Inside the MOUSE

Deconstructing Disney

by William Sasser; photos by Karen Klugman
In their new book on the Magic Kingdom, literature professor Susan Willis and her colleagues examine the implications of "the world's most highly developed private property 'state' devoted to amusement."
In their new book on the Magic Kingdom, literature professor Susan Willis and her colleagues examine the implications of "the world's most highly developed private property 'state' devoted to amusement."

Along the hyper-clean sidewalks of the Magic Kingdom, where Moms and Dads shepherd their broods through the maze-like, deceptively short-looking queues for "Pirates of the Caribbean," while taking photo opportunities with surreal, seven-foot-tall mice, few would suspect that a spy is in their midst.

Armed with a notebook and pen and perhaps accompanied by her children--serving not so much as deep cover but as native informants--Susan Willis visits Disney World for insights into the methods, strategies, and, yes, even pleasures of consumer capitalism.

After all, Willis is not only a cultural critic and Duke professor of literature but a Durham suburbanite and mother to eight children. Add to that the self-descriptive title of Marxist feminist and you have a sense of the unusual perspective she brings to a place she calls "the world's most highly developed private property 'state' devoted to amusement."

Willis is co-author of Inside the Mouse, an outsider's view of Disney World published by Duke University Press last spring. Along with Duke collaborators Jane Kuenz A.M. '90, Ph.D. '95, a recent graduate in English; Shelton Waltrep, an English graduate student; and Connecticut photographer Karen Klugman; Willis has made airline reservations, stayed in Disney accommodations, and burned rubber on the sidewalks and passageways of the massive Orlando, Florida, theme park and its sprawling satellite complexes, including Epcot, "on property" resorts, and numerous shopping pavilions. Each co-author wrote two or three chapters for the book, focusing on a different aspect of the Disney experience.

"Our choice to write this book collectively reflects our desire to challenge the premise of competition and disregard for community that Disney and much American culture operates under," says Willis. "We also wanted to challenge the individualistic notion of intellectual work."

A southern California native, Willis grew up visiting Disneyland, and made her first trip to Disney World, for pleasure, in 1989. She has returned four times over the past three years to research Inside the Mouse, visiting alone, with co-author Klugman and Klugman's children, and with her own family. During five-to eight-day stays, she took an informal approach in talking to and observing fellow visitors, who included parents with children and grown-ups who use the park as adults, as evidence of the large-scale diversification of Disney.

"People at Disney World are not like people in urban or suburban situations," she says. "It's easy to strike up a conversation."

Her interest in Disney began about ten years ago when she met Bill Pomerance, an original Disney cartoonist who led a strike against the studio in the 1940s and was later blacklisted by Disney. He encouraged her to consider Disney as a focus for academic study. Several years ago, she discovered her interest in the theme park was shared by Kuenz, whose parents had recently moved to Orlando, and Waltrep, who grew up in central Florida and visited the park often as a child. Klugman, a professional photographer whose pictures illustrate the book, is a teacher and longtime friend whose work explores the interaction of photography and social values.

"Our work together has been a good example of what graduate education is supposed to be," says Kuenz, whose dissertation focused on black women writers of the Harlem Renaissance and who recently joined the faculty at the University of Southern Maine. "Not only have we collaborated, but we've been good friends who've learned a lot from each other."

In Disney, Willis sees a microcosm of the structures and dualities of American capitalism. It is a system in which people have come to be regarded as consumers rather than producers, she says, with promises of fulfillment through unlimited opportunities for consumption. Leisure, like many other human values under capitalism, is reduced to a commodity. Self-expression, intimacy, and desire for community are obscured or denied.

What are the results? On a typical day at Disney World, the general look among visitors is "haggard, bedraggled, and maybe mildly amused," says Willis. "It's an ordeal to go to Disney World. You have to get up very early to get the most out of admission passes, you have to stand in line for hours. Rides, however, have become an almost peripheral attraction. Much of Disney World now is about shopping and probably takes up about 80 percent of the average visitor's time. Some people say our culture is becoming Disney. My questions center around what kind of social realities we develop in an artificial environment based on consumption. What does it mean for our social relationships?"

Willis, who earned her doctorate at the University of Southern California, San Diego, says her outsider's view of American popular culture is informed in part by her second area of scholarly interest--modernist novelists from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the African-American community. The author of two books--Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, and A Primer for Daily Life (also published by Duke Press), a collection of essays critiquing diverse cultural topics ranging from consumer product packaging to the commodification of exercise and fitness--Willis has also spent time in Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba. Those experiences, she says, have made her realize "that culture is not benign and American culture has a tremendous impact on the third world."

