by David I. Berland, M.D.
Some time ago, an article in the New York Times proclaimed: “In saloons, in graduate seminars, in barbershops across the land, whenever particular people ask, who, truly, are the giants of the Twentieth Century— who defined reality as we know it—three names loom: Freud, Einstein, Walt Disney.”20
It is unclear just how Einstein is related to Freud and Disney. True, Einstein corresponded with Freud and also did many things unconsciously, but somehow the link between Disney and Freud seems clearer: to understand one can be useful to understanding the other. Studying Freud and other early psychoanalysts can lead to a better understanding of children and consequently to appreciating the effects of some of Disney’s works. Freud’s concept of the mind’s structure can be useful in explaining the appeal of Disney’s characters because many of them (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and others) embody universal aspects of the personality: id, ego and superego. Early psychoanalytic knowledge about children can also show how what adults experience as violence and primitive fantasy can actually, enhance a child’s growth.
Although critics have examined Disney’s work since its beginning, the psychoanalytic approach is new. Now that Mickey Mouse is over fifty years old, the critics are reexamining Disney’s creations. No matter how blase, they are generally in a certain awe of Disney’s meticulous attention to detail, the draftsmanship, the imagination and the technical innovations that distinguish his craft. 5,17,24 He was the first to create a fully synchronized sound track for a cartoon—in the 1928 production Steamboat Willie. He quickly adopted color.5 He developed the multi-plane camera introducing the incredible depth of field.17,24 Other commentators have looked at the psychological appeal of Disney characters, offered psychological interpretations of a character or story and even drawn inferences about Disney’s personality on the basis of his works.4,24 But none has yet presented an elementary psychoanalytic understanding of children and then used that knowledge to examine the effects of the work.
Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, worked directly only with adult patients; yet from that age group he was able to draw inferences about child development and formulate theories of personality. I will limit my discussion of Freud to the work between 1900 and 1923. (I rely heavily on discussions by J. Tarlton Morrow, Jr., M.D. for this summary.) 1923 is a key date in Freud’s life for two reasons. First, it was the year of the publication of The Ego and the Id, and second, it was the beginning of his bout with cancer of the jaw. After 1923 it hurt Freud to talk. He was in nearly constant pain. His sparkling sense of humor continued but clearly was not as spectacular as it had been before that date.21
A neurologist by training, Freud was fascinated by the patients at Charcot’s Clinic in Paris. They had paralyses which could not be explained anatomically, and Charcot had been treating them by hypnosis. These cases, called “hysterical conversion reactions,” led Freud to study the problem of hysteria in greater detail. In 1900, partially as an outgrowth of that interest, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. In this book Freud linked dreams to unconscious conflict resolution, defined the structure of dreams, and posited the suspension of everyday logical thinking in the chaotic, primitive, paradoxical world of the unconscious.
Five years later, Freud published his Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. He studied perversions and delicately suggested that child behavior was sexual. The essays shocked society and prompted his ostracism from various Viennese medical societies. These essays also emphasized the “pleasure principle,” positing that children do what feels good. Freud declared that certain parts of the body were capable of providing the child the same intense pleasure that would later come to be associated with the genitals. For example, for the first year and a half of life, the most pleasurable zone was that around the mouth, which permitted the child to sexually enjoy the suck of the breast or bottle. The next zone of intense pleasure was the anal zone, permiting pleasure in retention and release of feces. By the third year of life, the zone shifted from the anus to the genitals, permitting experience of the most intense pleasure from genital masturbation.6,7
In 1914, Freud wrote his paper “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” This paper is important for several reasons. First, it discusses severely emotionally disturbed patients (schizophrenics) and their inability to invest their emotional energy in other people. Rather, they invest that energy in themselves, which makes them appear detached and unreachable. This overinvestment in oneself stands in marked contrast to being in love, which is, according to Freud, “the highest form of development.” He noted that when one was ill, one withdrew interest from the outside world and invested it in one’s body. “But in the last resort, we must begin to love in order that we may not fall ill, and must fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we cannot love” (p. 42). At the same time Freud recognized the close connection between self-esteem and emotional investment in the self (narcissistic libido): when loved, one feels better. At the same time, when one loves another, one invests part of himself in that other person (“forfeits a part of his narcissism”), “which can only be replaced by his being loved” in return5 (p. 55).
