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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Antistructure Excursion

We will begin our excursion by looking a little deeper into liminality and communitas.  We already explored rites of passage in the "Cosmic Game" chapter, and in this excursion, we will see Disneyland in a more liminal light.  Along the way, we will see how related antistructural ideas of carnival and communitas play out at Disneyland. We will then look at Disneyland as a playful pilgrimage center.  Lastly, we will consider the role of rebellion, and how Walt Disney himself may have been a rebel with a cause.

Liminality and Rites of Passage

Liminality and communitas together represent what Victor Turner calls "antistructure."  Liminality is the betwixt and between space, when we are without social identity—we are not what we were previously, and we are not what we will be later on.  Fjellman (1992) sums up the liminal phase of a rite of passage as a “ ‘time out of time’—a sacred and sometimes dangerous period in which one has left the normal world and is in a situation quite opposed to it.  Those experiencing liminality undergo a heightened sense of shared experience.”  Communitas is V. Turner’s term for this state, the perfect fellowship that is experienced by pilgrims “reduced to a human common denominator of perfect equality” (p. 222). Communitas has an especially Neptunian feel to it.  During this time, roles are sometimes reversed and there is often a sense of spontaneity and playfulness.

At Disneyland, liminality and communitas can be seen very clearly, as strangers eat and talk together, commiserate about the lines and the heat, share their experiences, and make suggestions on what attractions to see.  Adults act more like children than children.  Fjellman (1992) says that in order for antistructure’s intensity not to break free of its ritual boundaries, liminality needs to be contained by routinization and supervision.  V. Turner (1988) sees play as liminal and thus notes:

Playfulness is a volatile, sometimes dangerously explosive essence, which cultural institutions seek to bottle or contain in the vials of games of competition, chance and strength, in modes of simulation such as theatre, and in the controlled disorientation, from roller coasters to dervish dancing—Callois’s ilinx or vertigo.  Play could be termed dangerous because it may subvert the left-right hemispheric switching involved in maintaining social order.  Most definitions of play involve notions of disengagement, of free-wheeling, of being out of mesh with the serious, “bread-and-butter,” let alone “life and death” processes of production, social control, “getting and spending,” and raising the next generation. (pp. 167-168)

Play also has the potential to upset the established order, and we will explore this theme in the "Mary Poppins" chapter, and later on, when we consider the role of rebellion.

Liminal spaces and places are sometimes characterized by a carnivalesque feeling that often includes role reversal, wild fantasies, celebration, sometimes a sense of danger and adventure, uncertainty, license and abandon-- behavior that would not be approved in the outside world, for example Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Halloween, and Florida beach cities at “spring break.”  New Orleans Square at Disneyland epitomizes the carnivalesque feel, although the entire park has this flavor. 

As previously discussed in the "Cosmic Game" chapter, rites of passage were first studied by van Gennep in 1908. To reiterate, there are three stages, which mirror the process of physical birth: separation, transition, and incorporation for van Gennep, and separation, liminality and return for V. Turner.  van Gennep felt that rites of passage were akin to the death-rebirth experience, because the initiate often passes through a tunnel or other narrow or dangerous passage.  At Disneyland, you enter Main Street USA through a tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad.

van Gennep applies rites of passage more widely than V. Turner and sees them applying to calendrical and societal rites as well as rites of individual transformation, which V. Turner studied in depth.  Since we will be looking more closely at liminality in the "Mary Poppins" chapter, only mention a few important points about liminality will be mentioned here. 

van Gennep uses the ideas of the threshold and passage as metaphors for rites of passage. Liminality, Victor Turner’s word for the transition phase, comes from the Latin, limen meaning door, and it denotes the between-ness aspect of this state, where one is between worlds.  For van Gennep, this was a neutral space, like the no-man’s lands between territories where both parties have rights.  This neutral ground, where no rigid identities are held, is important when we think of play, because play permits identities to be held loosely.  As we saw in the discussion of the hub, one of the important things about play is this “not to tight” but “not too loose” aspect, “speielraum”—latitude, leeway, room to play.  The transitional or liminal phase provides this freedom and is why play can occur during this phase.  This in-between-ness is also central to entertainment.  In speaking about social dramas of hero’s journeying through hell to attain paradise and the entertainment provoked by them V. Turner (1988) notes:

the very word entertainment means the liminal in English, for it means literally from the Latin “to hold between,”  to be neither this, nor that, but the problem in the middle—a problem which staged in liminal surrounds “entertains” rather than threatens.  (p. 41)

Similarly, at Disneyland, we are treated to a series of liminal adventures in the parks, where we are able to be entertained by different stories instead of feeling threatened by them.

