My boyfriend showed me this picture along with an article about the Banksy-created (read more about Bansky here) satirical art exhibit/theme park when Dismaland opened back in 2015. (For those of you who aren't familiar with "Dismaland," check out the Wikipedia page).
"Have you seen this?" He asked me.
"Yeah, isn't it cool?" I responded, "I wanna go!"
"Oh. I thought you'd hate it," Jonathan said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because," he replied, "you love Disneyland so much."
"To all who come to this happy place: Welcome."
As I explored in my previous Disney-themed blog post, I always feel welcomed by the Disneyland Resort. Walking through the entrance gates and past the Mickey-shaped flowers fills me with a sense of calm and belonging: I have come to this happy place, and here, I am welcome.
But before I benefited from free employee (cast member) self-admission, underneath the sheer ecstasy of walking through those Disney gates existed the undercurrent of knowledge that my parents had spent a lot of money to allow me to feel so welcomed. Getting to those gates involved discussions of finances, finding the best deals on hotels and tickets, deciding to buy only a one-day one-park ticket instead of a park hopper to save money. My mom and I had a saying we loved to quote to one another whenever we were at the Park: "Money doesn't count at Disneyland." Maybe it was our connection to the original Emporium, but our favorite Disneyland activity has always been shopping- and buying- everything from collectable pins to festive Minnie ears to Disney T-shirts. "Money doesn't count at Disneyland." But of course, it did count. It was the only thing that counted.
Because I was only welcomed to that happy place as long as my parents could afford to buy me tickets. Not everyone is so fortunate. When Disney welcomes "all who come to this happy place," they are welcoming the select few who are able to afford admission. "Disneyland is your land." Whose land, exactly? Americans with disposable income? Families who save for years to afford two days in the parks? True, Disneyland offers its guests happiness, magic, and an escape into youthful idealism. But that happiness comes at a price: specifically, $157 per ticket (or $174 per ticket during peak seasons) for a one-day visit to both parks.
"Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America." Of all the statements in Walt Disney's Opening Day Dedication Speech, this one rings the most true- because Disneyland, and indeed the entire Disney Company, is dedicated to only two things: capitalism, and the bottom line. And capitalism and the bottom line are the hardest of the facts that have created America.
At an industry dinner honoring Emma Thompson and her portrayal of "Mary Poppins" creator P.L. Travers, Meryl Streep called out Walt Disney's notorious misogyny and racism, pointing out his support for an anti-Semitic industry lobby and quoting a 1938 letter the company wrote in response to an aspiring female animator. "Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen," read the letter, "as that task is performed entirely by young men." Streep concluded by quoting animator Ward Kimball: "He didn’t trust women or cats," Kimball said about his old boss. Clearly, Disney was not concerned with supporting women artists; and any man who does not like cats is not a man I could ever fully admire.
Even Walt Disney's own grand-niece, Abigail Disney, a filmmaker and advocate in her own right, confirmed Streep's allegations: "Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C'mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay 'with your own kind' at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the 'King of the Jungle' number wasn't proof enough!! How much more information do you need?"
In my younger years, I lived in vehement denial of Walt Disney's many recorded faults. I couldn't reconcile my admiration for the artist and innovator with my disgust for the misogynist and Anti-Semite. I didn't want to admit that perhaps Walt Disney built his theme-park and entertainment empire not only out of a desire to spread joy, but also out of a desire to make money, and to feed his own ego and ambition.
But then I went to grad school- the place where even the most earnest of young twenty-somethings go to have all their illusions shattered. I went to grad school all the way on the other side of the country, far away from the die-hard Disney-lovers who populate most of California. I watched the bizarre independent film "Escape From Tomorrow," which was filmed clandestinely in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World parks and which somehow escaped shut-down and lawsuits from the company. The movie features a man who manages in one day to experience every anxiety that comes with visiting a Disney park -- brushes with pedophiles, diseases running rampant, the Spaceship Earth globe at Epcot secretly being used to conduct horrible experiments on guests, you know, the usual -- and after watching this film, I thought for the first time how creepy it is that in this world in which we live, an entire theme park has been intricately created so that adults can pretend to be children while letting their actual children run wild.
