Back to top

Navigating Media Literacy Through Disneyland [Author Interview]

In August 2020 I released my 3rd book, Navigating Media Literacy: A Pedagogical Tour of Disneyland (Myers Education Press). My C+MRC intern interviewed me about what makes this book different from all the other books about Disney and why I think everyone outside (as well as inside) the Academy should read it. Here are excerpts from the interview. Note: This is a cross-posting from cmrcollaboratory.org.

***

Ironically, some of the greatest learning that will occur in our lives cannot be Disneyfied.

—Vanessa E. Greenwood, Ph.D.

C+MRC Intern: There are so many books written about Disney. What made you decide to write this one?

Greenwood: Well, it’s not really a book about Disney. It actually chronicles the journey of my students here in the School of Communication and Media toward media literacy. Up until recently, no one really knew what media literacy was and so in order to entice students to enroll in my course I needed a hook, so to speak. I titled the special topics course “Doing Media Literacy through the Wonderful Worlds of Disney” and enough students enrolled to run the course for three semesters. I was so intrigued by their learning that I wanted everyone—including teachers and students—to see what it looks like to become media literate.

C+MRC Intern: What exactly is “media literacy” and why teach a course about it?

Greenwood: In its simplest form, media literacy is a critical habit of mind or way of approaching any mediated experience to discern how it shapes human understanding. So a media literate person is continually seeking to answer the basic question, “How do I know what I know?” And in order to answer that question, you must access information, analyze messages in a variety of forms, evaluate the quality and credibility of message content, create content in a variety of forms, reflect on your own conduct and communication, and then take some sort of action by using media to share knowledge and solve problems. In other words, media literacy is by no means a passive activity. And it’s difficult to achieve, particularly in our current post-digital age where there is so much information and very little knowledge. If there was ever a time where K-16 education needed every learner to master these skills, that time is now.

C+MRC Intern: So, where does Disneyland enter the equation?

Greenwood: I am fascinated by how Walt ideologically organized and compartmentalized his creative and corporate universe, as reflected by the realms of Disneyland. But first let me say that, in case you don’t know, Disneyland the theme park was funded through the 1950s television show of the same name. It was the birth of what we know now as media synergy and corporate synergy. ABC helped to fund the money to build the theme park and in turn they got large audience viewership of what was recycled Disney films, previews of upcoming projects, and—my favorite—”behind the scenes” of how it all was made. There is a lot we can learn by examining how it all unfolded, historically. So, I chose Disneyland because of its unprecedented history and also because my students here on the East Coast are not as close to it, since Disneyland exists in California. Having a critical distance of space and time helps when trying to facilitate media literacy in a 15-week semester. Students tend to get distracted.

C+MRC Intern: How do the realms of Disneyland relate to media literacy?

Greenwood: I situate a key principle of media literacy within each of the realms of Disneyland, including Main Street, U.S.A. Chapter two is devoted entirely to this alignment and detailed explanation, so it’s probably one of the most important chapters conceptually in the entire book. It helps to look at a topographical map of Disneyland and there is a classic one from 1955 circulating on the Internet. But to answer your question, the only way to enter Disneyland is through Main Street, U.S.A. which I align with the key media literacy principle that all media are constructions and historically situated. Media and their messages do not present reality but versions of reality. And Main Street, U.S.A. is very much Walt Disney’s interpretation of American history at the turn of the 20th century, and more specifically a romanticized memory of his childhood. And so I give the reader a tour of sorts through each of the realms. The subsequent chapters of the book are really the voices of my students as they access and analyze, evaluate and create, and then reflect and act through the lens of each of these principles. So, for Main Street, U.S.A. students are tasked with untangling the historical strands of Walt Disney the man and the Walt Disney Company through media sources like documentary film and Internet data. Then I had them work in teams to create multimedia timelines based on their critical assessment of historical “facts.”

A sketch of a 1955 topographical map of Disneyland.
Disneyland ca. 1955 (illustrator: Grace Domine)

C+MRC Intern: So, what media literacy principle can we learn from the realm of Adventureland?

