Sunday, April 19, 2015

It's a Small World

Circling back to some recent vacation memories. Sophia and I were bored and pretty disenchanted at the Magic Kingdom last week, so killing time we took the Walt Disney World Railroad steam engine train around the park. The Indian Encampment shown here is an out-of-bounds section of the Kingdom located between the Frontierland and Fantasyland Stations, which you can see for a moment along the route if you're paying attention to the scenery. "Ahead is a friendly Indian village with the inhabitants active in their daily tribal chores," says the engineer. This is a world view locked in the 1950s, which as Richard Francaviglia argues in his excellent paper "Walt Disney's Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West" (1999) is still celebrating the conquest of Anglo American manifest destiny and perpetuating widely-held racial stereotypes and a deeply-embedded narrative about power and ownership. Needless to say, there was no mention of The Trail of Tears or the Indian Removal Act of 1830. So why did I find this fantasy world troubling?
Well, because people like us come to Orlando from all over America and the globe to visit the Magic Kingdom, and it is an environment of popular culture that is extremely influential. According to Wikipedia, in 2013 the park hosted 18.58 million visitors, making it the most visited theme park in the world for the fifth consecutive year. Here millions will be subjected to an anacronistic, plastic figurinesque view of history that is glossed over and distorted. In the Disney view, it is a small world, and that seems to work just fine for the majority of Americans, who know so little about their own history, never mind that of the rest of the world. It is not a question of suspending one's disbelief for a day; for many this is actually the only history they will get in a full entertainment calendar. In short, this sixty year-old fantasy-reality is how many still see themselves and what the rest of the world will inevitably take away as an impression of our culture.