Inside the fabled Disney Class, BC’s most popular course

Are you lucky enough to take it?

If you’re at BC, you’ll definitely have heard of the Disney class.

The first time I heard about it was at orientation. One of the orientation leaders started raving about it, saying we absolutely HAD to take it before we graduated. But this class was so popular it was usually filled with seniors (and a few lucky juniors) so we were instructed to keep it in mind for our last year.

Since then, I’ve heard of friends of friends taking the class and loving it.  It remained a mystery to me throughout freshman, sophomore, and junior year. Was it even real? What department is it in? Who’s lucky enough to get a seat in the class?

At the end of my junior year, while picking classes, I stumbled across a class called Studies in Children’s Literature, which would fulfill my major requirement for a Young Adult literature course.

Turns out, it was the fabled Disney class.

Until then, I hadn’t thought I was actually going to take the class, but this gave me a legitimate reason to. With the help of a lucky 8 am pick time, I secured my spot in the class.

Every time I tell someone I’m taking the Disney class, they freak out and start asking all sorts of questions. Oh my God, that’s real? I’m so jealous! Do you just watch movies all the time? How is that even a real class?

Since so many people are interested in the course, especially juniors, The Tab sat down with Professor Bonnie Rudner to get the inside scoop about the class and why she decided to run it.

Professor Bonnie Rudner and her dog sporting their Disney swag

Although the course appears on Agora as Studies in Children’s Literature, Rudner calls the class Disney and the Wonder Tale. This title more accurately describes the course content, which includes multiple Disney movies and their origin stories.

The syllabus mentions the lack of critical analysis of Disney films because “popular critics and mass audiences consider Disney not beneath artistic attention but beyond reproach.”

Unlike the many individuals mentioned in the syllabus who believe the movies are “only cartoons, only fantasy, only for children, or only for the business of making money,” Rudner believes it’s important to critically study the messages Disney movies send to their audiences, especially young children.

Rudner has students consider and discuss three main questions in Disney and the Wonder Tale. First, what strategies are used by Disney to change the narratives of fairytales in order to make highly successful movies? Second, what’s the role of myth and narrative in shaping people’s identities and desires?

And finally, what happens when a culture’s most powerful stories are taken over and used to make a profit?

When I asked Bonnie whether or not she let her children watch Disney movies, she said her children watched some, although her grandchildren watch a lot more. Although she lets them watch, she has mixed feelings about Disney movies.

While girls watch a lot of princess movies, the boys are big fans of Tarzan and Cars. The movies aren’t terrible but “if it’s the only input that they’re getting it’s not a good thing.”

Rudner believes it’s OK to have stories about princesses but it becomes problematic when “little girls identify with princesses so much that it’s not just Halloween, they wear [costumes] to the mall.”

Rudner with her dog as a new puppy

To Rudner, girls identifying with princesses is the biggest issue with Disney movies today. She argues young girls are bombarded with messages about being thin, moving up in society, needing to be rescued and finding their soulmates.

Messages about having the perfect body and owning possessions in order to achieve happiness are especially harmful when they are introduced to girls when they are young, she explains. Rudner adds it’s even more harmful many Disney movies seem to teach girls they need a man to rescue them, provide for them and make them happy.

Rudner doesn’t think this is as big of a problem with young boys because they don’t identify as strongly with the characters. Citing the example of her grandson, she says, “He says he’s Tarzan and [jumps on rocks] but he doesn’t walk like that to school.” In comparison, “little girls identify more strongly” and want to become princesses.

In the course, Rudner discusses this problem as well as other issues, including body image and racial coding.

Rudner is particularly disturbed by what she sees as Disney being consistent with body image over the years, citing Frozen as an example.

“Body image is huge. They’re so consistent, even in 2013 Elsa says to Anna, ‘You look beautiful,’ and Anna says, ‘You look beautifuller. Sorry, I don’t mean fuller.'”

Despite the fact we’ve come a long way in women’s rights and creating a culture that respects women, Disney is still focusing on weight and “fuller” is still seen as an insult, says Rudner.

Racial coding is obvious in older movies like The Lion King and Sleeping Beauty, but Rudner believes it persists in The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and even Frozen, where Hans is darker than Kristoff.

When I asked her how she became interested in discussing Disney as a class, Rudner explained she always had students read fairytales in her Children’s Literature course. But she began to see Disney films were starting to overshadow the original fairytales in the late 80s and 90s.

While previously students read the stories and then saw the movies afterwards, more and more students were coming to the class having seen Disney movies and not having read any of the original stories. This change inspired Rudner to create a class which engaged students in reading the origin stories and watching the Disney movies through a critical lens. By reading the story first, students would have a better understanding of how the movie came about and how Disney manipulated the story for their own purposes.

In choosing material for the class, Rudner said she chooses “the ones that have the more interesting changes [from story to movie].”

For example, Pochontas has a lot of historical inaccuracies – Pocahontas doesn’t look 12 and in reality she wasn’t in love with John Smith.

Rudner felt she had to add Frozen in recent years because it has become such a cultural phenomenon, although she added, “Not that it has anything to do with Hans Christian Andersen [and The Snow Queen].”

To those interested in taking the course, Rudner gave some advice: “[Students] should be willing to question some of the fantasies they were raised with [and] ideas they’ve never questioned before.

“If you think you are interested in taking the course, ask yourself, ‘Are they innocent? Is it all just innocent happy ever after?'”

Rather than ruining our favorite Disney movies, Rudner challenges us to reconsider what we think we know and unpack the subtle messages that we’ve grown up with and possibly internalized.

Boston College