In addition to these basic concepts, in this paper Freud also introduces the concept of the ego ideal and conscience. The ego ideal is what one would like to be under ideal circumstances. It is that goal, that aspiration, that perfection toward which one strives. The conscience (later to be called “superego”) criticizes and chastizes the person for failure to live up to the ego ideal. Freud notes that if parents or teachers severely criticize a child, he may retreat, withdrawing into a fantasy world in which he pretends himself to be his own ego ideal. Or the child may pretend that when he grows up he will then become his ego ideal (I will become the best baseball player, ballerina, fireman, nurse, in the world). This future projection of his wishes is “merely his substitute of a lost narcissism of his childhood—the time when he was his own ideal.”8
But Freud had not yet explained aggression. By 1920, however, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which introdueted another instinct: Thanatose. Thus, inside all people there were two primordial forces: libido, the life- loving, sexual force, and Thanatose, the destructive, aggressive, death force.
Then, in 1923, Freud introduced his structural analysis of the personality with the publication of The Ego and the Id. In this essay the three-part division of the personality was delineated: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the reservoir of energies of libido and Thanatose—lust, aggression and desire. The ego struggles to harness these energies, to help them conform to the demands of society. The ego acts as a decision-maker, an executive. Yet the id is clearly the one in control. “Thus, in its reaction to the id, it (the ego) is like a man on horseback who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces (from the id). The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; and so in the same way, the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own”9 (p. 15).
The superego is the conscience, the rules of civilization as transmitted to the child through the parents and teachers. The ego ideal, the aspirations of the individual, is also a part of the superego. Thus, the ego is caught between the instinctive pressures of the id on the one hand and the rules and restrictions of society on the other.9
Freud highlighted the intense conflicts seething within the individual: the ego’s entrapment between the id and the superego, and struggles between the two primordial instincts of life (Eros and libido) and death (Thanatos). An example or two can clarify these concepts and show how they are ready tools for analyzing Disney’s creations.
In one cartoon, as Donald Duck walks to school feeling a bit mischievous, a bit happy, he comes to a fork in the road. There he pauses, and two little ducks appear from inside his head and hover about. The first duck looks like an angel and exhorts Donald to go to school. The second duck is a devil (the playfulness of the Duck’s id is reminiscent of the “It” in Georg Groddeck’s Book of the It, published also in 1923. Freud partially relied on Groddeck’s book for his own conceptualization of the id.) and exhorts Donald to go fishing and have fun. Donald is trapped between these two forces which represent the superego and id. Donald of course chooses to go fishing and, of course, later in this short receives punishment for doing so. Enjoying unconventionality and occasionally breaking the rules myself, I was always glad that Donald went fishing and thought this made him more realistic than Mickey or Goofy. Clearly Donald also had a powerful death instinct, as evidenced by his aggression and temper.
At the same time Disney is always certain that Donald gets his comeuppance, thus promulgating the values of society, perhaps almost in the fear that viewers would find Donald so appealing that they might be tempted to emulate him. Theodore Adorno takes this view in describing the constant reiteration and reinforcement of values in morality plays on television, “… It is feared that people would really follow their instinctual urges and conscious insights unless continuously reassured from the outside that they must not do so”1 (p. 478).
Thus Donald is an id-dominated character who lives more intensely than Mickey Mouse. Mickey is an ego ideal. He reflects a wish on the part of his creator to recapture some aspect of lost childhood. Richard Schickel describes Disney’s childhood as very difficult, with frequent beatings. Perhaps Disney invested his emotional energes in himself and his ego ideal, which finally became concrete in the form of Mickey Mouse years later.
