Deconstructing Dumbo: The Disneyland Discourse on Suburban America

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“Sorry, folks! We're closed for two weeks to clean and repair America's favorite family fun park. Sorry, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh!” -Marty Moose, Walley World National Lampoons Summer Vacation (1983)

“Sorry folks, park's closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya”

- Lasky, Walley World Security guard, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation (1983)

The Griswold family’s disappointing arrival at the mythical Walley World resulted in a semi-armed standoff in which bb gun wielding family patriarch Clark Griswold overran park security, ferrying his family to ride after ride, ultimately gaining forgiveness from Walley World’s owner. The Griswold family’s punishing trek from Chicago across the western U.S remains the National Lampoon’s series most popular production. Though Walley World was meant to be a gentle parody of Anaheim’s Disneyland, its ridiculous finale spoke to disappointment in the American Dream. Griswold confides in Walley World owner Roy Walley:

Clark: Roy; can I call you Roy? Have you even driven your whole family cross-country? Roy Walley: Oh, hell yes. Once I drove all of them to Florida. The smell coming out of the back seat was terrible. Clark: I know that smell, Roy; but what if you had driven all that way and Florida was closed? Roy Walley: Closed? Uh, they don't close Florida. … Clark: I just want you to ask yourself one thing. If you were… if you were me, wouldn't you do the same thing for your children? Roy Walley: No.

In 2009’s Adventureland, James Brennan (played by Jessie Eisenberg), a recent college grad with a degree in Renaissance Studies, finds his postgraduation hopes of escape to 1987 New York squashed by recessionary pressures as an alcoholic father’s demotion necessitated James’ gainiful employment. Forced to work a summer gig at a local Pittsburgh amusement park, Disneyland it was not. Roger Ebert described the park as “shabby” where “all of the rides look secondhand, all of the games are rigged, and all of the prizes look like surplus.” New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted an atmosphere of “suburban discomfort”, characterizing the establishment as “a sad little amusement park that serves as the employer of last resort for the area’s misfit young.”

Films like Adventureland and National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation represent a cultural pushback against the idyllic vision of suburban America that Disneyland has long symbolized. Disneyland’s famously scrub brushed employees, “attractive, white, young men and women” often “college students, grads, or teachers” contrast sharply with the downtrodden misanthropes of Adventureland. In National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation, the entire process of reaching Disneyland, the migration of Midwesterners to Los Angeles which just happens to be a large part of Los Angeles’ creation, and the destination itself are beset with obstacles, torturing the family, undermining Clark Griswold’s authority as father. When the final destination is closed, Clark’s masculinity knows only one way out, fake plastic guns.

As has been recounted numerous times, Walt Disney himself created Disneyland, in part as a reaction to the “vulgarity” of Coney Island. For many of Disney’s generation, Coney Island’s unsupervised ethnically diverse heterosocial spaces represented a degraded sort of leisure, one founded on a heterogenous ethnic diversity and “sexual ambiguity”. As Eric Avila points out in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (2004), Disney “renounced the contradictions and uncertainties of modern urban society. The very heterogeneity and dissonance that defined cosmopolitan urban culture inspired [him] to create a counterculture of order, regimentation, and homogeneity.” (Avila, 119)

Started in the mid 1950s, Disneyland’s pervasiveness as a neologism has become ubiquitous. John Findlay, in Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture after 1940 (1992), notes that by 1956, the public had brightlined Disneyland’s cultural meaning such that “it had come to mean “any fantastic of fanciful land or place; a never never land.” (52) Employed in numerous settings, phrases like “’Disneyland for adults’ was invoked to publicize (and sanitize the images of both Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs and the gambling resort of Las Vegas.” (Findlay, 52) However, beyond language, Disneyland cast a towering shadow that helped re-imagine popular culture, the urban-suburban divide, and landscapes across the country. In addition, Disneyland perpetuated patriarchal suburban domesticities while reifying racial inequality.

