When Walt Disney began a small company in the back of a Los Angeles office in 1923, no one foresaw the phenomenon that was about to take the world by storm. Since then, the Walt Disney Company, in conjunction with its subsidiaries such as Walt Disney Animated Films, Pixar, and Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment has produced over 500 projects for the screen as well as thousands of books, toys, and movie memorabilia. Disneyland, Disney World, and Epcot Center theme parks across the world attract millions of visitors every year, putting Disney at number 5 on the Forbes list of top-grossing businesses. With most of its success stemming from the appeal to children, Disney has long been considered a safe and wholesome source of entertainment. But is that still true? How should Christians view Disney?
Since producing its first full-length animated movie in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney name has been a trusted source for high-quality products combined with family values. Though aimed at the child market, Disney classics have captivated audiences of all ages. Animated features such as Pinocchio (1940) have provided artistic excellence while portraying positive moral values like honesty, responsibility, and wisdom in choosing friends. Many people who grew up with Disney cartoons and feature films continue to love everything Disney far into adulthood. However, loyalty to a product tends to render us blind to subtle changes, and, like most 21st-century enterprises, Disney has begun following the downward moral spiral that reflects our increasingly immoral culture.
For the past couple of decades, Christian leaders and family values watchdogs have sounded increasingly loud warnings about Disney’s direction. They site, among other things, the subtle shift away from the Judeo-Christian worldview that most parents wish to instill in their children. From seemingly lesser issues, such as the recurring theme that a beautiful girl needs a Prince Charming to make all her problems go away (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast), to more overt inclusions of openly gay characters (The Disney Channel’s Andi Mack), Disney’s attempts to reflect our changing culture may be, in fact, influencing it.
Other areas of concern about all things Disney include the following:
1. Creation of a “princess culture.” In 2000, Disney introduced the Princess brand of dolls, toys, and accessories representing the fictional heroines of Disney films. What has resulted is something the Washington Post calls a “princess culture.” Several studies have been conducted to determine the effects of this princess culture on children. Surprisingly, most studies indicated that young boys were positively affected by this theme and tended to view their masculinity as a means to protect and rescue damsels in distress. Not so positive were the results of princess culture on little girls. As could be assumed, the idea of every little girl being a “princess” reinforced negative female stereotypes. Disney princesses are always beautiful and usually in need of rescue by a male. Disney has attempted to counter this pattern by producing characters such as Elsa, Anna, Merida, and Rapunzel, but the princess culture may be a contributor to the sense of entitlement (and low self-image) characteristic of a whole generation of young women. Most little girls grow up to find that the adult world does not treat them as princesses.
2. Open support for the LBGTQ agenda. Since the early 1990s, Disney has openly supported homosexual issues. In 1991 Disney World hosted its first gay pride parade and in 1995 offered gay executives health benefits for their partners—an offer that did not extend to heterosexual couples living together. While there is debate over whether certain fictional Disney characters are attempts to normalize homosexual or androgynous lifestyles, the fact is that the Disney Channel has begun introducing “gay” characters such as the “coming out” of Cyrus in season 2 of Andi Mack. Critics argue that, while the real world does contain such perversion, there is no reason to include it in shows designed for children.
3. Favorable portrayals of non-Christian religious practices. Pocahontas (1995) is undoubtedly one of the more egregious films in this category, with its promotion of New Age beliefs and Native American religion. But other Disney films have contained tributes to paganism (Fantasia, 1940) and shamanism (The Lion King, 1994). Disney supporters contend that inclusion of any of these elements does not negate the plethora of positive values and role models Disney also offers. They point out that children are exposed to far more these days than were the children of 50 years ago, and the Walt Disney Company’s questionable themes and support of LGBTQ issues do not affect today’s kids to the degree that children of yesteryear would have been affected. Others argue that parents are not forced to allow their children to view a Disney production they deem inappropriate, so there is no reason to ban Disney altogether.
The final decision for Christians about gray areas such as viewing Disney movies must be a matter of conscience (Romans 14:5). Parents face a dizzying array of choices in rearing children, from schooling options to dietary restrictions. Choice of entertainment is merely one more. The danger comes when parents blindly entrust the moral and spiritual development of their children to any outside influence without thoroughly investigating the potential impact. Movies, TV, toys, and video games are now a huge part of childhood, and wise parents must never blindly assume products are innocuous because of the brand name. Trusting the name of Disney without investigating the specific product is naive at best and spiritually dangerous at worst.
Wise parents keep an ongoing dialogue with their children about what they are seeing and hearing. They train their children in truth from the earliest ages, never delegating moral instruction to the television or movie screen and never assuming those influences are negligible. The Walt Disney Company is no better or worse than any other worldly, for-profit company and should not be treated as such. If Christian parents cannot in good conscience support Disney in any form, they must be up-front and honest with their children as to the reasons. But they must also be consistent with those reasons, or children will smell hypocrisy and all efforts may backfire.
With parental movie review websites readily available, no parent needs to be caught unprepared for what children will see if allowed to attend a Disney movie. The 21st century is not a time for parental laziness or naïveté. Satan is unleashing insanity, deception, and perversion into our world like never before, and Christians are foolish to pretend this world is our friend and shares our values (see James 4:4).
The best safeguard for our children’s developing moral compass is to immerse them in God’s Word from the crib. Parents can teach children to recognize error and speak up about it. They can memorize and meditate together on Philippians 4:8, which says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Parents must walk children through what that means and allow their children to watch them applying it to their own choices. As they watch a Disney show together and something questionable comes on, wise parents can use that as a teaching moment. They can pause the show (if possible) and talk about what they saw, or they can discuss it later, comparing Disney’s values with the Bible’s truth. Children love to discover contradictions and feel empowered when they spot more errors by themselves.
Christians should view Disney products the way we view everything else this world offers. We may benefit from some aspects of them, but we refuse to be seduced by them. Christian parents must be careful not to imply to young children that, if Disney says or does it, it must be fine. Disney is proving itself untrustworthy as a supporter of biblical values, and wise parents will recognize this and respond accordingly.