At age forty-eight, Willis is a member of the generation that came of age with Vietnam, civil rights, and Watergate. A graduate student in 1970 when President Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, she participated in campus protests and teach-ins and identifies that experience as her epiphany as a Marxist. Like many of her academic peers in the humanities who were children of the Sixties--and unlike most Boomers as a whole--she has remained true to the philosophies of the left.

For Willis, however, Marxism is no longer a call to radical revolutionary action but an intellectual tool for critiquing capitalism, and a means of envisioning a social world that places more emphasis on human values and less on corporate profit. "We live in an extremely individualistic society, and that is an alienating way to live. I believe there is a deep desire for collectivity and supportive social relationships that is seldom recognized in this culture but is often buried in what we do."

Perhaps as important to her work as political ideology is her role as a mother. Willis is married to Fredric Jameson, head of the Duke literature department, and both have four chil-dren from previous marriages, ranging in age from nine to thirty.

For Willis, her dual roles as mother and academic have evolved into a symbiotic relationship that provides mutual insights and support. She not only critiques the culture but has personally delved into such gritty issues as the role He-Man action figures and Barbie dolls may play in gender identification of her children, as well as the layout and marketing schemes of Durham supermarket produce sections. She adds that her children take in stride their mother's interests in what, for most people, are unremarkable features of daily life. This extends to family outings such as Disney vacations.

"Being children of academics, they're very blasŽ about the whole thing," she says. "My research has had virtually no impact on their experience. My kids, in fact, love Disney, all except for my eighteen-year-old daughter, who has aged out of it."

In the early years of her career, however, Willis often had a difficult time balancing family and career while pursuing scholarly interests that at the time were considered offbeat. Cultural studies was a new discipline and there was pressure to work in such traditional, established areas of scholarship as literary criticism. "Twenty years ago, it was not par-ticularly easy to integrate academic work and family life. Often I felt I was trying to live a kind of schizophrenic existence. I had my first child as an undergraduate and another as a graduate student, so as long as I've been working, I've been a mother. It was very difficult to be preoccupied as a mother and then turn it off and go into the classroom."

There was also a scarcity of career-track faculty positions, particularly for women. Willis spent eight years as a lecturer at Yale University and the University of California, San Diego before coming to Duke's Center for International Studies in 1985 as an assistant professor. "Things slowly began to change, thanks in part to the rise of feminism and cultural studies," she says. "There was a realization that daily life is quite serious and an appropriate area for criticism and study."

One of her main concerns as a scholar is the dehumanizing effect of free-market economics and how the system distorts culture. Her views reflect Marx's theory that the primary feature of capitalism is the abstraction of labor, resulting in a disconnection between producer and consumer. Socialization into capitalism means substituting alienation and commodities for human relationships, Willis says, and deflecting into consumption powerful emotions and desires that otherwise might run counter to economic efficiency and the social order that supports it. The cycle of life becomes intertwined and often subsumed by the cycle of products and fashion. The need for change and the need to control change is one of the many contradictions of capitalism, also evident in the Disney empire. (Willis finds hidden metaphors for this need to control the production process in Disney's classic animated film Fantasia. As the sorcerer's apprentice, Mickey Mouse brings a broom to life and is enchanted by his power to get chores done without effort. But the magic quickly looses its charm as the broom multiplies into a threatening, uncontrollable horde. The sorcerer--the Federal Reserve?--must step in to restore order.)

While acknowledging that as a Marxist her philosophical outlook is not "objective," Willis says no observer can be truly unbiased. "First, I don't necessarily approach an issue from the viewpoint of political ideology. It's true that as a Marxist I would want to challenge the whole corporate basis of our society. But we all have our own biases--everything we do is grounded in our political understanding."

She notes that Disney's behemoth merchandising organization, and especially its frequent movie tie-ins to children's products, have also been the focus of mainstream criticism. "It teaches children how to be consumers, and how to realize the obsolescence of last year's products: Little Mermaid is out, this year it's Pocohontas."

Disney, she says, has developed an interlocking system of self-promotion that manipulates adults by capturing the hearts and minds of their children. Adults often feel the first twinges of alienation from the Magic Kingdom while planning their trip. Package deals and various options on admission passes create a quickly deflated impression that great savings await the astute consumer.

