Thursday, April 14, 2011

Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock: The Mouse that Roared

Earlier this month I went to Disneyland for the first time in my adult life. As a child, I'm sure I went close to ten times- all of my grandparents live(d) in Los Angeles and I have memories of visiting both Disneyland and Universal Studious multiple times. I also traveled to Disneyworld in Florida twice. I had pretty much forgotten Disneyland until I got there and it came back to me- I especially remembered Frontierland and Adventureland with the jungle themes and the railroad roller coaster. It was the same, just everything seemed smaller. And cleaner, creepier and more sinister. There was something slightly absurd about spending three days in a place full of children without seeing a single piece of trash on the ground. The piped in music bothered me a little, but the crowds of people around me didn't even seem to notice it. Nor did they notice that the employees at the hotel were wearing 80s style outfits in horrid beige polyester. It was like everyone stuck their heads in sand for the sake of a few days at the "happiest place on earth." Every 100 yards or so would be a cluster of empty strollers. Apparently Disneyland is so safe that parents park their strollers and their stuff and leave them for awhile. I kept expecting to see a parked baby.


But the babies were out enjoying Disneyland. And I was left with a sinking feeling that all was not right. The new edition of "The Mouse that Roared" by Henry Giroux (Grace Pollock coauthored the second edition) takes on Disney and the complacency that I was resisting. I left Disneyland reeling with logistical and critical questions, even fantasizing about writing a book about these questions. I heard a rumor that if you dial 911 from Disneyland it doesn't go to the police, but to an internal Disneyland security thing (true, according to Giroux- more later). The piped in music made me wonder- had I just gone three days hearing only songs owned by various subsidies of the Disney Corporation? How long could you stay at Disneyland without hearing the same song twice, and only hear Disney-owned songs? (You can listen to my iPod for 29.9 days without hearing the same song twice, for example.) Do employees at Disneyland get paid enough to merit such broad smiles all the time and the indignities of wearing uncomfortable, hideous outfits? Or are Disney jobs the best/only things around in a crappy economic environment? Was the water used in the light/water show I watched grey water? (OK, Giroux didn't touch that one.) I looked and looked online for a book that even came close to answering some of these questions, but it became clear to me that it is hard to get answers: Disneyland is all about fantasy and innocence, and knowing how things works would ruin the innocence. No one wants to know that there isn't really a little dude inside of the ATM or a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow (like that juxtaposition?)- they just want to enjoy getting their money, from a machine or the pot of gold. And Disney doesn't want you to know anything that might make you think yes, they may just own enough music from soundtracks to keep you listening for more than 29.9 days.

Then I found this book at the library with my new library card. Giroux would be proud of me for asking these questions. Disney, he argues, is dangerous. While claiming to be all about innocence, fun and entertainment, Disney and other culture/media/entertainment corporations are part of the "public pedagogy": "the primary sites at which education takes place for the vast majority of young people and adults." Disney is particularly influential because of its size and connections- think of it as the Phillip Morris of entertainment- and because of the way that the company successfully positions itself the wholesome family company. Purveyor of fun family entertainment like animated films, the ABC family channel, Mickey Mouse, "Hannah Montana" etc, Disney IS childhood for America and much of the world. It's just not objectionable. Many people see it as part of the fabric of America. Which makes it all the more dangerous: how can you argue with something innocuous? When Disney IS America, it's hard to notice that Disney is also shaping America (and the world) with regressive "family values" that perpetuate age-old racist ideas, classic and outdated ideas about the all-American white, "nuclear" heterosexual family, etc.


Remember Celebration, the Disney owned and operated town in Florida? Celebration wraps almost all of the "public pedagogy" into one place (the other place to check it out is at a theme park, like Disneyland). Cities are generally conceived as public places, as opposed to somewhere private, like a theme park, where people knowingly give up some of their personal rights. Disney believed that only "corporate-driven culture" could take care of a cities' problems, including building community and providing quality, but still public, education. Of course this artificial "community" is by nature self-selecting: people moving to Celebration seek a town that represents Disney for them and must have the money to do so; friendly and nostalgic can be read as white and upper-middle class, willing to give up personal freedom to live in a corporate-run city, away from the "implied chaos of real urban space." The Disney brand, usually just available in movies was now real enough to live in: "Innocence, playfulness, family life and refuge from both the racial and the class anarchy of the city and the alienation of the suburb were now made available as commodified products for purchase." The company advertised the Celebration school as a lure to buyers, but it was also a way to promote an education style conducive to promoting individual consumers, rather than "civic-minded youth": the school was progressive on the surface but radically conservative.


