Never trust a talking mouse

November 30, 2001

Is US foreign policy really dictated by a rodent with over-sized ears? Walt Disney has a lot to answer for, argues Adrian Mourby.

Next week marks the centenary of Walt Disney's birth. In fact, given the persistent rumour that the cartoon guru arranged for his head to be cryogenically frozen at the point of death, there is a sense in which Uncle Walt will actually be making it to his 100th birthday on December 5. As for Disney's cultural legacy, that is very much alive - a fundamental building block of 20th-century America and a huge cultural influence the whole world over.

As Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive of Disney, once ominously remarked: "It doesn't matter whether it comes in by cable, telephone lines, computer or satellite. Everyone's going to have to deal with Disney." There is no doubt that the Empire of the Mouse has made a huge impact on the popular American narrative. The hero who instinctively knows right from wrong, who battles adversity, self-interest and ignorance (with the help of some cute sidekicks) in order finally to fulfil himself and thereby bring freedom - and even liberal democracy - to a grateful populace runs not just through Disney's oeuvre ( Jungle Book , Aladdin , Hercules , Mulan ) but also through non-Disney blockbusters such as Star Wars , Indiana Jones and Gladiator - films that have learned the lessons of popular escapism at the mouse's paws.

But Disney's legacy extends far beyond fiction. In 1955 he created Disneyland, the first attempt to live the vision. Paul Giles, lecturer in American literature at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, sees Disney's greatest successes arising from the way he has come up with a paradigm that can be changed into other forms, such as the shopping mall, the theme park and the housing estate. "What Disney created was the idea of a protected area of innocence and this really caught the American imagination," Giles says. "I think you can trace it back to the Puritans with what John Winthrop called 'a city on a hill' - the idealised community that was to be built in Virginia. You can see it is not too much of a leap between Winthrop's model community and what Disney did in Florida, which is partly why the whole terrorist thing is so threatening to Americans because it impacts on the American collective unconscious."

So pervasive has Disney's vision become through these various forms of marketing that we now have Disney's very own noun in our dictionaries. In 1980, the Oxford English Dictionary admitted only an adjective "Disneyesque - having the characteristics or in the style of the animated cartoons of Walt Disney or the company he founded". Now it lists the rather more worrying phenomenon of "Disneyfication - the action or process of making Disneyesque".

But what has been the result of our world becoming absorbed by Disney? As Giles and others suggest, the simplistic narratives, inevitable happy endings and ultimate safety of Disney's world view have given credence to a national naivete that the United States should have outgrown years ago. The American belief that they are ipso facto the good guys who, when pressed, will always make short shrift of the "bad folks" got them into a political quagmire in Vietnam and may yet do something similar in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Disney has an eagerness to appropriate and "Disneyfy" other cultures. "In Aladdin I the evil characters such as Jafar, look very Arabic," notes Kathi Maio, assistant research director at Suffolk University, Massachusetts. "On the other hand, Aladdin, the hero, looks and sounds like a fresh-faced American boy: his skin is much paler, and he asks people to call him 'Al', an American not an Arabic name. Of course, Disney does not intend to offend people - that would be bad business - but one way in which Disney creates the magic is by using stereotypes that people respond to without thinking. Aladdin looks 'right' for a hero; Jafar looks 'right' for a villain."

In her essay, Disney's Dolls , Maio also shows how the true story of Pocahontas was distorted to create a happy ending. It also, incidentally, drew a morally - and historically - false distinction between the clod-hopping imperialist English and Mel Gibson's portrayal of John Smith, who, despite being equally English, was depicted as an anachronistic proto-American good guy.

Most of Maio's fire, however, is turned on Disney's depiction of women in stories that the company appropriated from Denmark, France and China. In Beauty and the Beast , she suggests that Disney's much-vaunted first feminist heroine was a throwback to the traditional image of American womanhood. In the original, the beast looked frightening, but was kind, giving the message that you cannot judge someone by their looks. "In the Disney version, the Beast terrorises Belle and she changes his character, the message being," Maio argues, "if a young woman is pretty and sweet-natured, she can change an abusive man into a kind and gentle man. In other words, it is a woman's fault if her man abuses her."

Recently, the Disney company has attempted to turn its vision of the small-town American ideal into reality by establishing the town of Celebration, near Kissimmee in Florida. Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, who has visited the town, writes: "Celebration aims to recreate the past through architecture, both of the structures and the social. Megastores, such as Disney's own The Disney Company, are not allowed downtown. The businesses are "authentic" because they are unique to their location, even though these stores were selected to be there by corporate committee. In Celebration, old-fashioned community is fostered through these visual signs in the environment. Porches signify interaction, which in turn signifies trust. Unlike the dangers of the urban jungle, children can ride their bikes unaccompanied through Celebration with no thought of harm because the reality of violence in America is not recognised."

As Kathryn Kurtz, of New School University, New York, notes: "The white rail fence leading into Celebration is a sign evoking a bygone era and an image of the past in which life was simpler and fences were wooden rather than electrified. Yet the fence is different from the ones it represents because unlike the 'original', this one is made from a highly durable plastic. This fence will never rot or dirty. It will never change. But what if the nostalgic past Disney is trying to create never existed? What if the world was never safe, you only thought it was? What if life was never easier than it is right now? Then the entire town and the images of the past that it evokes are merely simulacra, images referring to what were only images to begin with."

Significantly, there is no elected government in Celebration but there is a traditional town hall. This building houses the corporate headquarters of Disney's Celebration Company. Can anything be more telling about the effects of Disneyfication? The image of local democracy has been incorporated into this living fiction but in image only. What the town hall actually stood for in America has been forgotten.

Kurtz asks why people should choose to live in what she calls "a semi-totalitarian, albeit seemingly benevolent, town". The answer, she suggests, is "they are given meaning: they want spectacle. They are not apathetic; rather, their natural tendency is towards stasis and indifference. In the simulated world of Celebration, escape from meaning is guaranteed. The past becomes future and it will not change on you, it will not evolve into something you do not recognise. In Celebration you can focus on the 'reality' of life in a simulation."

But as Uncle Walt enters his second century, not everything is well within the vaults of liquid nitrogen. An attempt to build an animatronic theme park of American history in Prince William County, Virginia, crashed in 1994. It may be just as well. The idea of giving US history the complete Disney treatment would have been a worrying development, especially given the country's low levels of literacy. It would only have fuelled current concerns about America's self-image and detachment from reality as the rest of the world sees it.

Adrian Mourby is an author and broadcaster and occasionally lectures in creative writing at Cardiff University.

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