If as Lizabeth Cohen argues in A Consumer Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) that postwar government policies as represented by the G.I. Bill, VA/FHA home loans, and new tax polices sought to create a “consumer republic” that enhanced purchasing power, conflating citizenship with consumerism, this new orientation reverberated politically, socially, economically, and spatially. If most writers have focused intensely on housing and school desegregation struggles, others have employed a broader lens, employing critical race theory to popular culture of the age. Prominent among such methodological turns stands Eric Avila and his aforementioned Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. Examining meanings behind film noir, urban sci-fi, Disneyland, Dodger’s Stadium, and freeway construction, Avila locates an attempt by Southern California elites and others to construct Los Angeles as suburban “white spot” immune to the dangers of the city, protected by homogenous suburbanization. According to Avila, popular culture not only reflected the changing perceptions and normative values associated with suburbanization but also “prefigured the rightward shift of American politics during the postwar period.” (228)

As American postwar demographics changed, whites attempted to construct a “white suburban” imaginary to prevent what many saw as the excesses of a dark or racialized city. Few regions represent this shift as clearly as Southern California. Within Southern California few metropolitan areas illustrate this development as lucidly as Los Angeles. Avila explores the construction of a “privatized, consumer oriented subjectivity premised upon patriarchy, whiteness and suburban home ownership.” As government policies attempted to reconstruct American identities along consumerist lines, white suburbanites attempted to build a “classless” ideal that separated them from the “darkened” inner city, as Avila writes, “Blacks, women, homosexuals, and Communists ran rampant in the noir city, threatening the prospects for a return to a class vision of white patriarchy that defined suburban idealizations of the American Way.” (Avila, 104). Reinforcing such ideals were the perceived post war decline of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Watts, a decline due in great part to HOLC/FHA policies, and the rise of suburban enclaves like South Gate meant suburban residents hoped to differentiate themselves from the evils of urban living. Thus, as “the expansion of suburban California provided a mythic space for the construction of a new “white city””, Bunker Hill, Boyle Heights, and Watts provided convenient straw men for the emerging “cinematic vision of a black and alien Los Angeles.” Here Avila juxtaposes the portrayal of the inner city in Los Angeles film noir with the rise of Disneyland, each representing an idealized/demonized version of metropolitan regions.

Of course, noir did not monopolize such imaginaries alone. Sci-fiction films also contributed to this dynamic. War of the Worlds, Them!, He Walked By Night and other movies promoted white middle class suburban domesticities as much as their noir counterparts. For example, Avila points to a “climatic scene” in War of the Worlds in which “masses of Angelenos take refuge inside a church shortly before the imminent holocaust, a white family – mother, father, son, daughter – huddles together in prayer, gazing up toward the image of Christ altar.” (Avila, 100-101) Editing and lighting techniques emphasize the image of the white family under alien attack. Urbanites under the attack of “alien” minorities and the structural deficiencies of cities necessitated white flight, if only to preserve whiteness and the nuclear family. Still, the visions supplied by both noir and urban science fiction provided suburbanites with equal parts horror and fascination. Though these films encouraged fear over “alien invasion” they “simultaneously preserved a psychic tie between the city and suburb.” (Avila, 103) The “Other” remained integral to Cold War interests defining subversives from communists to blacks to homosexuals “upholding its centrality in post war American popular culture [inserting] itself into the very heart of Southern California’s cultural milieu.” (Avila, 103).

While film noir and urban science fiction highlighted the threats of a city inhabited by untrustworthy women and non-white citizens densely and dangerously packed into urban spaces, Disneyland symbolized the epitome of decentralized, privatized white suburbia, functioning to provide “a space where white Southern Californians could affirm their whiteness against a set of racial stereotypes.” (Avila, 137) In terms of family structure, Disneyland delineated a “social order” that appealed to the tastes and desires of both a growing middle class and an “embourgeoised working class” emphasizing patriarchy and the nuclear family. (Avila, 137) Here Disney’s message meshed perfectly with postwar Federal economic policies such as the G.I. Bill that privileged patriarchal domesticities. Once again Lizabeth Cohen acknowledges such developments, writing, “If the G.I. Bill privileged some groups over others, the tax code in the late 1940s was altered in ways that reinforced the G.I. Bill in favoring the traditional male breadwinner headed family and the male citizen over the female within it.” (Cohen, 144) In this way, Disneyland as an appendage of a larger consumer republic that privileged the nuclear family, thus forcing women to remain financially dependent on men. Disneyland situated itself nicely in such an atmosphere.

