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Hi. My name is Aisha, and I’m a Disney Adult.
But I’m not like those other Disney Adults out there – I’m a cool Disney Adult.
I’ve certainly never thrown a wedding where I made my guests figure out their own way of getting fed during the reception, because my partner and I chose to spend the thousands of dollars our parents budgeted for catering on guest appearances by Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Could never be me.
(My partner did propose to me while we were in Disney World celebrating my 30th birthday. That’s cool, though.)
I have absolutely zero interest in living in a residential community owned by Disney and staffed with Disney cast members – what fresh Twilight Zone hell might that turn out to be?
(Still, I do have Disney playlists in my regular rotation for working background music, and yes, I know every lyric to “Thomas O’Malley Cat” from The Aristocats. I’m still cool, though.)
I would never refer to my partner as my “Disney prince” – yech!
(But we do watch Disney movies old and new together, and have seen Aladdin, Frozen, and The Lion King on Broadway. In case you’re wondering, we have no children, and emphatically don’t want them. We’re still cool, though.)
Fandom is a weird thing. It’s a state of being where at least a bit of fantasy inherently comes into play regardless of the medium, and the internet, with its memes and Tumblr pages and interest groups, has only made this more obvious while giving us a myriad of new ways to demonstrate being a fan. It’s also interesting to witness the ever-morphing hierarchies of fandom within the cultural zeitgeist, and what’s considered cool to obsess over and what’s not. Comic book nerds, for example, once a niche population and the butt of jokes, have more or less swallowed mainstream popular culture as a whole, thanks to the Marvelization of … well, everything.
This past week emphasized how not all fandoms are treated equally, thanks to a viral “Am I the Asshole” Reddit post that may or may not be a true story. In case you’re unfamiliar with “AITA,” as it’s called, it’s the judgy gift that keeps on giving, a popular Reddit subhead where users post their personal conundrums and then ask the rest of the world to decide whether they were in the wrong or right. This particularly chaotic post about the couple who chose Mickey and Minnie over feeding their guests sparked the snarkiest wave of derision on the fandom known as “Disney Adults,” understandably. Tweets like “We need to study the minds of Disney adults like we do serial killers” and “I’ve said it once, I’ll say it now, and I’ll say it 100 more times. Disney adults are the absolute worst people.”
Way harsh, Tai.
Making matters worse was the well-intentioned religious studies professor who swooped in to defend my ilk with a thread that basically boiled down to “Don’t pathologize these people; to them this is like religion, except instead of worshipping hypothetical gods, they worship a corporate entity!” Twitter went into overdrive, swarming upon and devouring this professor’s infantilizing thread as if they were the hyenas descending upon Scar. The responses were golden.
I don’t actually care if people make fun of Disney Adults. A lot of the jokes are actually pretty funny. It’s a weird, quirky thing to re-watch Lady and the Tramp every so often once you surpass the age of, say, 12! I own that.
On the other hand, I find the intense vitriol – not the jokes, but the suggestions this is on par with religion or a cult – to be more than a bit confounding. From where I stand, Disney Adults don’t appear to be the kind of fandom that cares much about what others think about us, or the things we like. I don’t see them enacting massive doxing campaigns against anyone who dares say a bad word about Encanto, like fans of certain pop stars or superhero movies. Maybe it’s because I’m a cool Disney Adult and don’t run in those circles? I don’t know.
Part of it seems to stem from an understandable disdain for Disney as a corporate monopoly, and all the negatives that have come from that. (For one: The company’s position as financially beholden to political groups that are actively trying to strip basic human rights.) I agree with those critics; no one brand should have all this power.
The bigger component, though, is probably Disney’s “wholesome” and child-friendly image, which has been meticulously ingrained in the public imagination since the brand’s inception. Despite owning everything under the sun, from Star Wars to Marvel to the Muppets to Pixar, the Disney brand remains lodged in people’s minds as nothing more than that iconographic image of Tinker Bell tapping Cinderella’s castle with her wand. To say something has been “Disneyfied” is dismissive shorthand for watered-down, chaste, safe, conservative. The company does plenty of things to project this fluffy image (ahem, that very hyped “exclusively gay” moment that turned out to just be a couple seconds of two guys dancing together), so I get it. I can see how it seems like the equivalent of continuing to enjoy Blue’s Clues even after you’ve reached 5th grade – to like a product ostensibly targeted at kids is to somehow exist in a state of arrested development and be disconnected from reality, so the thinking goes.
To which I say: All fiction requires the audience to disconnect from reality! That’s the point! Also, have you seen Pinocchio recently? That entire Pleasure Island sequence is like a PG-rated precursor to Fritz the Cat!
Even the term “Disney Adult” suggests it’s something of an oxymoron, an incongruous identity – we don’t go around calling people Muppet Grown-Ups or Mature Star Wars fans, even as these fantastical franchises also appeal to people of all ages. Sigh.
What it all boils down to is this: The Disney products we associate with princesses and talking animal sidekicks and musicals will never be “cool,” even as they’ve become the blueprint for cultural commodification in nearly every corner of western culture for nearly a century. And that’s fine! On the social ladder of pop culture fandom, Disney Adults are the theater kids. (Yes, in case you were wondering, I was a theater kid, too. A cool one, though.) We’re passionate – some a little too much so – and have a tendency to burst out into song at unexpected moments. We like to rank villains and princes, and drop way too much money for the chance to ride Space Mountain. We are an acquired taste. Just like every other cult–er, fandom.
This essay first appeared in NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what’s making us happy.