It wasn’t exactly Saul on the road to Damascus, but Jennifer Porter had an epiphany, of sorts, when she visited Disney World in May.
Porter, who teaches religious studies at Memorial University in St. John’s, was struck by the religious overtones at the Orlando, Fla. theme park – so much so that she’s starting a course on it in January, with the tongue-in-cheek title Religion and Disney: Not Just Another Mickey Mouse Course.
God and the Magical Kingdom aren’t subjects you’d normally link. But the Kingston, Ont.-born Porter says the connection is there.
“The theme park productions, fireworks displays and so on always involve a morality tale and a requirement of the audience to believe in the power of good, and believe in the power of wishes,” she said.
“So I’m interested in that – does that affect Disney audiences? Does that affect how they see the world?”
It’s a whimsical subject, but one she approaches seriously.
Films “speak about religion on a number of levels,” Porter says.
“Often times, pop culture reflects dominant mainstream religious norms. So, if you study the way that religion is used in pop culture it will tell you something about wider social norms.”
Porter started out studying contemporary religions, later combining that with a yen for science fiction. She teaches and has published books and scholarly papers on the portrayal of religion in Star Trek, Star Wars and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who she says is shown as “a feminist Christ figure.”
Porter began thinking about Disney -_the man and the corporation he founded – after discussing the Chronicles of Narnia in one of her courses. The interest took off at Disney World when she discovered Star Wars-Disney crossover fans debating whether Disney toys like Mickey Mouse dressed as a Jedi knight should be considered canonical – as officially part of the Star Wars universe.
“What I was struck by was the strangeness, to me, that someone would argue Disney products should be canonical,” she said.
“That got my attention.”
In her course, students will learn about the life and faith of creator Walt Disney, first and foremost a businessman, but also a talented artist. Raised in a religious household, she said, he made a conscious effort to exclude organized Christianity from his films – replacing it with supernatural elements like fairy godmothers, songs instead of prayers.
She notes that while Snow White prays at one point, most of the films – such as Pocahontas with its native spirituality – convey “a liberal pluralistic” approach to religion.
Still, “there is this overarching message (in the movies) of a good power that will look out for you if you believe, if you have faith,” she said.
“At the same time, there has been a change in Disney films and theme parks since the death of Disney himself (in 1966), and one of the things that’s interesting to explore is how religions and the supernatural and morality might have shifted from the time of Walt Disney himself to more recent Disney entertainment products,” she said.
“I am coming to think that it has shifted a little to the left,” she added, a move that has led to boycotts against the Disney corporation.
The Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney for eight years – initially because the company had extended benefits to same-sex couples. They later accused Disney of being too liberal. Other critics called the company too conservative.
What would Disney himself think of the fuss?
“Would it bring more people to his theme park?” she said, laughing. “His concern was always for the bottom line.”
Porter said she wants to find out if there is an identifiable religion in Disney and whether Disney fandom can be considered a religion. Enrollment for her new course filled up quickly.
“There’s a lot of interest. People are really engaged by popular culture. To me, it seems a wonderful way to get people interested in the impact of religion in the world, which is wonderful.”