Disney needs ‘new purpose’ to remain at heart of the American Dream

Disney has been at the heart of the American Dream since the 1930s but the multimedia giant needs a new purpose if it is to continue to mean ‘something beyond merchandising’.

That’s the view of US cultural historian Dr John Wills, of Kent’s School of History. His new book, Disney Culture, takes a critical overview of the role Disney has played in US society since it started making films in the 1920s.

Disney’s first full length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, smashed all box office records after its release in 1937.

Since then, Disney’s story has been one of relentless corporate advancement and cultural hegemony as characters such as Mickey Mouse made the brand synonymous with the American Dream.

So much so that in 1968 the artist Ernest Trova, gathering materials for a time capsule, proclaimed the swastika, Coca Cola bottle and Mickey Mouse as the three most important graphical images of the century.

But, as Disney approaches its 100th birthday, Dr Wills suggests it needs to re-evaluate itself to remain culturally relevant.

Although the 2013 film Frozen proved a great commercial and artistic success, Disney has become part of a ‘broader battle over American culture’, Dr Wills suggests. Faced at times with criticism from both conservatives and liberals, the corporation has struggled to maintain a clear cultural identity.

‘Discarding Disney is tantamount to shredding the American Dream and becoming decidedly un-American,’ Dr Wills concludes. ‘But Disney needs to become more than a financial giant and a holding company. It needs purpose beyond corporate growth or story recycling.’

Disney Culture is published by Rutgers University Press.