Various formalities occur in these no man’s lands, and in the transition phase of rituals; the crossing of boundaries between territories can have “magico-religions consequences.” As we enter Disneyland, after leaving our cars in the parking lot, we leave the ordinary world behind, enter a liminal space, participating in the shared experience of the magic and illusion that is the Magic Kingdom.

A. Moore (1980) mentions that the structure of the rides and the theater attractions follows this same separation-transition-incorporation pattern: after going through the entrance, we experience the attraction, and then reunite with our group at the end.  Moore’s description of the rides is reminiscent of the birth process since he also notes that these rides often take place in the dark and you end up back in the light and many of them are “tubular.”  On some of the rides, you actually end up at the beginning again, so there is a sense of the eternal return, and because many of the rides involve audioanimatronics figures, a playful robotic repetition compulsion is present as well.

Carnival and Communitas

As previously mentioned, New Orleans Square especially has a carnivalesque feeling to it.  Let us look a bit closer at the ideas of carnival and communitas and see how they are present at Disneyland and how they relate to play. 

Bakhtin (1963/1968) describes carnival as containing both the ritual spectacle of religious processions and displays, as well as the liminality of feasts and celebration, while being sharply distinct from more serious official political and religious activities, because carnival and feasts are based in laughter:  

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.  While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it.  During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom.  It has a universal spirit: it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. (p. 7)

Disneyland is a highly irreverent place, although it can be seen as being reverential about its irreverence! At Disneyland, we are encouraged to participate, and one of the forms of participation that is highly encouraged is shopping. Bakhtin (1963/1968) notes that carnival and commerce go hand in hand, since the marketplace festivals and carnivals “were the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance” (p. 9).  Bakhtin further explicates how the marketplace was intimately involved in carnival:

the temporary suspension both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank, created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.  This led to the creation of a special form of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating them from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times.  A special carnivalesque, marketplace style of expression was formed. (p. 10)

Disneyland, too, is an mixture of commerce and communitas, as Bailey (1982) notes at the end of Walt Disney's World of Fantasy: "Disneyland was a natural development of the Disney dream, which began in two dimensions and finally became three—some would say four. Its message is simple, its aims a judicious blend of altruism and commercialism" (p. 246).

Bakhtin explains that carnivals began to be channeled and encroached upon by the state; they were repressed, and became smaller and more trivial; the spectacle was reduced to parades, and the celebrations were tamed.  They became less public and were centered in the home instead:

The carnival spirit with its freedom, its utopian character oriented toward the future, was gradually transformed into a mere holiday mood.  The feast ceased almost entirely to be the people’s second life, their temporary renascence and renewal . . . this carnival spirit is indestructible.  Though narrowed and weakened, it still continues to fertilize various areas of live and culture. (Bakhtin, 1963/1968, pp. 33-34)

This diminution of carnival is reminiscent of the feeling I had about play and Tinkerbell when she drank the poison and her light was fading.  Like Tinker Bell, carnival now has a permanent home at Disneyland.  Carnival should feel at home in Disneyland, because as Bakhtin (1963/1968) describes it: “Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal.  It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed” (p. 10).  Disneyland, too, is always becoming.  Disney said that Disneyland would never be finished, and as we will see over and over again, this feeling of renewal prevails as well.

One of the most important things about carnival was the suspension of hierarchy, because during carnival, traditional social divisions were cast aside and all were considered equal.  An essential element of the carnival spirit were the free, familiar contacts that were deeply formed and felt:

People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations.  These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced.  This utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival spirit, unique of its kind. (Bakhtin, 1963/1968 p. 10)

What Bakhtin has just described is V. Turner’s (1969) communitas, the feeling of perfect fellowship that occurs during the transitional phase of rites of passage, on pilgrimages, and at other liminal times. 

During carnival, participants, like pilgrims or initiates, shed their previous social identities and distinctions are not as pronounced.  There is a commonality of experience leading to the feeling of “we’re all in this together,” due to the separation from the outside, ordinary world and the uncertainty engendered by the betwixt and between nature of the liminal state itself.  There may be a dropping of defenses, since there is not as much to defend, so during communitas experiences people can relate to each other directly without being encumbered by social roles.  When individuals return from their liminal status or the liminal space, their experience of communitas may “allow for return to structured interactions with different conceptions, leading either to reconciliation or to the emergence of new social groupings”  (Hunt & Frankenberg, 1990, pp. 107-108).

