I’ve just spent the weekend in the belly of the Culture Industry – Walt Disney World. I’ll leave aside the Epcot experience, even the actually rather cute World Showcase, where Disney attempts to package the architectural and cultural essence of a dozen different countries in about a half city block apiece (Italy a miniature Piazza San Marco complete with Doge’s Palace, Campanile, and fountain, Morroco a miniature Marrakesh with about fifty yards of winding streets, England a stunning collage of an “English” garden and a line of bunged-together buildings whose architecture ranges from a thatched-roof cottage to a tudor house to a Georgian building to some Victorian extravaganza, Canada a collage of Canadian Rockies, Northwestern totem poles, a Victorian palace, and British Columbian gardens). What’s really scary is the Magic Kingdom itself, an amusement park which exists as a giant symbiotic counterpart to Disney’s own imagination industry, its relentless recycling of the corpus of European fairy tales and whatever bits of history and literary culture come into its sights: Collodi’s Pinocchio, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Hugo’s Notre-Dame-de-Paris, the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, Milne’s Pooh stories, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
The daily parade in the Magic Kingdom is the most striking event, a ten-minute, painstaking rehearsed procession of what seems like every Disney character you’ve ever encountered (except for the fish from Nemo). I found myself fascinated especially by the actors (“cast members” in Disney parlance, a term which I understand gets applied to every Disney employee from the person in the Pooh costume to the humblest busperson in the hamburger joint) playing “human beings” – i.e. those who weren’t wearing full-body costumes or full-head masks. What’s most notable are the female leads – Alice, Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, etc. – all of whom are made up to the nth degree, so that their faces resemble those of china dolls. Their hands are perfectly manicured, and their costumes precise replicas of those which the animated characters wear. They’re really the opposite of the old-fashioned “animatronics” one encounters in some of Disney’s older attractions, the mechanical animals and characters which are meant to look like living, organic creatures, but which instead resemble what they are – crude robots. The women in the parade (and a few men, as well – Aladdin, Peter Pan, a Prince Charming or two) are human beings who have been gotten up to look like animated films. It shows the most in their hairdos, which are big clunky wigs which seem purposefully engineered to resemble the blank curved planes of animated hair (which has never gotten as sophisticated as digital animation has been able to make it – cf. Donkey in Shrek or the bichon in Shrek II).
So far as I can tell the children love them, are happy to take them for the “princesses” they play. But I find the whole business rather unsettling, uncanny – a transgression of the human/representation boundary – something like a deeply vulgarized version of one of Cindy Sherman’s “old master” photos. Or the “tableaux vivants” that were all the rage as party games in the nineteenth century, where living characters took on the poses of famous artworks (see Wharton’s House of Mirth). Or Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, with its continual procession of actors in the costumes and poses of paintings.
The only way to get the taste of celluloid out of my mouth was to have dinner at Fat Boy’s Bar-B-Q in Kissimmee, a relatively pure outpost of Southern Cracker culture – something no less contaminated by big business (think Nascar and Jeff Foxworthy), and a poor thing, but mine own.