There are lots of ways to analyze the Disney parks. The tools from Humanities and Cultural Studies offer interesting angles on what these parks mean, why they work, and why we care so much. The interpretive approaches function a little bit like the lenses of a microscope; you click to change the lens and see something totally different, even though you’re looking at the same thing.
Some of these tools include:
- Feminist (roles of men and women)
- Queer (role of sexual orientation)
- Historical (social, political, and personal contexts of the work when created)
- Authorial (role played by the creator’s biases, assumptions, desires, personality)
- Marxist (class warfare; labor; capital; suppression)
Today we’ll start with an example, and we’ll reach for yet another “lens” not mentioned above: post-colonialism. This approach recognizes that our modern culture is in some ways shaped by the history of colonialism around the world: British colonies in India, Africa, and other places, for example, but also the present-day American exporting of our cultural products (including, ironically, Disney). Our current age is “post” colonialism – there are few actual colonies anymore – but we can examine attitudes and beliefs during colonial life to uncover something about our current society.
Let’s illustrate with an example: the Jungle Cruise. This is a key attraction for Adventureland, so in some ways it’s synonymous with the land itself. Just what is it about the boat ride that gives “adventure”? The quick answer is that it’s exotic. But pause for a moment. Exotic for whom?
Exotic for Walt Disney, of course. The Orlando ride (which he never saw completed) was based off the Anaheim ride (which he was deeply involved with). It was exotic because everything about the experience was different from his background: jungle rather than suburbia, large wild animals rather than domesticated small ones, humans with dark skin and tribal costumes rather than white skin and business suits.
If a visitor from Central Africa were to visit the Magic Kingdom, would he find it “exotic”? Would the Jungle Cruise be an “adventure”? Possibly he might find it insulting, what with all the stereotypes employed in that attraction.
The portrayal of the African tribes as savages, in particular, looks out of place if one employs a post-colonial lens. Walt was likely less an intentional racist than a product of his times, a product of 1900s (up to 1950s) society that still maintained a kind of colonial attitude toward less-explored parts of the world. We might call it a kind of genteel racism today, something ingrained and not thought about, even while people act on the assumptions and presuppositions.
The attitudes toward far-off lands as “exotic” places dates back to the period when Western countries did have colonies in these distant continents, creating a romanticism in the home country for those other places as exotic. The next time you’re in Adventureland, ask yourself how many of the displays and decorations around you are actually here due to this colonial mindset. Hopefully, you’ll be viewing the parks with new eyes in no time!