"It’s A Small World" epitomizes this sense of communitas, and its location in the Neptunian domain of Fantasyland, and watery means of conveyance is fitting.  Hunt and Frankenberg note that:

The sense of togetherness and unity in a bright secure, wholesome and unambiguous world of playtime expressed in this attraction epitomizes Disneyland as a whole; its sponsorship by the Bank of America is an ironic reminder of the park’s history and its unashamed allegiance to capitalist and American ideals.  (p. 101) 

The togetherness of togetherness and the market is also a reminder of Disneyland’s carnivalesque nature as well.  Interestingly, this same ride will come into view again later, and figure prominently when we discuss Walt as being a rebel with a cause, but first, let us look at Disneyland as an entertainment Mecca.

Playful Pilgrimage Center

Fjellman (1992), Moore (1980), Bryman (1995) and Hunt and Frankenberg (1990) all discuss the Disney theme parks as pilgrimage centers.  Fjellman and Moore, specifically were discussing Walt Disney World but their comments apply equally to Disneyland.

Pilgrimage centers are the “sacred precincts” that are the destination of the pilgrim’s journey.  They are liminal, bounded, ritual centers, realms of betwixt and between. The structure of the pilgrimage is the same as a rite of passage, and is the same as the birth process—separation —liminality(transition)— return(incorporation).

Bryman (1995) relates that the sacred nature of a pilgrimage center is confirmed by its liminal nature as well as the presence of cultic objects and symbols.  Disneyland’s liminal nature will be discussed next, and Bryman lists Disneyland’s cultic objects as "The Walt Disney Story" and "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln," and notes Disneyland’s most notable cultic symbols are Mickey Mouse and Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Fjellman (1992) explicates the liminal nature of the park, saying that “antistructure is the attraction”: people are dressed as animals and animals are portrayed as people, children are in charge of making decisions (role reversal), people are portrayed by robots, and ghosts dance (p. 222).  For A. Moore (1980), as a pilgrimage center, Disney World (and hence Disneyland, too) is a center of “grand play” not so much a religious center. Disneyland is also a gigantic liminal space with many mini-pilgrimages (the different attractions) involved within it, having the same structure of separation, transition, and incorporation.

A. Moore (1980) points out that the pilgrim leaves a familiar place, journeys to a remote area and comes back to the familiar again.  The separation from one’s ordinary life occurs when one leaves home.  Sometimes there are ceremonial rituals associated with the process, known as separation rites.  While on their journey, pilgrims are in the liminal or liminoid state, and are outside of normal conventions, free from routine responsibilities, duties, and status and so they are able to bond with others in a state of communitas—perfect equality or oneness. Once at the sacred site, often a miniature version of the same process occurs when entering the sacred site, one is separated from the outside world and enters through the threshold of the site.  After the visit to the sacred site, the pilgrim returns home to his ordinary life.

At Disneyland, you leave home, journey to Disneyland and the miniature version of the process occurs when you leave your car in the parking lot. A. Moore (1980) points out that cars are often a representation of one’s identity (this is especially true in Southern California).  Marin (1984) sees leaving one’s car as “tantamount to a shipwreck or a loss of consciousness” (p. 242), and Wakefield (1990), as previously noted, sees leaving one's car as leaving “something of one’s American humanity and in an act of abandonment to consign oneself to another power” (p. 106). Any way you slice it, once you leave your vehicle behind, you are entering liminality.  After taking the parking lot tram to the entrance, you pay the fee or show your passport and gain admittance through the turnstyles, and go through the tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street USA where the plaque reads: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”  The plaque might as well read "You are now entering liminal space!"  Like carnival, at this pilgrimage center, everyone participates, as King (1981a) notes:

Like the Greek cities which were dedicated to and under the guardianship of a deity, Disney Land and World are directed and unified by the guiding spirit of Disney and his corporation; holy cities for the entire US, visited by pilgrims, in a constant festival state in which all participate; unlike “dead” shrines—religious and historical—which people now consider curiosities and subjects of sight-seeing, there are no spectators at the Disney rite, only participants.  (p. 121)

A. Moore (1980) notes that pilgrimage centers are bounded spaces, set apart from ordinary life, and Disneyland certainly qualifies here.  Disneyland is a bounded space, “inside the berm” while the rest of the world lies “outside the berm.” Disney wanted people to feel that they were in a different world when they were at Disneyland. Disney even obtained height restrictions on neighboring properties from the city of Anaheim, so that the outside world would not impinge on visitors when they were in the park.  Disney also spent $14,000 on removing telephone poles and burying the wires so as not to spoil the view and the illusion from inside the park (Schickel, 1997).

