Disney Makes a Man Out of Her

Mulan Cover Photo

In spite of her mighty kick towards knocking down pre-established gender roles in a patriarchal society, Fa Mulan ultimately winds up and misses, landing right back where she started. The modern retelling of an old Chinese folktale dating back to the Northern Dynasty (Brocklebank 277), Disney’s animated movie Mulan depicts the titular character in her efforts to break free of societal roles and expectations by fighting in her injury-plagued father’s place against the invading Huns. Familial honor is a highly held virtue in Chinese society, which incites Mulan to represent her ancestors despite knowing that impersonation of a soldier is an act of treason punishable by death. Mulan was widely marketed towards its audience as a movie that shows men and women have equal possibilities of being heroic. The New York Times review claims, “Disney takes a sledgehammer to the subject of gender stereotyping in ‘Mulan’, a film that not only breaks the cross-dressing barrier but also ratchets up the violence level for children’s animation” (Maslin). Unfortunately its efforts were flawed.

Mulan perpetuates male dominance in gender binaries despite its (unsaid) promise that identity does in fact move beyond gender. Males are still held in a superior position in respect to females. Even a movie that is marketed as a heroine’s journey towards gaining acceptance by breaking inhibitory societal expectations, it fails in delegitimizing the gender binary because “male” actions- swinging a sword, providing protection for your country, being a strong soldier- are all done when characters are portrayed aesthetically male. The perpetuation is subtle, created by certain cinematic choices made by the director, editor, producer, and other high position roles in the movie-production hierarchy. In her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey convincingly describes certain cinematic codes that creates the voyeuristic gaze of a woman (Mulvey 403). We see a female only through her relation to a male. In Mulan, both certain songs (with their extremely masculinized titles and lyrics) and the subtleties in facial distinctions between genders sustain this gaze, maintaining the repressive gender stereotypes. The hidden message is Mulan can only do what she does under the guise of a man. She isn’t a true heroine, but a masculinized female hero who learns how to spit and punch like a man in order to make an impact. Despite its promise, women are not empowered in the movie. Its reality is that women have to be masculinized in order to feel and be seen as empowered.

In Mulan’s society, the differences between honorable actions done by either gender are polar opposites. Men bring honor to their family by being a soldier while women do so by marrying a man with high social status. Simply put, honor comes when men are active and when women are passive. Indeed, Mulan brings honor to her family, but does so in an atypical way. Sparked by her decision to join the army, she breaks through stereotypes and brings honor by “being manly”.

The facial differences between Ping (her male counterpart) and Mulan is astonishing. Carol Clover states, “the perceived nature of the function generates the characters that will represent it” (Clover 13). The facial characteristics that the movie displays for Ping/Mulan sustain the notion that gender is defined by predetermined functional roles. Although Mulan can be “manly”, she actually has be a man in order to do so. The aesthetic representation of certain actions and/or decisions will influence the movie’s character depiction of choice; Mulan will attempt to be “womanly”, while Ping does “manly” things. Disney’s motive is that since Mulan cannot conform to gender stereotypes, she should be displayed as a man who will be accepted in society. Disney can spin a message about being progressive but is unconsciously maintaining conservative mindsets regarding the strength of gender through its aesthetic depictions being explicitly paired with the said characters actions.
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Sex proceeds from gender, not the other way around” (Clover 13). The subject of breaking gender stereotyping does not happen because females adhere to feminine actions (like when the women are lining up to be presented to the matchmaker), and vice versa. And the females that are characteristically “un-female”, such as the matchmaker- who is extremely dominant, assertive, and commanding, unlike most women- appears man-like. She has a beard.

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In Mulan, identity comes from gender. Disney’s hopes backfired because the characters specifically look their part, undermining the message regarding equal potential for being heroic in regards to gender. In the scene when Mulan describes the qualities of a women as, “quiet and demure, graceful and polite, delicate, refined, poised- punctual… something a ‘proper’ young woman should possess” (Davis 195), her feminine characteristics are extremely prominent. She has long slender fingers, an angular face, a thin waist, and narrow, slanted eyes. Pairing demeaning female characteristics with a brushed up and glossed over version of a female does not exactly sell the message that women can be empowered. Rather, it sets the tone that women are trying to assimilate themselves into a society which does not have any functional use for them, changing their outward appearance to feel more accepted. They are stand-ins and fillers that occupy space but offer little of their own.