Sure, everyone I know has rolled their eyes about Disney's only mildly-disguised racism in films like The Little Mermaid- bad guy is the Big Bad Black Lady- or the Lion King - bad guy is the Big Bad Black dude, hyenas cackle with Hispanic voices, or Aladdin- imperialism at it's finest, etc. But it's much, much bigger and older than that, and Giroux is convincing. Disney courted contracts with the military even *before* the military decided to use Disney to make films for WWII propaganda. (Interestingly, this came up on my twitter feed yesterday- you can see many of the disturbing propaganda cartoons for yourself here. What's more innocuous than a cartoon presenting war to the American public? "Through the use of comedy and comedic violence... Disney films are often released from the expectation that they might be attempting to do more than entertain." A more serious approach to the war might call for serious thought, maybe even questioning or protest, but a cartoon is funny, to be taken lightly. Like a war.

Giroux's Disney fits right into our current state of affairs politically and economically. I stopped in my tracks when reading the (maybe obvious) "Democracy is not capitalism." It's not, but Giroux demonstrates how Disney effectively turns children and adults into consumers, where "choice" and "identity" revolve around consumption and self-branding. "Corporations are not elected; yet, increasingly, they have the cultural and material power to shape the lives of millions of people around the world." When taken as a public pedagogy, this makes complete sense. From the crib, where babies are exposed to "Baby Einstein" (owned by Disney) and purchased by parents who are doing their best to make their children outstanding individuals, to war, Disney shapes culture and the people who influence/create it.
When democracy is equated with the marketplace, a dangerous form of depoliciticization occurs in which history and memory are erased and cultural identity becomes either inconsequential as a political determinant or simple fodder for commercialization. It has become increasingly evident that the rising tide of free markets has less to do with ensuring democracy than with spreading a reign of terror around the globe, affecting the most vulnerable populations in the cruelest of ways. The global politics of commodificiation and its underlying logic of waste and disposability do irreparable harm, especially to children, and the resulting material, psychological, and spiritual injury must be understood not merely as a political and economic issue but also as a pedagogical concern.

The United States (and other successful) democracies were not founded on neo-liberal, winner-takes-all corporate capitalism. Disney, in the way it plays/preys on innocence and infiltrates into our lives is a threat to democracy. Giroux doesn't go here, but I'm going to. Would reality TV be possible without Disney? Would governments be so easily able to move in after a natural or unnatural disaster and shock-and-awe their way into corporate takeovers? Are wars in places like Iraq an Afghanistan really about democracy or capitalism? For Giroux, Disney's coup de gras is the ability to turn us into bad citizens, unable or worse, uninterested in saying "Damn the Man" with any effectiveness. Without an ability to stand up to corporations, or the government that allows corporations the power of Disney, the public pedagogy of the Mouse has won.


thb said...

The Mouse has won! Or, the Mouse has won until it is overcome by the Chinese and Indian versions, modified to meet the big new economies as they become dominant.

Pragmatic Idealist said...

I'm sorry. I had trouble reading that without bursting into laughter at points.

I am as constructively-dissatisfied, politically-active, and progressively-iconoclastic as anyone I know, but the innocence to which Walt Disney, the man, spoke through his work made me more sensitive to the ills and injustices of society, not less. I think you have a very limited knowledge of Mr. Disney, and Mr. Giroux does not appear to have helped.

One can legitimately question whether or not entertainment, in general, distracts people from pressing issues. It certainly does. But, the market demand is obviously there. So, you should probably direct your criticism to consumers, instead of suppliers.

Conflation, generalization, and other fallacies undermine a reasonable dialogue regarding when political dissatisfaction should form and how it should be directed.