Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 3: Disney and Parent-Child Separation

Among the most common situations (or exigencies) for which Disney offers entelechies is that of parent-child separation. What should children do when they are separated from their parents? Bambi’s mother dies. Tarzan is orphaned at birth and must be raised by animals. Mowgli (from the Jungle Book) is lost by his parents in the Indian jungle at birth and must be raised by animals. Hercules, the son of the Greek Gods Zeus and Hera, loses immortality as an infant and is separated from his parents, abandoned to Earth, and must become a true hero in order to reclaim immortality. In The Lion King, Simba’s father Mufasa dies, and Simba believes he is responsible, so he runs away. In Finding Nemo, Nemo accidentally gets lost from his father. His father pursues him. The Little Mermaid grows up and falls in love with someone from another species; hence, she leaves her home. Pinocchio is enticed by fame and pleasure to run away from Gepetto, but eventually risks his “life” to save his “father.” Snow White runs away from home to avoid being murdered by her stepmother. Toy Story 3 eventually finds Andy giving up his toys for adoption. And, in the most recent film, Rapunzel is abducted at birth and spends her life discovering her true identity. She ultimately finds her way back to her parents.

How do children cope with parent-child separation? Frequently, they rely on the entelechies available to their memories. Disney typically draws plots from classic children’s literature, but modifies the plots/entelechies to reflect a more contemporary set of cultural assumptions (or epideictic topoi), values, and psychological perspectives. Even so, Disney is frequently criticized. The goal of this commentary is not to prescribe changes to the Disney films. They are what they are. The goal is only to analyze the entelechies—to see what type of rhetorical medicine Disney is prescribing for children who may find themselves in one or more of Disney’s parent-child separation scenarios. Some of the implicit rhetorical strength of children's literature lies in the fact that children have fewer entelechies from which to choose than do adults. The Walt Disney Corporation has consistently produced literary entelechies with enormous appeal for children.

When Kenneth Burke describes literature as equipment for living, beginning in Counter-Statement (183) and Attitudes toward History (68), he has in mind some very basic appeals of literature. Calling a specific piece of literature a Symbol, he states:

“The Symbol is perhaps most overwhelming in its effect when the artist’s and the reader’s patterns of experience closely coincide. . . . A Symbol appeals: As the interpretation of a situation . . . By favoring the acceptance of a situation . . . As the corrective of a situation . . . A the exerciser of ‘submerged’ experience . . . [and] As an ‘emancipator.’”

Before a symbol accomplishes the task of interpreting, favoring acceptance, or correcting, however, it begins by naming the situation in which the child finds himself or herself. In Philosophy of Literary Form (300), Burke comments:

“A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative . . . .”

For children who have experienced parent-child separation, one of Disney’s Symbols—Bambi, Tarzan, The Jungle Book, Hercules, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Snow White, Toy Story 3, or Tangled, for example—may begin by naming the situation/s in which they find themselves. Once the child has identified his or her personal pattern of experience as being represented by the pattern of experience described in the Disney Symbol, the Symbol appeals as an interpretation of his/her own experience. If the child has lost his or her mother to death, Bambi might favor “the acceptance of” that situation. If a child discovers that s/he was abducted at birth (as in various baby-stealing cases in contemporary society) or even adopted, Tangled might serve as the “corrective of the situation.” Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio might engage the mind of a child who seeks parent-child separation—the chance to “run away.” Hence, these Symbols might serve as “the exerciser of ‘submerged’ experience.” The Little Mermaid might appeal to some children “as an ‘emancipator,’” suggesting that it is acceptable to voluntarily leave all of the cultural mores of one’s inherited culture.

To illustrate the principles of how entelechy operates within the Symbol, the Toy Stories of Disney will be considered, in-depth, in up-coming commentaries. Kenneth Burke's analytical methods will be illustrated in the analyses.

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