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In his mind, he glimpsed Utopia, and he worked selflessly to create a brand of nonreality that would be available to all of us, so long as we were willing to go to Florida or California. He adored animals and children and hated dirt. A true-blue patriot who was among the first to help his government ferret out suspected Communists in late-1940s Hollywood, he nevertheless embraced other nations and cultures. He was also very rich.
What's not to love about Walt Disney?
Glad you asked!
Perhaps the only thing better than loving and partaking in all things Disney -- the man, the myth, the Mouse, the legacy -- is the act of not loving Disney.
The Disney experience would probably not be what it is today without the grouchy, cynical input of those who cannot abide it. These are the people who invented the word "disneyfication," and never use it in a nice way; those who look upon Walt's avuncular, mustachioed visage in old black-and-white Mickey Mouse Club TV clips and think: Yes, indeed, there is the Devil.
Railing against all things Disney is nearly as American as a trip to Orlando. Writers deplore it. Artists mock it and subvert its icons even in the face of desist orders from Disney's legion of lawyers. Community activists who live near Disney's financial and ecological lava flow delight in occasionally discombobulating the Disney machine. Scholarly analysis of the cultural, economic and psychological impact of Disney is now a ticket to tenure, one of the faster-growing branches of academia.
Walt Disney World is a place of pure joy, except for the people who cannot have a good time there. It simply isn't in their genetic makeup to let go and let it happen to them. Like the woman who filed this brief and eloquent rant on her personal journal Web site, "Confessions of an Upstate New York Mother":
"I hate Disney World. I hate what happens to me at Disney World. I hate it that every latent snobby, elitist and Marxist leaning gruesomely emerges there. I hate it when I feel compelled to announce in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop that we are really all capitalist tools supporting a media saturated culture where we cannot buy anything without having it tied in with the latest cartoon movie. ... I hate it that there are even signs telling the tourist where to take a picture. I hate spending any part of my vacation marveling with complete strangers about the genius of Disney crowd control. I hate the squeaky clean staff with their professional smiles. Most of all, I hate it that my husband is forced to take me in hand and threaten dire punishment if I ruin the day for the rest of the family."
Or there's a Milwaukee man who goes by EAF III, who in August logged himself for the first time onto the Web site of the Society of Disney Haters (www.sodh.org) and unloaded his woes:
"I am a 36-year-old father of two, aged 8 and 6. I took the family to Walt Disney World to appease my wife, who has happy childhood memories (of it). ... We also took my in-laws. That whole side of the family is very into doing the most popular thing. They like having everything laid out before them, with no thinking involved. ... I found (Disney World) to be the most crass, dehumanizing, cheesy, smarmy pap I've ever seen. I simply cannot comprehend how so many people are willing to shell that kind of money for such an inauthentic experience. ..."
He'd found the right place to decompress.
Dozens of fellow members of the Society of Disney Haters added their support to EAF's angst-ridden voyage through Disney World. They praised him for surviving the family trip and asked him to post his thoughts more often. They liked EAF III's style. They were all skeptically, depressingly and wonderfully in this together.
Even here, Walt was spreading a kind of joy.
A dark joy.
* * *
So many ways to be anti-Walt. It's easier if you don't have children.
But if you have children, it's still possible. You can limit their Disney intake, somewhat cruelly, but insisting it's for their own good. You can also forbid hamburgers. You can Kill Your Television, go to Green Party rallies, subscribe to Utne Reader and Adbusters.
Oddly, in your anti-Disney vibe you will be joined by angelic choruses on the right. Your extra-Christian brethren and sistren are in their ninth year of boycotting all Disney products because they think the company insidiously undermines the word of God. This is because they saw a penis on the box of the Little Mermaid video. They accidentally visited Walt Disney World on Gay Day. They connected the dots from Quentin Tarantino (as in Disney-owned Miramax, as in Pulp Fiction) to the Insane Clown Posse (as in Hollywood Records) to Pocahontas and realized it was all the same secular, hedonistic money pot.
