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  • Disney and the Imagineering of Histories
  • Scott Schaffer

Recently, the Walt Disney Company abandoned its plans to develop an American history theme park near Manassas, Virginia, the site of a major battle during the American Civil War. Part of the reason for this decision, according to the company, was that the citizens of Manassas and surrounding areas had fought the development of the theme park, claiming that the “true” history of not only the Civil War, but also of all of America, would not be told there. At the same time, The Globe and Mail reviewed Disney’s new live-action film, Squanto, stating that it was historically inaccurate; however, as the Globe notes, “history is written by the winners, and you can’t get much more victorious than Daddy Disney” (5 November 1994, p. C14). It is surprising that these are some of the first public, i.e. non-academic, protests against Disney’s perversion of local histories in the creation of its products, as this process is the entire basis of the Disney Company’s corporate production. That is, the Walt Disney Company co-opts local histories, without their corresponding local social and political geographies, reconstitutes them as the Company’s own, and sells them to Disney’s customers as markers of American political, cultural, and imperial attitudes. This co-optation and perversion of local histories in the creation of the Disney Company’s products not only removes and rewrites these histories from their specific contexts, but also reduces the corresponding social geographies to terrains that can be colonized and brought within the “Small World” of the Disney theme park, and can then be sold over and over again to new generations of children, thereby perpetuating the Disney Company’s transmission to new generations of the stereotypes created to justify American imperial power.

The first section of this paper will explore how the animated films of the Walt Disney Company (WDC) treat local stories and histories as fodder for “’the rapacious strip-miner’ in the goldmine of legend and myth,’” (Kunzle, in Dorfman and Mattelart 1971:18) and attempt to sell those who have their stories taken a perception that they are supposed to have of themselves — that of the cultural Other of America. To do this, I argue that WDC appropriates local stories, reinscribes them in the discourse of American imperialism, be it political, economic, or cultural, and sells the stories to all as portrayals of American cultural and political Others, revising old stereotypes in the current terms of American imperial expansion. I then argue, in the second section, that this reinscription process deprives the stories of their particular local geographies, and allows them to therefore be coopted and placed in ahistorical, ageographical ways in the creation of the Disney theme parks. This, in effect, allows WDC to set up representations of the world in the way that Disney would have wanted to see it — as an allegorical representation of the power of the United States. Hence, the guiding metaphor for the Disney theme parks is the ride, “It’s a Small World,” where all the “children” of the world are brought together in one place to sing the annoying song of cultural imperialism, all brought to you by Bank of America. In the third section of this paper, I turn to the way in which this cultural hegemony produced by the animated films and the theme parks maintains and perpetuates itself through marketing strategies designed to make these products seem timeless, and therefore the story they tell of American greatness seem to last for all time. In all, I would argue that the United States government no longer has the monopoly on the touting of America’s conquest of the world; Mickey Mouse and the other Disney characters do it for them, making imperialism that much cuter.

American “Distory” Through Film: Creating Disney’s World Order

Making the conceptual stretch from examining Disney’s animated features to talking about the inscription of American cultural imperialist discourse seems to be nothing more than a senseless attack on one of America’s — and the world’s — most loved cultural icons. However, exploring those “myths” — and here I use...

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