Why might critics come to regard Disney theme parks as "sites of major ideological importance"?

Tarquin Finland

The concept of Disney theme parks becoming sites of "ideological importance" can be viewed at two levels: the post-modernist commentary upon the American way of life and values that Disney is accused of representing; and secondly at the more simplistic and general level of criticism in the manner of a false representation of reality. Several perspectives / critiques will be examined to establish the validity of their observations. Questions arise concerning customer expectations given the notion of the "hyperreality" of society that Baudrillard (1987:144) imagines to be in effect. He describes false representation of reality as ideology (1988:172)

Care must also be taken as to the levels of awareness of the paying customer to all of the criticisms offered and especially the mechanisms of commercialisation and corporate profitability endemic in American life. In essence, is the version of reality (technology, entertainment or history) that is offered, representing the values of the Disney corporation, representing America, or America's needs and expectations? 

Much of the discussion will combine a post-modern critique alongside a general debate as to the merits of the theme parks and their accuracy. A contrary position will be discussed, suggesting that ideology and portrayal are co-incidental for family entertainment, the success of theme parks such as Disney simply expressions of a stylised cartoon way of life. 

Definition: Ideology - 

'A pattern of beliefs, values and concepts which together form the basis of a complete view of human life and society'. (Goodall 1987:220)

The suggestion that there is a "hidden" ideology behind or involved in theme parks such as Disney, is a ongoing "theme" of post-modern writing. Post-Modernism is essentially a commentary upon modern society, and authors such as Baudrillard (1987:145) present a critical view of the world around us, describing it as "hyper-reality".

Thus, the distinction between what is represented by the media and our expectations have become fused; we cannot distinguish reality without imaging what we have seen before, our preconceptions pre-judging, (in this case a Disneyworld visit) our experience.Disney theme parks are therefore an ideal case for study, given that almost everyone will have seen Disney cartoons; their characters; and the media advertisements extolling the attractions of the theme parks. This analysis is therefore, to some perhaps unsurprising. Arguably, the visit has been framed, described and explained many times prior to the event through the television or free promotional video tapes. Visitors might indeed be dissatisfied if their visit was not as described through these mediums. It would appear almost ironic that the programme that creates the desire to visit the park might appear "better" in reality than the actual visit itself. The programme would have been filmed in sunshine, have commentary, far less crowding than subsequently experienced and have access to more information and areas than the visitor. This same use of media is the first thing that many sites offer upon entry; the video of everything you are about to see. 

Baudrillard (1987:144) supports this proposition of unreality, describing the process as;

"Reality itself founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reproduction of the real, preferably through another, reproductive medium such as photography."
Hewison (1987:135) extends this thinking;
" Post-modernism and the heritage industry are linked, in that they both conspire to create a shallow screen that intervenes between our present lives and our history. We have no understanding of history in depth, but instead are offered a contemporary creation, more costume drama and re-enactment than critical discourse". 
This is especially true of the "educational" aspect of Disney parks. They offer a concise history of many countries, always idealised, sanitised and value laden. The characters used in storytelling are sometimes fictional or even robotic. 

So, if what is displayed or portrayed is already pre-judged or in some way pre-experienced and totally expected, how different is this from the American way of life. Could this go towards explaining the success of Disney theme parks. The visitors might, if they were conscious of their lifestyles, demand this experience of their trip to Florida. 

The ideology of Disney inherent in the fabric of the buildings, the merchandising of Disney products, the "costume drama" as Hewison calls it and even the directing of the crowd could perhaps reflect the American way of life. This is part of the importance attached to the idea of a Disney "ideology". Part of this could be considered the control placed over the visitors; of what to see,(what is revealed) where to stand and even what to buy. 

Eco, (1986:48) regards Disneyland as "An allegory of consumer society, a place of absolute iconism, ...it is also place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like its robots." This robotic theme is extended further by the control of the crowd by railings, and even the staff's control of admission to sites and their instructions of where to sit and how to behave. There is no place for personal initiative or free will within the experience of Disneyland. 