I went with some classmates to see a local production of the play "A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney" by Lucas Hnath, which painted Walt as a veritable sociopath, who abused his brother, his daughter, his employees, and even a helpless pack of lemmings in the name of achieving personal Greatness- all in an intentionally sensationalized way, of course. I was skeptical when I first took my seat to watch that play, expecting to feel defensive as I watched my beloved hero, the subject of at least three of my elementary school biography reports, being attacked in such an irreverent way. But to my surprise, I loved the play. After watching it, I thought to myself: "yeah, that makes a lot of sense." Because in order to create a behemoth as huge as the Disney corporation, in order to fail as big and succeed as big as Walt Disney did, you would have to have a pretty huge ego. You would have to be ok with stepping on some toes. I remember a moment during Frozen's very stressful tech week, when our Tony-nominated (and soon-to-be Tony Winning) costume designer (unaffiliated with Disney, by the way...he was an independent contractor) screamed at one of the dressers because she couldn't find my townsperson hat, which it turned out had been sent away to get altered the night before and thus was not even in the building to be found. After effectively telling this woman that she was useless and was ruining his designs, he stormed out of the theatre lobby. Another actor then said, "And that's how you win a Tony."
That's how you build the world's biggest entertainment empire.
As a lifelong guest, I've seen how horrible some visitors of the parks can be- I've seen the parents who let their violent teenage boys try to break the displays in ride queues and scream "bitch" at the small children passing by in line. I've heard the stories of adult men on the Indiana Jones ride who ask the female cast members to buckle their seat belts for them (seat belts which are conveniently located very near those male guests' crotches). As a recent cast member, I've struggled to learn how to be creative within a rigid corporate structure.
Ten years ago, when faced with the accusation that Disneyland is merely a place where entitled Americans come to hemorrhage money buying bad food and stupid souvenirs, I would have sputtered and cried, "but...magic! happiness! innovation! but...Disneyland! Nothing is bad there and everything is good!" Now when faced with that accusation, the only response I have to give is "you're right. It is that."
Disneyland is a gross example of corporate America and consumerism, at its very worse. This is a fact- as hard as the facts that supposedly created America. So when I first saw an article on Facebook about Dismaland, back in 2015, ditto Banksy's elaborate prank in which he placed an inflatable figure dressed as a Guantanamo prisoner in Disneyland's Thunder Mountain ride a few years ago, I did not become defensive and try to diminish Disney's flaws by lauding the man-made magic the company uses to distract from them. Instead, I shared those articles on my Facebook page. I acknowledged, as I still do, that more often than not Disney guests visit the parks to drown any sense of social responsibility they may have had in sugar-coated, Dole-whip flavored, pixie-dust-covered Distraction for the low low price of $174 and their human decency.
And also- this coming Wednesday, I plan on going to play in the park with my mom to celebrate my birthday, where we will be shopping, and eating, and forgetting for one day all the things that are wrong with our world. We will ride Thunder Mountain and we will forget about prisoners suffering in Guantanamo. We will wave at the princesses and forget that Walt Disney would not allow women to animate for his movies. We will bask in the comfort of consumerism and we will leave feeling happy and full of magic.
I believe - and as well all know, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true - that it is possible to love both Disneyland and Dismaland. I believe it is possible to admire Walt Disney the artist and the innovator, while still acknowledging Walt Disney the misogynist, racist, and greedy capitalist. I often have the "can you enjoy the art separate from the man" debate with my boyfriend; can we still appreciate Roman Polanski's movies even knowing he statutory raped a young teen girl? My answer is usually no, when it comes to actual violence against another human being. If a man has sexually assaulted or abused a woman, for example, I believe the best course of action is to renounce that man and his work. But I've spent most of my life being a die-hard Johnny Depp fan, and rejecting him after Amber Heard's abuse allegations won't change the fact that I've still spent more time loving him than hating him. Our loves, our hates, our desires, are complicated. Human beings are complicated. Nothing is just black and white. Everything lives in the grey area- people do bad things and make good art. Other people do good things and make bad art. "It's A Small World" has both its beautiful painted facade visible from the park and it's cardboard backside visible from Harbor Blvd. As informed, complex people, it is our responsibility to evaluate the good and the bad equally, and then proceed to judge based on comprehensive analysis.
And my judgment, at least when it comes to Disneyland (and not when it comes to Roman Polanski...), is that I will take both the painted facade and the cardboard backside, and I will embrace both with open arms and with my whole heart. That is the duality of my Disney side.
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