What can Disney teach us about politics?
Vince Mallett | Monday, November 18, 2019
“Prince John says taxes should hurt.”
I, like many others, dove headfirst into Disney Plus last week.
I didn’t know it would end with an argument over whether Robin Hood is a socialist. It turns out college students can find a reason to bring politics into anything.
Nothing excites me more.
So many in society want culture to be apolitical; they want theme parks and churches and potato chip companies and children’s movies to “stay out of politics.” I think that mindset seriously misunderstands the nature of politics. It isn’t just about which party will win out and whose taxes will go up. The most frustrating part of political conversations in college is when someone asks, “Why do you care? It’s not going to affect you anyway.” The role of politics is to protect the common life of the common person — if we aren’t affected by its ongoings, there is something fundamentally wrong. So when Mickey Mouse comments on politics, he isn’t stepping into an arena in which he doesn’t belong; he’s raising his voice in an auditorium built for him.
Disney movies are not only examples of this message; at their best, they teach it themselves. Warning: Spoilers are forthcoming.
Let’s begin with a look at Aladdin. On its face, this movie is the standard rags-to-riches, get-the-girl story with which everyone is familiar. Look a little deeper, and one can see a well-meaning, if occasionally misguided, attempt by Disney to introduce non-white heroes to their customers. If one thinks specifically about the politics of the movie’s universe, however, one question becomes glaringly evident: What does the Sultan do?
The easy answer is, well, nothing. Jasmine’s father spends most of the movie trying to find her a husband and being tricked by Jafar. He doesn’t rule, or make policy, or promote the common good. He changes one marriage law at the end; that’s about it. Aladdin dreams of freedom from poverty and eventually attains it, and unwanted power to boot, simply because the magical world favors his inner goodness. Will Agrabah be better run when Aladdin becomes Sultan himself? Will the “street-rats” still have to run from the guards after stealing their only meal for the day? The movie leaves these questions unanswered, because the role of Sultan itself is left so ambiguous. We don’t know what impact Aladdin’s power will have, because we don’t know what he’s able to actually do.
Even if this point isn’t intentional, it shines through once noticed. Aladdin makes the implicit point that power is personal. The individual goodness of the ruler may be ineffective if the structures of power at play do not allow for that goodness to translate into just rule.
Now, for Robin Hood.
If you haven’t seen this underrated Disney masterpiece, stop what you’re doing and watch it immediately. It’s a fun, hilarious wonder of 1970s animation and its less-than-prominent role in Disney’s empire is simply tragic. It’s also very bad at hiding its politics, if it can be said to try at all. Prince John, the primary villain, is introduced to the viewer while praising the wonders of taxes. I would think that, overall, the word “tax” is mentioned more in this movie than in all other Disney and Pixar movies combined; I can’t think of any other instance of the word being used. Maybe things were very different in the seventies, but I can’t hear that word in a children’s movie and keep myself from wondering about the political intentions of the creators. I presumed that the movie would have some interesting small-government messaging, and continued watching.
I was shocked when others called Robin Hood’s steal-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor scheme “socialist.” Socialism, at least as far as I understand it, necessarily implicates state power, which was precisely what Robin Hood was combatting. It’s crucial to the story that the “rich” from whom Robin steals are those with political power — that is, the power to tax the poor. The best justification for Robin’s actions, one the movie itself implicitly provides, is that the money he steals has been stolen from the people already. Robin is just stealing what is theirs and returning it to them.
This presumes, of course, that the state doesn’t get to take whatever taxes it wants and use them however it likes. Instead of Prince John hoarding everyone else’s money for himself, he has an obligation to use that money for the common good of the people. The community in Nottingham is strong; children of different races play together, the Friar helps the poor and needy and everyone genuinely wants to help their neighbors however possible. Imagine what a community like that could accomplish if their efforts were being aided by the state instead of impeded by it.
Robin Hood, then, makes the point that politics should be about community, on the small scale. Political power is meant to make life better for the common person. If it doesn’t, it is failing.
Both of these movies, then, teach us that politics is, and should be, about the minutia of human life. It’s about the poor man who has to steal bread to eat and the family who has to save for weeks to give their child a birthday gift. Through teaching these lessons, they also show that you can’t make a truly meaningful movie without also commenting on politics in some meaningful way.
I don’t think they intended Disney Plus to be a starting point for political argument, but I bet this isn’t the last time it will act in that role.
Vince Mallett is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He is proud to hail from Carroll Hall and northern New Jersey. Vince can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.