Disney's False Mirror

The Civil Rights movement pushed colored people into the mainstream narrative of American society, and it is not coincidental that this movement for empowerment was simultaneous to the move of white people to the suburbs.  White flight, as it came to be commonly called, was the movement of middle and upper middle class whites out of the city for fears of colored people and women gaining full equality.

It is these fears and anxieties that led indirectly to the creation of Disneyland -- a magical place, scrubbed clean of diversity, universally experienced without any surprises, and wrapped in memories of nostalgia.  How did Disneyland successfully reshape Euro American’s messy past into a comfortable existence during the 1950s and ‘60s, and how does this narrative reverberate itself today? Disneyland was meticulously designed, and its appearances strictly controlled, with a sense of purpose: To target and comfort the affluent white suburbanites nostalgia by choreographing much of white America’s messy domestic and foreign history.

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The power of false narratives is something discussed in Edward Said’s book Orientalism.  Orientalism is a form of paranoia -- a categorization of a previously non understood ‘other’ into manageable parts.(1)  Through conquest and anthropology; armies and literature; oppression and arts the image of the orient, the ‘other’, becomes solidified.  Fixed, captured, and framed: As Robert Aldrich eloquently states, “Miscellaneous observations coalesced into canonical stereotypes.”(2)  The works of writers, artists, and scientists alike held no unanimity of opinion about the colonial world except for the seduction of things exotically strange.(3)  Peter Mason continues, the ramifications of Orientalism can only be approached in four ways: 1) as alien, 2) as a threat, 3) as an exotic temptation, and 4) as a field of study.(4)  To discuss Orientalism is to discuss power and violence;  Orientalism allows Anglo Americans to negate the ‘others’ reality, and replace it with their own version, rationalizing the stories they portray.  These archetypes of the Other, as either sensual or terrifying, solidify the white identity by being ‘not-black’.

This recreation of narratives gave Disneyland an immense amount of power.  Disneyland could take previously tumultuous pasts and rinse them clean. This worked effectively to comfort suburbia: the former ‘Law and Order’ President himself, Richard Nixon, graced Disneyland with his presence in 1959.  This is precisely the audience to which Disneyland was created for: White, resistant to change, and anxious about their future in America. In response to the fearful times surrounding white America, Disney provided a refuge, “Disney vowed to establish a park . . . with ‘educational and patriotic values’ transmitted through wholesome family fun. . . ‘I hate to see a down-beat picture,’ he once explained, ‘so that when I come out [of the theatre], it makes me feel that everything is dirty around me. I know it isn’t that way, and I don’t want anybody telling me that it is.”(5)  He worked tirelessly to caress the privileged, and hide them from the realities of other people’s lives.  

Disney pursued uniformity and predictability within his park, to be the antithesis of Coney Island in New York.  Disney felt Coney Island had become captured by the, “Exuberant culture of the city's working class,” making it crowded, dirty, and discomforting.(6)  Disneyland was placed in Anaheim for this very reason - outside of the Los Angeles metropolis area, it was designed as a ‘small-town’ refuge from burgeoning Los Angeles.(7)   Disney’s infatuation with controlling the experience of his audience played itself into the parks design, “He saw the need for Disneyland to flow, as did a movie, from scene to scene.”(8)  While Coney Island had multiple entrances and exits, Disney wanted only one.(9)  The park was to be planned like the spokes of a wheel, their journey taking them from left to right through Disney’s planned environments: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.(10)  Like the spokes of a wheel: foreign conquerings of colonized peoples, domestic conquerings of America, foreign fantasy of old Europe, and the future, as Disney envisioned it.

It’s this meticulous planning that created what today is considered so controversial:  The placement of people of color within Disney’s narrative. Adventureland and Frontierland sought to make distinctions between white and nonwhite.  As Susan Douglas explains, “Disney held up a false mirror. There were a lot of ways in which the disney vision either ignored major differences in our society or sought to keep marginalized people in their place. . . He was selling a particular image of America back to itself during the cold war.”(11)  Much of Disneyland’s financial success rested on ‘traditional’ values; values that by nature of being ‘traditional’ were ‘anti-progressive’, and thus sometimes racist or sexist by contemporary or modern standards.  

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The narrative begins with the ‘adventures’ of colonizing foreign Worlds and American frontiers: The spread of Euro-American domination over Latin America (the Tiki Room, where Jungle birds from South America having a ‘fiesta’ sing to you in broken English), and Africa (the Jungle Cruise, where white children were able to experience traveling up an imagined African river full of exotic animals and ‘savage’ peoples, as well as the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse -- now Tarzan’s Treehouse -- a relic of comfort for a white family living in exotic Africa).(12,13)  The narrative portrayed allowed white America to feel heroic, adventurous, and emboldened by their ‘successful’ experiences encountering with the ‘Other’.  The experience was solely designed by, and for, a white point of view.

