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Disneyland: A Reader

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Great Chain Evolution and Interactivity at Disneyland

Disney’s Adventureland, originally named True-life Adventureland, was modeled after Disney’s midcentury forays into documentary film, the True-Life Adventure and People & Places series. These series respectively seek to present the natural world, free of human interference, and the lifestyles of non-western peoples to an American audience, representing biology and anthropology in ways comprehensible to a layperson. In effect, however, these films establish a naturalized hierarchy of behaviour and worth that affirms American culture while distancing and delegitimizing non-American and non-Western forms of being. This hierarchy was concretized in the construction of Adventureland, and Disneyland in general, by representing nonwestern populations as static figures to be observed while white or white-representative characters are included interactively; Adventureland evokes, at once, the ‘natural’ order of the wild and the ethnographic exhibit.

As discussed in Nicholas Sammond’s Babes in Tomorrowland post-war America was faced with a crisis of culture. Many of the scientific and mechanized structures that underpinned American society, and the functioning of the American family, became destabilized due to similarities drawn between the mechanization of Nazi and Soviet cultural practice. This spurred an exploration and investment in a natural expression of culture, one formed organically and evolutionarily, rather than a culture imposed upon citizens. Conflating the popular understanding of Darwinism with the Christian-influenced notion of the Great Chain of Being an ideological structure emerged that categorized different life as more or less advanced, measuring progress along an imaginary evolutionary scale, and conceptualizing ‘advanced’ life as developing out of and improving  ‘less evolved’ life; a notion that I will refer to as ‘great chain evolution’. The hierarchy that developed out of this thinking placed humans, and whites in particular, atop the hierarchy of development, superior and more developed than the animals below them; people of colour (POC) existed between these two spaces, being depicted as animal-like humans and more ‘in touch’ with the environment. Great chain evolution allowed human nature to be understood by extrapolating from observations of animal behaviours, supposedly the foundation of human behaviour. Conceived and created in this historical moment the True-Life Adventure series, winning eight Academy Awards in twelve years, provided a model from which nature could be understood to reflect American society, acting as a guideline for behaviour.

Writing in 1947 Frank Nugent describes Mickey Mouse, and by extension Disney, as “American as Kansas City” (qtd. in Sammond 247) while Sammond points to the company’s eagerness to remind audiences that “Mickey had graced the sides of bombers during the war, and his name was a code word on D-Day” (247). With Disney so closely tied to the American self the narration of Disney’s documentary can be considered as providing instruction for proper American behaviour and views; Disney also spoke with a “voice of scientific authority” (Sammond 248) as a result of their work producing government training films and their reputation for realistic depictions of the natural world in films like Bambi. Disney’s narrative voice recurrently depicts nature in relation to American normalcy, referring to parental roles and childhood behaviour in its observations of nature. 

In White Wilderness, the penultimate entry in the True-Life Adventure series, we are presented with naturalized depictions of familial roles, childishness, and the threat of collectivism. As the film begins it is established, falsely, that the proceeding footage captures animal behaviour in a ‘prehistoric’ landscape, unadulterated by human interference; the titular wilderness is imagined as unaltered since “Ice Age times” and the animals to be depicted are compared to the ‘legendary’ animals depicted in the Lascaux cave drawings. As the film continues we are introduced to wolves that demonstrate the importance of parental guidance in producing young that are capable of contributing to the pack/society, polar bear cubs that exemplify the exploratory and playful behaviour of children, and lemmings that, despite caring deeply for their children, ultimately destroy themselves and their ‘families’ by blindly following group behaviour and, eventually, driving themselves to end their own lives; the narration is careful to note that “nature, in her infinite wisdom” preserves those few able to reject the urge to collectivity in favour of individualism.