"Like traders on Wall Street, tourists who hope to maximize their Disney deals have to research the options," she writes in Inside the Mouse. "As I ran the gamut of the Disney options, I felt I was inside a Nintendo game--a tiny tourist heroine scurrying about from option to option, reacting to choices but never achieving mastery of the game or even a sense of how the entire interlocking system works.

"Clearly there was no way to beat Disney at its system of endlessly recombinant possibilities with their various price tags. No matter how my hostess calculated the figures, I failed to hit the jackpot."

Upon arriving, often at a Disney hotel, parents surrender a major credit card so they can be issued their "Disney Card," which allows them to consume and buy as much as they want inside the park without paying the bill until leaving. Although reduced to basic units of consumption, families often have high aspirations for their vacations, Willis says. "Disney World, where 'the fun always shines,' makes an advertising campaign out of a real utopian longing," she writes. "What's compelling about mass culture is this figuration (oftentimes unconsciously apprehended by the audience) of capitalism's antithesis: that is, a society governed by reciprocity and structured on communal relationships."

When she asked her own children what they liked most about Disney World, their answers were in the vein of "the rides," "no school," and "staying in a motel." All represent both shared experience and relief from routinized, often atomized, domestic life. For children, motels may represent a utopian experience where household rules are relaxed, there are no chores, everything is safe, and it's all "free." Despite the power of the Disney Card, communitarian yearnings are rarely fulfilled inside the walls of the theme park, Willis says.

"Perhaps the most family-affirming aspect of Disney World is the way the queues serve as a place where family members negotiate who will ride with whom," she writes. "Will Mom and Dad separate themselves so as to accompany their two kids on a two-person ride? Will an older sibling assume the responsibility for a younger brother or sister? Every ride asks the family to evaluate each of its member's need for security and independence. This is probably the only situation in a family's visit to Disney World where the social relationships of family materialize as practice. Otherwise and throughout a family's stay, the family as a nexus for social relationships is subsumed by the primary definition of family as the basic unit of consumption."

What do families have waiting for them at the end of "Pirates of the Caribbean" (and all other rides)? Another shopping area, where they can buy buccaneer paraphernalia to commemorate their experience.

The bacchanalian adventures of the Audio-Animatronic pirates will probably be the most uninhibited fun adults see in the theme park. The pervasive Disney focus on family--and preoccupation with efficiency, order, and safety--runs counter to the role amusement parks once played in American life, Willis says. She recalls John Kasson's study of Coney Island at the turn of the century, a frequently bawdy place "where Anglo shops girls could rub shoulders and more against Italian immigrants" in a jostling and crowded pursuit of amusement. Social hierarchies were often challenged and personal boundaries crossed.

"Today, we're a society that is much more afraid, and more and more of what we do is safe and artificial," she says. "Culture has constructed people as passive consumers."

Willis views Disney World as an antiseptic experience in which entertainment is magically presented and passively viewed. To maintain the illusion of "the Magic Kingdom," she says, most work that keeps Disney World running is done between midnight and 5 a.m., out of view of park patrons. Visible day-time work is presented as theatrics and "spontaneous" interaction, whether Disney employees bantering with tourists or the daily "Anniversary Parade," is rehearsed and scripted. Visitors are just along for the ride.

Conformity with the practice of consumption is so widespread and deep at Disney World, Willis writes, that occasional outbursts of spontaneity fail to affect the compulsively correct behavior of others.

"The success of Disney World as an amusement park has largely to do with the ways its use of programming meshes with the economics of consumption as a value system," she writes. "Independence Hall did not give way to a seething mass of squirming youngsters even though they had to sit through a twenty-minute wait. Nor did other children on the margins of (an impromptu and unauthorized) hat dance fling themselves into the fun."

Conformity is most conspicuous in vacationers' wardrobes. Generations of family members clad themselves in T-shirts emblazoned with Goofy, Pluto, Mickey, Minnie, and other Disney paraphernalia bought at the park, a phenomenon Willis sees as emblematic of a free-market democracy, "where the range of choices is restricted to the series of objects already on the shelf. There is no radical choice."

She notes with humor that Disney has even invented choices for non-conformists. "This I discovered as I prepared to depart for my Disney research trip, when my daughter Cassie (fifteen years old and 'cool' to the max) warned me, 'Don't buy any of that Disney paraphernalia,'" Willis writes. As it turned out, Cassie was pleased to get a pair of boxer shorts decorated with leering Disney villains, including Captain Hook, the Big Bad Wolf, and two evil queens.