Greenwood: Adventureland illustrates the idea that audiences actively interpret media messages as opposed to passively receive or absorbing them. The Jungle Cruise is an example of how humans are constantly interacting with and adjusting to their environment. And I discuss in detail how the passengers are watching while also being watched, per se, by animatronic “wildlife.” My students delved into audience perspectives through the documentary The Dreamfinders and they mapped different perspectives about Disney, including their own.

C+MRC Intern: What media literacy principle does Tomorrowland represent?

Greenwood: Tomorrowland illustrates principles of media languages or the formal, technical, and aesthetic features of how media are produced and distributed. The students researched the futurism of Walt Disney the man and reflected on the grammar of sound, color and cinematography. They made some astute observations and evaluations about the language of movement and character development in the animated and live action films. They reflected on the technologized process of anthropomorphic storytelling, for example in The Living Desert which was part of the True-Life Adventures series.

C+MRC Intern: How about Frontierland?

Greenwood: Frontierland, which was pretty much undeveloped backwoods when Disneyland opened, which is kind of the point of a frontier, isn’t it? Frontierland illustrates the idea that all media are authored and owned and produced for specific purposes. And those perspectives and purposes may not be readily apparent to the public.

C+MRC Intern: And Fantasyland?

Greenwood: Fantasyland is strategically at the center of the Disneyland and arguable the Disney universe. Walt Disney was all about bringing his version of classic fairy tales to life. Fantasyland illustrates how all media messages are representational in their meaning. They are encoded with a particular story and point of view. A media literate individual does not take representation meaning at face value but instead they intentionally interrogate media texts and forms for alternate and untold stories and perspectives. And if there is one area that saturates the research and critique of Disney, it is the portrayal of gender, race, romance, and politics. And in this chapter in the book students discern the changing of classic narratives over time and geography—as remember, all media are historical constructions—and they observed the dangers of dichotomies such as good/bad, hero/villain, ugly/beautiful, etc.

C+MRC Intern: What did you find to be the most valuable thing for you as an instructor in teaching this course and in writing this book?

Greenwood: I am a qualitative researcher by training and nature. Discourse analysis is my specialty. And the student discourse comprising this course and subsequently this book is, I think, exquisite. I loved hearing it, making a record of it, and making sense of it. I learned so much from my students! I also think students learned valuable questions to ask of all media texts, not just Disney. More importantly, though, they learned how to find the answers for themselves. This was definitely not a course where I substituted an alternate ideology du jour and then called it “critical thinking.” In fact, if there is one thing I would implore all teachers and humans everywhere to understand is that media literacy is not about teaching students what to think. It’s about teaching them how to think for themselves. Therefore, it requires the time and space for inquiry and deliberation. And I understand why it’s not the norm, because it’s time consuming and difficult. Students generally find group work to be unenjoyable. But learning can’t always be enjoyable. Ironically, some of the greatest learning that will occur in our lives cannot be Disneyfied.

C+MRC Intern: How did you keep your own biases toward the Disney universe in check while teaching this course?

Greenwood: I mention in the book that I’m pretty neutral when it comes to the Disney universe. I’m neither a fanatic nor antagonist. By the way, I talk about these audience perspectives in chapter four as a navigational compass, which is why there is one on the book cover. But to address your point: I’ve been to Disneyland twice. Once to perform with my high school choir for a festival. And then again two decades later with three small offspring in tow. Very different set of experiences. So, I have had first hand immersive experiences as a consumer and also reflective experiences as a media scholar. I have read and watched the vast spectrum of attitudes towards Disney. From the hagiographies that deify Walt Disney to the brilliant allbeit scathing cultural criticism of Henry Giroux and early critics like Richard Schickel. And then there is this new type of prosumer that has emerged as depicted in the documentary The Dreamfinders where you have super fans that make their living off curating Disney content that in turn perpetuates new Disney consumer audiences. From a media literacy standpoint, it’s fascinating.

***

Navigating Media Literacy: A Pedagogical Tour of Disneyland is available direct from Myers Education Press and other booksellers in print and digital formats.