Religion and Disney: Exploring the Dimensions of Disney’s Religious Work in Films, Theme Park Productions and Fan Communities

Lay Summary 

For many, the Walt Disney Company is synonymous with quality family entertainment, as exemplified by films, television shows, and theme parks such as Disneyland. However, in 1997, the USA's largest Protestant denomination launched a boycott of Disney, arguing that the company promulgated anti-Christian and anti-family values in its entertainment products and corporate policies. By contrast, some liberal culture critics have argued that Disney entertainment products foster a nostalgia for an imagined American past in which white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant values result in the perpetuation of racism, sexism, consumerism, and imperialism through the dissemination of Disney entertainment products to a global market.

Disney's potential to communicate ideological messages globally is undeniably strong: in 2009, combined attendance at all Disney theme parks surpassed one hundred and twelve million (TEA/AECOM 2009). Disney's 2009 revenue topped thirty-six point one billion dollars (The Walt Disney Company2009). Disney is the second largest corporate media owner in the United States (Free Press 2010). Ninety-seven point five percent of respondents in eighteen countries surveyed have seen a Disney film (Wasko, Philips and Meehan 2001:43). Given Disney's vast media holdings and the vast global audience for Disney entertainment products, it is not surprising that Disney has drawn ideological criticism. Such criticisms are predicated on the view that entertainment products shape the social, religious and moral beliefs of audiences, and yet neither Disney's conservative critics nor their liberal counterparts have established that such a link exists.

This research consists of an analysis of Disney ideologies as represented in films and theme park productions, and an investigation of the impact that Disney entertainment products has had on the worldviews of audiences through participant-observation fieldwork in Disney fan communities. Unlike any other study to date, this project seeks to identify the meanings fans take from Disney films and theme parks, what impact these meanings have on their religious and ideological worldviews, and what such potential impacts might say about the ideological positioning of Disney fans in global cultural and religious landscapes. Are Disney fans and Disney audiences passively absorbing a monolithic Disney "message" in their consumption of Disney entertainment products? Do Disney fans in various countries differ in their appreciation of, influence by, and resistance to Disney messages? Just what is Disney saying when it comes to religion, and what are Disney fans saying in response?

The project will contribute to a more generalized understanding of religion in the twenty-first century, and point to new ways of being religious in a media and consumption driven world. The religious and ideological dimensions of Disney entertainment products will be decoded, and their varied impact on Disney fans explored. Using Disney fans as an exemplar, the project will highlight how media has become a source for religious inspiration, and highlight the ways that authoritative source texts are defined, negotiated, renegotiated, and transgressed by audiences for whom popular culture is meaningful.

Religious Studies
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Film & Video
Religion and Religious Studies
Popular Culture
Theme Parks
Industry Sectors 
Performing Arts, Spectator Sports and Related Industries
Scientific Research and Development Services
Start date 
1 Jan 2011
End date 
31 Dec 2014