The racial film, as considered by Fatimah Tobing Rony, engages in a similar process as the instructional nature film, supplanting animal behaviour with the lifestyles of POC. This approach is validated by the placement of POC lower on the hierarchy of great chain evolution than whites; POC are depicted as animal-like, nonwhite cultures are depicted as temporally located in the past. The former depiction is on display in Disney’s 1932 short Trader Mickey, where black tribesmen are related to animals by their large, often gaping mouths and their inability to comprehend modern devices. Rony comments on the latter form of depiction when she observes that American racial films acted as “time machines into a faraway present which represented a simpler, ‘savage’ past” (133); recalling the division in turn of the century ethnographic exhibits between POC displayed in thatched huts and POC depicted as benefitting from modern advances, “comfortable chairs and tables and even modern cooking stoves” (Rydell 22). This construction of POC as representing a past out of which white society has developed positions anthropology and the ethnographic film as an instructional tool for exploring human nature in much the same way that nature films explored the underpinnings of white society; Rony, for example, discusses Margaret Mead’s attempt to better understand American adolescents by contrasting them with the lives of ‘primitive’ adolescents.

The Alaskan Eskimo, the first of Disney’s People & Places series, engages directly with these practices; as do the series’ sixteen other entries. The northern indigenous people depicted in the film are described as “primitive Americans” and the narrator describes how they have not changed since their arrival in North America “thousands of years before Columbus”. The liminal space occupied by POC, neither fully person nor animal, is emphasized when they are described as acting “almost by instinct” and when the food and recreations enjoyed by the people depicted are described as pleasant “only if you’re an Eskimo”. Framing the film is the description of ‘Eskimos’ as lacking modern comforts and advancement but retaining a lifestyle that is a “treasure beyond price… [offering] Peace, and happiness, and contentment”. This depiction traps the indigenous people depicted in an Edenic state, pure but without knowledge they are considered less developed than ‘polluted’ Americans.

A vital premise to both of Disney’s early documentary series is the supposed lack of interference from Westernized people; Disney’s narration acts as a white voice in the films but there is no explicit interaction between filmed subjects and white individuals. This interaction is present however, in the few early Disney films that mingle animation with live-action. While the racial identity of Disney’s core characters is ultimately ambiguous, being anthropomorphized animals, there are clear indications that align them with whiteness. Mickey, for example, is clearly aligned with whiteness in Trader Mickey as well as in various other shorts, Mickey’s Mellerdrammer for instance portrays Mickey as white and in blackface, while Donald Duck’s colouration and profession as a member of the American Navy imply that he is also white. These indications are compounded by the relationship that Disney as a whole has to American normativity, if Disney’s characters represent the American norm then it can be inferred that they represent the normative American race. If Donald is considered to be white Disney’s 1944 feature The Three Caballeros becomes a narrative of white ethno-tourism that establishes POC as subject to the desires of whiteness. At the beginning of the film we are provided with a short narrative of a penguin that repeatedly attempts to leave the South Pole. The narrative begins by asserting its own scientific authority, being told by a “professor”, before describing the undesirable living conditions of Antarctic life in language echoed nine years later in The Alaskan Eskimo. We are then introduced to Pablo, a penguin that dreams of living on a tropical beach. Pablo, wearing the only articles of clothing in the South Pole is imagined as persistently and bravely struggling to move toward a more civilized environment; we are told his “tenacity of purpose [is] seldom found in a penguin”. When he eventually reaches his goal his behaviour, his drive to escape indigenous land and claim a portion of the tropics, is described as “human nature… even if you’re a penguin”. Pablo’s narrative, particularly when considered alongside The Alaskan Eskimo tells the myth of a POC becoming or achieving white status through self-determination; establishing primitiveness as self-imposed and whiteness as superior, something to be strived for.  Later in the film we see foreignness subjected to white desire directly when we witness Donald lust after women in Baia anAcapulco.  Donald’s cousins, natives of Brazil and Mexico, present him with women from their countries as literal presents and directly facilitate his attempts to seduce them, going so far as to offer a hammer to bludgeon a competitor with. These interactions illustrate a system of representation wherein Donald, a white American, is provided with agency and POC, his cousins and the women he attempts to seduce, are passive, figures to be acted upon or to assist in the fulfilling of Donald’s desires. 

