and gamelike suspense as the superheroes infiltrate Syndrome’s compound—a brilliant advertisement for a family adventure at Walt Disney World, if there ever was one. More disturbing is the recognition that as dominant culture in the United States accepts the expansion of a security-military-surveillance-intelligence complex, negotiating such altered environments can be reduced to slapstick comedy (when, for instance, Elastigirl finds herself stretched between two security doors and must fight against a number of armed guards). Not rendered entirely harmless, the island environment also represents the ideal locale for the Incredible children to rise to the challenge of a real danger—their mother tells them that unlike "the bad guys" on "Saturday morning cartoons . . . these guys will kill you"—and to engage the enemy in a display of family loyalty and heroic exceptionalism.

Because "calls to action litter the film," critics such as David Hastings Dunn have suggested that The Incredibles is "an allegorical tale justifying U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush."73 Indeed, the only imaginable way the "slightly fascist" Incredibles could be labeled a "family-friendly film,"74 as one critic claims, is if one assumes the "super" refrain throughout the film is an oblique reference to American superiority and supremacy, such that viewers are included as part of one big national family, a family that has recently demonstrated its mettle on the world stage by waging wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Mr. Incredible repeatedly argues for an ethic of intervention and pushes aside anyone who poses an obstacle to action. Those individuals who wish to prevent superheroes from acting are fundamentally weak: people who claim their right to noninterference, politicians who cravenly seek public approval, lawyers who succumb to financial pressures, teachers who suppress any challenges to their authority, and employers who expect blind obedience to corporate policy. Interventionism is legitimated when Bob/Mr. Incredible helps an elderly woman with her insurance claim, only to face his irate boss, who indicates that Bob’s loyalties must be redirected to one specific purpose: "Help our people! Starting with our stockholders." While the diminutive Mr. Huph (Wallace Shawn) launches into a speech about the necessity for the "little cogs" in the company machine to "mesh together," Mr. Incredible is prevented from saving a man in the street who is being mugged. The film deserves credit for extending a clichéd critique of office work as crushing of individual creativity to a representation of greed and corruption plaguing private corporations charged with providing public services. Unfortunately, the only solution to the social ills of exploitation and dehumanization proffered by the film is to put one’s faith in the individuals who have the power to subjugate a clear and unambiguous enemy, in other words, a militaristic version of the old adage "Father knows best." Before we join the throngs of enthusiastic reviewers who laud the film for its exposure of corporate abuses of power, it should be understood that the film is as much invested in showing how postindustrial capitalism—and liberal democracy even more so—elevates the weak manipulators above the authentic strongmen. Instead of presenting a viable solution to the ravages of neoliberal economics on social democracy, The Incredibles offers only one reactionary alternative devised in the realm of fantasy: superheroes will save us as long as we recognize our natural inferiority and give them our unqualified vote of confidence. The huge, hard-bodied Mr. Incredible is ready to rescue America from the city slicker, ladies’ man softness of the postwar era. (Admittedly, this superhero for a "postfeminist" generation has an exceedingly competent female sidekick/wife, but one who tellingly possesses the complementary superhero power of extreme malleability).

When considered alongside the blockbuster success of The Incredibles and its overarching message in 2004, it probably should not surprise us that George W. Bush was reelected the same year—in part because his public relations team managed to convince voters that, in an insecure world rife with terrorist threats, they should depend on his uncompromising judgments of good and evil, his impervious cowboylike manner, and his "strong, stable personality." What makes The Incredibles appear to be superheroes is the same quality that apparently made George W. Bush seem presidential: the ability to act free from the paralyzing effects of thoughtful consideration. This orientation toward decisive action in the film becomes an end in itself since, as Jeremy Heilman points out, "There are no scenes in which characters learn to use their power responsibly (except for those that extol conformity), and no moments in which loss of life is felt."75

According to George Soros, the events of 9/11 renewed a "distorted view" of American supremacy that "postulates that because we are stronger than others, we must know better and we must have right on our side."76 If American patriotism reached a fever pitch in the aftermath of 9/11, then The Incredibles clearly tapped into a desire to assert U.S. preeminence on the world stage. Indeed, all the superheroes are American, and the only non-American with any power is a villainous French mime named Bomb Voyage. The overall message of the film, as Hastings Dunn points out, is a perennial neoconservative theme: "America’s failure to spread its values can lead to ‘blowback’ from former clients and protégés."77 The only response offered by the film to a society supposedly weakened by a misguided egalitarianism and the post–Cold War softening of American resolve is to minimize in-stitutional and legal controls while letting unrestrained power achieve its deserved place of domination. For "supers" to dictate the common good once again, The Incredibles concludes, "it’s up to the politicians." It is difficult to imagine a more resounding dismissal of democratic processes than this final assertion, suggesting less the need for political accountability and public participation than the need for emboldened leaders whose decisive action should be divorced from the values and constraints imposed by the mediocre masses.

