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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Like Father Like Child

Culturally Criticized

Watts (1995) says that Walt Disney has been arguably the most influential American of the Twentieth Century.  Watts speaks of the difficulty of coming to terms with Disney (referring to the cultural products of the Disney organization) and identifies three barriers to making sense of this massive presence in American culture, which I would summarize as the three P’s: the popularity of the Disney products, the prolific nature, or sheer volume of the Disney opus, and the polarization that is caused by people’s reaction to it.  Disney, the man, has been both canonized and condemned, as have the products that have been created by his company.  While Walt’s disciples treat him as a veritable saint, “a purveyor of innocent imagination and uplifting fantasy,” Disney detractors see him as closer to Satan, “a cynical manipulator of cultural and commercial forms” (Watts, p. 84).  The strife created by this polarization has created “an emotional and ideological minefield” (p. 84). 

Indeed much has been written to criticize Walt Disney and his creation Disneyland, but what Watts so astutely points out is that while much criticism has accumulated, not much has actually considered Disney historically, and Watts reconsiders Disney in this historical light—seeing him as a historical actor.  By briefly considering Disney in this way, much can be gleaned.

Disney and the American Dream

Watts (1997) contends that “in the Cold War era," Disney became “a kind of screen for the projection of national self-definition.” (p. 348).  Disney was in his own words “a spokesman for the American way of life” (p. 163), what Watts refers to as “Americanism” as opposed to communism.  With Disneyland, Walt helped us define, affirm, express, and celebrate ourselves to ourselves, giving concrete form to the nature of the American people, their history, character, and values.  Watts (1997) argues that Walt Disney created and captured the values of Twentieth Century America as he saw them, including a sentimental view of a homogenous American people, a nondenominational religious sensibility, faith in technological expertise, a belief in individual fulfillment, creativity, abundance and prosperity, a promise of triumph over communism.  K. M. Jackson (1993) adds that the four realms of Disneyland capture “patriotism, pride in a national history, the spirit of adventure, optimism in the future, the importance of hard work, and the magic of childhood and dreams” (p. 97).

Disney’s films had celebrated leisure, freedom, choice, self-determination and flexibility (Rojek, 1993), and now the park did the same thing.  Watts (1997) notes that as he had in the Depression, Disney helped smooth over the anxieties of this new decade, honoring the American past while encouraging us to embrace the future.  Disney mediated:

a host of jarring impulses: individualism and conformity, corporate institutions and small town values, science and fantasy, consumerism and producerism…his expansive, optimistic outlook utilized ideas, words, and sentiments to which ordinary people were drawn, and the subtle power of this politics helped millions of Americans face a frightening external threat.  (p. 289)

We will return to the notion of mediating later.

Findlay (1993) notes that Disney was unashamedly American; in a promotional film in 1956, Disney remarked: “Disneyland could happen only in a country where freedom is a heritage and the pursuit of happiness a basic human right” (p. 92).  Bill Walsh’s written description of the park, created for the New York financing trip in September of 1953 stated in part that:

Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America.  And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world. (Thomas, 1976, pp. 246-247)

On Disneyland’s opening day, the national anthem was played, fighter jets flew overhead, the Marines led a parade down Main Street USA, and the governor of California underscored all of this reminding us that Disneyland was: “all built by American labor and American capital, under the belief that this is a God-fearing and God-loving country.” (Findlay, 1993, p. 92). 

Wakefield (1990) says that when asked about his dream, Disney used to “quote Archibald Macleish, claiming that ‘there are those, I know who will reply that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and the mind, is nothing but a dream… they are right, it is an American dream’”  (p. 109).  In this way, Disney’s dream was indeed utopian, because it had a distinctly political flavor.  [The "Looking- -Back Looking-Forward" excursion, located in Tomorrowland has much more to say about utopia.]

While some critics consider Disneyland as the lapdog of middle-class American capitalism, others such as Brode (2004), in his book From Walt to Woodstock, sees the Disney films as sowing the seeds of the counterculture.   J. C. Wolf (1979), although decrying Disneyland as an American utopia that is really an anti-utopia, essentially attests to Brode’s point: “the exaggerated disdain of Mickey Mouse and his cohorts for social conventions and for authority has a great appeal for a nation growing more and more permissive and irresponsible and serves to reinforce the egotistical approach to living” (p. 76).  So Disneyland, Disney’s most impressive creation, or “child” is perhaps the most influential Baby Boomer ever.