Mickey is very much a child’s ego ideal. He has a capacity to play, to make play of work, and never gets into trouble through his own mistakes. “Mickey gets into scrapes through no fault of his own but always manages to come up grinning.”20 Another aspect of children’s attraction to him comes from the Mouse’s playfulness when he goes off to explore whatever strikes his curiosity: “Action follows seeing without the interposition of thinking.”19
Yet Mickey is clearly not just the ideal of a child. He also has idealized qualities for the adult. He is loyal, he is clean (much has been made of Disney’s emphasis on cleanliness in works such as Schickel’s24 and Brody’s4). Finally, Mickey is sexless. In his 1940 article about Mickey Mouse, Fritz Moellenhoff states, “Our ideal is unable to love… he is someone from the point of view of genitality (who) makes no decision because he does not need to” (p. 23). Because of his sexual neutrality, sexual envy and jealousy do not occur in the unconscious of the viewer, making Mickey a safe identification object. Perhaps Disney was aware of the importance of this sexual neutrality when he appointed himself as Mickey’s voice, the voice of a sexually ambiguous prepubescent child.19
Eric Fromm sees Mickey Mouse in a different light. Fromm discusses Mickey Mouse in Escape from Freedom and believes that his audience is drawn by recognizing “something that is very close to its own emotional life” (p. 153), i.e., a small creature overwhelmed by a large society. This small creature (Mickey) rises up to the restrictions of the large society, escapes and sometimes turns around to harm those who had been thwarting him. “The spectator lives through all his own fears and feelings of smallness and at the end gets the comforting feeling that, in spite of all, he will be saved and will conquer the strong one” (p. 153). Fromm emphasizes that Mickey does not even create his own escape; rather, he remains a victim of a strange series of accidents that permit him to get away.11 However, such an analysis clearly misses the point of Mickey Mouse as a major character in popular culture. He is an underdog—but there is more to his character. He is witty and able to outsmart his opponents.
Mickey is an incarnate of one of the universal parts of the human psyche, the ego ideal. Further, Fromm’s clinical statement denies internal states: there is no internal conflict in Fromm’s writing; it is all outside, and man is buffeted about by society.18 That absolute loss of control of one’s own life is a parody that makes Mickey Mouse look real by comparison. Fromm denies internal biological conflict, thus creating the illusion that the inevitable conflict between id and superego is solvable only with an “enlightened civilization”: a contradiction in terms, as in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
Goofy is the somewhat impaired ego. In his own sometimes comical, sometimes sad, but usually inept way, he goes along with whatever is happening. Goofy’s is an ego weakened by an impaired intelligence. Compared to Freud’s rider on the horse, he would be a weaker equestrian able only to follow the horse. Hence in the cartoon Mickey’s Garage Mickey, Donald and Goofy tear a car apart looking for a squeak. Mickey seemed to do it to help, Donald does it for pleasure, and Goofy simply goes along.
In addition to Mickey, Donald and Goofy, Disney created another world of animated feature films. These films contain characters with purely superego traits. They serve as guides, advice givers and teachers. They include Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk in Bambi; Timothy the mouse in Dumbo; the mice in Cinderella; Tinkerbell in Peter Pan; the talkative owl in The Sword and the Stone; the advisor mouse in Ben and Me; and of course Jiminy the Cricket in Pinocchio. Indeed, Schickel makes the observation, “It is perhaps significant that Disney’s greatest animated failure, Sleeping Beauty, contained no tiny creatures for audiences to love or to tell them how to respond to what they were seeing. In that film, [they] were left floundering among the ambiguities like so many intellectuals”24 (p. 234). Without the presence of a concrete superego, one of the universal aspects of personality from Freud’s structural theory, the film could not be successful.
Without going into detail, it is enough to say that Freud believed that the superego becomes operative in a child during the final stage of sexual development—the genital stage. This stage occurs when the child is about five years old. The superego results from the resolution of the oedipal complex when the child gives up his or her wish for exclusive sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex. For example, a boy gives up that wish for two primary reasons: one, reality, and the other, fantasy. On the level of external reality, the boy recognizes he is so much smaller than his rival father and desired mother that he sees as absurdly hopeless any wish to defeat father and satisfy mother. On the level of internal fantasy, he gives up that wish because of his love for his father as well as his fears that his father will punish him (usually in the form of castration fears) for his attachment to the mother.