Disney and the Rhetoric of Innocence 

The bizarre way in which The Incredibles marries two dangerous social ideals—a Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest and a retrograde identity politics based on biological superiority—can verge on acceptability when it is packaged as a Disney animated film that carries the overarching association with childhood innocence. Audiences are meant to appreciate the fact that if in a fit of rage Mr. Incredible destroys a car, or another human being for that matter, then it is simply a natural expression of his innate "super" identity and not something that requires moral assessment. Or, worse yet, it is something that can only be considered as intrinsically good. By appealing to the view that "might is right," the film fails to open up the possibility that values and ethics are constituted by various social mechanisms and material relations of power. Instead, the tautological rationale suggests that being "right" is simply entailed by being "super," such that the imperative to conquer the enemy who threatens one’s way of life remains not only above question but also without any negative consequences (after all, the enemy is not "super" like us). The presumption of innate American benevolence is implied by a reading of The Incredibles as a national allegory. At stake in this concept of America as a superpower is the belief that its leaders and the entire populace are incorruptible and therefore exemplify absolute goodness.78

As we have seen in previous chapters, this notion of a benign, incorruptible nature is nothing new to Disney, whose cultural productions rely on innocence as a rhetorical tool to legitimate dominant relations of power. The Incredibles slightly modifies the concept of childhood innocence by linking it to a citizenry in need of a blameless and absolute paternalistic authority to safeguard its interests. The appeal to innocence often enables animated Disney films to fly below a critical radar. The Incredibles probably does so, despite its authoritarian overtones, because of the historical and cultural context in which it was received. After the tragic events of 9/11, Americans sought an opportunity to envision themselves as proactive agents of history rather than its passive victims and as part of a community with strong leadership that could instill hope for security and redemption in a world that seemed hostile to such desires.

However, when politics is cloaked in the guise of innocence, more is at stake than a simple affirmation of desire. At stake is the way in which Disney films garner the cultural power to influence how people think not simply through their particular mode of representation but also through shaping the knowledge and subjectivities of their viewers in order to valorize some identities while disabling others. Film watching involves more than entertainment; it is an experience that reproduces the basic conditions of learning. To understand Disney films, we need to understand how Disney culture influences public understandings of history, national coherence, and popular values in ways that often conceal injustice, dissent, and the possibility of democratic renewal. While the retro style and clever allusiveness of The Incredibles appeal to what is aesthetically pleasing about America’s past, there is no acknowledgment of an underlying totalitarian ethos driving, for instance, U.S. military and imperial expansion during the Cold War. Although weakling institutions and individuals hinder all things "super," Mr. Incredible, as an exemplary cultural icon, enables the reconstruction of American history purged of its seamy side, not least of all through an appeal to nostalgia, stylized consumption, and a reinvigorated patriotism. Moreover, The Incredibles’ comic representation of 1950s suburban mediocrity does little to challenge the prevailing discourses of patriarchy, class, and sexism. In fact, the film pays tribute to the consumerism, patriarchy, and family values associated with 1950s sitcoms by suggesting that the failing of such a family orientation lies not in its oppressive control but in how settling into a mundane reality and accepting the onset of complacency sap its inherent magisterial vitality. Taking what it considers best from that era, the film revitalizes conservative ideology for a new generation of video-gaming kids, sexing up the suburban doldrums with designer superhero garb and high-tech stunts that substitute spectacle for critical engagement.

The Incredibles and The Path to 9/11 are films produced at a particular historical moment that share the theme of defending U.S. hegemony and values against the insidious forces of a weak-willed political correctness at home and envious terrorists determined to destroy the American way of life abroad. One interesting outcome of the comparison can be seen in the way the different film genres elicited much different responses from the public despite their thematic similarities. The Path to 9/11’s claim to portray historical events objectively in the form of a documentary-style ABC miniseries drew some public resistance, whereas the animated Disney film whose very representation defies objectivity drew virtually none. But the messages of The Incredibles are no less persuasive for being more fantastic.

