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How to write a Discourse Analysis

Since its inception in the late 1920’s, the Walt Disney Corporation has for many become synonymous with – and demonstrative of – the best values and virtues of American society. With its production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, Disney enthralled American children with a cinematographic tradition of hyper-idealized versions of the American Dream, enshrining in its fantastic films the notions of good triumphing over evil, the rewarding of the noble and the punishment of the wicked and, most especially, love conquering all. Given their frequent basis in revered historical children’s literature (the works of Hans Christian Anderson, etc.), their grounding in “American” moral tradition, and their archetypal standing as mediums of highly colorful and enjoyable, yet politically innocuous children’s entertainment, the films of Walt Disney are, at first blush, everything a parent could want from the Third Educator – the American media.

Recently, however, researchers have uncovered in these films a more complicated dynamic at work than these seemingly innocent stories would have one believe. Through the use of discourse analysis, researchers have exposed evidence of unequal power relationships, racist and sexist undertones, and the proscription of class, racial, and gender roles in even the simplest and most charming of these films. As “animated movies function as a crucial socializing force in the lives of children” (Pandey, 2), then, discourse analysis represents a powerful tool in its ability to identify the negative influences inherent in these films and their subsequent socialization of the American child into the “Disney” mindset.

According to Gair, “discourse is inherently part of and influenced by the social structure in which it exists and its examination can reveal something of the ideological components of that structure” (83). As such, it becomes necessary to examine (briefly) the social structure of late 1930’s America and ideological components of society contained therein before one may begin a substantive analysis of the film itself.

Joel Spring, author of The American School: 1642 – 2004, highlights the self-appointment of filmmakers as guardians of American national morality. In order to counteract the fears of those parents concerned over movies’ influence on their children, auditors within film companies exercised a code of self-censorship, designed by the National Board of Review, that “emphasized the importance of movies teaching moral lessons. These censors wanted movies to be uplifting by teaching the public moral lessons in a manner similar to that used by schools…[especially by] depicting good winning over evil” (348). Disney currently stands at the forefront of such moral validation in its films, a trend that began with its first feature-length animated film.

In addition to conveying what was “good” in American society through its films, Disney movies – Snow White being no exception – are telling indicators of what was historically deemed one’s “proper” place in society. Early Disney films, those produced during the primacy of the “social efficiency” model of education in American schools, are particularly illustrative of this leaning: from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, Spring notes, the purpose of education was “not to promote academic training, [but] to enable pupils by means of free, fair and genial social intercourse, under the leadership of friendly and large-spirited men and women, to obtain practice in real life, to become socially and serviceably efficient” (247).

Of course, such “serviceability” translated into the socialization of different individuals by both academia and society at large into what were considered, at the time Snow White was made, socially, economically, and sexually acceptable roles. Women donned the role of the home economist, their lives structured around the orderliness of the home and the provision of adequate sustenance for their men and children. Those supposedly less suited to academic pursuits were channeled into the service industry via vocational training in the schools. Even the ideal, white “look” of the American youth populace was determined at this time by magazine, cosmetic, and even soft-drink companies: “Advertising…provided national models for white teenagers to emulate. Black, Native American and Mexican American youth were not subjects of these early ad campaigns” (Spring, 369).

Accounting for the particulars of the social and moral context in which it was made, it is then possible to analyze Snow White and the Seven Dwarves from a discursive standpoint against a previously recognized exploratory framework, such as that articulated by J. P. Gee; that is, (in this case) to consider Gee’s concepts of “building” (on the level of the semiotic, world, activity, identity/relationship, political, and connective) in contextual research and apply them as necessary to an analysis of the film.