While writers such as Matt Lassiter have argued for an end to scholarly studies that divide suburbs and cities into discrete unconnected entities, Avila seems to have addressed this relation in the negative. For Avila, in many ways like a post war American Orientalism, the “vanilla suburbs’” identity depended on the symbolic “chocolate city” as the “other”. Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right explored Orange County’s middle and upper class residents’ contributions to the construction of the conservative ideology that fueled the Reagan Revolution. Avila credits Disneyland for cradling this “racialized conservatism that informed the nascent political struggles of the New Right,” providing a popular culture touchstone for a burgeoning social movement. Findlay points to similar developments, suggesting Disneyland contributed to the O.C.’s “distinctive suburban identity” but paradoxically also helped to “transform Anaheim, a small and subordinate town on the fringes of Los Angeles, into the equivalent of a central business district for urbanizing Orange County.” (Findlay, 54) Thus Disneyland, though serving as a symbol of postwar suburban planning, also drove local urbanization.

Undoubtedly, Los Angeles’ role as cultural producer influenced such developments. L.A’s suburban decentralized nature, when portrayed in movies, television, and via Disneyland reinforced such conceptions of post war America. In many ways, Disneyland served as a manifestation of film. Movie studio art directors supported by a slew of “architects, writers, special effects artists and other motion picture” trades emerged as the park’s chief designers. These film experts employed techniques such as “forced perspective” - tricking the eye into viewing buildings as taller than in reality - and “scaling down” - the parks features were not life size, for example the trains traversing the parks are built at “approximately five eights scale” -while threading narratives through “the rides, the several lands, and the general park” that reflected those of Disney movies. (Findlay, 68) Employing both “Disney Realism” and “Capitalist Realism”, the park broadcast a worldview that articulated sunny visions of life brought to patrons by corporate sponsors like Monsanto. Disneyland professed faith in suburban corporate living and the future that the Fortune 500 promised. (Findlay, 78) Moreover, noir’s postulation of the city suggested a shift form Enlightenment ideals of urban areas as Avila notes, “In contrast to the enlightenment view of the Western city as the site of individual opportunity and the summit of social progress film noir emphasized the social and psychological consequences of urban modernity.” (Avila, 69) McGirr’s Orange County republicans epitomize this view; Orange County conservatives wanted a return to normative traditions, “but also called for a new one based on a highly modern technocratic defense of ethos, as assertion of an invigoration of the nuclear family unit as the locus of moral authority.” In contrast, noir’s vision suggested that Progressive reforms failed to stem “the degraded culture of the modern metropolis [underscoring] the need for a sociospatial alternative to the chaos of urban modernity precipitating such transformative urban processes as suburban development, urban renewal, and highway construction.” (Findlay, 78)

Ironically, as John Findlay suggests Disneyland represented this awkward balance of modernity and tradition as it privileged “Main Street America” in its design and format but surely benefitted from the Santa Monica Freeway that led patrons to their gates. In addition, Disneyland mirrored the structural changes unfolding in the broader American economy. While it promoted traditional American individualism and the aesthetics of small town America, the park and its masters also employed the tools of modern economics and the developing mass media. Organized “along industrial lines for a type of mass production”, Disneyland manufactured “happiness” rather than “durable goods”, meanwhile the park’s workers illustrated the shift from “extractive and industrial jobs toward the service sector.” (Findlay, 94). Though Walt Disney’s creation harkened back to the days of small business entreprenueralism, the methods it used required the employment of “organization men and women” and alliances with multinational corporations. As John Findlay suggests, “Disneyland conveyed mores that were associated with America’s preindustrial and industrializing past by using techniques specific to America’s postindustrial present and future.” (Findlay, 94).