Clearly, The Incredibles’ inscription of biological supremacy represents not only an assertion of dominant family values but an ideological justification for genderand race-based conceptions of U.S. global imperialism and national identity. The Path to 9/11 is less clever in concealing its affirmation of racist and sexist attitudes and its legitimation of violence, but The Incredibles is far more dangerous in that it has been viewed in a generally unfiltered manner by millions of children and adults worldwide. Recognizing the conservative influence of Disney films—a conservatism that manifests with unprecedented boldness in The Incredibles—should not entail avoiding them, suppressing them, or complacently accepting their cultural ascendancy. It should involve making explicit how and what we learn from the very political messages being taught by Disney films, rather than accepting them at face value or dismissing their existence altogether.

Consuming culture even as a form of entertainment is fundamentally a pedagogical experience, and the more educators, parents, students, and other cultural workers become active in their attempts to decode the complex representations being offered by Disney, the more rich and rewarding our experiences with popular culture will become. For this reason, a nuanced criticism of Disney films would not assume that they inherently disempower the audience but would instead view such cultural encounters as opportunities that can empower children and adults by creating the conditions that give people control over the production and types of knowledge and values arising from their experiences as cultural consumers. Being resisted here is the attitude that turns Disney’s native utopianism into an excuse to adopt a stance that willfully overlooks the risks incurred by allowing a multinational corporation to escape any critical scrutiny as it reproduces dominant forms of identity, authorizes particular forms of history, and validates "hierarchies of value as universally valid, ecumenical, and effectively consensual."79 Nothing could be more dystopian in its consequences than the abdication of our responsibility to be critical and thoughtful of the ways the U.S. media represents America to itself and others. Disney should not be allowed to dictate, limit, and monopolize the only current and future possibilities imaginable for an increasingly global culture that must be able to imagine a better life—a life built upon the precepts of compassion and justice rather than American-centered images of power, nostalgia, insularity, and world domination.

Notes:

1. Robert E. Stripling and H.A. Smith, “The Testimony of Walter E. Disney Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities,” in Walt Disney: Conversations, ed. Kathy Merlock Jackson (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006), 40.
2. Ibid., 36.
3. Ibid., 40.
4. Kevin Shortsleeve, “The Wonderful World of the Depression: Disney, Despotism, and the 1930s. Or, Why Disney Scares Us,” The Lion and the Unicorn 28 (2004), 13. For more information on current Disney labor relations, see Jane Kuenz, “Working at the Rat,” by The Project on Disney, Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 98–109.
5. Stripling and Smith, “Testimony,” 38, 40–41.
6. See Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, forthcoming from Paradigm Publishers.
7. Disney, quoted in Richard Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up: The Walt Disney Studio During World War II (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 12.
8. Ibid., 16.
9. This statement can be found on the dustjacket of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years, produced and released by Disney Studio in 2004.   
10. Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up, xv.
11. Ibid., xv, 22.
12. Grierson, quoted in ibid., 16.
13. Ibid., 43–44.
14. Ibid., 41–49.

15. Dale Adams, “Saludos Amigos: Hollywood and FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24 (2007), 289.
16. The films, produced for adult audiences and occasionally verging on the psychedelic, are indeed a departure from traditional Disney fare, as explained by Julianne Burton-Carvajal, “‘Surprise Package’: Looking Southward with Disney,” in Disney Discourse, ed. Eric Smoodin, 131–147. Not only does the mix of cartoon and live action create an uncanny effect for the viewer, as Burton-Carvajal suggests, but The Three Caballeros is fascinating because it so irrepressibly, if unconsciously, captures only to comically defuse the colonial desires of the United States towards the Latin American “other.” On the complex role of gender in these films, see José Piedra, “Pato Donald’s Gender Ducking,” in Disney Discourse, ed. Eric Smoodin, 148–168.
17. Shale, Donald Duck Joins Up, 24.
18. Leonard Maltin, introduction to “From the Vault,” Disc One, Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years.     
19. Film historian Leonard Maltin makes this assertion in his introduction to Victory Through Air Power on Disc Two, Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, Walt Disney on the Front Lines: The War Years.    
20. On the growing militarization of American culture, see Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007) and Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008).
21. Mark Langer, “Disney’s Atomic Fleet,” Animation World Magazine 3:1 (April 1998), http://www.awn.com/mag/issue3.1/3.1pages/3.1langerdisney.html.
22. Ibid.
23. Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 218.
24. Christiane Staninger, “Disney’s Magic Carpet Ride: Aladdin and Women in Islam,” in The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 69.
25. Diane Sachko Macleod, “The Politics of Vision: Disney, Aladdin, and the Gulf War,” in The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 180.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid., 182. See also, Leslie Felperin Sharman, “New Aladdins for Old,” Sight & Sound (November 1993), 12–15.

