Marketing Mute Mommies

This is a post by guest blogger Ellen Bulger.

I’ve never been a big Disney fan. Growing up, my exposure was minimal. The cartoons weren’t broadcast on TV and my parents took me to maybe two movies in my entire childhood. The only one I remember was Mary Poppins. And when I was in junior high, for some reason my dad took me to see the French Connection, which I remember being a pretty great film.

But the cartoons on TV were Fleischer (wonderful) and Warner Brothers (a mixed bag ranging from wonderful to meh) and Hanna Barbera (utter crap, all of it) with hardly a Disney cartoon in sight. But still I constantly heard about how Mickey Mouse was the most beloved cartoon character of all time and how everyone loved him. Most of this fawning press, I later came to realize, was generated by Disney’s own publicity machine. However masturbatory it was, it was effective. People will believe most anything if you simply say it loud enough and often enough. I don’t like to think about that during election season, but there you go…

I saw maybe half a dozen Mickey Mouse cartoons and they all utterly disappointed me. They were never nearly as inventive the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons I adored. And while Disney animation was more meticulous than Warner Brothers, the cartoons were flat because the personalities of the characters were boring, really boring. And more than that, Disney never challenged the status quo, more like the studio enforced every bit of tedious and toxic middle American midcentury thinking. And while the other studios were likewise part of this culture, they were, at least, iconoclastic thinkers. No matter, I didn’t like Disney, I didn’t see much Disney, I didn’t think about Disney.

Cut ahead to when I have a kid and it is a different story. It was the era of VHS, and if you had a kid, people gave your kid Disney movies. Why? Because that publicity machine had been chugging along and everybody was brainwashed into thinking that those tacky features were the most wonderful wholesome high quality thing you could show a kid. Yep, with all their tedious sexist, racist, anti-labor messages.

So kids were inundated with “Snow White” and “Bambi” and “The Little Mermaid” and what all. But unlike their baby boomer parents, they watched the stuff over and over and over again. The princess thing would have made me blow chunks. As I had a son, I was spared that. Bambi made me gag, even the soundtrack was high-grade ipecac.

The most loathsome Disney movie in our rotation was Dumbo. The only bearable part was the pink elephants on parade, a blatant rip off of Fleischer Studios trippy musical numbers. An homage is one thing, but Disney didn’t do homages because anything other than narcissism dilutes the brand.

Trippy Tent © Ellen Bulger

The roustabouts’ song shows Walt’s anti labor colors. The crows, OMG, the crows. You could just shrug it all off as period entertainment, except that this generation of kids watched their videotapes repeatedly. The messages were hammered home. More than anything else, the Disney message was misogyny. It’s not news that powerful mature females in classic Disney movies are evil, while good females are young and weak. All the adult elephants in Dumbo are female and nasty, except for Dumbo’s loving mother.

It must have been a trick to stick to the Disney formula that required good female characters to be powerless. How do you show a weak elephant? Dumbo’s mother is the only female elephant who is mute. The implications are staggering. And every time I hear people singing the praises of those old Disney animators, the hackles go up on the back of my neck.

You know, for kids… © Ellen Bulger

I was looking at the Biodork blog and I noticed the banner ad. (FTB blogs often get advertisements by religious groups, bless ‘em. I guess they reckon they’ll convert us. Yeah, sure, it could happen! Keep those ad fees coming!) This was an advertisement that I had not seen before for a website devoted to the Virgin Mary and it triggered a mass of memories of the brain-fuck weirdness of my Catholic childhood.

Mary’s character development in that rambling narrative of the bible is minimal. She responds to events. How could she not? But she is as much of a cipher as Disney’s Mickey. Yet when you are a scared bullied little kid in the Catholic Church, it’s hard not to like her. Jehovah is nuts and nasty, jealous and raging. Jesus mumbled about loving each other and all, but he only really lost his shit when he felt that he (or his dad who was also him o_O) wasn’t being worshipped enough. You kneel in that theater that is the church, bored and uncomfortable while some creepy priest shames the adults. He’s talking about things you can’t quite follow and you struggle to keep your mind occupied.

Dark Tent © Ellen Bulger

Over the altar there is this giant creepy pornographic statue of some poor dying man being tortured. You can count every rib, his injuries are lovingly detailed and he’s just got on a scrap of underpants that don’t look like they’re going to stay up for a minute longer. The stations of the cross are scattered around the seating area, an early example of lurid sequential art that I am sure inspired any of a number of E.C. horror comic artists. Nightmares anyone? Wet the bed much? Why are there ratings for movies and television when children are freely exposed to THIS?

But Mary? She just sits off to the side, out of the action, with what looks like a blue beach towel over her head. Compared to the droning bombastic father and his loquacious son, she doesn’t have much to say. Like Disney, the Catholic Church likes its women mute. Mary is important as an example of how women should behave, but for Rome, she’s not important. Or rather, she’s that special kind of “equal” that patriarchal religions offer to women. Quiet equal. Ruled by their fathers equal. Owned by their husbands equal. Up on a pedestal because it’s as good as foot binding for limiting mobility. Controlled. Nope, the wrinkled old men at the Vatican don’t think Mary is important.

