Disney and Modern America: CAMD Scholar Sophia Hlavaty ’21 Explores Storytelling in American Culture

Exploring the question, “Why does The Walt Disney Company resonate with the United States?”, Sophia Hlavaty ’21 discussed American cultural formation and identity in her Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) Scholar Presentation, “Magic Kingdom?: Deconstructing the Politics of Citizenship and Memory in Disney’s America.”

Using her research on how Disney navigates belonging in the United States, Hlavaty explored common symbols the company represents for many children–reassurance, escapism, and wonder. According to Hlavaty, these symbols are remnants of the main themes of Disney’s storytelling which stay with consumers long after their childhoods. Deconstructing Disney’s influence on Americans, Hlavaty emphasized the importance of the amount of exposure people were subject to. 

Hlavaty said, “With movies alone, the company has an extensive reach. Its eight movie studios controlled an immense 40 percent of the domestic box office in 2019. During the past three years, the company has also released 11 billion-dollar grossing movies, more than double all the other studios combined. Beyond movies, the company has 14 theme parks, four television studios, 70 shows, [and] annual licensed merchandise sales hovering around 55 billion dollars. The different divisions reinforce each other to amplify the main themes of Disney’s storytelling.”  

“The dizzying glist of numbers attests to Disney’s inescapable presence. The company’s various mediums of experience allow consumers to act [on] their dormant longing to engage in visceral reproductions of their abortive childhood dreams,” Hlavaty added.

Hlavaty also claimed that Disney’s rapid development into the superpower it is today originated from the Cold War. In a moment in which Americans made explicit attempts to define the nature, history, and values of the United States to formulate a counter-identity to the Soviet model, Hlavaty believed that Walt Disney stepped in to quell the anxieties of the American people.

Hlavaty said, “The Walt Disney company’s family entertainment during the Cold War reinforced the mythologized suburban lifestyle and [the] nuclear family. In doing so, the company established a sense of security that [quelled] the public anxieties [during] periods of upheaval. The Walt Disney company gained power during the Cold War because the company was seen not only as a representation of the real America, but also [as] one of its last protectors. The company provided the youth [with] civic education and taught them to be citizens of Disney’s simulation of America.”

“Disney’s America garnered such power because people were desperate to believe in its narrative of American exceptionalism, morality, liberty, and progress during the Cold War,” added Hlavaty. 

Sophia Lee ’21, an audience member during the Zoom meeting, acknowledged Hlavaty’s dedication, remembering her experiences writing for The Phillipian with Hlavaty. 

Lee said, “[Hlavaty]’s presentation was really interesting. I was on [The Phillipian] with [Hlavaty] so we know each other really well, and I was so proud of her. The amount of research, the amount of work she put into her paper… she is so thorough with everything, so intentional and deliberate. I think the most interesting part was about settler colonialism and old Disney films and current Disney media, and that tied her whole presentation together.”

Donald Slater, Instructor in History and Social Science, served as Hvalaty’s faculty advisor. Slater shared some thoughts regarding his encounters with Hlavaty and his impression of her presentation last Friday.

“I met Sophia last academic year when she enrolled in my [history] elective [and] as an Upper amongst mostly Seniors, Sophia greatly impressed me particularly during the process of composing her research paper.  She proved herself to be an indefatigable researcher and a highly effective critical thinker and writer. I was delighted when later in the term, she asked me to advise her [CAMD] project proposal. Given her talents as a researcher and the good rapport that we had developed in class, it was easy to agree to her request”, Slater wrote in an email to The Phillipian.  

Slater continued, “To be honest, I was blown away by Sophia’s final project which examined the socio-political impact of the Walt Disney Company on the cultural development of the United States. The depth and breadth of research that she conducted, the level of sophistication in her critical analysis and argumentation, and her ability to weave all of this together in a smoothly-flowing written narrative far exceeded my high expectations. Her paper was more in line with a strong senior thesis in college than a high school project. Unsurprisingly, this same level of excellence shined through last Friday night.”