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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
August 3, 2000

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SEAN GRIFFIN writes about the gay community and Disney

Tinker Belles and Evil Queens
Sean Griffin
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 of sexuality.

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 influence.

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 products. 

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 years. 

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 theory.

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.

Ok, 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.

I'm 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.
Ok! 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 that way!
But it 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 areas.  
  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."

Notice the "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. 

In his 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.


NEXT: Kim Masters' biography of Michael Eisner

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Dual Reviews

Alex and Kevin debate current events and review Disney books.

This column is about opinions; unfortunately, we don't know any important Disney insiders so they are just our opinions. We are bringing this column to you as two ordinary Disney fans, much like yourself. We hope you enjoy and respond.

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