Baby Boomer

Brode (2004) and Watts (1995, 1997) see Disney’s work differently, as rebelliously subverting outworn hierarchical structures and celebrating the little guy and hero of the stories who often overcomes many travails and obstacles. Brode (2004) argues that Walt was very influential in creating the counterculture and Brode's latest book Multiculturalism and the Mouse (2006) contends that Disney also shaped our current attitudes toward multiculturalism.  Watts (1995) says that Disney used the culture industry to send his “magical messages,” using the system to essentially undermine the authority of the system, because his works sought:

to magically reanimate a modern society grown increasingly ‘disenchanted’ to use Max Weber’s word, under the influence of rationalization.  Disney’s cinematized fantasies, although occasionally nightmarish, sought to keep alive playful, magical, childlike instincts pushed to the margins of a bureaucratic, scientific, industrial society. (p. 109)

Wakefield (1990) contends that Disneyland embodies and epitomizes Disney’s continuing passion for “the creation, simulation and reanimation of life, though on a scale quite unprecedented within the cartoon world . . . . It was thus presented as the Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art] of contemporary American culture, combining history, imagination and of course fun” (p. 106). We will see how Disney used the system to his advantage, in service to the imagination, when we look at Disneyland’s sibling, the Disneyland television show, later in this excursion.  [Explore more about Disney as a Rebel with a Cause in the "Antistructure" excursion located in New Orleans Square / Adventureland]

Disney first envisioned a park, possibly back in the 1920s or 1930s, but it remained a dream at the time.  In 1948 Disney began to seriously consider the park, which was proposed, at that time, to be adjacent to the studio in Burbank.  As Walt began to plan, the park began to proliferate and the ideas soon outgrew the space, causing him to look elsewhere. Memos from 1948 and 1952 show the genesis and development of the park conceptually.  Disneyland finally got the green light when Walt obtained financing from his deal with ABC in the spring of 1954, with the groundbreaking occurring on July 21, 1954—less than a year before the park opened on July 17, 1955.  Disneyland celebrated its 50th birthday in 2005.  Indeed Disney considered the park to be alive:

The park means a lot to me.  Its something that will never be finished, something I can keep developing, keep "plussing" and adding to.  It’s alive.  It will be a live, breathing thing that will need changes.  When you wrap up a picture and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through.  Snow White is a dead issue with me.  I just finished a live-action picture, wrapped it up a few weeks ago.  It’s gone.  I can’t touch it.  There are things in it I don’t like, but I can’t do anything about it.  I want something live, something that would grow. The park is that.  Not only can I add things, but even the trees will keep growing.  The thing will get more beautiful year after year.  And it will get better as I find out what the public likes.  I can’t do that with a picture; it’s finished and unchangeable before I find out whether the public likes it or not. (Thomas, 1976, p. 244)

Shickel (1997) says that Disney was “constantly fussing” over the park, much as a parent fusses over a child.  When Walt dedicated the park, he promised that "Disneyland will never be completed” (Findlay, 1993, p. 61), and this constant state of becoming is a characteristic of neoteny, being always in a state of development.  So not only does Disneyland give us access to neoteny, but itself also demonstrates neoteny. [The "Cherishing of Childhood" excursion, located at the hub, explores neoteny in detail.]

In Inside Disneyland, Bright (1987) describes opening day at Disneyland, "Black Sunday" as it was known, in a section entitled “Birth Pains.”  First of all, there were too many people, because many uninvited guests used counterfeit tickets, or scaled the fence, thanks to an enterprising man with a ladder.  Then, melting asphalt played havoc with ladies’ high heel shoes and there were not enough drinking fountains due to a plumbers strike, where Disney was forced to choose between bathrooms and drinking fountains.  To add insult to injury, there was a gas leak in Fantasyland and the Mark Twain riverboat near capsized, because no capacity limits had been established. Opening day was a day of “operational chaos, and seemingly endless miscues” (p. 107).  Thankfully, Disneyland made it through the birth process successfully, and within seven weeks had hosted a million guests (Thomas, 1976).  Disney was obviously onto something with Disneyland.

