Disney Religion -- by John Fea

John Fea, Disney Religion: The “High School Musical 2” Phenomenon

OK—some of you might be wondering what a review of the Disney Channel’s original movie “High School Musical 2” has to do with the subject of this blog. Some of you have probably never watched the Disney Channel or are not aware of the “High School Musical” phenomenon. Allow me, as a father of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old daughter, to get you up to speed.

On Friday over 17 million people, many of them preteen girls, tuned in to the most anticipated original movie to ever appear on cable television. (Yes, you read that correctly). The sequel to the surprise January 2006 hit “High School Musical” was the most watched show in the history of cable television and was the second highest rated television show of all time among children between the ages of 9 and 14 (only the 2004 Super Bowl had a higher rating in this demographic). And these numbers are probably low, since many kids watched the movie with friends. Unlike some of their classmates, my girls did not go to one of these “High School Musical” parties, but my oldest daughter did invite a friend over to the house to watch with her. Needless to say, it was a night of pajamas, pizza, ice-cream sundaes, and, of course, the Disney entertainment juggernaut.

I have now watched both the original “High School Musical” and the sequel with my daughters, but I am still not sure what to make of this craze. A good part of me is tempted to take the responsible academic route and criticize Disney Corporation for the way it tries to suck my kids into its web of toys, CDs, DVDs, and other “High School Musical” paraphernalia. I could also criticize the movie for its glorification of suburban values and upper-middle class life. (My kids need to know that not everyone lives like the students of Disney’s fictional East High School). This kind of analysis would be easy for me to do—perhaps too easy. (For an entertaining and provocative, though not very scholarly or balanced critique of Disney consumerism see What Would Jesus Buy, the new book by Reverend Billy, the pastor of Manhattan’s Church of Stop Shopping).

There is another part of me—the parent—who would rather have my girls watching a Disney movie than some of the other stuff on television these days. I must admit, as corny or sentimental as this might sound, that I actually liked the message of the movie—that true human happiness comes not in ambition or the pursuit of personal fame and glory, but through relationships with others. In other words, I do not think my daughters were permanently damaged and they may have even learned something about how to live.

Then there is my role as a historian and observer of American religious culture. Is there such a thing, as journalist Mark Pinsky argues, as “Disney Religion?” Can traditional religion ever compete with Disney for the hearts of American kids or has the faithful already been blinded by Tinkerbell’s pixie dust? I am intrigued (and perhaps a bit bothered) by the popular evangelical approach to all of this—if you can’t beat Disney, at least try to use them for a higher purpose. Bethany House, an evangelical publisher, has recently released Wildcats in the House: Spiritual Stuff You Can Get from High School Musical.

Please help this critic, parent, and historian make sense of all of this, for I hear that “High School Musical 3” is coming soon!


Amy said…
My daughter watched it on Orlando last week with her grandfather. They were both transfixed by it. Repeat after me, "You can't beat the mouse."
This posting elicited my ongoing frustration with how folks doing "religion in American history" understand their purposes and goals. But since my comments became too longwinded to put here, and are perhaps a bit off topic anyway, I put them on my own site. You can view my posting at http://worshippingparadise.blogspot.com/2007/08/can-religion-make-sense.html.
John Fea said…

Great stuff. I am glad that you found the post and provided such a thoughtful response on your blog.

If I understand your underlying concern, you are chiding me for my failure to define religion, preferring instead to use unhelpful and ill-defined categories such as "traditional religion." Fair enough. I have no qualms about thinking broadly about religion in the way you suggest and I think your critique of my post is on the mark.

What you took as my "befuddlement" was really a half-baked attempt to provoke readers to think more broadly about what qualifies as religion. (If you have been a regular reader of this blog, you will note that several contributors have taken this approach--see the posts, for example, on baseball and New Mexico). In the end, I hoped to elicit responses similar to yours and perhaps get some help with scholarly resources that might help me think more about this. (I am, after all, an early American historian!) The fact that I put these provocations in the form of a question might have been confusing.