From its very beginning, the film plays out from an archetypal Anglo-centric viewpoint, conflating the qualities of goodness and whiteness beginning with the Queen’s first query to her enchanted mirror: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who it the fairest of them all.” Whiteness in the film achieves near-iconic status from the start with its inclusion in the name of the film’s titular heroine, as Snow White herself appears to the audience as morally centered as humanity would allow: she is pure, the conspicuously white doves surrounding her at the film’s opening enhancing her image as virginal and chaste. She is humble, cleaning the Dwarves’ home of her own volition and requesting only that she be afforded shelter under their roof; i.e.: “…if you let me stay, I’ll cook and clean for you.” She is innocent, uncomprehending of the evil others would do to her simply because of her appearance. She is pious, the tenor of her bedside prayer to “[b]less the seven little men that have been so kind to me” affording her an air of selflessness seeped in Christian morality. Finally, she represents true love’s triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds, both in her desire to find that love (“I’m wishing for the one I love to find me”) and in her realization of that desire at the film’s end.

The film’s equation of whiteness and Christian morality continues with its extension of these concepts from physical human characteristics to the very schema of the natural world. From the gentle forest creatures that assist Snow White in her trek to the Dwarves’ cottage, to the Dwarves themselves, to Snow White and the Prince, all good-aligned characters and animals are rendered in vibrant, primary colors – Snow White’s yellow, white, and blue traveling garb and the Prince’s well-heeled attire, for example – and soft, eye-pleasing pastels, such as the feathering of the forest songbirds and the caps and tunics of the Dwarves. In contrast, the Queen’s evil similarly extends to her gloomy, cobweb-filled surroundings, her midnight-and-purple robes, and the company she keeps with her crow and vultures, themselves traditional harbingers of pestilence and death.

On the semiotic level, language construction by the tall, regal white-Anglo humanoids of the film immediately connotes their advanced intelligence, particularly when contrasted with the colloquial speech of the Dwarves. As members of the film’s “ruling class” – they are, after all, citizens of the ubiquitous Kingdom that claims dominion over the land around it – the Queen, the Price, the Huntsman, and Snow White herself implicitly elevate the significance of “Standard American English” (Pandey, 3) over that of the Dwarves’ rural slang.

As the white-Anglo humanoids that populate Snow White’s world use language to their advantage and empowerment, the Dwarves meanwhile are perceptually hemmed in by language at almost every turn. Examining the country-bumpkinish speech with which they are endowed while keeping in mind Gee’s identity/relationship paradigm, one identifies a subtle truth inherent in the film: that the Dwarves’ diminutive stature is indicative of their diminished intelligence and, subsequently, their incapacity for “properly” articulating the English language.

The use of verse in the speech and songs of the film’s respective character classes further enhances their perceived intelligence. Whereas the dwarves’ poetic inclinations tend only toward simple repetition (“Hi-ho, hi-ho/It’s off to work we go/[whistling]/Hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-ho), a complex and varied interaction with the English language can be seen in the iambic septameter of the Queen’s incantations (“Dip the apple in the brew/Let the sleeping death seep through”; “A blast of wind to fan my hate/A thunderbolt to mix it well/Now begins my magic spell”), etc., as well as in the artful tête-à-tête between Snow White and the Prince in their duet at the film’s beginning.

In addition to their linguistic authority, Snow White’s prototypical Anglo-American characters are granted both situational and technological superiority with respect to the Dwarves. Whereas the latter live communally and far from “civilized” society in a thatched-roof cottage reminiscent of traditional farmsteads (possibly indicative of “primitive,” Appalachian-style societies), their placement in the natural setting of the forest tacitly indicative of their inability to exist in a more “refined” setting, the film’s human characters are endowed with social individualism and therefore social efficacy (the Huntsman’s employment in the Queen’s service notwithstanding) by their inclusion in the urbane Kingdom. The divide between these groups’ academic versus vocational utility in the film’s technological landscape is further confirmed in the Queen’s access to books (conspicuously absent in the Dwarves’ household) and her applied knowledge of chemistry when concocting her spells, in contrast to the Dwarves’ sole profession of hand-mining gems directly from the earth, signifying their culture of manual labor.

The stratifying power of language, as constructed by the film’s creators, is even present and at work on several levels within the Dwarven community itself. For instance, with Snow White’s guessing of their names constituting their formal introduction to the audience, each Dwarf loses some measure of personal efficacy; in denying the Dwarves the opportunity to name themselves, Snow White inadvertently disables them from asserting original claims to their own identities.