In terms of class, Disneyland obviously supported middle income domesticities. However, as is usually the case with consumerism, it proved difficult to limit its appeal. Certainly, Disney felt little connection to the nation’s poorer residents. Even in its conceptualization Walt Disney “did not necessarily intend even to admit the lower classes. [Disneyland] aimed instead to harmonize and refine the respectable middle classes with middlebrow culture.” (Findlay, 87) Despite its racialized use of the “other”, Disneyland attracted Southern California’s working classes, many of whom were non-white. Avila recounts Theresa Hernandez’s trip to Disneyland, where despite the park’s “othering” of non-whites, it appealed to the Hernandez family, “for a working class families of color who labored to reap the fruits of the American Way” writes Avila “an annual trip to Disneyland may have signaled a rite of passage into the materially abundant universe of the middle class … “ (Avila, 143)

Regionally, writers frequently conflated Disneyland with the West’s national parks, attributing to it a legitimacy that provided greater meaning. Not only did the park lend Anaheim and Orange County a cultural significance, upon which both capitalized, but it also served as a “California based critique” of both Eastern cities and the problems Walt Disney believed these cities brought to American culture. However, by the 1970s as white flight accelerated and communities’ racial make up changed, Disneyland symbolized refuge rather than escape, “For a resident of a white suburban neighborhood threatened by juvenile delinquency and racial succession, Disneyland offered a reassuring vision of domestic harmony and ethnic homogeneity and modeled the social order white suburban Americans sought to create within their own communities.” (Avila, 142) Disney officials recognized this shift. In a 1984 publication, the park claimed Walt Disney “had included Main Street U.S.A in the park as a counterpoise to ‘the rootless society and ugliness’ of Los Angeles … In later years it became standard to view the theme park not as natural outgrowth of Los Angeles but as an aberration and an antidote to it.” (Findlay, 97) That the park had been created in a manner as to be “timeless” and more in response to its “vulgar” Coney Island predecessor mattered little to such observers. Contemporaries of the day endorsed the idea that Disney’s “urban/suburban” vision merited worth. Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury lauded Walt Disney for mayor in 1960 arguing that “Disney is a city builder. He has already proven his ability to construct an entire community, plus rivers, plus mountains, from the gaslines up. He has already solved, in small compass most of the problems of Los Angeles.” (Findlay, 96)

One final irony deserves attention. Orange County’s prosperity rested on Cold War military and national infrastructure expansion. Yet, many if not most of its residents articulated an anti-government ethos. Disneyland also benefitted from these developments. Walt Disney proved a fierce Cold War warrior displaying little to no reluctance in imbuing Disneyland with a pro-capitalist foundation, even refusing Russian Premier Nikia Krushuchev entry in the 1960s. Though these Cold War messages faded as Disneyland’s existence continued, like Orange County, anti-communism served as a unifying and in Disney’s case, profitable force. Moreover, Disneyland surely benefitted from the highway infrastructure created in the 1950s which situated the park along the Santa Monica Freeway. A freeway, Eric Avila notes came at the expense of numerous communities of color in Southern California. Despite benefitting from government largesse, both Orange County residents and Disneyland itself exuded an anti-government positioning. For Orange County this can clearly be seen in its contributions to the New Right, while Disneyland displayed its own anti government bias in its 1963 refusal to allow a Sheraton Hotel to violate the park’s “visual integrity”. Disneyland forced architectural revisions to the building, ostensibly suggesting the Anaheim skyline belonged to it rather than the city’s residents. Even some local conservatives bristled at such attitudes. (Findlay, 97)

By the 1980s, Disney’s cultural power remained dominant. As that decade drew to a close and the 1990s began, Victorious athletes announced triumphantly that they were “going to Disneyworld.” Yet, the shifting sands of American culture pointed to some uncomfortable truths for Mickey Mouse et al. In a 1984 legal proceeding, a gay couple challenged its expulsion from the park for holding hands. To the surprise of many, the Orange County jury ruled in favor of the couple, a direct affront to Disney’s ideals. By the mid-1990s even its main propaganda arm, its animated features, no longer commanded the attention of the American public as newer companies like Pixar and Dreamworks produced more innovative works. Moreover, the changes in national demographics and corporate America meant that pursing a suburban white ideal no longer sufficed. Increasingly self consciously diverse advertising campaigns grew more common as corporations attempted to tap into expanding minority markets (of course those markets had always existed but had been largely ignored). Though Adventureland’s amusement park failed to match Disneyland in any way, the protagonist escapes his suburban hell for late 1980s New York, a cauldron of mixed ethnicities, urban conflict, and economic decline. Granted a movie made in 2009, when cities have become safer and more attractive to young professionals and older couples, might look back with rose colored glasses, but certainly it hints at wider shifts that leave Disneyland’s suburban ideal less than it was.

Ryan Reft