Up to this point, psychoanalytic theory has been used primarily to point to the appeal of Mickey, Donald and Goofy as well as adviser figures in animated film. To fully appreciate the effects of Disney’s fairy tales on children, however, it is necessary to understand their lives before five years of age. During that time children experience intense feelings and are able to use for growth what adults may disdain and discard as violent and primitive fantasy. Insight into this period of a child’s life can be obtained in a study of the work of Melanie Klein.
Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst who worked directly with children, studied the period before oedipal conflict. In doing this she was seeking to trace the roots of the oedipal conflict to the first year of life. She also explained how the child saw other people (called “objects” in psychoanalytic theory) in his or her environment.
She discusses the infant’s first experience with other people. The hungry infant does not experience the whole mother, only that part of the mother (“part-object”) that feeds—the breast. The infant experiences the breast as good when it feeds and satisfies. He experiences it as bad when it does not satisfy. Again, Melanie Klein emphasizes the importance of the “part-object,” either all good or all bad. This state of affairs continues through the first trimester of life and is called the “paranoid/schizoid position.” In the second half of the first year, the infant comes to realize that the breast that feeds is the same one as one that does not. Hence the good and the bad part-objects come together to form a whole object (many unhappy people struggle with this concept of seeing others as part—as opposed to whole—objects throughout their lives).
As the child puts the good and bad together, he enters what is called the “depressive position”: the breast that feeds is also the breast that frustrates. In that position the child is capable of feeling guilt and mourning the loss of the good part of the other person (object) while at the same time feeling so angry that he destroys the object in fantasy. Under stress, the child will tend to fall back into the paranoid/schizoid position. In that position the child experiences people as primitive part-objects: breast for succor, penises for aggression, etc. The child many have the fantasy of attacking and killing these parts while magically expecting them to reappear.25 The primitive world of part-objects is kept at bay in the consciousness in adults. Indeed, such primitive notions generally make us quite uneasy. Yet their intense violence and vivid imagery frequently occurs in the guise of dreams. Many adults would like to keep these thoughts and images in that realm, and certainly to protect children from them altogether.
Disney systematically removed those primitive, violent images from his features and replaces them with tame and unprovocative ones. Without this pre-oedipal material, the films’ intense feelings become more acceptable to adults, who can intellectually interpret them. However, this fantasizing process also renders the films less useful for children who use experience rather than intellect to work through developmental conflicts.
Four films using the Disney sanitizing/sterilizing process are Cinderella, Snow White, Pinocchio and The Three Little Pigs. Disney had two versions of Cinderella available to him: the Brothers Grimm’s and Perrault’s. He chose the Perrault version. Perrault was a member of the French Court, who published his collection of fairy tales in 1697. His book was designed for the enjoyment of the Court at Versailles. In order to maintain his position and popularity in the Court, Perrault systematically removed the disagreeable and disturbing aspects of stories.’ For instance, to Perrault Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale admonishing children not to go with strangers. To drive that point home, in his version the wolf simply eats little Red Riding Hood and the story ends without allowing the woodsman cutting open the wolf to free the child and grandmother. In Cinderella he eliminates the self-mutilation of the stepsisters and replaces the tree on the grave of Cinderella’s mother with a fairy godmother in order to make the stories more palatable to Court tastes.
Disney further rewrote parts of Snow White.17 In his version the huntsman does not bring back the liver and lungs of the supposedly slain girl for the queen to eat, as in Grimm. Rather, he simply assures her that he has killed Snow White. Cannibalism is unthinkable. Similarly, the death of the wicked witch is altered in the Disney version. In the Brothers Grimm version she is forced to dance on coals wearing red metal shoes until she drops dead. In the Disney version she falls down a canyon and dies. Death is quick, painless, and out of sight. Disney also rewrote Pinocchio.17,24 The author, Carlo Collodi, had Pinocchio indiscriminately squash the cricket who had offered to help him.24 Jiminy’s fate was obviously different in the Disney version. Collodi’s Pinocchio is very playful, a prankster; in short, a delinquent. For a hero to be a delinquent was intolerable for Disney, who makes his Pinocchio a victim of the whims of the cruel people who exploit children.