I Think He’s Got It!—Magical Mediators

Sergei Eisenstein, Russian filmmaker believed that “Disney’s artistic power lay in an almost frightening capacity for boring into secret recesses of the human psyche and uncovering its most basic urges.”  He felt that Disney appealed to “the latent primitivism in modern consciousness”:

He creates somewhere in the realm of the very purest and most primal depths.  There, where we are all children of nature.  He creates on the conceptual level of man not yet shackled by logic, reason, or experience . . . for through his whole system of devices, themes, and subjects, Disney constantly gives us prescriptions for folkloric, mythological, prelogical thought—but always rejecting, pushing, aside logic . . . [O]rdinary lifeless objects, plants, beasts, all are animated and humanized.  (Watts, 1995, p. 90)

Disney’s popularity throughout the years and the immense appeal of the theme parks, suggest that he did speak to something common in us.  Perhaps the appeal is the mediating function that Disney's works embodies—their ability to hold the tension of opposites:  the past and the future, the real and the illusory, the sentimental and modernist, the populist subversion of hierarchy that simultaneously celebrates tradition. Watts (1995) writes that maybe Disney's work “strove to reunite what modernizing society had separated: innocent childhood and cynical adulthood, dreams and reason, artistic visions and ideological desires, work and play” (p. 109).

Disneyland’s Neptunian nature can be seen in what I call “disappearing the slash” or its mediating function between opposites.  Main Street serves this function in the park, as does the overall carnivalesque nature of the place. Disney himself did this in many areas of his life, because he was constantly bringing opposing points of view together and forming his own mix.  This sounds a bit like bricolage, and in fact the two are related. First we will explore a bit about binaries, and then see how mediation, bricolage, and play are related.  After that, we will see how Disney mediated things, and then how dreams fit into the picture.

A Bit of Background on Binaries

Lévi-Strauss, a structural anthropologist, saw that to paraphrase Lara Croft again, “Nature is about balance. All the world comes in pairs—yin/yang, right/wrong, man/woman, what’s pleasure without pain” (de Bont, 2003).  These pairs are known as binary opposites and are pairs of ideas that give each other value because of their difference.  Binaries are supposed to be opposites, its either one thing or the other, with the famous slash in between to keep them that way, that is “always absolutely separate” (Klages, 2001, online).  Binaries are supposed to stay on their side of the slash, but they do not always do this.   Lévi-Strauss noted binaries are intrinsically unstable and require mediation (Douglass, 1997, online) That is where myth, bricolage, carnival, and play come in; they all mediate between opposites, and in this world that is becoming increasingly polarized, this mediating function is very important.

According to Lévi-Strauss “myths are derived ultimately from the structure of the mind” which is binary— “the mind is constantly dealing with pairs of contradictions or opposites.” Myths function to mediate between opposing extremes such as nature/culture, life/ death, raw/cooked, etcetera. and are a mode by and through which societies communicate and find resolution between conflicting opposites:

Mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of oppositions towards their resolution.” The logical structure of a myth provides a means by which the human mind can avoid unpleasant contradictions and thus through mediation, reconcile conflicts that would be intolerable if unreconciled. (Magrath, 2001, online)

Lévi-Strauss’s big binary was the nature/culture opposition, wherein he found that in some instances, to use Derrida’s term, a “scandal” occurs—that is, there can be instances of things being on both sides of the slash.  This was the case, for example with the incest taboo, because the incest taboo was both universal (nature), in that all cultures had it, and also particular (culture) in that the expression was different in each culture.  Seth Warren (1997, online) refers to this being on both sides of the slash as “perforating the slash,” and I like to think of it as “disappearing the slash.”  Instead of the normal dualistic “either/or” situations, we have a “both and” where the binaries are no longer so divided—the excluded middle returns!  Klages (2001, online) says that when binaries do not stay on their side of the slash, this is “the heart of deconstruction:”

In a nutshell, deconstruction looks for binary pairs of oppositions--things that are supposed to stay neatly on their own side of a slash. Then they look for places, or examples, where something disrupts that neat slash—something that fits on BOTH sides of the slash, or an opposition where there's one thing on one side and more than one thing on another side (or a blank, something without an opposition). These things are good, according to deconstructionists, because they deconstruct a structure. If the stability of a structure depends on these binary oppositions, if you shake those oppositions and make them unstable, you shake up the whole structure. Or, in Derrida's terms, you put the elements into “play.”

Bringing in Bricolage and Play 

According to Derrida (1966, online), we then have two choices: option one is to throw out the structure and try to create one that does not have any inconsistencies—in other words no play, which according to Derrida is impossible.  Option two, and what Lévi-Strauss, the bricoleur, and Derrida do, is to keep the structure and use it even though we know the strucuture is flawed. Klages (2001, onlne) explains, interestingly using psychoanalysis as an example:

In Derrida's terms, this means to stop attributing “truth value” to a structure or system, but rather to see that system as a system, as a construct, as something built around a central idea that holds the whole thing in place, even though that central idea (like the idea of binary opposites) is flawed or even an illusion. Derrida and Lévi-Strauss call this latter method “bricolage,” and the person that does it a “bricoleur.” This is somebody who doesn't care about the purity or stability of the system s/he uses, but rather uses what's there to get a particular job done . . . . You might also think of tinker toys. Even though I may not have a complete set, and some of the parts are broken or don't fit together any more, I don't throw the whole set out and buy a new one (or a set of Legos); I keep playing with the tinker toys, and I can even incorporate things that aren't from the original tinker toy set (such as Legos, or alphabet blocks, or soup cans) to make what I want to make. That is bricolage.  Bricolage doesn't worry about the coherence of the words or ideas it uses. For example, you are a bricoleur if you talk about penis envy or the oedipus complex and you don't know anything about psychoanalysis; you use the terms without having to acknowledge that the whole system of thought that produced these terms and ideas, i.e. Freudian psychoanalysis, is valid and "true." In fact, you don't care if psychoanalysis is true or not (since at heart you don't really believe in "truth" as an absolute, but only as something that emerges from a coherent system as a kind of illusion) as long as the terms and ideas are useful to you.

So, Walt Disney, being a supreme bricoleur, didn’t really care about the “truth value,” and that is why he was able to randomly mix whatever was at hand to create what he needed, and was only concerned with the “use value,” whether things were useful to him. 

Play too, mediates, because play is found in the in-between space between inner reality and the outer world Winnicott (1999). [The "Art of the Show" excursion discusses the importance of this in-between space.]  Play, in terms of the brain, is placeless, as Turner (1988) relates:

The neuronic energies of play, as it were, lightly skim over the cerebral cortices sampling rather than partaking of the capacities and functions of the various areas of the brain.  As Don Handelman and Gregory Bateson have written, that is possibly why play can provide a metalanguage  (since to be “meta” is to be both beyond and between) and emit metamessages about so many and varied human propensities, and thus provide, as Handelman has said, “a very wide range of commentary on the social order” (1977:189). 

Play can be everywhere and nowhere, imitate anything, yet be identified with nothing. This in-betweenness of play is one of its central characteristics, and is why for V. Turner (1988) “play is liminal.”  Play moves back and forth between the two sides of the brain, and pays no attention to the slash:

Play is “transcendent” (to use Edward Norbeck’s term), though only just so, brushing the surfaces of more specialized neural organizations rather than existing apart from them or looking down from a godlike height on them.  Play is the supreme bricoleur of frail transient constructions, like a caddis worm’s case or a magpie’s nest in nature.  Its metamessages are composed of a potpourri of apparently incongruous elements: products of both hemispheres are juxtaposed and intermingled.  Passages of seemingly wholly rational thought jostle in a Joycean or surrealist manner with passages filleted of all syntactical connectedness.  Yet, although “spinning loose” as it were, the wheel of play reveals to us (as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued, 1975) the possibility of changing our goals, and therefore, the restructuring or what our culture states to be reality. (p. 168)

Here, V. Turner really sums it all up.  Play as bricolage, allows us to take things and recombine them in different ways without getting all attached to their “truth.” We do not get attached to one side or the other and thus we can take things from anywhere.  This is also similar to what carnival images do according to Bakhtin: “the Carnival image strives to embrace and unite in itself both terminal points of the process of becoming or both members of the antithesis: birth-death, youth-age’ etc.” and so the carnival image serves to link binaries in much the same way as Levi-Stauss’s process of mediation (Shields, 1991, p. 92) . 

Disneyland is supreme bricolage. At Disneyland, Disney and his imagineers would playfully combines things, without regard to their “truth,” and Disneyland has has been severely criticized for this.  All Disney cared about was getting his stories across through eliminating contradictions and making things more harmonious.  Disneyland’s physical structure, especially Main Street USA contains these mediating and harmonizing functions at its core.  Perhaps this is another archetypal reason that Main Street is so popular.  Perhaps this mediating is what is wanted in our culture as well, and one reason along with neoteny that our society is becoming Disneyized as Bryman (2004) coined.  We need these in-between play places and spaces, as alternative ways for "disappearing the slash" to occur. Disney did this in his own life as well, as we will see next.