The Dwarves’ characterizations are furthermore negatively construed on a socio-cultural level in relation to the identities they are allowed. While the names of “the Queen,” “the Prince,” and “Snow White” conjure up a multitude of cultural assumptions in the minds of the film’s target audience regarding what these characters “should be,” the Dwarves’ naming by Snow White’s creators (per Gee’s “world building” schema) reduces their identities to one-dimensional adjectival caricatures. Only Doc is permitted some degree of sophistication by virtue of his name, which subsequently translates into his authority over the group as a whole.

Such linguistic marginalization is particularly apparent in film’s portrayal of Dopey, who conspicuously lacks a physical voice. Much like Snow White’s assumption of power over the Dwarves in her naming of them, Doc, as his group’s alpha male, takes on the responsibility of speaking for Dopey: “This is Dopey, ma’am. He don’t talk none…he never tried.” Given that Dopey’s general demeanor in the film – tongue constantly hanging out of his mouth, his placing of large gems in his eyes in the hope that the refraction of his pupils will attract attention, etc. – is indicative of severe immaturity at best and mental retardation at worst, his implicit silencing by the film’s creators through his fellow Dwarves is telling. Observing the disproportional amount of abuse he receives at the hands of his comrades, as exemplified by the forcing of soap into his mouth during the Dwarves’ bathing scene and his election as point man for flushing out the “ghost” (Snow White) in their bedroom, Gee would claim that his activities construct the mentally handicapped as completely dependant on their wards for their linguistic and social empowerment, as well as sources of amusement to the general public because of that same dependence.

Just as Snow White confirms both the linguistic superiority and social authority of prototypical white-Anglo Americans through the film’s characters, it reinforces the gender roles of those individuals as they existed in the 1930’s socio-cultural milieu: the male Dwarves are the breadwinners of their household, their gemological profits stemming directly from their daily employment. In fact, the Dwarves’ mining represents the only real instance of non-household work in the film, again excepting the Huntsman’s errand for the Queen. Snow White, as a woman, keeps house for the Dwarves, seeing that each is clean and well fed and therefore better able to undertake their worldly endeavors. While Snow White assumes the traditional role of housewife in this sense, she also functions as their surrogate mother in her exhortations to them regarding industry and personal cleanliness: “Go straight outside and wash, or you’ll not get a bite to eat.”

Though one might praise Snow White as a woman for her ability to control not one, but several men in this instance, such praise dims in light of the fact that her situation is defined by those very men over which she supposedly holds sway; without the Dwarves to provide Snow White with any sort of “meaningful” preoccupation, her social utility in the film depreciates significantly. Notable also in Snow White is that true female independence, as personified by the Queen, is punished in the film’s constant reinforcement of her as a negative character, to say nothing of her eventual death. Considering that a man (the Prince) is required in order to break Snow White’s enchanted sleep, and presumably that in living “happily ever after” with the Prince she becomes Princess (and only then by virtue of his political ties), one comprehends feminine efficacy in general as the film’s real “fairy tale.”

There is a small, yet significant moment in Snow White that reveals much about the regard in which the film’s creators and American society at large held individuals not of white-Anglo descent: during the dance scene in the Dwarves’ cottage, Dopey loses one of the cymbals he had been playing. Looking to Snow White for his prompt, he holds out his remaining cymbal to her, which she gives a playful kick. The cymbal flips through the air to land concave-side down over Dopey’s head. Dopey, already laden with the pejorative connotations of his namesake, crosses his eyes, laces his hands at chest level, and does his best coolie impression while dancing out of the frame.

No doubt the film’s producers intended Dopey’s “Asian moment” to be comical to its audiences. However, when viewed from an analytic standpoint, such ethnically-motivated humor proves severely damaging to the socio-cultural fabric of society: in socializing children, however subtly, to negatively perceive individuals of a particular race, gender, or socio-linguistic heritage through those individuals social and linguistic marginalization, Disney, through its films, reproduces and reinforces that same marginalization in society at large. In turn, the societal stereotyping of these individuals informs the content of popular media and so on.