Now compare these aesthetics to Ping, a more manly and buff version of Mulan. The perceived appearance of Ping generates his function. He has a rounder and stronger jawline, rounder eyes, and has significantly more mass than Mulan. Thus, he appears in the scenes when the security and wellbeing of China is being protected: becoming the top soldier in Shang’s class and single-handedly destroying the majority of the Hun army. He can do those things because he is a man, further corroborating that purpose is directly correlated with appearance.

For the majority of the movie, success and failure are inextricably linked to aesthetic appearance. The song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is extremely misogynistic, not only in the message it sends with its masculinized title, but the way it portrays Mulan/Ping. When Mulan fails and helplessly embarrasses herself towards the start of her training, she appears more womanly. Shang sings, “Did they send me daughters/When I asked for sons?” Her muscle structure is not defined and her shoulders droop from the apparent burdens of struggling to prove herself. A woman cannot handle the strenuous tasks of a male soldier. But after overcoming obstacles and finally proving himself, Ping’s ferocity and manliness takes over. His arms and body appear noticeably bigger, and his clenched fist displays his readiness to fight anyone who proves a challenge for him. A character’s function thus comes after his gender has been portrayed, not the other way around. Gender stereotypes are affirmed rather than being challenged.

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Lisa Brocklebank deals with issues of decreased femininity of Mulan in her essay, “Disney’s ‘Mulan’—the ‘True’ Deconstructed Heroine?” She delves deeper into the ideological constructs of gender stereotypes that may or may not affect Mulan. She describes that Mulan/Ping can, “coexist harmoniously, without sacrificing one aspect to the other… Mulan is neither one thing nor the other, but everything at once. Mulan manages to construct a tale which succeeds not only in inverting but also in escaping altogether the scripted gender reality” (Brocklebank 277). Unfortunately this is not the case. Harmony cannot co-exist with repression, just as Mulan cannot exist co-harmoniously with Ping because her femininity initially has to be repressed to gain acceptance from other men. The very instance of repression undermines the possibility of identity harmony in regards to gender.

 Mulan also reaffirms gender stereotypes because she only temporarily escapes the “scripted gender reality”. She defeats Shan-Yu while being aesthetically portrayed in the movie as an extremely talented swordswoman. But this representation does not persist through the movie’s entirety. Disney does not maintain the notion of a strong woman who subserves the breaking of stereotypes. Instead, future marriage is implied when Mulan and Shang both end up at her home. Her journey, starting from an uncomfortable woman who could not conform, to a soldier who was successful regardless of gender, brings her directly back to where she started. Disney’s experimentation with gender in relation to societal success falls back on stereotypes in the end. Contrary to popular belief, it should be deemed as a failure.

Works Cited:

Brocklebank, Lisa. “Disney’s ‘Mulan’—the ‘True’ Deconstructed Heroine?”. Marvels & Tales 14.2 (2000): 268–283. Web. 16 May 2016.

Clover, Carol. “Carrie and the Boys”. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 3-20. Print.

Davis, M. Amy. “Disney Films 1989—2005: The ‘Eisner” Era’.Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Changing Representations of Women in Disney’s Feature Animation, 1937-2001. Indiana University Press, 2011. 169–220. Web. 17 May 2016.

Maslin, Janet. “Film Review: A Warrior, She Takes on Huns and Stereotypes”. The New York Times 19 June 1998. Web. 17 May 2016.

Mulan. Dir. Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft. Buena Vista Pictures, 1998. Netflix. Web. 15 May 2016.

“Mulan- I’ll Make A Man Out of You (FULL HD)”. Youtube. Web. 18 May 2016.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 393-404. Print.