Pilgrimage centers are places of congregation where symbols are used that are familiar to the congregants and where pilgrims engage in common activities, often en masse. The mythology of the place is evoked by these symbols and activities, since the pilgrims are familiar with the mythic stories.

This is certainly true of Disneyland where characters and places from Disney’s film library serve as the major symbols at the park.  We all remember the Disney movies, having seen them in childhood, and many of them are based on classic children’s literature—stories we heard again and again.  The Disney version has come to replace the more classic versions which is a topic of contention for many critics, who feel that Disney has sanitized and essentially emasculated them (Bryman, 1995, Schickel, 1997).  In order to give both sides equal time, Ward Kimball, longtime animator and Disney associate, addressed this criticism head-on:

You know there’s been so much unfair criticism about the Disney product.  The critics say we created an unreal world, that the fairy tales we adapted were emasculated and changed and sugarcoated . . . . Well hell if the Nixon administration could sugarcoat and twist and lie, if the westerns could distort the West like they have, why couldn’t we distort, too.  See, Walt realized a lot of these fairy tales were pretty grim.  He realized you had to have a balance.  You had to have gags and laughs to offset the pathos, the heavy stuff.  He took the same license everybody takes with a story.  What movie hasn’t done that? (K. M. Jackson, 1993, p. 145)

These same criticisms have been made of Disneyland, and Disney created Disneyland for the same reason, and in the same spirit as his films: to balance out the grimness of the real world.  Disneyland is carnivalesque; all about fantasy, not reality; and like carnival and pilgrimage, Disneyland is a place of play and renewal. 

Bryman (1995) feels that when pilgrims come back from pilgrimages, they are usually changed and have a new sense of reality, whereas Disneyland, because it presents an essentially conservative view of the world, just reaffirms the conventional and normal.  Yet A. Moore (1980) notes that due to the size of the crowds at some pilgrimage centers, license and abandon are not always present, and that some pilgrimages are normative, routine, organized, and supervised.  This is true of Disneyland, which has a controlled carnivalesque atmosphere.

A. Moore (1980) contends that the Disneyland pilgrimage is more like a rite of intensification than of a rite of passage.  Rites of intensification are different from rites of passage, where one’s identity is changed in some way.  Rites of intensification, as their name suggests, “intensify links among widely scattered persons who share a common mytho-historical and cultural orientation,” (p. 210) strengthening the ordinary social structure of the individual participants.  In rites of intensification, no new status is conferred, but the current status is renewed and affirmed, and in the instance of healing shrines, one may even be cured. 

Our current culture is extremely fragmented and scattered.  Disneyland intensifies our feeling of wholeness, unity, etcetera. Disneyland, and things Disney, have become not only a uniting part of American culture but indeed globally.  Mickey Mouse is the most recognizable icon on the planet.  Disney’s creations have been warmly received all over the world, precisely because of the feelings of carnival and communitas they personify:

Disney selected certain parts of the American experience, manipulated these parts in special ways, and disseminated them widely in easy-to-understand ways.  What has happened, then, is that these Disney creations are themselves becoming symbols and experiences that Americans can hold in common; they serve as a great shared experience for a people who are in many other respects moving farther apart though their pluralistic search for ethnic roots and emphasis on unique group heritages.  (D. M. Johnson, 1981, p. 163)

The Role of Rebellion

A. Moore (1980) mentions the view of earlier times in Midwestern America where children were seen as animals that must be tamed or civilized, and Moore sees in Disney’s oeuvre, a rebellion against this view.  Moore sees the possibility of rebellion present as a subtle idea in the antistructure of Disneyland where animals rule this liminal land—to paraphrase Disney—"Let's not forget this whole thing began with a mouse!" As V. Turner (1988) notes:

Yet it may happen that a light, play-begotten pattern for living or social structuring, once thought whimsical, under conditions of extreme social change may prove an adaptive, “indicative mood” design for living.  Here early theories that play arises from excess energy have renewed relevance.  Part of that surplus fabricates ludic critiques of presentness, of the status quo, undermining it by parody, satire, irony, slapstick; part of it subverts past legitimacies and structures; part of it is mortgaged to the future in the form of a store of possible cultural and social structures, ranging from the bizarre and ludicrous to the utopian and idealistic, one of which may root in a future reality, allowing the serious dialectic of left- and right-hemispherical functions to propel individuals and groups of individuals from earth to heaven and heaven to earth within a new indicative mood frame.  But it was the slippery Trickster who enabled them to do it, and he/she modestly, in Jacques Derrida’s ludic words, “erases the trace." (p. 170)

In various Disney movies, there is a subversive quality where the established order, aristocracy, and hierarchy do not always fare as well as they might wish.  For example, in Pollyanna (Swift, 1960), she charms the unfriendly town elders while standing up to authority, and in Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964), Mary's magical influences upsets the established order of both her employer George Banks, and his employer, the bank—ultimately leading to changes in both of them. 

