In Search of the American Myth: Once Upon a Time, a Man Named Disney…
Posted by Stephen
Our culture loves to tell stories—we, however, now have another medium in which to relate them. Last month, our friend Rachel featured a series of posts about film selections for “movie nights.” While Rachel’s posts emphasize the entertaining nature of films, I want to explore this month a topic that I find most interesting. In fact, I wish I could have explored it more in depth in grad school when I numerous resources at my disposal. However, a series of blog post will have to do. Some of my closest friends will recall numerous conversations about mythology and its presence in film. We have also discussed at length the mystery of the American myth. Of course, I find the two almost invariably connected.
Stories carry the framework of a culture. Specifically, myth and fairy tales mainly perpetuate the divine reality or the culture identity respectively, and both have evolved through space and time. Rising societies transmute these tales to fit their own cultural paradigms and usually create their own mythology or fairy tales. For instance, the Romans heavy adapted Greek myth, but the Romans held different values then the Greeks, so the former created a mythology entirely different from its Greek counterpart, a theme in Rick Roirdan’s second Percy Jackson series.
As for the United States, our mythology and tales mostly originate in European tradition, but we have since created its own myth and story because of our differing values. Our paradigm centers on the ideals of the American Dream and personal improvement and progression vis-à-vis the values of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness established in our Declaration of Independence. Therefore, our myths and stories will focus on characters striving for a better life, and we greatly esteem the happily-ever-after endings that so frequently pop up in the final moments of films.
We may thank Disney for this transmutation of European myths and stories into an American context. For instance, the Grimm version of “Cinderella” is bleak and morose. Her father never dies and joins the stepmother in her abuse of the young girl. While both Cinderellas live happily at the end, Disney avoids the horrible implication that a father would so wickedly mistreat his daughter. We also see this change in The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the mermaid dies and is turned into sea foam. I made the mistake of telling this version to three-year-olds, who were terrified at the mermaid’s outcome. Naturally, America generally loves a happy or triumphant ending, so the tale was changed to fit this mindset. Disney has also Americanized Eastern stories, as Aladdin and the legend of Mulan have become part of the Disney canon.
But the story of the American Dream does not stop with the adaptation of European and Eastern stories. With the advent of Pixar, Disney has told many enduring stories of hardship and triumph, even if those characters so happen to be toys, bugs, monsters, or cars. Thus, we see Disney creating an American mythology—the exciting adventures of lovable heroes that uphold the ideals of our culture.
Let’s face it—America has a mythology. It may not be as epic as Homer’s Iliad (sorry, I could not help myself) or as tantalizing as Scheherazade’s One Thousand Tales, but Disney and the many filmmakers I will feature in the following weeks have given us a myths and stories that we can consider ours.