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SEAN GRIFFIN writes
about the gay community and Disney
Tinker Belles and Evil Queens
New York: New York University Press, 2000
||Some of the most interesting academic
work in the last decade has been done on gender studies and issues
The problem is, they were so good that they spawned
generations of "me too" books that use the same critical
tools and approach new situations, to examine them through the sex/gender
microscope. Sometimes such an analysis bears fruit, and sometimes
it just isn't needed.
This book is a mixture of both. I found the
thesis interesting but not wholly convincing, and the same holds
true for Griffin's arguments themselves.
|True. Some very important ideas have
come out cultural studies. The most important of which is that when it
comes to "cultural meaning" the consumer is just as
important as the producer. In other words, an author's intent is
not necessarily important when considering a work's cultural
This is pretty much the entire idea of Griffin's
book: That something about Disney, and its products, has
reverberated with the gay community in ways fundamentally
different from the rest of society.
An interesting thesis, but unfortunately Griffin
doesn't have much interest in empirical study and that is the
fatal weakness of this book.
||I agree that this is the interesting
part of his thesis. He claims that Disney can be read in various
ways by the gay community without Disney having meant for such a
reading to occur, and yet that reading would be valid. I agree
with him entirely; that should be a valid way to read Disney
The problem is, what more can you do with it? He
mentions the name Mickey Mouse as a kind of early "gaydar" (radar for gays to find each other), but that's really just
an example. Does it warrant a book? I think not.
|Oh, this is a topic that is
definitely book-worthy. And despite its flaws as scholarship, the
book is still very interesting.
We should mention that the book breaks into
three sections (though Griffin only breaks it into two). The Gay
reading of Disney during the Walt years; being a gay employee of
Disney; and the gay reading of Disney during the Eisner
The example you mention (how Mickey Mouse became
a gay "codeword" during the thirties) is obviously in
that first section. And it is in this section that I feel
Griffin's work is the weakest.
||First, I'd argue that the book has
interesting moments, but that the book itself is not on the whole
interesting (if you grant me that level of hair-splitting).
Second, I actually found the *final* section,
the Eisner years, to be the weakest in the book. For the most
part, this is where Griffin has strayed from the interesting
"gays view Disney a certain way" sort of
reader-reception theory, and goes instead more solidly into gay
Actually, he unpacks quite a bit of gay theory here, to
little use. It read like a dissertation to me, as if he was trying
to prove he knew the theory.
that's fair. But let me get into my major complaint and maybe you
will see why I consider the first section to be the weakest.
It is Griffin's argument that
something in Disney movies touched a nerve with the gay community.
This seems relatively obvious when discussing Ellen or Bette
Midler's diva persona. But when discussing Disney through the
Walt years Griffin is going to need to do much more proving
because any "gay reading" is going to have to rely more
on symbolism rather than overt sexuality.
Thus Griffin tells us that
Ferdinand the Bull and Peter Pan were icons for gay men, and the
tomboy Jet in Annette was a symbol for lesbians.
This doesn't seem unreasonable,
but Griffin just throws these theories out there and let's them
stand as self evident. He provides almost no contemporary evidence
that the gay community at the time latched onto these characters
(a hypothetical example: Were Ferdinand tattoos popular?)
||But see... I take that the exact
opposite way. I liked the way he was forced to look at less direct
situations and read into them, as a gay man would.
And he uncovers some nuggets this way. Mickey
Mouse really was pretty horny in the first cartoons, as he points out, and that
never occurred to me before.
The examples you cite are "stretches,"
I agree, but his clawing for meaning uncovers some fruit. I would
take your points and argue instead that this supports my reading:
namely, that he has an interesting idea which is not, and cannot
ever be, fully realized. It cannot be proved. It's just, at its
heart, a good idea.
It's something to keep in mind, perhaps, when
considering the cultural status of Disney characters, but nothing
to get excited about.
I did find a few of his arguments perfectly
sound, though. The Aladdin trailer aimed at gay men was the
example that most sticks out in my mind.
not saying that his readings of the Walt era product are
unreasonable. But Griffin is saying "these are the reasons
that Disney appealed to the gay community." Griffin can't
hold up Ferdinand the Bull as important to the gay reading of
Disney if he isn't going to show that they took any particular
interest in Ferdinand.
That is why I
think the final section (Eisner-era) is much stronger. Griffin
provides many pop-culture references showing the gay reading of
Eisner era films.
In fact, now that
I think of it, many of the references given for Walt era films
show not how 1950 Disney was interpreted by a 1950 gay man, but
rather how 1950 Disney is being interpreted by year 2000 gay men.
||It renders his argument more in the
mode of "discovery writing" - he is discovering things
which are of interest to him, but maybe not to us. That blunts the
thrust of his argument at times.
Now that we have completely discounted his scholarship down to
mere memoir let's impugn his heritage!
||Now, now... You know it wasn't meant
is a valid point. The "self" has become very important
in some areas of academia. And considering how often Griffin cites
Foucault I think it is safe to say that Griffin lives in those
||Because we're beating him up rather
completely, perhaps we should swing the pendulum back just a bit.
This is not a bad book, and it certainly holds my interest.
I may disagree with some points and scribble
frantically in the margin how wrong the author is or how invalid
his methodology is, but isn't that what books are for?
On the whole I agree this is an interesting
book, with interesting points to offer here and there. My only
advice is to beware the hit-or-miss ratio of his good arguments,
and to take his "readings" of Disney culture with a
grain of salt.
I think I have
one sentence from the book that completely sums up my complaint
about this book:
"This chapter will examine exactly what
might have been present in various Disney films and television
series since the mid-1980s that could be read through a
"lesbian / gay sensibility" by numerous individuals - not
just self-identified homosexuals."
"MIGHT have been" and the "that COULD be".
Here he is saying that the gay readings to follow are merely
possible. But then throughout the chapter the readings are
presented as fact. It is that way though most of the book.
There is much
that is interesting in this book, and I must stress that I don't
find his arguments improbable, just unsupported.
acknowledgements he thanks several people who provided him access
to archives of underground gay literature going back many decades.
If someone wants to do the leg work of performing an in-depth
analysis of those works, that is when the truly valuable book
will be written.
Kim Masters' biography of Michael Eisner
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