28. Brenda Ayres, “Introduction,” in The Emperor’s Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 10.
29. Macleod, “The Politics of Vision,” 185.
30. Jim Rutenberg, “Disney Is Blocking Distribution of Film That Criticizes Bush,” New York Times, 5 May 2004, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B01E2DB1E3DF936A35756C0A9629C8B63.
31. See Ted Hearn, “Cablers Are Ponying Up Presidentially,” Multichannel News, 26 July 2004, http://www.multichannel.com/article/CA438589.html?display=Top+Stories.
32. Jim Rutenberg, “Disney Is Blocking Distribution of Film.”
33. Sharon Waxman and Laura M. Holson, “The Split Between Disney and Miramax Gets a Little Wider,” New York Times, 7 June 2004,  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E3D71131F934A35755C0A9629C8B63; and Laura M. Holson, “Hollywood Ending for Weinsteins and Disney?” New York Times, 22 February 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/22/business/media/22movie.html.
34. See David Bauder, “ABC Airs 9/11 Film With Changes,” Herald-Tribune.com, 11 September 2006, http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20060911/FEATURES/60911005/-1/MULTIMEDIA0201. The BBC promotional trailer promoting the miniseries as the “official true story” is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHgbeJu1WGk. For more on the controversy surrounding the sources for the miniseries, see Jesse McKinley, “9/11 Miniseries Is Criticized as Inaccurate and Biased,” New York Times, 5 September 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/06/us/06path.html?ex=1315195200&en=efca0d9281dd6d4c&ei=5088; “ABC Tells Fox That Path to 9/11 ‘Is Based Solely and Completely on the 9/11 Commission Report,’” ThinkProgress.org, 6 September 2006, http://thinkprogress.org/2006/09/06/abc-fox/; and “European ‘Path to 9/11’ Trailer Promotes ‘Official True Story’ Which Falsely Blames Clinton Officials,” Rawstory.com, 9 September 2007, http://www.rawstory.com/news/2006/European_Path_to_911_trailer__0909.html.
35. John F. Borowski, “ABC/Disney and Scholastic, Inc. Solicits Teacher to Peddle Lies with ‘The Path to 9/11,’” CommonDreams.org News Center, 7 September 2006,  http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0907-32.htm.
36. Govindi Murty, “Interview: Writer-Producer Cyrus Nowrasteh on his ‘Into the
West’ & ‘9/11’ Miniseries,” Libertas: A Forum for Conservative Thought on Film, 9 June 2005, http://www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas/index.php?p=462.
37. On Nowrasteh’s and Cunningham’s connection to right-wing activists such as David Horowitz, see Max Blumenthal, “Discover the Secret Right-Wing Network Behind ABC’s 9/11 Deception,” The Huffington Post, 8 September 2006, http://huffingtonpost.com/max-blumenthal/discover-the-secret-right_b_29015.html; and Max Blumenthal, “ABC 9/11 Docudrama’s Right-Wing Roots,” The Nation, 11 September 2006,  http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060925/path_to_911.
38. “Top Bush Counterterrorism Official: ABC’s Path to 9/11 is ‘Shameful,’ ‘Straight Out of Disney and Fantasyland,’” ThinkProgress.org, 6 September 2006,  http://thinkprogress.org/2006/09/06/bush-official-blasts-abc/.
39. “Tell ABC to Tell the Truth About 9/11,” ThinkProgress.Org, available online at http://thinkprogress.org/tellabc.
40. Tom Shales, “ABC’s Twisted ‘Path to 9/11,’” Washington Post, 9 September 2006,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/08/AR2006090801949.html.
41. Ibid.
42. See “Leading Historians Call for Cancellation of ‘Fraudulent’ ABC 9/11 Docudrama,” 8 September 2006, http://openlettertoabc.blogspot.com/2006/09/leading-historians-call-for.html.
43. Harvey Keitel, “Showbiz Tonight Exclusive,” 7 September 2006, video and transcript at http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/09/07/harvey-keitel-speaks-out-on-path-to-911-it-turned-out-not-all-the-facts-were-correct/.
44. Scholastic Press Release, “Scholastic Replaces ‘The Path to 9/11’ Classroom Guide with New Discussion Materials Focusing on Critical Thinking and Media Literacy Skills,”  http://www.scholastic.com/aboutscholastic/news/press_09072006_CP.hrm.
45. PR Newswire, “The Free Enterprise Action Fund: Disney CEO Shouldn’t Put Personal Politics and Favorite Presidential Candidate Over Shareholders,” Reuters.com, 26 February 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS176919+26-Feb-2008+PRN20080226.
46. Benjamin Toff; “Arts, Briefly; Ratings Ride Coattails,” New York Times, 13 September 2006,  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D02E7D71531F930A2575AC0A9609C8B63.
47. Michael Eisner once conveyed the corporate idea of synergy in the statement: “The Disney stores promote the consumer products, which promote the theme parks, which promote the TV shows. The TV shows promote the company.” Mike Budd defines Disney synergy as the process through which “every Disney product [exists as] both a commodity and an ad for every other Disney commodity,” in Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions, ed. Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), 1.  For another discussion of synergy, see Frank Roost, “Synergy City: How Times Square and Celebration Are Integrated into Disney’s Marketing Cycle,” in Rethinking Disney, 261–298.
48. George W. Bush, “President’s Address to the Nation,” 11 September 2006,  http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/09/20060911-3.html.
49. Ibid.

