A Disney shop, 2003
A Disney shop, 2003

Anthropology on Disney World: Consumerism, Postmodernism, and Decontextualisation

In his book “Vinyl Leaves, Walt Disney World and America”, Stephen M. Fjellman explains how Disney World incarnates the post-modern society, one based on consumerism. Here is a summary of his thoughts.

In the introduction, Mr. Fjellman makes a reference to the book “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. The book describes a utopian dictatorship of happiness. “A good way to make sure that people police themselves is to get them to believe essentially the same stories about what the world is and why the way it is is good, true and beautiful. The world needs to be described, and it needs to be justified by arguments about nature, philosophical principle, history, or the gods. People will find their place in such a world. They will learn what hopes they might reasonably hold for themselves.” Mr. Fjellman’s argument is that this is exactly what our society is trying to achieve, not necessary consciously, but as a matter of fact.

A Disney shop, 2003
A Disney shop, 2003

Disney is a major corporation that has a vested interest in promoting a consumerist society. Disney World is not merely a collection of fantasies for children, it is actively advocating the utopia of happy consumerism.  “Our lives can only be well lived (or live at all) through the purchase of commodities. As the commodity form becomes a central part of culture, so culture becomes available for use in the interest of commodification, as a legitimation for the entire system. We must be taught that it is good, reasonable, just, and natural that the means necessary for life are available only through the market”.  In this context, here is how Disney World is defined: “Walt Disney World produces, packages, and sells experiences and memories as commodities.” Visitors know that when going to Disney World, they enter a place where all their activities are controlled and conditioned (e.g. queues, soundtracks all over the parks, visual magnets like the Cinderella castle). They know that their experiences and souvenirs will be manufactured and probably not so different from the ones of other visitors. But they still buy the package because they know they will get a very enjoyable experience.

Queues in the Epcot Test Track ride, 2003
Queues in the Epcot Test Track ride, 2003

Stephen M. Fjellman notices the following:

  • Rides are often experiences during which the visitors are inactive. The only way for visitors to do something and take part in the magic is at the exit, when they arrive at the souvenir shops. What is purchased then is not only the souvenir, but the only means for the visitor to take an active part in the magical experience.
  • The sentence “If we can dream it, we can do it” from the EPCOT Future World is ambiguous. Who are the ‘we’? Mr. Fjellman argues that the first ‘we’ means us, but that the second one most probably means ‘corporations’. EPCOT is promoting the pursuit of new technologies for the good of humans, but even if we dream it, most of us will not build the new technologies, only the corporations having the ability to do so will. So, the message is actually to trust corporations and their technologies.
  • Often at Disney World, rides about the future are actually about the past future: the future as it was imagined a few decades ago (e.g. Space Mountain, Spaceship Earth). This paradox is tolerated by the otherwise perfectionism of the Disney imagineers because it achieves a goal: providing reasonable credibility to the statement that corporate technology is good for humanity.  Real future technologies are too controversial, old ones are better suited.
  • Animatronics have been part of the Disney World experience since its creation. Why are they so important to Disney? The idea to use robots to imitate humans could be seen as frightening. But again, the goal of Disney is to promote industrial consumerism. Many of its rides are sponsored by corporations such as GM, Exxon, and Kraft. All are heavily involved in high technology. So, the human face of animatronics and their harmless appearance makes technology friendly and acceptable to consumers.
  • The Disney movies and the Disney rides often alternate frightening scenes with happy ones. Bruno Bettelheim made the point that this technique used in fairy tales is useful for education, that it is a “symbolic presentation of difficult and dangerous psychosocial contradictions”. But the goal of Disney is not to educate kids, it is to make money.  Scaring children to then make them happier is a good way to sell more cinema tickets and merchandising.
Animal Kingdom, Disney World, 2003
Animal Kingdom, Disney World, 2003

Why are these messages are not detected by visitors? According to the book, it is thanks to cognitive overload and decontextualization.

  • We are constantly overloaded by stimuli in Disney World, “it is with the overriding of visitors’ capacities for making discriminations that Disney metathemes may take effect.”
  • Disney World is a patchwork of enchanted medieval castles, colonial history, future technologies, Moroccan markets, zoos, characters from Disney cartoons, American presidents, rides sponsored by car manufacturers, Mount Everest, astronomy, dinosaurs and so on. It is the world summarized. But the trick is that if you remove an element from its context, it loses a lot of its meaning. “By pulling meanings out of their contexts and repackaging them in bounded informational packets, decontextualization makes it difficult for people to maintain a coherent understanding about how things work.” It is then easier to tell the Disney definition of history: “Idealized United States as heaven, history is decoration. Colonialism was fun, the colonized cute (but a little stupid). How nice if they could all be like us – with kids, a dog, and GE appliances – in a world whose only problems are avoiding Captain Hook, the witch’s apple.”
  • “The Disney strategy is to juxtapose the real and the fantastic (real birds mixed with fake sounds of birds), surrounding us with the mix until it becomes difficult to tell which is which.  A kind of euphoric disorientation is supposed to set in as we progressively accept the Disney definition of things. We are asked to submit to a wilful suspension of disbelief in the ostensible interest of a complete entertainment experience.”

I agree with the analysis of Mr. Fjellman, but after all, this is not so shocking in a consumerist society. What is much more worrying is the trend to design everything like Disney theme parks: hotels, cities, even museums. The risk is to forget that Disney World is only one vision of a utopian society, one conception of happiness, a corporate one. Life is so much more than that.

Do you think this article is fair to Disney World? Would you like to defend the park against some of the claims made here? Or do you think the reality is even darker?