Disney Movies Actually Have it All! …They Really Do: Utopias, Gender Constructs, Cool Songs. It’s All There

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Apparently the word “utopia” translates to “no where” in the English language when looking at the Greek roots of the word.  If this were to be true it would really put a damper on my argument. The concept of a utopia is a multifaceted sphere that has it’s roots in different aspects. It can be described as a literary genre, something that is irreconcilable with fantasies, or a society that offers the best of the best for its citizens. The animated Disney movie Zootopia depicts an anthropomorphic society in which an inexplicable cause of predators reverting back to their feral state stands to threaten the former peaceful coexistence between predators and prey. Officer Judy Hopps, the determined and lovable main bunny, epitomizes the classic growing up story we have all seen in pop culture: she was beaten up when she was younger for standing up for her friends, enrolls in the police academy because she does not want to follow in the repetitive paths of her parents, struggles for a bit but then starts to kick some serious butt after realizing her dreams are on the line, and joins the real world with immense expectations after graduating at the top of her class. Pretty inspiring, right?

Narrow and confined attitudes in regards to expectations will almost surely lead to restlessness, as seen with Officer Hopps. She initially adheres to the notion that Zootopia is an already made utopia, and what this city has to offer for its citizens will remain constant. Apparently harmonious on the outside, the inside is not at all what it seems. There are tensions between the different classes of animals, and outsiders such as Officer Hopps, having grown up in a borough outside of Zootopia, believe that everyone can be anything they choose. She expects that everything will be easy, and that she’ll have it made immediately upon arrival. Having firm expectations about what a society is going to offer is a sure fire way to immediately face dissatisfaction. Too often the citizens of Zootopia elect to remain in the position they are dealt. This reluctance is seen when Officer Hopps is assigned her first job as being a parking maid: she somberly accepts her fate as being delegated to hand out tickets. The failure to recognize the differences between what a society describes itself to be, and what a society can be through efforts made by its citizens to make it better makes the difference between being content and feeling restless. The lack of fluidity of how Officer Hopps first lives when she arrives to Zootopia results in fake happiness; she does not realize that she has to try to make her own utopia, even if it requires failure in the process of doing so.

That being said, utopia’s are not just there. They have to be created. Creation comes about by trying different paths and failing until eventually the path chosen culminates in a successful way. It ends with feeling reassured, pleasured, and proud with what you are doing. So, what does the creation of a utopia mean? It encompasses the notion of creating a space where you can feel happy. The theory of utopia is that even when we seem the most jacked into the currently existing system, we are betraying (in our thoughts, words, and choices) our desire for something different, some sort of other system that is better (Thorne). The betrayal that Officer Hopps exhibits is not explicit. In Richard Dyer’s Entertainment and Utopia, the editor ponders:

How does show-biz fulfill such utopian desires? Not by literally representing a perfect society (like Sir Thomas More’s Utopia), but (i) by ‘non-representational means’- through music, colour, movement, and so on, and (ii) by picturing relations between people more simply and directly than they exist in actuality. (271)

Thus, the utopian-esque qualities are reflected in the soundtrack of the movie. Shakira’s song, “Try Everything” is aptly named. It is an implicit yet permeating soundtrack that reflects the character arc of Officer Hopps: her excited arrival to Zootopia, her confrontation with the sharp-witted fox Nick Wilde who illuminates the injustice in the city, and her enlightenment at the end of the movie in realizing that utopias are forged are all embodied in the lyrics of the song. (“Try Everything”) It is an effort made by the movie producers in trying to express Officer Hopps’s need to try everything, rather than her expecting anything. The presence or absence of the song in different scenes of the movie is working in efforts to undermine the idea that Zootopia is an already made utopia. Utopias are best when its citizens engage in an active lifestyle.

Actively shaping your role in society versus passivity is central to the movie. It is vital that the audience understands that Officer Hopps’s mindset towards Zootopia is passive in the beginning of her character journey. As she boards the Zootopia Express, she cannot wait to see what it has to offer for her. The signs that she sees on her journey are purposeful. They are representations of her attitude. The “Express” in the name of the train signifies that living in a utopia can be fast tracked, and that it will be brought to you regardless of the effort being put into living a better life. Also, she passes by a billboard with huge lettering that reads, “Zootopia Welcomes You”. It stands to serve that Zootopia has everything to offer and that everything that one could possibly need is already there. It’s implications are that a society already exists that fits the needs of everyone. Welcoming implies that you are going to be hosted, and negates the fact that the lifestyle is reciprocal. The citizens get what they put out.