50. Sara Ivry, “Disney Chief’s Gift to College Draws Students’ Ire, Briefly,” New York Times, 16 October 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/business/media/16iger.html.
51. Ibid.
52. PR Newswire, “The Free Enterprise Action Fund: Disney CEO Shouldn’t Put Personal Politics and Favorite Presidential Candidate Over Shareholders,” Reuters.com, 26 February 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS176919+26-Feb-2008+PRN20080226.
53. Louis Marin, “Utopic Degeneration: Disneyland,” Utopics: The Semiological Play of Textual Spaces, trans. Robert A. Vollrath (New York: Humanity Books, 1984), 240.
54. Ibid.
55. See Henry Giroux, Against the New Authoritarianism: Politics After Abu Ghraib (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2005.
56. David Barstow, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” New York Times, 20 April 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/us/20generals.html.
57. Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 390.
58. Disney memo cited in ibid., 349. See also Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), especially chapter 5.
59. Herbert Mitgang, “Disney Link to the F.B.I. and Hoover Is Disclosed,” New York Times, 6 May 1993, B1.
60. Watts, Magic Kingdom, 349.
61. Eric Smoodin, “Introduction: How to Read Walt Disney,” in Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom, ed. Eric Smoodin (New York/London: Routledge, 1994), 7–8.
62. Ty Burr, “Inventive ‘Incredibles’ May Be Pixar’s Most Family-friendly Film Yet,” Boston Globe, 5 November 2004, http://www.boston.com/movies/display?display=movie&id=2593.
63. A.O. Scott, “Being Super in Suburbia is No Picnic,” New York Times, 5 November 2004,  http://movies.nytimes.com/2004/11/05/movies/05incr.html.
64. Jessica Winter, “Full Metal Racket,” Village Voice, 1 November 2004,  http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0444,winter2,58041,20.html.
65. Burr, “Inventive ‘Incredibles.’”
66. Ibid.

67. Scott, “Being Super.”
68. Ibid.
69. Jeremy Heilman, “The Incredibles,”  MovieMartyr.comhttp://www.moviemartyr.com/2004/incredibles.htm.
70. David Morley and Kevin Robins, “Spaces of Identity: Communications Technologies and the Reconfiguration of Europe,” Screen 30:4 (1989), 31.
71. Shortsleeve, “Wonderful World,” 3.
72. M. Keith Booker, The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002), 144.
73. David Hastings Dunn, “The Incredibles: An Ordinary Day Tale of a Superpower in the Post 9/11 World,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 34:2 (2005), 560, 559.
74. Burr, “Inventive ‘Incredibles’”; Heilman, “The Incredibles.”
75. Heilman, “The Incredibles.”
76. George Soros, “The US is Now in the Hands of a Group of Extremists,” Guardian/UK 26 January 2004, http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0126-01.htm.
77. Hastings Dunn, “The Incredibles,” 561.
78. On the history of America’s self-perception as a moral exemplar, active crusader, and benevolent superpower, see Susan M. Matarese, American Foreign Policy and the Utopian Imagination (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), especially chapter 3, “Visions of World Redemption.”
79. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), xxii.
 

Henry A Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include:  On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), and The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His web site is www.henryagiroux.com. Truthout readers receive a 30% discount by clicking the link and inserting the Code: TOGIR (please note that this code is cap-sensitive) on the following books: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, March 2013; The Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Politics in an Age of Disposability, April 2012; Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, August 2010; Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy, April 2010; and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, June 2007.


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