This is indeed an American theme, America was a nation formed through rebellion against the established order.  In the American spirit itself, there lies a rebellious part, which when we become part of the established order, we conveniently forget and rather wish would go away.  A. Moore (1980) points out that there is a dynamic tension between social intensification and individual exultation present in these rites and these powerful energies can have transformative, and even revolutionary effects as well as intensifying one’s ordinary social structurDisney himself was born at the turn of the Twentieth Century when revolutions of science and art were occurring, and Brode (2004) notes that Disney used science and the arts for his own revolutionary purposes. 

Poppins" chapter.  As we will see in that chapter, the transformative, rebellious, revolutionary aspects of ply reflect the Uranus-Pluto planetary archetypal complex, present both during the 1960s and at the turn of the century when Walt Disney was born. So, if play is tricky and potentially dangerous to the status quo, and if pilgrimage can be transformative, could this playful pilgrimage center be the work of a . . .

Rebel With a Cause

Brode (2004) in From Walt To Woodstock, examines various Disney movies and shows different themes that Brode feels sowed the seeds of the counterculture of the 1960s. Brode makes a convincing argument for how Walt's oevre helped to create the counterculture and he discusses several different areas, from the radicalization of youth and rebel heroes to the environmental movement to name a few.  Brode’s thesis piggybacks Bloom’s contentions about Shakespeare who:

“presented, in the guise of entertainment, ideas that literally created the modern consciousness, establishing the way we think, feel, relate.” . . . During the Twentieth Century, Disney accomplished much the same thing liberating us from a restrictive worldview that no longer functioned. (Brode, 2004, p. xxxi)

Disney himself was born at the turn of the Twentieth Century when revolutions of science and art were occurring, and Brode (2004) notes that Disney used science and the arts for his own revolutionary purposes. 

King (1981a), in discussing the stunning magnitude of Disneyland’s influence, noted that Disneyland was the largest single visitor attraction in U.S, and “almost instantly recognized as ‘one of the wonders of the modern world’ by 1965, a quarter of the US population and many foreign dignitaries and tourists had been there” (pp. 116-117). 

Although Brode (2004) did not consider Disneyland itself in this book, his arguments apply to the park as well, because the park is based on many of Disney’s films and Disneyland embodies many of these filmic notions, in being an actual place where these countercultural ideas became concrete (sometimes literally using concrete)! I contend that perhaps Disneyland’s very existence and the fact that many Baby Boomers who would come of age in the 1960s had actually visited there as children, heightened Disney's countercultural effect:  Since the fantasies were made real at Disneyland, perhaps the underlying ideas could become real, too.  Combined with the carnival spirit, where communitas was experienced and not merely an abstract idea, the reality of this "land of dreams," may have led Baby Boomers in the 1960s to try to realize other dreams. 

Brode’s (2006) latest book, Multiculturalism and the Mouse, in addition to examining different Disney films, discusses the Disneyland attraction, "It’s a Small World."  Brode notes that in 1964 Disney was at the forefront of notions of diversity, and that this ride in particular has positively shaped current notions of multiculturalism.  "It’s a Small World," shows communitas in action, and shows the idea of unity in diversity; the different nations are represented during the ride by little children figures in colorful national costumes with representative props, animals, and backgrounds. Although the little children figures all have very similar features, they are racially distinct in color and hair.  At the end of the ride, these child figures all appear again, but this time, they are merged together in one big room, perhaps the global village, and they are all wearing white.  The familiar song "It's a Small World," repeats playfully over and over.  Anyone who has ever gone on the ride, knows its utopian lyrics by heart.

It must also be noted that critics of Disneyland argue that Disneyland was anything but the seedbed of multiculturalism, and that it instead stressed conformity and conservatism. To paraphrase Milton Erickson, father of Ericksonian hypnosis, who we will learn more about in the "Mary Poppins" chapter, "maybe it's both at the same time."

Walt Disney was a true player and trickster, and true to play’s tricksterish form, which erases without a trace, as Brode (2004) notes: “Disney’s films challenged the impressionable audience's acceptance of the status quo, puckishly doing so in the sheep’s clothing of soothing conventional family films” (p. xxvii).  Could Disneyland, this carnivalesque place of grand play, hold similar transformative possibilities, like play and ritual? Perhaps!


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