But let me put my cards on the table since I think you are also critiquing me for abandoning my scholarly objectivity in order to issue a lament about how my own Christian faith (which I carefully hide under the guise of "traditional religion")is somehow being threatened by Disney religion.

OK--you got me here and I am not sure how to respond apart from the fact that I write as a situated and placed person--a member of a particular religious tradition (orthodox Christianity)who actually DOES have concerns about the way Disney religion might impact my kids (much in the same way that someone on the secular left might have similar concerns about Disney's consumerism). If this can be read into my post, then so be it.

Of course this raises questions about the nature of the conversation on this blog. Perhaps my original post is out of line-- pushing the limits of what counts as "scholarly" conversation too far. Perhaps I should just have identified the "High School Musical" phenomenon as a "religion" and left it at that without expressing the "befuddlement" that obviously sheds too much light on my personal beliefs on the topic. If this is the case, I will await chastisement from Paul and try to behave better.

BTW, my next post will be on the American Revolution--safer ground!
Kelly J. Baker said…

I think your post and comments bring up interesting and provocative issues relating to how we define religion. Perhaps, this is obvious from my posts, but I think religion can be defined broadly to include Disney. For example, David Chidester's _Authentic Fakes_ examines the phenomena of Coca-Cola as religious.

Additionally, I am not sure that personal perspective compromises your position on Disney, but it does demonstrate the ambivalence that folks have about the consumer appeal of the "the mouse". This consumer appeal appears similar to religious devotion. A colleague at Florida State, Chris Newcomb, wrote his dissertation on the trip to Disney World as pilgrimage and how this theme park is sacred space.

There are folks trying to theorize how Disney has appeal and whether this is religious or not, and I think more American religious historians should ponder cultural phenomena like this to see what it says about "religion" as a category. As far as guidance to current works, I cannot think of any off the top of my head (beside Chidester), but I would love to know if anyone else has suggestions.
John Fea said…
Kelly: Yes, as I said in my response, I agree with both you and Tom Bremer about how to define religion. This is a fascinating topic and I hope more and more scholars are working on it.

But if we concede that both orthodox Christianity and Disney are both "religions," then I still do not understand why we cannot explore the way one religion ("Disney") is able to obtain a greater market share of "religious" consumers than another form of religion. (This is all that I was asking in my original post). Again, I am willing to admit that my term "traditional religion" is problematic and I thank Tom Bremer for pointing this out.
DEG said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
DEG said…
I second Kelly's suggestion and also offer Dell deChant's The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002). He argues that American consumer capitalism constitutes a "religion," one with its own god (Santa Claus), myths (the American Dream), spaces (shopping malls), high priests and priestesses (celebrities and advertising agencies), oral and written liturgy (advertising), and sacred calendar days (Christmas, Valentine's, Mom's Day, etc.). His analysis gets a bit stretched, perhaps, at points, but it is certainly thought provoking. It may be a good place to begin theorizing about whether Disney culture could/should be imagined as a religious culture. His most interesting point, I think, is his observation that consumer culture is a rather old-school religious arrangement, more like cosmological religions than transcendent ones.

It's a quick read and has helped me frame and reframe questions I have about the Sunbelt's own religio-economic ideologies. So, hopefully it will help you out too...
All this talk about "interesting and provocative issues relating to how we define religion" and whether "American consumer capitalism constitutes a 'religion'" may be intriguing, but it both increases my frustration and demonstrates my point. I am urging a serious engagement with Jonathan Z. Smith's provocative claim in his book Imagining Religion that "there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study." Smith puts responsibility on scholars of religion to articulate the purposes for and value of studying things we deem to be religious. But much of what passes for "religious studies" (or history of religions, or American religious history, or religion studies, or religiology, or whatever you imagine the discipline to be) never gets much beyond the rather mindless exercise of taxonomy -- all this anxious debate over whether a particular phenomenon is or is not religion. Thus, we end up with inconclusive and inconsequential arguments about whether Disney is a religion, whether shopping malls are sacred space, whether Elvis was a prophet. Yes, no, maybe, neither/nor, both/and -- whatever answer we come up with reveals nothing other than how we have decided to imagine "religion."