Disney also changed The Three Little Pigs.2’ The wolf no longer dies but is simply punished. Why did Disney make these changes in the stories? He was by all accounts an excellent story editor. Brody suggests that these changes reflect Disney’s own intrapsychic problem and are a defense against pregenital conflicts.4 They might also reflect Disney’s idealization of his own childhood: that he was an innocent victim of society’s cruelty. It also might be that he understood the sanitized versions of the fairy tales would appeal to other adults as well.
Perrault had sanitized his fairy tales for this very reason. In a magazine published in 1933, “… he [Disney] promised Mickey Mouse would never do anything to hurt or frighten a child—already a few earnest souls were decrying the violence of his adventures—and then went on to point out quite sensibly that the mouse was not a creation aimed specifically at children…. Mickey Mouse pictures are gauged to only one audience: the Mickey audience… that audience is made of parts of people; of the deathless, precious, ageless, absolutely primitive remnant of something in every world-racked human being which makes us play with children’s toys and laugh without self-consciousness at silly things, and sing in bathtubs, and dream and believe that our babies are uniquely beautiful. You know, the Mickey in us”24 (p. 158).
Much to Richard Schickel’s credit, he defends the “violence” that appears in Disney cartoons. He notes that the children have the good sense to avert their gaze when they don’t want to see something and that such criticisms against violence are in general terribly naive. Another author who notes the naivete of critics of violence for children is Loretta Bender, a child psychiatrist. In 1941, she co-authored a paper discussing the effects of comic books on children. “Children are not upset by even the more horrible scenes in the comics as long as the reason for the threat of torture is clear and the issues are well stated.” The authors go on to say that if a child has a reaction to reading a comic book, most likely the cause for that reaction comes from the child, not the book. The authors go out on a limb: “It is felt that even the more obviously unstable child should not be deprived of the possible benefits that he will gain from reading comic books.”2 (It is striking how these responses to attacks against violence in comic books in 1941 sound so similar to those made against television in the 1970s and 80s.)
There are those who believe that children should not be exposed to any violence whatsoever, almost as though they believe that there is no natural aggression in children. However, those who study children directly would disagree. Along with Loretta Bender, Melanie Klein makes a strong point that children do have violent fantasies and need to work them through to master early anxiety.15,16 That mastery is necessary for growth.
Like Bender, Bruno Bettelheim holds that what is important is that the reasons for violence be clear.3 One of the characteristics of fairy tales such as Snow White and Cinderalla is that there are clear reasons for what happens. The victims of violent death are not whole objects, they are part- objects. Curiously, some of Disney’s films recognize the importance of the death of the bad part-object with violence. In Sleeping Beauty, the evil fairy in the form of a dragon is killed by the prince whose kiss will awaken the princess. The bad object is destroyed so that the good can continue to live. Disney’s version is unique in that its fairy godmother is split into good and bad parts, depicted as a good and a bad fairy. (In fact, the Brothers Grimm, version could be called defective because the bad fairy godmother is not punished.)3
Similarly, Disney punishes the bad queen in Snow White by letting her fall and die. Her punishment is not as richly symbolic as in the Grimm version, but he does dispose of this bad part-object. In the Brothers Grimm the prince carries Snow White away in her coffin, causing her to spit up the poisonous apple and come to life (as opposed to the kiss in the Disney version). This story then comes full circle. Snow White’s tragedy began with the cannibalistic desires of mother (the wicked queen) and ends when Snow White spits out the suffocating apple—the bad object she almost made part of herself. That action “marks her final freedom from primitive orality, which stands for all her premature fixations”3 (p. 214). This theme of clear renunciation of orality is lost in the Disney version because cannibalism is removed from the story.