On the smarty-pants left, "the Mouse" is also bad: Write your women's studies dissertation on the increasing breast size of Disney's animated heroines (it's been done) or document Disney's cross-cultural gaffes, or its inattention to literature, its warping of history. (Done, done, done.)
You can sign petitions to keep Disney theme parks from expanding. You can bandy about accusations of bad labor conditions; you can revel in leaked memos and other horror stories about company employees passing out or throwing up in their Pluto dog costumes.
You can live in an old house with hardwood floors, says Jennifer Chang, an assistant professor of marketing at Penn State:
"This is all about cultural capital. What are Disney and Mickey Mouse? They are icons of pop culture, and seemingly loved by "everyone.' The irony is, things that are made for the masses are often shunned by a large segment of society -- those who are high in cultural capital."
In other words, Walt will never win over the snobs. "High cultural capital consumers prefer independent films over blockbuster movies," Chang says. "They prefer the mom-and-pop book shops over Wal-Mart, or perhaps Ethiopian or Thai food over burgers and fries. If they had all the money in the world, they would probably prefer an older, creaky house with character than the biggest house on the block. This is the cultural capital consumer ... not one to choose the sterility of corporate culture, of manufactured and commoditized "ideal' images of society."
* * *
"I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with "expressing' myself or obscure creative impressions."
-- Walt Disney, 1958
* * *
All evidence suggests Disney meant well. He produced movies and television shows and opened some amusement parks. He gave us Mickey Mouse, which brightened mankind's long and symbolically fraught relationship to rodents. Mickey is a perfectly benign character, lacking completely in personality or persuasion, just completely happy and fun. About 60-million people visited Disney's theme parks last year and seemed to like it.
So why this need to turn Mickey, which is to say Walt, into evil incarnate?
Since his death in 1966, the unseemlier side of Disney has intrigued even those who have come to terms with Disney's stamp on so much of their lives:
Was Walt anti-Semitic?
It wouldn't make sense, given the rise of Jews to executive positions in Disney before, and certainly after, Walt's death. Disney was named B'nai B'rith's Man of the Year in 1955; he never uttered any anti-Jewish statements in public. No matter, the rumor persists.
Did Walt rat out show business "communists" even before Sen. Joe McCarthy?
You bet he did. Stemming from his bitter war with organized labor, Walt had it in for several of Hollywood's lefties, which may have partly led to accusations that he was anti-Semitic.
Was Walt an atheist?
In anti-Disney lore, it's better to view Walt as someone who thought of himself as being God. In fact he was a staunch determinist -- a capitalist who worshiped progress, in the Ayn Rand vein. Walt believed in science, technology, nature (tamed nature). But he also believed strongly in family, children, values, America. He was a Republican. An important component of Disney contrarianism is to weigh these things against one another and decide they add up to ... the dark side.
Was Walt mean?
It's more like he was high maintenance. He wouldn't score too well in today's team-building exercises or personality-mapping tests. His displeasure meant trouble for others. He was Walt Disney, for crying out loud. Things had to go his way. This legacy survives in the company's obsession with cleanliness and perfection, enforced upon all its employees and customers.
Is Walt's body cryogenically frozen and kept deep beneath Disneyland, awaiting eventual resurrection via the science of tomorrow?
It would be so great if it were. Sadly for conspiracy theorists, a death certificate indicates that Walt was cremated at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
But what about his head? I heard it was just his head that's frozen! Maybe this is what's really wonderful about the America that believes nothing and still watches The Simpsons. The urban myths about Walt's body will clearly persist as part of the Disney narrative. We need Walt to be that pulsing brain in the jar, wired up, still transmitting commands to his minions, still directing global takeover. What a letdown to learn that it is not true.
* * *
"I don't pretend to know anything about art. I make pictures for entertainment, and then the professors tell me what they mean."
-- Walt Disney
* * *
"In my book, I call them "rejectors,"' says Janet Wasko, a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches classes about Disney and recently wrote Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, with chapter titles such as "Dissecting Disney's Worlds" and "Living Happily Ever After?"(note that ominous question mark).