The symbolic comparison with consumer society is interesting given the opportunities to purchase souvenirs and food, all within the framework of supposed realism. The displays or exhibits are largely retail outlets, mid-western cowboy saloons becoming shops. It is almost as if the signs that say "photograph from here" could be expanded to include "buy now" signs! The consumerist nature of Disney could arguably be extended to cover any aspect of the visit. Even the view on offer is based on a kind of "more is better" idea, there are no gaps or voids between centuries or countries displayed. Eco (1986)calls this "the abundance of reconstructed truth,....always something to see, the great voids of modern architecture and city planning are unknown here". It is perhaps strange that the visitor appears unaware of the incongruities within yards of each other.

Further evidence of corporate or consumerist motives lie within the technological displays offered. Science or energy expositions are all sponsored by large corporations, their corporate message is what the visitor receives, not truth or reality, merely another advertisement similar to the television at home. Even when presenting the visitor with new knowledge or experiences the familiar or comfortable becomes incorporated.

Jenks (1993:197) compares the convergence of shopping malls and theme parks, "in which the former attracts crowds increasingly through entertainments and the latter survives by selling goods". This tends to suggest that somewhere there has become some kind of mass culture or mass market for this style of entertainment. Some might call it the "lowest common denominator", alongside an ideological standpoint, determining the representations and narratives offered. 

A contrary position might argue whether Disney sites are of ideological importance, the vision and ideals of one man (and now corporation), reflecting American life and values, or simply nothing so complex or sinister; just the expectation of society as a perfect expression of entertainment, a little education and "fun"? There is the possibility and thus an alternative argument that the sites fulfil modern society's needs; their growth and success would suggest that to be true, any ideological misrepresentation of reality purely a necessity for family suitability. Disney's presentation of "entertainment" has become the template for other amusement parks, even heritage sites, around the world. Their cartoon formula is now being copied by other film companies, aware of the commercial possibilities and popularity of animation. They have even recruited Disney animators to ensure a style or continuity of the genre. (The Times, November 21 1998)

Therefore, the difficulty arises as to what ends are the parks aimed; as sites of ideology as the proposition asks, a perfect reflection of society, or something far more simple or commercial? If we assume that perfect accuracy is not possible, probably not very profitable or even desirable given the misdeeds of the past (in the example of their portrayal of history), the sanitised compromise is possibly the best answer. Let us not forget that the theme of these parks is built only upon cartoon characters. How can they be involved in the central tenet of post-modernist critiques upon the representation of reality? The final consideration in an argument against an idealised portrayal of life, society and history would be the fact that the real target group of Disney (or any other theme park) are children. They "bring" the adults who could have an awareness of the issues offered, will not experience the same exposure to "unreality". Most things a child might want or expect are "unreal".

In conclusion, perhaps the critics description of Disney as America in miniature is accurate; totally reflecting the definition of ideology offered at the beginning of this paper. All the beliefs, values and concepts offered to the visitor by the Disney corporation exactly mirror society; it is this perhaps that contributes to their success and more importantly, gives the visitor greatest comfort. All the values, nostalgia and sentimentality, wrapped in commercialisation, are expected or even demanded for a re-enforcement of mass beliefs. This is why critics would come to believe that Disney ideology is important, the prime illustration of American life. It is also especially important as the style of "entertainment" offered by Disney is copied throughout the world. 

There is therefore the proviso that market forces or corporate profitability following a style or "formula" of entertainment dictates many aspects of presentation, simply by the success and profitability of the medium.Hyperreality, and the distinction between the media and reality is important but only that it permeates all aspects of life. Disneyland is just one of many areas that has become blurred, shopping has become part of leisure, pre-experience of the visit unavoidable if the corporation has attracted you there successfully. Perhaps we do not want to be "amazed" any longer, comfort perhaps is taken from familiarity.
Finally, the authors own writings must be affected by media techniques and their own viewpoints might be questioned. Their arguments follow a documentary style, with powerful persuasions and that theirs is the truth. What gives the author a better version of reality is arguable, they have strong feelings and a subjective style of their own version of reality, i.e. ideology.

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