Historians find Disneyland to be a source of study

February 18, 1993|By Orlando Sentinel

When a prestigious organization of historians meets this spring, there will be lectures on topics ranging from the Civil War to foreign relations. But one of the top topics will be a relatively new subject: the impact of Disneyland on U.S. society.

For those who thought California's Disneyland and its sister attractions in Orlando, Fla., France and Japan were just amusement parks, think again. For academics around the world, they have become a source of study and a target for criticism.

When Euro-Disney opened last year outside Paris, French intellectuals were quick to pounce. Marguerite Duras called it a "cultural Chernobyl."

This year's convention of the Organization of American Historians is being held April 8-10 in Anaheim, Calif., home of Disneyland, which may explain some of the interest. But in academic journals and debates, Disney has become as acceptable a topic as the American Revolution.

Consider the titles of the convention panels: "Theme Parks in the Post-Apocalyptic Age: Los Angeles, Disneyland, and Beyond"; "The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and Modern American Culture"; and "History and Ethnography of Contemporary Mass Tourism."

The treatment of Disneyland, which opened in 1955, as an academic subject first began in the 1960s, as historians, sociologists, psychologists and others explored the subject.

A 1968 article in The Nation called Disneyland a "sickening blend of cheap formulas packaged to sell." By the 1970s, the debate over just how much the Disney parks have affected American culture was in full swing, and in the 1980s there was an explosion of academic articles critical of Disney enterprises.

In articles with titles such as "Disney and Freud" and "Mickey Mouse Meets Konrad Lorenz," scholars studied every aspect of the parks and the creatures that inhabit them.

Even Mickey Mouse hasn't escaped the careful analysis of scholars. When Harvard University professor Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article on the evolution of Mickey Mouse from nasty little creature to lovable little guy, he suggested there might be a parallel with all of society. Other academic articles on Mickey have examined why he is drawn with circles and why he is more popular than Felix the Cat.

Noralee Frankel of the American Historical Association, who is researching Disney movies, believes there will be "more and more of this." She says Disney "is a reflection of American culture, and more scholars will be studying Disney."

Steven Watts, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is writing a book about the cultural influence of Disney on the United States. He believes that Walt Disney "had such an obvious impact on mass culture in the 20th century that it is hard to avoid."

Of the scholarly articles published about Disney, Mr. Watts said that "some of this gets kind of silly and obsessive," but argues that "really interesting work has come out of it."

Mr. Watts said many of the critics of Disney theme parks "came out of the caldron of the 1960s, and Walt Disney's politics cut across the grain of that pretty strongly."

Criticism of Disney's theme parks has become so intense that there have been several scholarly articles defending the parks. Writing in the Journal of Popular Culture, historian Margaret King said: "Because of their importance to American life, these institutions have suffered more than their share of attacks as key symbols of popular culture. Like all such targets of elitist ire, . . . the Disney parks must be experienced carefully and studied closely to see beyond these simplistic slings and arrows."

Much of the criticism of the Disney parks centers on the role the parks play in conveying history. Historian Michael Wallace of John Jay College in New York claims that "it's possible that Walt Disney has taught people more history in a memorable way than they have ever learned in school." Many of the Disney attractions, such as the Hall of Presidents, involve U.S. history.

But the critics claim it is history that really doesn't reflect the United States.

What the critics say is missing, however, is hardly likely to draw tourists. Andrea Stulman Dennett, writing in the Journal of American Culture, complained that "there is no actual bloodshed or signs of death and destruction. . . . There are no signs of a potential Chernobyl, terrorism or threat to our existence."

Mr. Wallace complains that the tourists aren't shown enough of "warfare in the minefield, squalor in the immigrant communities, lynching, imperial wars and the emergence of mass protests."

He wrote, "If we wish to restore our social health, we had better get beyond Mickey Mouse history."

In the 1970s, two researchers in Chile began studying the characters in Disney comics. They claimed that Disney characters, primarily Donald Duck and his Uncle Scrooge, were tools of the ruling class created to encourage imperialism and class difference.

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