Together Time: Disney's Fantasy of Monogamy
"The ancients saw it coming:
you can see that they tried to warn them
in the tales that they told their children
but they fell out of their heads in the morning.
They said sex can be frightening
but the children were not listening
and the children cut out everything
except for the kissing and the sing-ing-ing.
Then they finally found their home
at Walt Disney studios
and then everyone grew up
with their fundamental schemas fucked."
- Car Seat Headrest, "Beach Life-in-Death"
Will Toledo of the band Car Seat Headrest was only eighteen years old when he penned these lines for the song "Beach Life-in-Death" from their album Twin Fantasy, wherein he documents everything from his attempt to come out ("I pretended I was drunk when I came out to my friends/ I never came out to my friends/ we were all on Skype/ I just laughed and changed the subject"), nightmares of domestic abuse ("Last night I dreamed he was trying to kill you/ I woke up and I was trying to kill you"), and the confusing experience of falling in love with another boy for the first time ("it's been a year since we first met/ I don't know if we're boyfriends yet"). Near the end of this rather scattered song, Toledo turns his attention toward the ways in which adults disavow their children's sexuality, and in turn the children run towards the only figure they knew how to: Walt Disney. Toledo doesn't mince words about what kind of an effect he thinks this has had, however. Toledo seems to blame Disney for generations of children who he sees as being fundamentally "fucked." Toledo recognizes in Disney yet another adult who is trying to tell children who and how to be. And Disneyland, therefore, is an adult's projected fantasy not of what childhood is, but what it should be.
When originally designing what would eventually become Disneyland, the site to which all these children want to run away to, Walt Disney envisioned its Adventureland as True-Life Adventureland, saying "here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand" (Barrier 243). This meant that the land would be structured around the documentary work that Walt Disney Studios was producing during that time and that its vision of the Nature-Man relationship would follow with the same ideological pursuits of the True Life Adventure film series. As such, when advertising the park's construction on the Disneyland television series, vignettes and episodes from the True Life Adventure films were recycled into the program in an effort to promote the park (Barrier 248). Thus it is safe to assume that many of the park-goers were familiar with these texts.
Two years after the grand opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Walt Disney studios released an anomaly in their True Life Adventure film series: a True Life Fantasy called Perri (N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. & Ralph Wright, 1957). Although the film carries the same "postwar ideologies of progress and individualism, homeland prosperity, and so-called family values" (Chris 28) as the rest of the film series, it relays its ideological message through a fictional framework rather than a documentary one, which suggests that Adventureland might be better understood through the lens of fantasy.
Perri uses live animal footage to tell the story of a young female squirrel named Perri living in a forest called Wildwood Heart (Utah's Uinta National Forest) as she survives the constant "perils" of nature during the first year of her life. With the help of a male squirrel named Porro, with whom Perri ultimately becomes romantically involved, she outsmarts a marten who has been trying to eat her since she was born. Winston Hibler provides rhyming narration throughout the "play," using the animals in the forest as object lessons as to what a proper family should look like: children who learn how to behave by mimicking their parents, mothers who are always there to keep their young from harm, and fathers who will always be there to save the mother, Rather: heteronormative patriarchy unfolding over and over, through the four seasons, for "this is nature's way."
The film begins and ends in spring, or what the film calls "the time of together." This is the mating season, and since this is a Disney "fantasy," there is a song about what this means: "one is too few, two is just right." According to Disney, heterosexual monogamous coupling is not only natural but also mandatory, for there should be "two of everything!" Although other films in the True Life Adventure series are encoded with this particular ideological message (in the film Secrets of Life, the narrator states simply that "nature must reproduce each species"), none of the rest of the films have a song like this. Nor do they have a dream sequence in which all of the animals are suddenly as white as snow, though this is not Disney's only foray into racist fantasy. It is moments like these that mark Perri as separate from the rest of the True Life Adventure series - by using a fictional framework not unlike their animated films, Disney attempts to make nature resemble a "story." In doing so, it makes this particular ideological message even more palatable to Disney's most targeted audience: children. And if we are to believe in the kind of family values that a film like Perri seems to so vehemently endorses, then Disney's films must act like parental figures, providing object lessons for our children to mimic so that they can grow up and have their own children and repeat this cycle for the rest of time.