The directors made specific choices in both how the song is initially played and matching the camerawork to the beat of the song in order to orient the audience towards how Officer Hopps’s expectations of Zootopia are extremely high. The way “Try Everything” is played during this scene represents Officer Hopps’s rigid mindset. It does not just start playing in the background. It is not all encompassing and does not touch everything it sees. She physically has to take out her iPod, plug in her headphones, and click “play”. She has to be fed the message of the song. It has to be told to her. Officer Hopps is glossy eyed as she stares out onto the horizon, and is fascinated with the possibilities that she thinks she will experience, and in doing so, the song and its message are forced into the back of her head. Also, when the camera angle focuses on a close up of the glimmering city, it stutters out two more times to encompass the entirety of the society. It’s glamorous. It’s beautiful. But the purposeful shifting from a narrow to broader view of the entire city (including the different sub-sections that are seen later in the movie as perilous and dark) is a representation of how it’s hopeful citizens need to open their eyes more to the different possibilities, which as seen in the movie, are constituted on opposite sides of the spectrum. It’s possibilities are both constructive in making the citizen happy, but can also be depressive.

The absence of soundtrack in scenes where Officer Hopps is questioning her role in Zootopia illuminates how stuck in the mud (or wet cement specifically) she is in creating her perfect place. It’s message is repressed. Nick Wilde, the sly fox who eventually helps Officer Hopps so perfectly puts it, “Everyone comes to Zootopia thinking that they can be anything they want. Well, they can’t. You can only be what you are”. Shakira sings, “I keep falling down, I keep on hitting the ground/ I always get up now to see what’s next”. She hasn’t gotten up. She in a rut, and furthermore, was openly berated for assuming that everything was going to be perfect for her. Is it starting to become apparent how her expectations are skewed?

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Officer Hopps actively beginning to engage in establishing peace between the predators and prey within Zootopia is mirrored in her realization that she is actively shaping her own establishment in society. She stuck it to the big boss, and tackled the case with help from Nick. She tried everything in order to solve the case. There are layers of complexity. The song is speaking to her physical actions, her physical actions shape her attitude, and her attitude shapes how she sees herself in Zootopia. She becomes confident, reassured, and content. She explains, “We have to try… I implore you, try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us”. The implicit song has finally met up with her explicit vocalization. In the closing scene, “Try Everything” is not playing in her headphones. It’s booming from speakers, encompassing the partygoers at a big concert. It has extended its reach from one small bunny to the entire population.

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Yet, we can wonder if her diligence in creating her own utopia is typical of utopian settings of Disney movies. Adding another layer of complexity to Disney utopian movies, multiple scholarly articles claim that Disney is focusing on spreading the message that women are passive and need to be told to revert back to their traditional roles by a man. Alexander M. Bruce rightfully disagrees with the notion that, “Disney thereby teaches its audience that women should fulfill the passive role in society, [and] not acting [towards their future]” (Bruce 2). In tandem, Deborah Ross discusses the notion that Disney movies, such as The Little Mermaid, reduce the heroine to objects of desire because the movie culminates with marriage (Ross 60). Do Disney movies reinforce gender constructs? In this instance, no. Take a look. At the level of the plot, Officer Hopps was in a rut but eventually kicks butt in the end and solves the case, albeit with the help of a male character. But their relationship is reciprocal.  Plus, the movie culminates with a concert where Officer Hopps encourages Nick to dance, thus establishing a relationship in which the female can exert influence over the man. At the implicit level, Shakira is a woman who is singing about trying new things. Thus, Zootopia, at it’s inherent nature disagrees with both statements because it’s main message is that characters, even females, can create their own utopias, and thus will not be subject to oppressive themes unless they do not actively choose to create it. In the wise words of Officer Hopps, “[It] turns out real life is more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker.”