Mr. Mediator

Watts (1995) sees Disney as a both a “sentimental modernist” who “helped mediate a key cultural transition in Twentieth Century America,” (p. 87), and also as a “sentimental populist” whose “1950s style populism” [democratic sympathies blended with cultural conservatism], “eventually escaped its cinematic confines and found a permanent home in Disneyland . . . .”  Watts notes that the various areas of the park “presented a vast display of the totems of Americana” which erected a monument to the American way of life (p. 108).  At the same time, the irreverent nature of Disney’s cartoon characters and their disregard for social convention and authority is present in the playful treatment of the subject matter.  At the park, Disney freely mixed fact and fiction; both structure and antistructure are celebrated.  Disney’s whole aesthetic combined realism and fantasy.  His animated films as well as the park show amazingly realistic details all in service to fantasy.  Watts (1995) says that Walt’s work reflected the modernist tendencies of bringing back what Victorianism’s appeal to reason and rationalism had repressed, namely instinct, impulse, and irrationality:

Modernism sought to recombine the elements of human experience strictly separated by Victorianism—human and animal, civilized and savage, reason and emotion, intellect and instinct, conscious and unconscious—in order to reconstruct the totality of human nature . . . . [Modernism] endorsed wide-ranging aesthetic experimentation in the hope of capturing an elusive “simultaneity of experience” that seemed to characterize modern life. (p. 87)

Watts tells us that modernism in art was preoccupied with paradox, fusion, and integration. Modernism was fascinated with dreams and the overlap between fantasy and reality, and Disney’s animation “constantly blurred the boundary between reality and imagination to produce a wondrous universe where animals spoke, plants and trees acted consciously and inanimate objects felt emotion" (Watts, 1995, p. 88). Disney was “dehumanizing,” i.e., going against the h

ubristic belief that humans have cornered the market on consciousness, before Hillman (1992a) even invented the word! 

Despite his modernist tendencies, Watts (1995) tells us that Disney, in his heart, was a “sentimental idealist,” who was attracted to sentimental realism.  Sentimental realism seeks to portray attractive appearances as actual attainable realities; elements are depicted realistically, except that the dark and messy dimensions are eliminated.  These sentimental aspects tempered modernism’s jarring images through the use of nostalgic, neoteneous, anthropomorphic images. Disney’s melding of reality and illusion resulted in his broad appeal, because his characters were “real and yet unreal”  (p. 95).  According to Watts, critics perceived Disney’s use of realism to make fantasy persuasive, thus appealing to the audience’s unconscious; “when they wrote of tricks, spells, potions, illusions, and enchantments, their very language evoked the nonrational realms accessible through drugs or magic” (p. 95).  Again, Neptunian allusions abound!

Let us look a little closer at the idea of the dream, another Neptunian element, as Wakefield (1990) explains “the media in which Disney’s mind moved was that of the dream. Like the surrealists, he regarded dreaming as an inspired state, in the double sense of the word” (p. 109).

Land of Dreams

Disneyland can be considered a land of dreams, playfully combining many contraries and opposites into itself.  According to Hauser, in dreams:

reality and unreality, logic and fantasy, the banality and sublimation of existence, form an indissoluble and inexplicable unity . . . . It seems possible to bring everything into relationship with everything else . . . the accent is now on the simultaneity of the contents of consciousness, the immanence of the past in the present, the constant flowing together of different periods of time . . . the impossibility of defining the media in which the mind moves. (Wakefield, 1990, p. 109)

As previously discussed in the "Chicago" chapter in relation to Roxie's reveries, dreams are a way the psyche plays.  Disneyland can be seen as a wish fullfilment, a compensation, and also a telos, a playful vision of the possibility of wholeness.  Dreams are bricolage, playfully combining and juxtaposing different elements that might not ordinarily go together. This is fitting, because, after all, a dream is a nonordinary state of consciousness.

King (1981a) feels that Disneyland, with its juxtapositions of different settings, may allow people to appreciate the interaction and complexity between new and old more readily.  In combining unlike elements, a unique new form evolves which can incorporate both the old and the new, without replacing one with the other, and without the need to rationalize them.  By being able to appreciate both traditional and modern simultaneously King wonders whether cultures caught between tradition and modernity could possibly:

make use of the Disney concept to experiment with the interaction of old and new, to facilitate the capacity for blending opposites in transitional culture, and to show the world the interaction, using a panorama of dramatic imagery which can express the many mythic levels of a culture—from collective memory to future vision?” (p. 136)

Television, too, has a bricolagical nature, crossing over categories, and that is where we are headed next, to explore Disneyland’s intimate relationship with television. Disneyland, as Thomas Hine noted was “the first place ever conceived simultaneously with a TV series” (Bukatman, 1991, p. 61).  So, now we turn to Disneyland’s sibling, the Disneyland television show, to see how this transpired. We will then explore the implications and interplay between television and Disneyland, and then I will allude to the synchronicities of different windows onto the world. We will end our excursion by exploring the environmental influence of Southern California on the brilliant Baby Boomer.


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