I have a life goal to never go to Las Vegas. I have a related life goal to go to all of the places that have a Las Vegas casino named after them (I anticipate the Stratosphere being one of the more difficult). I had this goal long before I’d really thought through why, but a recent trip to Disneyland helped to clarify my feelings on corporate cultural appropriation.
Generally speaking, I am for it. Disneyland can go right ahead and build a new New Orleans.
Look, it even has a narrow winding street like I like. And it ain’t a half bad approximation (although the California sun is a giveaway):
I’m perhaps somewhat less supportive when their rides are racist caricatures pulled from a movie that Disney won’t even release, but that’s not quite my main point. My point is that while this was an interesting, educational, and occasionally fun trip, I will probably never go back. This choice is a result of a contradiction at the heart of Disneyland: in trying to capture, to recreate, the best in America and American history, it accidentally reproduces America at its worst: exclusionist, reductive, and rent through by lies of omission.
Here is a land of Tom Sawyer and his Pirate’s Lair, which you reach riding on Huck’s raft. Jim is absent. The Riverboat Mark Twain circles the island, its shaded seating and pleasant narration providing respite from heat and history.
Near New Orleans Square rests the Haunted Mansion, whose “999 Happy Haunts” evoke the myth of the “Happy Slave” while neglecting the sheer facts of the matter: an 1800s New Orleans manse was probably built and certainly populated by the slaves and slaveowners whose stories inspired the ride.
A bit farther down the walk, in Critter Country, lies Splash Mountain, a ride that features the trickster Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and others. Brer Fox is the nefarious evildoer out to get Brer Rabbit, while Brer Bear is a friendly but dimwitted bear, mostly interested in honey. He runs into trouble occasionally though, however, getting his head stuck in a hole (leaving his ass wagging out at the riders) or in a noose. Interspersed with these images are those of well-dressed, noble eagles singing.
The Pirates of the Caribbean ride features a trip through the rougher parts of our ports, where people drink, shoot their guns, light fires, fight the British, and buy fearful women at auction to take home and rape. The delightful animatronics showcase all of these parts but the rape, although you can hear the auctioneer exhort them to “show a little skin”.
Meanwhile, there’s the “Small World” ride, where we parade past a bunch of costumed locals singing about how we’re all the same, even though we look different, as if that were the only story that needed to be told of Africans, or Native Americans, or Polynesians, or the Swiss. There’s the Jungle Cruise, where we drift past various jungle creatures and are finally confronted by a head-hunting tribe of natives, brandishing spears and making war, as if tens of thousands of people aren’t being killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo every month. Elsewhere, you can take a canoe trip exploring America’s Rivers, where you pass a friendly Native American chief giving “a sign of peace” and his small camp, as if nobody died from smallpox-infested blankets. Harder to find is a female character who is not a princess (aside from the Wenches of the Caribbean), as if that were all a little girl should want to become.
Okay okay, I’m being a bit extreme. Nobody expects Disney to recreate a historically accurate slave auction or something. And you know what, the newer and refurbished parts based on Pixar movies are not half bad! Finding Nemo, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, soon Cars, all have rides. In fact, these rides–and the movies that they evoke–point towards the problems of the others: instead of attempting to tell all stories, they tell particular ones. Instead of appropriating the tales of others, they imagineer new ones. They are enjoyable without trampling all over history. You can find yourself amused by the clever design elements (bamboo, the world’s tallest grass, in place of actual grass in A Bug’s Land) instead of appalled by old-school blatantly racist stereotypes.
Further across the park, in California Adventure Land, stands a theme park that is basically Santa Monica: pier, roller coaster, sun, ice cream. There’s even a postcard billboard that says “Santa Monica” on it. While not as laden with issues as the other side of the park, even this part grates on me. Why go there instead of, you know, Santa Monica? The one that actually exists, has all those same attractions, and a much cheaper price tag? Disneyland repackages and sells a cleaned up, buttoned up, and wholly made up American Dream. In the end, the real problem isn’t Disneyland. The problem is endemic to the American dream, founded as it was on racism, sexism, and genocide. We’ve come a long way since then, and for all its problems, modern American life shows this. But it also shows the battle scars of its troubled past. In and of themselves, those scars are neither malignant nor benign. However, their removal is uncanny. Without them, I don’t recognize the place. It isn’t America. It never was.