Children well know about cannibalism, sex, aggression, etc.13,16 In fact acknowledging that such thoughts and feelings occur and that they are human can be an important part of a therapeutic process for a child. If adults are unwilling or unable to acknowledge such feelings in children, they may experience feelings of shame and rejection. Certainly we know that the child deeply fears the loss of love from the parents. At the same time what the child fears even more is that somehow his own actions may cause the death of those who love him.15 These murderous impulses may be related to Sartre’s description of anguish. He says that one feels anguish or dread when one walks along a precipice. One is not so afraid of falling as of jumping.21’
While this material is clearly a part of the child, its expression may take many forms. One child playing with a scissors and string may be working through a conflict very different from another child playing with the same things. Mrs. Klein admonished the child psychoanalyst to pay great attention to detail in order to understand what the particular play activity means for a particular child. At the same time she notes that a child has even easier access to the unconscious conflicts that adults do.13 Hence, the distinction between conscious and unconscious holds perhaps less for children than adults because the child has a readier access to the unconscious.
Because of this closer link between the unconscious and conscious in children, fairy tales have greater meaning for them than for adults. The child has the capacity to understand the fairy tale intuitively. (Bruno Bettelheim admonishes one never to “explain” fairy tales to children.) Disney’s version of Cinderella robs the child of the most meaningful message of that fairy tale and tells him that he can do nothing for himself: a fairy godmother must do it for him. Thus, he must remain a helpless infant. The Disney-Perrault version uses a fairy godmother in place of a tree and birds. But it is not an ordinary tree that these adapters leave out. It is the tree that Cinderella planted over the grave of her mother and watered with her tears. In that tree sits the dove who helps Cinderella to attend the ball, informs the prince that the slippers do not fit the feet of the stepsisters, and in the end punishes the stepmother and stepsisters. The Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella conveys ever so subtlely to the child that, “Miserable as he may feel at the moment—because of sibling rivalry or any other reason—in sublimating his misery in sorrow, as Cinderella does by planting and cultivating a tree with her emotions, the child on his very own can arrange things so that his life in the world will become a good one”3 (p. 260). The child can take action in the Brothers Grimm version and is not the passive ward of the fairy godmother as in the Disney-Perrault version.
Just as Disney’s Mickey Mouse appeals to “the Mickey audience,” his “fairy tales” appeal to the adult audience. Bettelheim notes that much of the fairy tales’ personal statement to the child is lost when someone converts it to comic book or movie form. Fantasies become mass produced, a child’s fantasies then become right or wrong, depending on how they correspond with the version on the screen.3
Some of Disney’s sanitizing efforts have had further-reaching effects on the meaning of the tales. Overall, fairy tales present a character with a problem of conflict that character must overcome. As the character masters the situation, he or she grows up. Some of Disney’s stories do not emphasize this growing up. Indeed, another major alteration made in Snow White involves bestowing a distinctive personality on each of the Seven Dwarfs. In the Brothers Grimm story, the dwarfs represent development arrested at the pre-pubescent stage. They have no particular personality, no “self.” They are not valued and the question in the story is whether Snow White can transcend their stage of development and grow into full, rich womanhood. That growth from amorphous, indistinct latency into unique development is lost as Disney gives the pre-pubescent Dwarfs as much character as any other subject in the film.3
Disney’s version of Pinocchio similarly robbed the character of the opportunity to develop and grow. Pinocchio remains a victim of Foul-fellow and Gideon until he is forced to act like a grown-up and rescue his father.17 Pinocchio’s becoming a child who acts like a parent robs him of his childhood: he must take care of his father instead of enjoying his father’s taking care of him.