"All over the world, you see various attitudes toward Disney," Wasko says. "There is the superfan, who doesn't question Disney, all the way down to the rejector, who really wants nothing to do with it. There is a lot of ambiguity in between, a real love-hate relationship people have with Disney that's always changing."
Wasko herself is a bit of a rejector, in a friendly sense. She rejects Disney's concept of itself as a building block of imagination: Disney "actually leaves little to the imagination," she says. "When you visit Disneyland or Disney World, there's really very little you can do to influence or react to the environment. It's passive. You're waiting. You're waiting for the story to come to you."
Academia is understandably smitten with the relationship between mere mortals and the Disney empire. It touches on almost every modern issue -- urban planning, economics of scale, mass media, feminism, racism, government, the environment, commerce, art. Perhaps even theology comes into play: Disney's continual rise mirrors, in a way, the rise of Christianity in the first four centuries; Jesus and Mickey do similar things in parallel universes.
On her way to a recent conference on Disney studies, Wasko expected there would be "a few people" registered. There were 150. "Disney is pervasive," she says. "It's not going away, and it's about time that academic scholars started paying more attention to it."
But the Mouse, as Wasko and others frequently refer to the Disney corporation, "is notorious for not cooperating with research projects it doesn't agree with," she says. For years, Disney scholars have operated as gnats buzzing around a giant who never notices.
Or almost never. Wasko spoke at a conference of the American Sociologists Association and was surprised to receive a note from a Disney executive, who had listened in and wanted her to come speak to other executives at a meeting "about branding. He was interested in our audience study." Disney offered to pay her expenses. "My students thought I should have taken them up on it," she says. "But I didn't. I was conflicted. The answer should be no, right?"
Richard E. Foglesong, a politics professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, wrote this year's Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando, recounting in historical narrative how Disney's people secretly bought up much of the surrounding swampland, installed an autonomous government and built Disney World and Epcot Center -- and the love-hate relationship that has ensued over the decades, particularly with the company's "arrogance and aloofness" in civic matters.
"I could not say to you that people here hate Disney," Foglesong says. "It's more like a simmering resentment. You don't get ahead in business and community circles by speaking ill of the Mouse."
But somebody has to. "I think there are a lot of people who are secretly delighting in my book," he says. "It's sort of like I'm that kid Mikey in the Life cereal commercial: "Get Foglesong to say it. He'll say anything."'
After Foglesong delivered a lecture called "Taming the Mouse" in Tampa, "within a day, a Disney vice president had contacted the president of the college to complain," he says.
When he was scheduled to appear on the Today show and sling a couple of easy verbal arrows at the Mouse during coverage of the 20th anniversary of Walt Disney World, Foglesong suddenly found himself pulled off the show.
"Bad press is Disney's Achilles' heel," he says. "For a company as involved in the media as Disney, they have what strikes me as a rather unsophisticated view of public relations. ... I can't imagine a company with a more favorable public image. So when something bad happens, it gets attention. That's why a certain segment of people really enjoys a little bit of bad news about Disney."
So happy birthday, Uncle Walt, wherever you are, frozen or elsewhere, inventive genius (or propaganda tool of the CIA), trying to entertain our children (or own them), sanitizing Times Square or buying up former drug cartel Caribbean hideaway islands and renaming them, ecologically taming them so they can be ports of call for the Mickey cruise ship.
The Disney corporation has come up with any number of ways for Walt's legion of followers to celebrate: commemorative picture books, documentary films, a museum both physical and virtual, and a Web site guest book to express your thankfulness to him. A current ad campaign suggests that it's the perfect time to visit Walt Disney World or the other Disney meccas to pay proper homage.
But, as recently noted by the Wall Street Journal (and quickly mixed into Disney's centenary ad campaign), most children today do not even recognize Walt's image. He's become like a face on currency -- vaguely important, possibly historical, some old dude.
Meanwhile, the Disney disenfranchised will celebrate their own way, living authentically and counter-Mouselike.
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