Reflecting upon Culture: Is Disneyland Real?

I live with a constant niggling fear, not of the bad sort but the propelling sort. This fear arises from continued accusation that academics are useless, and I live with a constant thought that my PhD project may also be useless, or even worse, self-serving. But if nothing else I am glad that I have this feeling, because it makes me attempt to reorient myself towards usefulness, and helping people. At the same time, it causes me to come across as slightly… neurotic. In coming to grips with what “Australian” means, I thought I’d share a journal entry written in 2011 during my first year of study. It was written after my first visit to Disneyland.

JOURNAL  – 24th December 2011:  Yesterday, we visited Disneyland in Anaheim. It was a big day – we were given a one-park pass as our Christmas present from my parents who think I am studying too much (probably true), and want my husband and I to take a break. I was fascinated by many things, but viewing the park as an Australian was interesting, and unavoidable. It made me feel ‘outside’ of this experience in many ways, which is clearly also a celebration of America, and perhaps California. The values of the twin cities Los Angeles and Orange County (as well as Walt Disney, and the entertainment industry of L.A.) were conveyed loud and clear. It is a family-friendly park where people gather for one purpose – to have fun. But the diversity of the people drawn here is astounding! As such this is a cross-cultural experience, and I am beginning to actually see these values. In many ways, this is what I will be doing in my future fieldwork as I listen to the values of Indigenous Australians, so I welcome this experience.

Firstly, I couldn’t help notice a strange European influence in the Castle, and a Germanic influence in most of Walt’s fairy tales. I have seen no castles in America, and yet the idea of “Disney Princesses” is firmly ingrained in the American psyche. Perhaps this is due to the European heritage of many Americans, as my friend Phil Towne mentioned to me in class. He only knows he’s German because of an almost obsessive family tradition of baking cookies every Christmas. I find this strange when I contrast my experience in Germany and with Germans I have known; there are many values I think they would not want to part with; their efficiency, many other unique foods (and beer!!), their sports. This of course is stereotyping, but if there was one ceremony they kept, would it be Christmas cookie-baking? I stood looking at the castle and wondered whether Americans minimized their German-ness in the World Wars as an intentional separation from their homeland, out of fear. Did they hide their German heritage intentionally?


If so, they didn’t hide it very well… with a big pink castle! In Walt’s case, perhaps he did just genuinely admire The Brothers Grimm tales. Is this the elusive “Western culture”, I wonder? Well, as Australia has no castles at all (the movie ‘The Castle’ is a humorous statement on our homes as the “people’s castles”), it makes me wonder, are we actually Western?

Another moment of interest to me was the Enchanted Tiki Room performance. Most people would walk past this small “ride”, it is old-fashioned, and reminds me of the 1920s, with its mechanical singing flowers using vibrato tones (obviously a prerecorded track). Our continent is considered “Oceania” in my American library, and so Australia is just another island (“a bloody big one” my Aussie friends say).

Thus, I was very interested in how an ‘Islander’ is represented in Disneyland. I miss my indigenous friends and family from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji. My husband and I traveled pretty extensively through “Oceania”.  We therefore have plenty of diverse memories to draw from; as a tourist, visiting my family’s village, performing in churches and talking with church leaders, and my husband’s development work. But none of our real experiences fitted what I saw in the Tiki Room! There was firstly a mix of the many beautiful island cultures into one narrative (Vanuatu differs greatly from the two islands I’ve visited in Fiji, different again from Papua New Guinea and the autonomous region of Bougainville, different again from Hawaii). There were volcanos and hurricanes, hula dances, colourful birds and monsoon rains. This made it feel very strange! Like it was some kind of imaginary “super” island. Also, there was an almost manic happiness displayed from the Islander characters. This doesn’t fit life as I know in these places. I’ve often wondered if the laid-back attitude of islanders is a type of coping mechanism, as poverty looms on the near horizon. Unemployment can be high, and education is often low. Yet, I see dedicated commitment to traditional arts and an embrace of technology that allows many of these island nations to connect into the world in ways never before possible. But this happy mania was a strange take on island life.

By the time we got to “It’s a small world after all”, I was internally disturbed. It might have been the again, crazily happy kangaroo we saw on the way in… (has anyone ever sensed an emotion from a Kangaroo?) Thus made me ask myself — Is Disney actually a celebration of essentialism? If I don’t feel we are adequately represented by the two strange figures in the Pacific section – Australia is indicated with two grass-skirted (?!?!) “Aborigines”, is the alienation I feel a product of being a part of a ‘white diaspora’? Does the feeling say more about me, or about this foreign culture that is trying to represent me? It’s impossible to convey an experience of what it is to live in Oceania within one small moment – so, I wonder, is it even possible to share culture this way without a type of essentialism? And, through my academics will I indirectly expose Aboriginal people  to the equivalent of boat loads of tourists taking pictures and singing a simple tune like ‘it’s a small world after all’? I’m beginning to think it’s a very large world, and perhaps it is only our minds which are small.

In rereading this review from last year, I guess I’ve realized that I was shell-shocked by the cultural differences living in the States. I’ve now come to realize that Disneyland is entirely real. This is because it lives in the minds of the imagination of the Californians, and now the rest of the world. There is a difference between representations of places and the places themselves, but all I can do is recommend that, instead of (or as well as) visiting the Tiki Room, visiting Hawaii or Vanuatu – or perhaps connecting with a family from the islands that attends your church or your school. Hearing about the experience from them might broaden the take Walt Disney had. But, I realize that Walt Disney was an incredible man with a huge dream – and the fact that we can sing “It’s a small world after all” does prove that maybe, it is.

P.S. The Australian accent in the Nemo ride is clearly fake – but come on – who doesn’t still love Disneyland!!! 🙂

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