Of course, not all of the children who grew up with these films were able to fulfill this fantasy. Some children, much like some animals that Disney and many scientists still try to ignore, do not end up fulfilling the heterosexual part of the bargain. Kathryn Bond Stockton argues in her book The Queer Child or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century that we can only speak of "gay children" in the past tense of "I was a gay child" (Stockton 7, emphasis added). She argues that this enunciation marks the "death of one's straight life. And yet, by the time the tombstone is raised ('I was a gay child'), the 'child' by linguistic definition has expired" (Stockton 7). Thus we can only understand gay children through retrospection, particularly since it seems we will stop at nothing to disavow children any kind of sexual autonomy, even if recent studies indicate that present-day teenagers are queerer than ever, with only 48% of what is being called "Generation Z" identifying as exclusively heterosexual (Tsjeng).
So what happens to the gay child who grows up watching films like Perri and its many, many counterparts that consistently reinforce the notion that there must be "two of everything"? How is this child encouraged to be, and more importantly, how is this child encouraged to be in Disneyland? Well, now, there's a special day at Disneyland dedicated to celebrating those gay children. Or at least there is a day dedicated to what those children became when they grew up. It's called Gay Days Anaheim, and although it is not officially sanctioned by the park itself, it receives support from the park in the form of hotel room blocks and reduced pricing, and they work closely with PRIDE, Disney's LGBT diversity group, to pull it off. Gay Days Anaheim takes the Pinocchio classic "When You Wish Upon A Star" as its theme song, highlighting its inclusive "makes no difference who you are" message atop a flood of images of happy gays all proudly wearing red to signal who they are to other park-goers. Since Gay Days Anaheim is not an officially sanctioned event, the park remains open to all visitors, leading to the decision for those who are wanting to partake in Gay Days to wear red so that they can easily spot each other. Or, as one heterosexual vlogger notes, they wear red to show they "support gay rights" (though in this video it seems there aren't very many red-wearing gays on that particular Gay Day).
If the vloggers on YouTube have made anything clear about Gay Days, it is that they are primarily for white, cisgendered, "gay"-identifying adult men. YouTube user Andrew Goes Places saturates his video of Gay Day with non-diegetic pop music (a common trope in the vlogs of Gay Days) and says at one point, "I always wanted to be a Disney prince," which could also be interpreted as, "I've always wanted to live happily ever after." This sentiment is shared by many of vloggers who attend Gay Day, including YouTube user wickydkewl aka "Davey Wavey," who is joined by friends who joke that wearing a Mickey Mouse hat and a red shirt is "pretty gay" anyway, even if you aren't in Disneyland. But it also made clear that Gay Days are not necessarily for children. As Davey's friend Dwayne says: "there are go-go boys, for chrissakes."
It is telling that one of the Gay Days videos I uncovered while doing my research happened to be of a marriage proposal, which some would argue is a homonormative act that would fit into Disney's project of supporting monogamy. And is even more telling that the day is called "Gay Day" rather than "Queer Day" or even "LGBT Day," for even though I did find videos that featured people who aren't white, cisgendered, gay-identifying adult men, these were few and far in between. And although Disney has featured in their films some queer-coded characters (and recently one actual "out" gay male character), it remains to be seen whether or not Disney will acknowledge the possibility of a gay or queer child, or a way of being otherwise outside of the framework of monogamous couple ("wait til you meet my boyfriend"). Instead, they continue to send a normative, monogamous message to their viewers, children and adults alike. Disneyland, as the embodiment of Disney's ideological project, is marketed as "the happiest place on earth." And if there's anything to be learned from Disney's film history, it's that to be happy is to be coupled.
It is no accident, then, that patrons of Gay Days tend to focus their attention on Fantasyland, since it seems their inclusion into Disney's narrative is based on whether or not they will make good citizens by coupling up and getting married. But it would be wrong not to realize that fantasy is at the heart of all of Disneyland's "lands." The Disneyland website, as of this writing, describes Adventureland as "a place where you can experience the thrill of exploring exotic lands, where every step of the journey is a foot further into the unknown." Whether it be the talking and singing birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room or the continent-hopping Jungle Cruise, Adventureland provides ample room for projections of fantasy. Adventureland is the place where all the animals are heterosexual, the "other" lurks in the bushes, and all that lives outside of the great United States of America is flattened and decontextualized. So it's hard not to believe Toledo when he says that Disney is the reason we are all "fucked": we have all been given a life task, to find that one special person and hold onto them forever, because, as Perri suggests, this is nature's way.