While Goofy T-shirts and mouse ears may not be to her taste, Willis admits to being seduced by the cornucopia of consumer choices offered at Disney World. The lure was the World Showcase at Epcot, where shopping areas market merchandise representative (often stereotypically so) of featured nations.

"As a critic of consumer culture, I don't find shopping pleasurable," she writes. "I try to avoid it until necessity forces me into a mall or supermarket where I mechanically and determinedly get the things I 'need.' Imagine my surprise--resolute antishopper that I am--when I found myself hypnotically drawn into Disney World's gigantic shopping mecca. Armed with notepad and pen, I had set out to research the tourists: follow them, watch them, record their conversations. But here I was handling the merchandise. And in so doing, I was actively participating in the construction of one of Disney's themed environments. I might have shopped all day had I not run into my companion in research. We had separated earlier: she to take photos and me to take notes, only to find ourselves staring at each other across a rack of Colombian textiles."

Willis admits that her views of Disney, and popular culture, is as alien to some people as a place like the Epcot shopping pavilion is to her. Some are frankly disturbed by what they perceive as an overly critical tone in her analysis. She remembers a woman at an aca-demic conference who responded to Willis and her Duke colleagues' work with the interrogative, "Why are you all so negative? Wasn't any of it fun?"

"People sometimes attack me by saying I'm too negative," Willis says, adding that rather than patronizing average American consumers, her work identifies basic human needs people seek to fulfill through popular culture. "I recognize that people yearn for meaningful, whole lives, and that evidence of this is embedded in the way we live and the outlets we pursue. I hope that people can like Disney World and get a positive experience out of it--my children liked it when they were young and continue to like it as teens. We didn't intend this book to be a condemnation. Our question is, 'How can this be pleasurable?' And is it possible to imagine ways of inventing social relationships and identity free from the need to consume new products or commodified experiences?"

Ziv Carmon, an assistant professor at the Fuqua School of Business whose research interests include the design of waiting queues, counters that Disney is simply very successful at giving a large segment of Americans what they want. "What Disney is offering is the ultimate backyard to play in, and I see nothing wrong in charging money for that," Carmon says. "They use some marketing tactics that cause people to spend more money, but they're not twisting anyone's arm. People are sovereign as consumers."

Disney is often criticized for appealing to a "herd mentality," perhaps best exemplified by the throngs waiting in maze-like lines for park attractions. Carmon, however, gives the theme park high marks for taking innovative approaches to an otherwise tedious experience. "Some people may see their approach as ma-nipulative, but Disney is considered the most successful designer of queues. The mazes give the illusion of shorter lines, but people feel better about a wait if the line isn't half a mile long. Signs tell you how long you have to wait from a certain spot and videos and Disney characters working the crowds provide entertainment."

According to Carmon, Disney World's evolution into a shopping mecca is another example of giving people what they want. "My guess is that people would derive less pleasure from going to Disney World if they couldn't buy what's being offered. I notice in the Triangle that people don't seem to spend their time out in their neighborhoods or on downtown streets, but at shopping malls."

Willis says she does not believe the influence of free-market consumerism as exemplified by Disney is conspiratorial or absolute, nor that all the side effects of popular culture are negative. She also points to the widespread appeal of arts and crafts fairs and farmers' markets as evidence that people can fulfill, in a limited way, their desire to have a more concrete relationship with producers. In areas such as fashion, music, and recreational sports, popular culture often promotes self-expression and the creation of unique subcultures.

Rather than serving as an indictment of Disney, Inside the Mouse should prompt readers to realize the power they hold as consumers, Willis says, and to be more conscious about the choices they make. "The majority of people don't think they have control about the choices they make, but this book is written as a way of saying, 'Yes, you do.' You can go somewhere like Disney World without buying into all of it. I also hope it encourages people to struggle to understand capitalism, and some of its negative consequences."

Although mainstream America seems to continue a shift to the right, Willis says she will continue a critique of the culture with a philosophical outlook born in the ferment of the 1960s. "In the most superficial sense, we're not sticking roses in the barrels of guns anymore, but I think the struggle still goes on. When I see something that is dehumanizing and upsets me, I still feel compelled to focus my attention on it. And I continue to be a historical optimist. I think conditions have become so oppressive in so many aspects of daily life for so many people that it can't go on."

Willis and her co-authors are already planning their next collaborative project: an outsider's look at the burgeoning gambling and casino industry, for which they hope to make several research trips to Las Vegas.

Sasser, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill.

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