Red Tent Top © Ellen Bulger

But out in the hinterlands, Mary is the favorite and it is easy to see why. She never smites, she wrings her hands. She implores you to pray, a little bit of maternal nagging. She worries. She wonders why you don’t call. She’s a mom for everybody.

Her lines in the bible are minimal, but she gets busy off the beaten track, appearing to agricultural workers and minors. The Vatican is not pleased. Like the Disney studio of old, they don’t like having their brand diluted, don’t like risking the loss of any controls/profits.

Rome can’t control everybody, especially not out in the sticks, so some messages are tolerated. Mary sez, my cousins earnestly told first-grader moi, If everyone says the rosary, there will be world peace. Mind you, if everyone agreed to play hopscotch on alternate Tuesdays, there would be world peace. My grandmother told me I could catch a bird if I put salt on its tail. And I was young enough that I bought it. Not until I’d spent the better part of the day with a little plastic airline salt shaker gripped in my chubby little fingers did it dawn on me that if I got close enough to pepper a bird’s tail, then I was close enough to grab a bird.

My Dad did some consulting for Ty the toy manufacturer. He told me the company wouldn’t put Beanie Babies’ in a TV show because they felt that doing so would limit the play options and the appeal. Kids, he said, could project whatever they wanted onto the toys, could project themselves. That, he claimed, was the secret of the toys’ success; soft and neutral, non judgmental and mute, a comforting imaginary friend for a child in a confusing and overwhelming world.

If God-the-Father™ was a raging maniac, if Jesus was the doomed fall guy who spent most of his time parroting the company line, his allegiance pledged to a monster, if Jesus himself stood ready to turn you in, why not turn to Mary? She was the one who would listen. She was the one who might intercede on your behalf.

Then again, Mary could cry oceans of tears and it wouldn’t mean squat to her senior husband or to her son. You could just visualize her being gently pushed away while the guys got on with their important tasks. You could just hear the big guy telling her “Don’t you worry your head, little lady.” I doubt even her mortal husband, Joseph, would have listened to her. And I’m pretty sure he earned sainthood simply by virtue of Mary being his wife.

Yeah, everyone likes Mary. Quiet women are more popular that the ones who speak up. The ones who actually talk put themselves at risk. But the thing is, if you don’t speak up, you don’t accomplish anything. I’m not faulting Dumbo’s Mom. I do blame the studio that made her a mute. Mary had the same problem. Vatican Productions Inc. cut out all her lines. The only speaking parts she’s gotten are the equivalent of small town dinner theater. The worst thing about Mary’s passivity is that she is the only role model for girls in Christian mythology.

I’m not blaming quiet women. There are times in life when you just have to survive. But when activist women are putting themselves in the crosshairs, you have to respect it. Because it takes more than a tongue to speak. It takes courage.

Elephant Eye © Ellen Bulger
Marketing Mute Mommies
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218 thoughts on “Marketing Mute Mommies

  1. 1

    Funny thing about the Disney personalities. My little one was obsessed with Donald Duck. My mum was horrified, “He’s so bad-tempered. He’s awful!!”

    Of course, little one had never seen the cartoons. She’d picked him out of the characters depicted on the back cover of her Little Golden Books. He was her wonderful companion, they played tennis at a house behind our shopping centre and he had lots of houses all over the city that she claimed to have visited. It seemed that every time we drove anywhere we went past one of DD’s many houses.

    Then … she saw an actual cartoon. That’s not the real Donald Duck, she complained, he’s not like that at all. She couldn’t stand the cartoon character, I’m not sure what she thought of the others.

  2. 2

    You articulated what always makes me dislike Disney better than I ever could.

    I despise the whole ‘Princess’ thing, and like you, had a son, so it wasn’t a big issue, but I see it more and more now then when my son was little.

    I work in an airport, and just about every little girl has a Disney princess bag or backpack, festooned in pink glitter. Aside from the obvious gender stereotyping, I have to ask, why princesses? What do they do? You hit the nail on the head – they are mostly passive, and exist for their princes.


    The correlation with Mary resonated with this ex-cathlick as well. Wonderfully written.

    1. 2.1

      This has been all over the internet, so you probably have seen it. It’s great. Never you mind that the muppets themselves grossly underrepresented women and girls for years with their minimal female muppet character roster.

      But the times, they are a changing!

  3. 3

    One of the games we play in our house is to find children’s movies in which the femal protagonist:

    1) Is not a princess;
    2) Has a living mother.

    I’ll have to go back through our list to see if any of them involve mute mothers.

  4. 4

    For a few years in the 1940s Disney did some shorts with Pluto the dog and a chipmunk engaged in territorial disputes; less violent than Bugs and Elmer with his fucking shotgun, they were hilarious. Nothing else by Disney was, although I remember we liked Pinocchio. Disney’s greatest achievement was giving the genius Walt Kelly a job.

  5. 5

    At least recognize that Hanna Barbera had the unique talent to transform the dry and boring history of our co-existence with dinosaurs into an entertaining and educational package. It won’t be long before the Flintstone documentaries of our Jurassic past paint the giant IMAX screens of creationism museums everywhere.

  6. 6

    Beginning in 1930, Mickey has also been featured extensively as a comic strip character. His self-titled newspaper strip, drawn primarily by Floyd Gottfredson, ran for 45 years. Mickey has also appeared in comic books and in television series such as The Mickey Mouse Club and others.`-`*

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