I am not saying that scholars of religion should not be studying Disney, shopping malls, or Elvis. On the contrary, our field encompasses all of human thought, activity, practice, institutions, and experience -- no phenomena are beyond the purview of religiological analysis. But to get us beyond the sophomoric obsession with whether it is or is not religion, we need to articulate what we have to offer about human thought, activity, practice, institutions, and experience that distinguishes our scholarship from the perspectives of historians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, or others who study the same phenomena. In other words, what do we contribute to an understanding of Disney, shopping malls, or Elvis that comes from our unique perspective as scholars of religions? How might we make "religiological sense," as distinct from historical, philosophical, psychological, sociological, or economic sense, of "High School Musical"?
DEG said…

I have three sets of responses:

1) What do you mean by making "religiological sense" of a given topic? Studying the religious frameworks that people make and remake? If that's the case, something about that sounds like old-school anthropology.

2) How do we develop a "religiological sense" if any boundary we set on what is and isn't "religiological" will likewise reveal "nothing other than how we have decided to imagine 'religion?'"

3) What is so special or promising about making "religiological sense" of a given social, cultural, or economic phenomenon? How will the "religiological sense" we make of it be persuasive to scholars who understand religion as irrevocably produced by/related to economy, psychology, or history? Doesn't a strictly religiological understanding (however defined) merely ghettoize the study of religion, making it irrelevant to others outside the field (however defined)?

Obviously, I wouldn't expect answers to these questions to be quick and easy ones. And I certainly don't presume to have them. All this is to say that if you're working up a more formal exploration of your frustrations and solutions - as I believe you mentioned on your blog - I'd certainly like to read it.
Anonymous said…

I treat Walt Disney World as a Mickey-Mouse Mecca in Chapter Four of my Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces,so I enjoyed your critique here. Aside from such blatant self-promotion, I'd recommend Stephen Fjellman's VINYL LEAVES, who as an anthropologist simply dubs WDW the "major middle class pilgrimage site in America," and Henry Giroux, who as an educator has assailed Disney enterprises in several works (notably THE MOUSE THAT ROARED: DISNEY AND THE END OF INNOCENCE) for stunting childrens' imagination and critical thinking skills. I'm with you on wanting to expand how we think about and talk about "religion," which is far more diffuse and mobile than our neat institutional boxes suggest.
Anonymous said…
High School Musical has officially become part of the "Culture War." See the article by the "Culture Warrior" himself, Bill O'Reilly. http://www.billoreilly.com/newslettercolumn?pid=21731
I too had to write about this - and it's even on while I work over and over and over so I'm deconstructing as I speak.

I would say it's neither insideous or harmless. I didn't find the "moral" that great from an empowering girl perspective because I think women suffer from a guilt (lots of Christian Guilt) about making money or having money. As if it's an either-or, right-wrong proposal.

I thought HSM 2 had an element of rich = evil and poor = good and I think girls need help translating the fiction of that so they don't believe the real world works that way.

But I will agree that it's not the worst thing they could be watching on tv. http://traceesioux.blogspot.com/2007/08/high-school-musical-2.html

Considering the local news "anchor" looks like a hooker, it's better than that. http://traceesioux.blogspot.com/2007/08/sexy-news.html
Anonymous said…
Hi... just happen to cross your site...

Im planning to go to Tokyo or Hong Kong Disney this Christmas. Hoho and I found some stuffs from Hong Kong Disneyland here as well:

I will definitely take tones of photos there!!!

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