Works Cited

Bruce, Alexander M.. “The Role of the “Princess” in Walt Disney’s Animated Films: Reactions of College Students”. Studies in Popular Culture 30.1 (2007): 1–25. Web. 21 April 2016

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Only Entertainment. New York: Routledge, 1992. 271-283. Print.

Ross, Deborah. “Escape from Wonderland: Disney and the Female Imagination”. Marvels & Tales 18.1 (2004): 53–66. Web. 24 April 2016

Shakira. “Try Everything.” Rec. 31 Dec 2015. Zootopia. Stargate Records, 2016. MetroLyrics. Web. 24 April 2016.

Thorne, Christian. Lecture. 16 April 2016.

“Zootopia.” World Movies Free. 2016. Web. 20 April 2016.

“ZOOTOPIA – Train Scene (Try Everything) [HD 1080].” Youtube. 2016. Web. 24 April 2016.

Let’s Burn Everything Down and See What Happens… Sounds Good?

“Let it be known that the following post hypothesizes about a fictional scenario that in no way can be appropriately applicable to our society today… Fiction cannot be adapted to reality… But it can be pondered upon.” -Shahzad Mumtaz

What makes life meaningful? Are there multiple benefactors in combination, or is it due to one overarching factor? Ray Bradbury depicts a society in Fahrenheit 451 in which the masses have been reduced to ignorant shells due to their fixation on commercial culture. The rapid industrialization of entertainment makes it very accessible for Bradbury’s society to tune in to their televisions and tune out from the rest of their world; from their loved ones, their neighbors, and even from themselves. Not only did entertainment become a pervasive part of society, literary works are burned because they are useless to the progression of individuality. But, there remain a few exiled groups that still believe in the significance of past literature who seek each other out for the preservation of knowledge.

In today’s society, it is suggested that reading literature, especially the classics, can kick start people’s lives to the best that it can be. Looking back on the past forms a streamlined effort into a better future. Not only is literature beneficial in cultivating awareness of the importance of being educated, but it also promotes critical thinking.  The human mind is malleable. Effective use of critical thinking can establish identities that are distinguishable from person to person, which is an important factor in developing individuals that differ from the majority. Basically, critical thinking is important… more important than I think people realize.


Despite Bradbury hypothesizing about a future that could change due to its variableness, speculation does not equal causation; the said future is not bound to happen.  Yet, extrapolating over a problem that is present today (and yes, we can all agree that technology is advancing) is not out of the ordinary. This extrapolation, this extension of a current predicament into the unknown is not unwise. Thus, this essay is a hypothesis, a cautionary tale of sorts that draws inspiration from other cultural theorists that have also hypothesized about the impending future based off their current (at the time when they writing) state of being.

Bradbury’s society provides a hypothetical example (granted, an extreme example) of what can happen when literature is not prioritized over other modes of information. Cultural theorists have speculated over the different types of culture. Both F.R. Leavis [1] and Raymond Williams [2], a notable teacher and student duo, have formulated their discontent with the state of commercial media and it’s insidious influences on the masses. They both state that the reading of literature, especially classics, as the salvation of society. Yet, they differ in regards to the how much of an effect literature can have on the relative happiness of a society. Williams develops an alternative to Leavis’ binary schematic of culture. This schematic presents two forms of culture: one in which there is a minority whose job is to share literature; this is the culture of knowledge. The other form is the commercial culture, where media is highly valued. On the other hand, Williams provides an alternative to the commercial culture. His idea of a “shared culture”, which encompasses the inaccessibility to education, does not hinder the development of relationships. There is the proposition that the classics are not essential for developing a culture, since there will be another community (that is separate from the educated) that although shares the struggle of not having classics, can still develop familial bonds that strengthen relationships. However, Fahrenheit 451 establishes a society that has removed literature, but is completely void (in the masses) of not having a shared culture; their culture is individual, lacking, empty-minded, and selfish.

It is important to highlight the supposed result to a society that is devoid from any form of literature, since it establishes a baseline of what could happen. Williams proposes that in a shared culture without access to classic literature, there is a mutual sensibility in helping others in the community; you have to help in order to be helped. Reciprocity is the mode in which the individual reconciles with the community. Bradbury discusses a community in which there is no shared reciprocity; the individual is focused on the individual, and there are few interpersonal relationships. And this lack of interpersonal relationships is manifested through the dominance of media.