The narrative moves to Frontierland.  The conquering of America is a messier history for Americans to deal with, however.  Michael Steiner explains, “Although we may all have the lurking fear that the conquest of the continent was our greatest tragedy, we usually remember it as our greatest epic.”(14)  This is exactly what Disney aimed to do.  Disney used old ‘Wild West’ tropes to create his narrative.  Native Americans who were previous enemies to ‘pioneers’ were now relegated to friendly or submissive roles, “Like the buffalo, [they] survived as picturesque reminders of glory days,” mere caricatures to Disneyland’s narrative.(15)  Disney worked to comfort modern America by remodeling a chaotic and brutal history.  

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Aunt Jemima plays an integral part to this ‘othering’.  Situated between Adventureland and Frontierland, in New Orleans, Aunt Jemima was recognized as neither foreign nor domestic.  By being on the cusp of both foreign colonization and American frontier Aunt Jemima was clearly not American, she was merely relic of a previous time and place.  The restaurant featured a black ‘mammy’, a staple stereotype of a civil war slave: fat, nurturing, childlike, and devoted to her white masters.(16)  This caricature of a black figure in Disney’s narrative was, until pressured by 1963 civil rights protests and the NAACP, the only black employee of Disneyland.(17)  Disney took pieces of America’s messy domestic past -- the domination of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans -- and scrubbed them clean.  Adventureland and Frontierland offered sanctuary from the true frontier - the jostling, and diversified metropolis of Los Angeles. Disneyland presented these peoples of color as mere characters to his narrative without conflict; relegated to the fictitious past and non existent in Disneyland’s narrative of the future.

Tomorrowland: An age of space ‘colonization’, and a hopeful future of bright spaces, white people, cleanliness, and order, as evidenced by the Aryan ‘Spaceman’ and ‘Spacegirl’.  Tomorrowland contrasts roughly with the Frontiers on the western side of the park: colorful and nostalgic past versus the gleaming white future; nature versus civilization; barbarism versus humanity.(18)  Tomorrowland’s supreme optimism served as an escape from the modern day anxieties.  

This contrast within the park has faded in modern times however, as historian Michael Steiner notes, “Tomorrowland proved difficult to sustain. . . Not only do images of the future age at a terrifying pace, but people have become increasingly skeptical of the urban future.”(19)  Today in Disneyland, Tomorrowland is being transformed into Star Wars Land.  While remaining space themed, it is interesting to consider the change in connotation: Star Wars is a relic of the 1980s past.  In other words, this is a new way for Disneyland to expunge peoples dollars for a supreme sense of nostalgia. More interesting, however, is that the park is giving up on its hopeful vision of the future, the entirety of the park is to be based in notions of the past, pure escapism for an upscale urbanite.

Disneyland, and thus Disney, cannot be credited with creating the stereotypes portrayed within the park, but he willingly participated in the propagation of them.  These themes of escapism, and the cleansing of a messy cultural history continues into today. The Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando is a relic of early 20th century ideals -- a modern day human zoo.  Disney World’s website offers those who visit a ‘unique’ experience: visit Princess Jasmine in ‘Morocco’, a sombrero clad Donald Duck in ‘Mexico’, or Mulan in ‘China’.  

The power of Disney’s narrative is this: these archetypes and stereotypes their narrative portrays make the places and cultures they are meant to represent less real.  By subjecting them to the white-points-of-view an identity is created, not through the perpetuation of self identified culture, but through the othering of the exteriority; an identity created through false representations.

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Footnotes

1 Edward Said, “Orientalism,” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 73.

2 Robert Aldrich, “Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion,” (New York: PALGRAVE, 1996), 201.

3 Ibid, 201.

4 Peter Mason, “Exoticism in the Enlightenment,” Anthropos, Bd 86, H 1/3, 1991. 169.

5 George Lipsitz, “Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture,”  University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 212.

6 Eric Avila, “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles,”  University of California Press, 2004, 122.

7 Michael Steiner, “Frontierland as Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Architectural Packaging of the Mythic West,” Montana Historical Society, 1998, 10.

8 George Lipsitz, “Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture,”  University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 217.

9 Eric Avila, “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles,”  University of California Press, 2004, 123.

10 The Los Angeles Examiner/ Hearst Newspaper Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of Southern California Library.

11 PBS, “Interview: Walt Disney’s America,” AmericanExperiencePBS, Youtube, 2015.

12 George Lipsitz, “Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture,”  University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 222.

13 Eric Avila, “Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles,”  University of California Press, 2004, 135.

14 Michael Steiner, “Frontierland as Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Architectural Packaging of the Mythic West,” Montana Historical Society, 1998, 5.

15 Ibid, 5.

16 George Lipsitz, “Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture,”  University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 222.

17 Ibid, 222.

18 Michael Steiner, “Frontierland as Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Architectural Packaging of the Mythic West,” Montana Historical Society, 1998, 14.

19 Ibid, 15.