Perhaps the clearest of Disney admonitions to stay a child is that of the animation Ferdinand, the Bull.12 In this story, the little bull would rather sit beneath his cork tree and smell flowers than grow up. For if he grows to become a big bull, he must face the matador in the bull ring. When a bee stings Ferdinand, people from the village mistake his running about in pain for ferocity. They then take him to the bull ring. However, there he prefers to look at the crowd and smell the flowers—he is released from the ring, the object of scorn. There is no way out. If he acts ferociously he will be taken to the bull ring and killed; hence, he must opt for the smelling of flowers and never grow up. Disney won a special Oscar for Ferdinand.’7
Certainly there is that part in grownups that longs to return to childhood. Yet Disney’s exploiting that longing in this story seems to be a use of “psychoanalysis in reverse,” a concept that Adorno attributes to Leo Lowenthal. Adorno defines that concept as the use of psychoanalysis to understand people—not to help them grow, but to trap them.1 That is Ferdinand’s fate: he is trapped into childhood for life. Further, the way the story presents it, Ferdinand has no other option. He can cleverly escape his fate of death only by remaining a child. Thus, Disney praises and extols what psychoanalysis would try to cure.
There is an additional device used in various Disney cartoons with appeal to adults. Moellenhoff noted it in some of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons.19 He refers to Disney’s “anthropomorphising machines.” In Disney cartoons, mechanical devices are pleasure items. The characters in the cartoons are not the servants of the machines; rather the machines serve them. At times the machines take on uniquely human qualities in their portrayal as playthings. Hans Sachs, a psychoanalyst, notes that the last time machines were used for play and not work was during the time of the Greeks and Romans. He explains that one of the main reasons these machines were used solely for amusement involved that culture’s value of the human body. This investment of interest in the human body is, of course, consistent with Freud’s concept of narcissism. And certainly no machine was to be master of man or woman! (After a careful analysis of the economic circumstances of the times, Sachs preempts the argument that the slave economy made, machines unnecessary.)2
Yet, here emerges a contradiction. While Disney has shown interest in subjugating machines to people, he gives only hints of going the rest of the way to acknowledge his interest in the human body. Every so often figures are overdrawn in his cartoons, the most striking of which is Tinkerbell with her oversized buttocks. By and large Disney Productions attempted, as an artistic policy, to be asexual. Mickey and Minnie Mouse rarely kiss; Huey, Dooey, and Louie are motherless; the mysteries of childbirth remain secret.4,19 Disney had that rare talent for walking the fine line between narcissism enough for people to be masters over machines along with enough denial of sexuality to subordinate the pleasure principle to the work ethic. Thus another aspect of the cartoons was sanitized and made safe for public consumption.
Like Perrault, Disney was entrepreneur, but he also gave his public what it wanted to see.* He was able to give us Mickey Mouse, an ego ideal of childhood blended with adult longings. We were able to appreciate Donald Duck’s struggles with instinctual pressures; there were times we would have preferred him to win over the goody two-shoes Mouse. We were able to appreciate that we did not have to struggle with Goofy’s limitations in dealing with much of life. Disney cleaned up fairy tales so that some lost their psychological value for children but not their box-office appeal, particularly to the film-going adult public.
Disney had little leisure in his childhood, and perhaps had less time as an adult to reflect on the games of children or to talk with them firsthand. Rather, he may have wanted to protect them from the expressions of violence he had experienced himself. It really does not matter very much. He may have been trying, after all, to give adults and children a revised childhood—an “ideal childhood,” free of violence and threatening part- objects. Further, in his cartoons, Disney restored people as master of machines. But there was a price for the gift. The sanitizing process flies in the face of what child psychiatrists and psychoanalysts know to be important to children.
Even more, it robs some of these tales of their true meaning and sense of completion. Children are unable to use these versions of fairy tales to master developmental conflicts and therefore to grow. Instead, at times, there is a more subtle message admonishing the child either not to grow up or to grow up too suddenly—depriving the child, either way, of the exciting sense of mastery and the full wonder of childhood. Such observations may lead one to wonder about the culture that both feeds upon and nurtures such lessons.
The author gratefully acknowledges the help of Elaine J. Prostak, M.A.; John J. Fitzpatrick, Ph. D.; Raymond G. Poggi, M.D.; and Margaret King, Ph. D.