Looking at a textual example of this hypothetical scenario, when Guy Montag asks his wife Mildred to tone down the television, she replies simply, “That’s my family.” (Bradbury 46) People in our society today would obviously view this statement as problematic. But, Mildred does not notice anything strange with her form of thinking. Commercial entertainment is so prevalent that familial relationships have been put inferior to a person’s relationship with their television. Their prized possessions are their television screens…. Just like Michael Scott.

Interpersonal relationships have declined so much that companions are seen as present but not present at the same time. A paradoxical statement, but nonetheless true. Furthermore, there are examples of a lack of culture that not only apply to significant relationships, but to on a broader scale of infusing politics with everyday life. When discussing the upcoming presidential elections, Mildred’s “friends” (this word is purposefully in quotes because it’s sarcastic) cast their vote by judging which candidate was the best looking. First off, that is crazy. But, what is even kookier is the absence of anyone’s double take. She just determined her vote on physical appearance. Someone should have corrected her, so she could see how misinformed she really is! Interpersonal relationships, a manifestation of the hypothesized shared culture of Williams, has dwindled to a point that there is little response to another person, even if they are spouting nonsense.

Guy and Mildred are in a marital relationship, but entertainment has dominated her existence for so long that she is noticeably present, but lacking at the same time. Guy “[sees] his wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold… the room was indeed empty” (Bradbury 10). The inconsistence of his thinking is a manifestation of this absentness. Their shared lives should be intertwined, a meaningful relationship that the reader should be able to, right off the bat, partake in. That being sad, the dynamic is completely deviates from a “typical” relationship. Not only is there little affection, she is both socially and mentally empty. Devoid from substantial and significant relationships, her infatuation with the television screen negates any opportunity to develop personal ties with any real human.

Critical thinking entertains the mind; it dances, trembles, and stutters over grasping concepts that seem to be incomprehensible, far out of reach. It is enticing, and draws the reader in. Classic literature invites to flip through their pages, while also engaging in a battle with the reader; thus, the reader is locked in a struggle of comprehension. The readers wonder, “How do I fit into this? Do I have any concerns?” There is a silent exchange of information, a thought-provoking conversation between the author and the reader. Society needs to be permeated by thought; the stimulation of the mind funds the progression of advanced human interaction.

Entertainment, especially thoughtless entertainment that has been reproduced over and over again, has steered society down a path in which a person’s response to commoditized art is strained; there is an overbearing presence of entertainment that provides too much exposure to “arts” that is not as beneficial as other options. It provides laughter, a temporary relief from the woes of society.

While unknowingly basking in the short-lived pleasure of what the commercial culture has to offer, the people are cognitively restrained. The media, and specifically commoditized media, is momentary filler. It bridges gaps between extended amounts of time in which a person is engaging in a temporary release of other, more important duties. Furthermore, the increased accessibility to entertainment leads to the world shedding its variety. The root of the problem lies in the de-individualization of the masses, caused by the rise of commercial entertainment.

While Fahrenheit 451 is not an example of what is going to exactly happen to our society today, is there a harm in providing a speculative example of what one author believes can happen? Putting both the removal of literature and the extreme progression of technology side by side may never happen to us, but how scary the consequences. It highlighted a culture devoid of literature is rendered mindless. In this case, the absence of literature created a life that is not worth living for. A person’s identity is polluted and corrupted by the manifestations of society, ultimately creating an empty shell of the former person. Furthermore, this post raises cultural awareness based off a fictional scenario that in no way shape or form is indicative of the future. Instead, similarly to Ray Bradbury’s explanation (Bradbury’s Explanation of F451), it is used as a preventative measure. We need literature. We need a shared history that is feasible, tangible, and most importantly, relatable.

[1] Leavis, F.R.. Literature and Society.” The Common Pursuit. New York: George W. Stewart Publisher, Inc. Print

[2] Williams, Raymond. Culture is Ordinary. 1958, Print.