The hierarchy between animal, POC, and white that is inherent in American great chain evolution and implicitly present in Disney’s films is physically represented in Disneyland attractions, those of Adventureland in particular. This takes the form of differing levels of interaction with representations among these three groups; that is, white or white-representative characters are fully interactive while POC characters and animals are non-interactive, existing to be observed and consumed. The static nature of ethnic representation freezes POC into a “timeless past” (Rony 130), maintaining the false hierarchy and reaffirming the position of white Americans as ‘most evolved’ animal.

 The Jungle Cruise ride, the only ride in Adventureland when the park opened, features animals and ‘tribal headhunters’ represented by animatronic or still figures that are observed by park visitors while a Disney cast member in a costume evoking the Great White Hunter describes what is being seen. Visitors and the skipper, both as live figures and by the boat that carries them, are separated from the environs around them, which represent a combination of South America, Africa, and South-East Asia. The surrounding wildlife, including the black headhunters, become homogenous figures of wonder and, simultaneously, sources of threat; the threat is so severe that when the safe space of the ship is endangered by a false hippopotamus it must be shot at to secure the well-being of passengers.

The Swiss Family Treehouse, later re-imagined as Tarzan’s Treehouse is a static environment ready for park attendants to explore. Empty of subjects it depicts a westernized jungle environment, including a self-playing organ and several signs indicating the Christianity of its inhabitants. Within the context of Disney’s 1960 film Swiss Family Robinson the attraction can be understood as a representation of the  promise that Western culture offers non-Western environments, every aspect of the attraction representing the results of Western ingenuity and technological prowess.

The Enchanted Tiki Room, Adventureland’s third attraction and the park’s first audio-animatronic installation, parodies Maori mythology and offers the tropics to attendants as a restorative, Edenic locale; recalling the positioning of foreign landscapes found in ethnographic films. Outside of the show attendants are met with representations of Maori deities that speak to them in broken English and describe, in short, their place in the Maori pantheon. Of note is Rongo, who compares himself unfavorably to Benjamin Franklin and, in doing so, suggests that even a major Maori deity is inferior to a white American historical personage when he says “me number one kite flyer. Too bad I no have key, then me, I find electricity”. The show itself begins with a number of animatronic parrots speaking in a number of non-American accents, South American and European, before singing about the vibrant environment of ‘the Tiki Room’. As the show continues these parrots present a group of female-gendered birds, presumably natives, to sing to the audience, recalling the actions of Donald’s cousins in The Three Caballeros. As an automated show, The Enchanted Tiki Room performance exists in frozen time, like the headhunters of The Jungle Cruise or the vacant tree house it is static and available at the whim of audiences.

Adventureland’s most recent attraction, the Indiana Jones Adventure ride, also partakes in the construction of great chain evolution. The narrative of the Indiana Jones Adventure centers on the incursion of Western people into a sacred, foreign space. This incursion results in risk to self and the potential destruction of that space, similar to the way that western presence in ‘primitive’ locales is imagined to pollute the pure, historically static nature of the foreign environment. Disney cast members are dressed in a costume reminiscent of Indiana Jones, a white adventurer, and POC are only represented abstractly. The first occurrence of a POC takes the form of a series of video clips shown to attendants while they wait in line, subsequent representations take the form of series of accented voices guiding the narrative offered by the ride. Both of these present static narratives that are meant to be consumed by attendants and, like the voices of The Enchanted Tiki Room the performance is unchanging and always available.

Contrasting Adventureland’s ethnographic spectacles are the live, interactive presences of white, or white-representative characters throughout the park. Park attendants are able to meet and interact with costumed representations of these characters, Mickey and Donald for example, engaging in unique experiences. These characters, or rather the cast members that portray them, are allowed agency and the freedom of agency while ethnographic representations remain frozen. Adventureland, an amalgam of South America, Africa, and Asia, exists as an unchanging environment designed to instill wonder at foreignness. Like the films from which it takes its theme Adventureland imagines a mystical, pure state that is lesser than the ‘corrupted’ yet superior America that watches it.

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