*Disney also wanted credit for his creations. That wish contrasts with at least one of Disney’s early contemporaries, Otto Messner, who received no credit for his character Felix the Cat, drawn for Pat Sullivan Studios. Schickel notes that a producer’s theft of Disney’s Oswald the Rabbit was a very important event in his life. After that, Disney obtained clear copyright on his characters and never sold a print of his films to anyone. He held onto everything. His most rewarding experience: “‘The whole damn thing, the fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it” (Schickel).
1. Adorno, Theodore W., The Popular Arts in America, Television and Patterns of Mass Culture, Ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, New York: Free Press, 1957.
2. Bender, Loretta and Reginal S. Lorrie, The Effect of Comic Books on the Ideology of Children, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 11, July 1941, No. 3.
3. Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, New York: Vintage, 1977.
4. Brody, Michael, M.D., The Wonderful World of Disney—Its Psychological Appeal, American Imago, Vol. 33, 1976, pp. 350-360.
5. Finch, Christopher, The Art of Walt Disney, Walt Disney Productions, 1975.
6. Fitzpatrick, John J. Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Human Life Cycle, Blueprint (Institute of Human Relations, New Orleans, March 1977).
7. Freud, Sigmund, Three Contributions for the Theory of Sex (1905), The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill. Modern Library Edition, 1938 (trans. A.A. Brill).
8. Freud, Sigmund, Collective Papers, Vol. 4 (Authorized translation under supervision of Joan Riviere), London: Hogarth Press, 1950). On Narcissism: An Introduction (1914).
9. Freud, Sigmund, The Ego and the Id (1923), New York: Norton Library 1962. (trans. by Joan Riviere, revised by James Strachey).
10. Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), New York: Norton Library, 1961 (trans. by James Strachey).
11. Fromm, Eric, Escape from Freedom, New York: Discus Books (Hearst Corp.).
12. Grotjahn, Martin, M.D., Ferdinand and the Bull, Psychoanalytic Remarks about a Modern Totem Animal, American Imago, 1, No. 3, 1939-40, pp. 32-41.
13. Klein, Melanie, The Psychological Principles of Early Analysis (1926), in Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945; London: Hogarth Press, 1975 (trans. Alix Strachey).
14. Klein, Melanie, The Symposium on Child Analysis (1927), in Love, Guilt and Reparation: and Other Works, 1921-1945, London: Hogarth, 1975 (trans. Alix Strachey).
15. Klein, Melanie, The Technique of Early Analysis in The Psychoanalysis of Children, London: Hogarth, 1975 (trans. Alix Strachey).
16. Klein, Melanie, The Significance of Early Anxiety Situations and The Development of the Ego, in The Psychoanalysis of Children London: Hogarth, 1975 (trans. Alix Strachey).
17. Maltin, Leonard, The Disney Films, New York: Crown, 1973.
18. Marcuse, Herbert, Epilogue: Neo-Freudian Revisionism, in Eros and Civilization, a Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. (1955), New York: Vintage, 1962.
19. Moellenhoff, Fritz, M.D., American Imago, 1, 1939-40, No. 3, pp. 19-32.
20. New York Times, Saturday, Dec. 3, 1977, Sect. C., p. 23.
21. Roazen, Paul, Address to Topeka Institute for Psychoanalysis, Nov. 17, 1977.
22. Sachs, Hans, The Delay of the Machine Age, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 2, July-Oct. 1933, pp. 404-424.
23. Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Encounter with Nothingness, The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Robert Denoon Cumming, New York: Modern library, 1965.
24. Schickel, Richard, The Disney Version, The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.
25. Segal, Hanna, Introduction to Work of Melanie Klein, New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Dr. Berland is a child psychiatrist on the staff of the Menninger Foundation. He directs a ten-bed ward for adolescents with emotional problems. He has had specialized training in psychodynamic and psychosocial principles involved in child development.
The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume XV, Issue 4, Spring 1982; pp. 93–104