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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Reflection of the Times

In the 1950s America was recovering from the collective traumas of massive urbanization, WWI, WWII, the Great Depression, and was in the midst of the Cold War.  It is no wonder that the turn of the Twentieth Century looked so good, and that this was the time that Walt Disney chose to portray in Main Street USA, the entry to Disneyland.  A fictional small town main street at the turn of the century predates all of these traumatic events; the small town setting excludes the massive urbanization and immigration that were occurring.  The present is absent at Disneyland and the present was precarious in the 1950s, a time of deep anxiety.  America was embroiled in foreign conflicts, domestic paranoia, and the newly ominous threat of nuclear war.

Disneyland represents a compensation for the world at that time.  The entrance plaque to Main Street USA reads: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” Play too, can be compensatory—providing escape, release and different perspectives.  Play's attitude of non-seriousness allows us to do things we might not otherwise be inclined to try.  Play opens up a world, and in Disneyland’s case, unlike most other art, you can actually physically enter this world.  Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, although talking about Disney’s films, felt that Disney was a “marvelous lullaby for the suffering and unfortunate, the oppressed and the deprived . . . . Disney’s films are a revolt against partitioning and legislating, against spiritual stagnation and greyness” (Rojek, 1993, p. 125). 

Findlay (1993) feels that Disneyland is a foil for the world, rather than merely being an escape from reality because people do not truly forget life’s trials and tribulations, but receive a temporary respite—a pause that refreshes, which allows them to gain perspective on life: “a visit to Disneyland will act like a tonic in restoring your faith in the things to come, despite the threat of atom bombs and guided missiles and come what may” (p. 91).  Bukatman (1991) called Disneyland a “fortress against dis-ease of ‘50s society” (p. 56). Disneyland embodied the optimism and the suburbanization that accompanied the emergence of postwar affluence in America during the 1950s and reflected these values.

Disneyland in some ways typified popular culture in post-war America.  The designers and managers of Disneyland stressed its ability to make guests forget day-to-day concerns and at the same time to reassure that that they could thrive in the outside world.  In a parallel fashion, Roland Marchand has argued that “popular culture reveries” in the period of 1945-1960 provide both an escape and a compensation for “Americans beginning to suffer from a vague closed-in feeling, a restless frustration stemming from Russian threats abroad and the restraints and manipulations of large organizations at home.”  (Findlay, 1993, p. 91)

There was also something about the 1950s that allowed the imagination to break through, and give us this actual imaginal place—Disneyland.  In a chapter entitled “Making Imagination Safe in the 1950s,” Doss (1997) discusses Disneyland’s popularity and its representation of two big themes of the 1950s—imagination and safety.  She says that "Sleeping Beauty Castle," the centerpiece of Disneyland’s make-believe and magical settings, “came to represent an architecture and an entire national mindset of security and reassurance” (p. 180).  Doss notes that in the 1950s an undercurrent of myth, magic, and fantasy pervaded popular culture.  She cites such trends as the magic realism of Dali and Disney animators, and remarks that “the 1950’s obsession with fantasy and the search for universal archetypes is evident in the postwar popularity of such books as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949) and the dominance of Jungian psychology” (p. 180).  Drawing on and quoting cultural historian Warren Susman’s work, Doss says that America in the 1950s:

embodied a dual consciousness of "abundance, opportunities, freedom, possibilities, and new sense of liberation" intermingled with anxiety, fear, and edgy disaffection.  Susman’s central 1950’s icon for these ‘"conflicting, yet mutually reinforcing; tensions" was Disneyland which he described as "a collective fantasy, an immense metaphor for the system of representation and values unique to postwar America."  (p. 180)

Americans were both attracted to and apprehensive about these new possibilities and Disneyland merged the desire for order with the desire for fantasy and the suspension of disbelief into a brilliant technological "Wonderland."   Fantasyland in particular “was structured as an environment that synthesized public, postwar ideas about myth, ritual and psychic redemption.  Its architecture fused postwar enthusiasms for imagination, horror, hallucination, and magic with deep-felt desires for safety, security, restraint and direction” (Doss, 1997, p. 180).

In a similar archetypal vein, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan,projects previously in limbo, finally got their turn and joined the Disney animation pantheon at this same time, in 1951 and 1953 respectively, and both directed by Geronimi and Jackson.  Disneyland became an embodiment of these two animation classics, a neotenous Never-Never land where you can enter another world.  Rios (2005, online) reports Walt’s description: “Disneyland is like Alice stepping through the looking glass; to step through the portals of Disneyland will be like entering another world.” 

Peter Pan, a born again Baby Boomer, was not content with being only animated.  This turn of the century children’s classic play also burst forth on Broadway in 1954, with Mary Martin starring as Peter Pan.  This musical was televised live several times in 1955 and then finally videotaped in 1960 (Donohue, 1960, videotape), which I view as the psyche’s way of punctuating its neotenous point.  Both Peter Pan and Alice got their own rides in Fantasyland when Disneyland opened, with "Peter Pan’s Flight" and the "Mad Teaparty."  The "Alice in Wonderland" dark ride was added subsequently in 1958.

Peter Pan has once again made another “double” appearance and flown into consciousness as I wrote my dissertation, in the movies Peter Pan (Hogan, 2003) and Finding Neverland(Forster, 2004).  Von Franz (1977) notes that when a double appears that something is coming into consciousness, and in this case, I believe it is the importance of imagination, play, and neoteny.

This doubling itself also has occurred twice, the first time, during the 1950s coinciding with Disneyland’s beginnings and then again as I have been writing my dissertation.  These doubles have brought two very different messages to consciousness.  The first message, reflects the spirits of fantasy, play and neoteny that were present in the 1950s. In Walt’s work and in Disneyland’s success we can see the power and promise of neoteny and play.  John Bright says that Disney’s inventiveness was the secret to his success, as Shickel (1997) relates:

“The key to this might be found in his immaturity, or not realized maturity” . . . Walt . . . “never abandoned the delights and preoccupations of each stage of development, as most of us have at least in part.  That was his ‘genius.’  Disneyland could have been created only by a man-child who never tired of toys or shed the belief that animals and insects have human attributes.” (p. 329)

Shickel (1997) himself notes that Disney “had the courage to proclaim the childlike quality of his imagination for all the world to see, which is frankly more than his audience ever did” (p. 330).  [The importance of neoteny can be further explored in the "Cherishing of Childhood" excursion located at the hub]

The second message was darker, since the doubling took place in 2003-2004, when Peter Pan (Hogan, 2003) and Finding Neverland (Forster, 2004) were playing in the theaters.  At around this same time, another drama was playing out in the courts and on television, the Michael Jackson trial, which might be said to show the shadow side of what happens when play and childhood are not honored.  Although later aquitted, Michael Jackson was tried for sexually abusing a young boy at his “Neverland Ranch.”  Neverland Ranch has a Disneylike part which looks like the entrance to Main Street USA, with various small rides.  Having been a “child star” and thus deprived of a normal childhood, it seems that Jackson has repeatedly and tragically been trying to recapture the youth that he never had, in sometimes shadowy ways.  This brilliant artist turned androgyne, with his Mickey-like high-pitched voice, is perhaps an “antenna of the race” to quote McLuhan (2003), signaling to us that we better change our tune and let our children play or reap the tragic results. 

Disneyland was not only a child of the times, reflecting those times but was also very much a child of its creator, Walt Disney, so let us explore these likenesses.


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