It is incumbent on educational researchers and advocates of critical media literacy, therefore, to expose such marginalizing influences in films like Snow White and the Severn Dwarves for what they are to the general public and, by so doing, teach parents and children alike to identify and deconstruct these influences for themselves. By understanding the social contexts in which these films are made, and by advocating the introduction of diverse social, linguistic, ethnic, and gender-based traditions in powerful contexts in such films, the American family for which these films are made may effect such progression in them, and by extension in society as a whole, that future generations of Disney characters may truly and universally live “happily ever after.”

 

APPENDIX

 

A professional discourse analysis of any given work, while intellectually sound from the point of view of the researcher, means little without the perspective of the target audience for whom the work was produced. Below are the findings of an interview between Liliana Singh and her niece Lainey (six years of age) as they relate to Lainey’s interpretation of the film, findings which largely support the claims made by this research:

 

Lainey is a six years old girl that watches very little TV. She comes from a family that doesn’t encourage watching TV; rather they constantly read books to her. Lainey was raised with independent thinking and was encouraged to make her own interpretations on the books that were read to her.

Lainey viewed the Queen’s jealousy of Snow White being the “fairest in the land,” as a threat to the queen: “The Queen is bad because she wants to kill Snow White and that is because she wants to be the fairest in the land.” The whole concept of being “fair” is of interest to both the Disney story and to Lainey.

A high value was placed on fair (pale) skin during the time in which the original Snow White was written. Lainey said, “Snow White is so beautiful, Snow White is white like the snow with cheeks and lips red as apples.” Thus to Lainey, being the fairest means not only being pale in color but also being beautiful. Conversely, she viewed the color black as a bad sign in the movie: “The vultures are bad because they are black, black is a bad color. Black is spooky like black cats.” Lainey even said “I think that black is a bad sign in this movie.”

Later in the story when the Seven Dwarves came home and noticed that someone had entered their cottage, Lainey remarked of their sending Dopey on the mission to find out who that someone was: “They sent him to find out who was sleeping in the room because he was the least scared one out of all of them. That’s probably because he doesn’t know any better.” The movie gave the impression that Dopey is clueless in making him cross eyed and bald. Lainey liked Dopey the most stating, “ He acts and looks funny, silly and he can’t talk,” and she also stated “He can’t talk because he never tried.” Moving on to Grumpy, she stated, “He doesn’t like women because he was trying to convince the other Dwarves why they should not let Snow White stay with them, and Grumpy said all women are ‘Crazy Wicked Wails’.”

Lainey asked, “Why is Snow White treating the Dwarves like kids as if she is their mother?” Then, answering her own question, “The Dwarves are older than Snow White, but maybe because they are smaller in size she treats them like kids, even though they are older than her.”

At one point, Lainey noticed that “The Dwarves are little men, and they spend a lot of time working,” supporting the research statements above on the domestic duties of women at the time. Lainey went on to say that “Snow White is just a teenager. She doesn’t work she stays at home to clean and cook. She is like their mother. It’s a hard job for her (a female) to work digging in the mountains, she can’t do that kind of job because she’s a girl, and it is a man’s job.”

After Snow White ate the poisoned apple it began to rain and thunder. Lainey then stated, “The Queen will never be a queen again. She was going to stay looking like a witch forever because she killed Snow White.” This quote suggests that the gloom and dark of the rain and the rambunctious clashing of the thunder would signify bad things to come and a possible ‘bad ending’ for the Queen.

When asked what Lainey learned from the movie, she stated “If someone dies, and they really put a potion on somebody, they can really live. Her true love [Prince] kissed her and that’s what made her come back to life. She went with him and lived happily ever after.” Observing this statement in context, it is apparent how a relatively independent child may even fall into a “Disney” state of mind without even being aware of it.

 

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