ORLANDO, FL – My first visit to Disney World surprised me.
Before I had two girls, I never thought I would be interested in visiting a place that stood, in my mind, for all that was wrong with American culture: traditional gender roles, naive optimism, obsession with spectacle over substance…
And yet this, as with so much else for me, changed when DancinGirl and ArtGirl entered my life. Watching the Disney stories through their eyes brought another dimension of Disney into sharp relief: the power of imagination, the importance of narrative and the recognition that the force of the bad in world is real and needs to be combated it with intentional, decisive action.
I also began to see beneath the surface of the stereotypes some more progressive ideals. Already in Sleeping Beauty, for example, the three older female fairies turn out to be the most resourceful, brave and heroic characters in this or any other Disney story.
The tension between progressive values and destructive, regressive tendencies is endemic to the Disney experience. It was most palpable for me this past week at the Circle of Life attraction at Epcot.
The movie begins with Timon and Pumbaa damming rivers in order to build “Hakuna Matata Lakeside Village,” a resort in the desert that will bring people from far and wide, making them rich in the process. The wise Simba tells them that the animals down river depend on that water for their livelihood. He then goes on to tell them a compelling tale of another species of creature who forgot the way all living beings are connected in a great circle of life: human beings.
He unravels an Aesop fable in reverse – with animals telling the story of foolish human beings who presumed all of nature was at their disposal, taking no heed of the destruction they wrought. Images of large factories, gas guzzling vehicles, oil wells aflame and the lights of Vegas abound … and yet not one inkling of a gesture to the massive consumer enterprise that is the Disney experience, not one self-reflective image of the rivers, trees and wildlife displaced and destroyed by the creation of “the magical world of Disney.”
If the message was progressive, the reality of the experience in which we were collectively participating was ironic, delusional and regressive. Upon exiting the 12 minute film, one finds oneself in the middle of one of the many cafeterias which serves countless meals a day on plastic plates, with plastic utensils and plastic bottles.
It was a palpable reminder of the extent to which we were actively participating in the consumptive consumer culture that continues to destroy the environment.
Whatever joy I experienced seeing my daughters bask in the magic of Disney – and there was much joy in it – was tempered by the recognition that we too were colluding in the ongoing human failure to come to terms with the lesson Simba was trying to teach.