Saturday, March 31, 2012

There's No Crying At Disneyland

“Disneyland [is] an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter.”
– Baudrillard, Simulacra & Simulations

“There's no crying at Disneyland!”
– Parent/guardian to grizzling toddler in a Disneyland restroom, last Wednesday

I went to Disneyland this week, and I spent the whole time thinking about Baudrillard and marveling at the astonishing racism on display – thoughts that coalesced into a slight obsession with the question: Why do we go to Disneyland?

Baudrillard fingers Disneyland as the quintessential iteration of the simulacrum and the hyperreal: the artificial representation of reality that becomes more real than the real, to the point that reality as such no longer exists. (I had my most dizzyingly simulacrumtastic moment on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, when it occurred to me that I was on a ride based on a movie BASED ON THIS SAME RIDE.) We all know going in that Disneyland is thoroughly artificial, and from this knowledge we (falsely) extrapolate the converse: that what is not Disneyland is not artificial; that reality exists. Is that why we go to Disneyland? For reassurance, however false it may be, that reality is real? But if we know that this reassurance is false, why do we still go there?

Maybe I read too many dystopian novels as a child, but I find something profoundly creepy in the enforced cheerfulness of Disneyland. Enforced cheerfulness is sinister enough when it's enforced in pursuit of explicitly spiritual aims, but when it's undertaken on a massive scale for the sake of commodification, commercialization, and unchecked consumerism, it's flat-out sickening. It's sickening because it tells us to suppress our awareness of the exploitation and oppression that undergirds the Disney-industrial complex. “Don't think about sweatshops and pollution and racism,” it says; “you're in the most magical place on earth!”

How one could fail to think about the racism, at least, is beyond me. The Jungle Cruise is one of the most astonishingly racist things I have ever experienced (and I grew up in a more or less neo-colonialist environment in East Africa). The official website proudly describes it thus:

Depart civilization from a forgotten Victorian loading dock. Crossing continents and oceans, you'll explore exciting rivers around the world — including the Amazon of South America, the Nile of Africa, the Irrawaddy of Southeast Asia and the Ganges of India.”

Cringing yet? There's the conflation of, like, all of Asia and all of Africa in some textbook-Orientalist mashup of ~the exotic~; there's the framing of the West as “civilization”, in implied opposition to the primitive/barbarian/uncultured/wild; there are some truly horrible (neo-colonialist) stereotypical representations of ~the natives~ (including some Unfortunate Implications so breathtaking, I'm flabbergasted no one involved in the design and creation of the ride noticed them). I mean, it's not as though I was unaware of Disney's slight racism problem; but, because most of the really blatant racism has been whitewashed out of Disneyland (which in itself is not unproblematic), the massive unconcealed racefail of the Jungle Cruise was particularly appalling to me.

And yet it's Small World that really encapsulates the Disney ethos, in all its (utterly clueless) obscenity. Once I'd gotten past the giggle fit induced by noting certain similarities, I realized that, at its core, the message of Disney is really: “Diversity lies in the external trappings, beneath which we are all as one [in our relentless desire to purchase Disney products].” That, I think, is the great philosophico-cultural lie of our time – that diversity is skin-deep, and underneath we're all the same. It's not that we don't all share a certain fundamental humanness – to deny that is just as bad – but to insist on (and commodify) the sameness is to reduce the differences, to fail to respect alterity, and ultimately to perpetuate the power differentials of the status quo. It's nothing more than a salve for the oppressor's conscience, a way of empathizing with others just enough so that we can kid ourselves the world isn't in need of radical change.

I'm not convinced that the simulacrum always and necessarily has to function this way, to make perpetuating oppression palatable to the oppressor's conscience. Even if it does, I believe that it is possible to deconstruct it and be aware of what's going on; but that involves always being on your guard, always fighting it. And is your resistance meaningful if it's only ideological? I gave Disney my money. I showed up. Does it matter that I spent the whole day thinking critically about the many awful things going on, if financially and physically I supported them?

This continued failure to put my money where my mouth is – is this just the kind of acceptable compromise with the kyriarchy that we all have to make all the time because we live here, or is it straight-up hypocrisy? Consuming stuff critically is better than consuming it uncritically, but either way I'm consuming, consuming, consuming. And perhaps I go to Disneyland to seek what I know to be a false reassurance that this is okay, because otherwise I couldn't live with myself.


  1. Thought provoking...true...I was taught such a blatantly Westernized view of history, that I've tried to be the exact opposite with my students and my own kids...I still want to take my little ones to Disney though, even if those damn princesses are a bit much...

  2. I'm scared of parents that yell things like that at their kids. Fucking fuck.

    I'm in a British literature (Restoration Period - Victorian Period) class right now. Half of the works we go over tie into Orientalism. The generalizations can get quite absurd. You'll see characters associated with China and Arabs at the same time because they're both from "The Part That's Not Europe"

    Anyway there's no such thing as too many dystopian novels.

  3. Enforced cheerfulness is in general pretty terrifying. It's part of what drove me away from teaching preschool. (I did this for several years, loved the kiddies and they loved me back, but BOY HOWDY do parents go off the deep end if they see you with anything less than a smile on your face at ALL TIMES.) It was like Stepford but without the cool (if horrifying) robots.

    I hate amusement parks with a screaming passion, even when I was a kid myself. Surrounded by artificial 'fun', I felt horribly alone for reasons that, to this day, I have trouble explaining. I think now, after I've read this article, that the 'artificial' part is what made me feel so unsettled.

    I've never been to Disneyland--I've been to Disney World, however, and I think I can safely say that with that many kids running around, yes, there IS crying. Lots of it. Because sometimes, children do that--especially when they're off their normal schedule/not in their regular environment/etc. It never ceases to amaze me how few adults consider this point.

  4. Disneyland has always seemed to me to be a totalitarian dream. The unification of state and corporation for the management of consumers.

  5. Regardless if what other people says about Disney, it is still the best place for me and nothing compares the fun that I experienced in Disney Fantasy Rides.