Dr. Seán Harrington is a Screen Media lecturer at Brunel University who continues to engage us eager undergrads studying Film and Television in modules such as Critical Methodologies and Gender and Sexuality. Seán recently celebrated the launch of his new book The Disney Fetish on 15th October 2014. The unveiling took place at the aptly chosen venue of The Cartoon Museum in central London. I sat down with the first-time published academic to get his thoughts on the iconic animation studios and the societal impact the films have generated, as well as his own inspiration. And, as anticipated, the interview got very animated…
Le Nurb: At what point did Disney - the man and the studios - become the topic for your thesis? And can you tell me more about the influence of the chimera?
Seán Harrington: I always found Disney films oddly disturbing. I think it was because I grew up watching horror films that I found Disney so bizarre and surreal with its squeaky clean world.
In 2007 I attended 'Hibernator: Prince of the Petrified Forest', the show by London Fieldworks. At this rather intense installation, you first walk into a room in which you see piles of bibliographies about Disney, after which you go into this darkened place filled with cardboard cut-outs of trees. You wade through this forest until you enter an open space filled with hay bales, facing a projection of a series of short films featuring this horrifying chimera. The chimera is ‘live-action’ in the clips, everything else around it is computer animated. And it had this very surreal sort of 'peyote-trip' narrative playing over it. Fieldworks explained they wanted to re-create the story of Disney's life spoken from Timothy Leary's point-of-view, as they saw the two as cultural opponents. You really needed to read between the lines; the narrative is quite garbled and very surreal. But you start picking out different mythologies that you associate Disney with, like Walt Disney in cryogenic freezing… which is sadly an urban myth.
LN: Oh, no?!
SH: I know! But he was actually interested in cryogenics, according to unauthorised biographers. We've grown up in an age of such myths and there's an abundance of Disney critiques. We have Itchy and Scratchy in The Simpsons, the Family Guy episode "Welcome to the Multiverse". Very pop culture renderings of the darker side of Disney.
So, a little bit confused and dazed, we then went into a room with the artists and contributors Bruce Gilchrist and Jo Joelson. They're both articulate, lovely people. And to the left of their table there's the green screen stage and the chimera- in the flesh! And it's very life-like.
It represents a chimeric combination of Thumper's hind legs, Bambi's body and Walt Disney's head. [LAUGHS] Which is why it waddles and moves really awkwardly. And we were told it's semi-autonomous. It was horrifying! Good old-fashioned nightmare fuel. As you're listening to these people in this thoroughly engaging discussion, your eyes would wander over to this monstrosity sitting in the corner. So that left a lasting impression on me.
At that point I started writing about Disney in combination with an idea that while organisations are ‘perverse’ people aren't necessarily, but, you know, organisations definitely are! Disney provides gratification for adults and children alike. It's not just for children. It's family entertainment and everybody has an idea of what Disney is. It's a massive organisation that seems to be internationally influential and something that a lot of people seem to consume. So... yes! [LAUGHS] It was always Disney!
LN: You sound completely passionate about it so I believe you! And very maniacal with your hands!
SH: I am convincing. That is good. I gesticulate rather wildly.
LN: What was it like getting your book published? Was the process easier than you expected?
SH: Yeah, it was a lot easier than I ever thought it would be. I sent the manuscript to a few different publishers and found the right fit. Usually publishers are looking for the right text to fit in with their upcoming catalogue. Or at least that's what they told me! [LAUGHS] John Libbey had recently published Amy M. Davis' 'Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains'. He's published several texts on animation and gender studies so I thought that would be the right route to go.
You usually have to fight tooth and nail with publishers over content, from what I've heard, but not at all with John. He was very accommodating and really listened to what I had to say. Having kept many illustrations and two pages in full colour was a really big thing to me. I'm hugely happy with how the book turned out in the end. I had a great deal of control over the process so that was a surprise to me! Contrary to what I'd heard from published colleagues.
LN: Did you have a lot of artistic control over the ambiguous and provocative cover?
SH: [LAUGHS] Ambiguity and provocative are my middle names! I had originally envisioned something like that. We'd been talking about having a full coloured piece by Paul Byrne, one of the artists, though the title was already provocative and I didn't want it to be provocative for provocative’s sake. It is about fetishism. What more can you say? It was only after I had finished writing that I looked at it, I thought: "Ah! Some people might find this somewhat controvertible!" I didn't want it to shock. That's not how I saw it at all. It’s a discourse; a discussion of these ideas. I thought the cover would supplement without overstating those meanings. Having the book cover simple and title in red would leave people curious about what's inside. Quietly saying "Hey! Look at me!" [LAUGHS] I didn't want something overtly controversial, which it could have been!
The Disney Fetish, from John Libbey Publishing, Ltd. is available online at Waterstones now.