Burning Down the Mouse
Sometimes it takes going Full Mickey to recognize that Dismaland is real, and resistance is futile.
“Dismaland is, quite literally, art about nothing. Consumerism is bad, Disney is evil, advertising is dishonest — we got it.” — Mike Nudelman, Business Insider
No matter how your heart is grieving over the absurd cost, you must take your kids to Disneyland. The theme park has become a compulsory routine of modern American parenting. But even after you navigate the labyrinthine parking structure and slog amid impossible crowds pushing double-wide strollers across miles of hot concrete, even after you stand in the last of a dozen endless lines, all the while fielding existential riddles from your kids like “Why are we still standing here?” and “What are we doing?,” even after you endure a series of lackluster rides that amount to interactive advertisements for undead franchises, no sense of calm and well-being descends. You don’t feel proud of yourself for delivering the dream of Disney to your offspring. Instead, you feel like you’ve yanked your impressionable kids straight into the white-hot center of the tyrannically cheerful consumerist farce we call American culture. As George Clooney’s character tells a young optimist at the start of Disney’s Tomorrowland, “You’ve been manipulated into thinking you were part of something incredible. You thought you were special, but you’re not.”
Naturally, such skepticism is just a setup for that climactic moment when old-fashioned, Disney-style hope wins out. Nearly religious positivity in the face of doom lies at the heart of the Disney brand, after all — which may be why Banksy’s Dismaland, a theme-park homage to dystopian despair operating in the British seaside town of Weston-super-Mare until the end of September, incites such a powerful feeling of vertigo. The mysterious street artist couldn’t have better timing: Somehow a company built around a cartoon mouse has miraculously evolved and expanded and weathered countless storms of widespread skepticism, not to mention jacked-up ticket prices, overcrowding, and a measles outbreak last year that didn’t conjure fantasy or frontier or future so much as the perils of life in South Sudan. Along with the huge chunk of cultural mindshare in its pocket (ESPN, ABC, the Disney Channel, Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel), Disney has amassed thousands of sprawling acres of immaculate, branded property worldwide, from Disneyland Paris to Tokyo Disneyland to Hong Kong Disneyland, every foot of it haunted by the triumphant strains of “Once Upon a Dream” or “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” emitting from omnipresent speakers, every sight and sound and sensation a carefully honed feat of interactive advertising that continues to draw toddlers and teenagers and singles and couples and victorious athletes and dying children alike.
This is exactly the fairy tale that Dismaland aims to disrupt with its filthy, crumbling concrete spaces, its depressed park attendants clad in mouse ears, its orca emerging from a toilet, its boats full of immigrants circling ghost-faced through a polluted pond. Such images may be simple, but they’re meant to hit us at the same simple level that Disneyland itself does. While Cinderella’s corpse hanging from a toppled carriage as paparazzi cameras flash might strike some onlookers as overly obvious, it’s obvious by design. The catastrophes unfolding around us aren’t hard to miss, after all, but we continue to avert our eyes. As our public spaces worldwide are transformed into matching, carefully designed corporate realms dominated by shiny, flashing screens, the filth of Dismaland feels undeniably jarring. We don’t pay money to enter filthy spaces. This grit confuses us. This grit is the sad truth of modern times that we mostly manage to avoid.
Banksy couldn’t aim for a worthier target if he tried. Walt Disney wanted Disneyland to offer a comforting, clean, and harmonious escape from reality, to provide a nostalgic passage to small-town America in a time of anxiety. But Disneyland was also meant to embody the adventurous, can-do spirit of America, the America that still believed in its Gilded Age destiny as a city upon a hill, a shining example of liberty and prosperity for the rest of the world to emulate. That notion has long since expired, of course. As J. G. Ballard put it in 1983, the American dream “no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies… It supplies the world with its nightmares now.”
In Disneyland, then, we recognize the outlines of modern thought, the ways we protect ourselves from harsh reality, the ways we’ve come to prefer these protections, this fakeness, to reality itself. Where once we decried mass-produced entertainment and the stultifying sameness of corporate-owned spaces, most of us are now humming anthems from Frozen and forsaking relatively lackluster public parks for the much more engrossing modern playground of the Apple Store. Even the quirkiest corners of the internet are crowded with full-color, interactive ads for the last corporate commodity we searched for on Amazon or mentioned in passing on Facebook, and now those random searches will result in phone calls from telemarketers who seem to know more about us than we know about ourselves. No matter how we try to wriggle into some virgin corner of the world free from screens or cameras or phones, unsullied by flashing ads or surveillance, devoid of jubilant ballads or beeping devices, we fail. We’re all plugged into a shiny, down-home, buoyant, authentic-seeming global simulacrum, one that not only doesn’t belong to us, but bleeds us of our sanity, our money, and our privacy and sells it off to the highest bidder. We are ravenous and impossible to satisfy. The illusory corporate grid of fantastical characters is real; we are the imaginary ones. The Disneyfication of culture is complete.
“There are people — I categorize them as life’s losers — who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others.” — Donald Trump
Three years since my last visit, I was dreading Disneyland the way you might dread a spinal tap administered by Olaf the tap-dancing snowman. But what I feared most weren’t the crowds or the lines or the avalanche of overpriced plastic. Instead, I dreaded the micro-horrors of Disney, those little visions that plunge you into hopelessness and despair: greasy femur-sized turkey legs being ripped off the bone by adult-sized turkeys in Minnie Mouse ears; struggling actors dressed as Mary Poppins and Bert, improvising cheerful chatter in terrible fake British accents; husky children in Tangled T-shirts burying their faces in giant clouds of cotton candy in the Mad Tea Party teacup ride line, then projectile vomiting down the sides of trash cans afterward; the garish teal and purple eyeshadow of Ariel, calling to mind the chilling personal style of certain members of the mid-’90s Russian Olympic ice-skating team.
Somehow, these tiny things — terrible eavesdropped conversations, unsettlingly bad family dynamics, bizarre tics, sights you can’t unsee — take on a special kind of heaviness when you’re visiting Disneyland. As Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness, “They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.” The semi-hypnotic state of learned helplessness you enter is central to the purgatorial nature of Disney, because all of your membranes are porous; the terrors and the sadness around you can enter your bloodstream directly. You are trying to be a good parent, but there you are, defenseless, in a vast sea of human beings, huddled in their desperate gaggles, squabbling, regretful, sweating profusely, scarfing Mickey Mouse–shaped beignets and cups of frozen lemonade and hot dogs bathed in oily chili, all of them simultaneously beating back that inevitable feeling of melancholy that comes from being at The Happiest Place on Earth, and discovering that they’re deeply, inescapably unhappy.
I’d been cajoled into a return trip by my younger daughter, who is six now and barely remembers her first visit beyond an unnerving spin through a Roger Rabbit–themed nightmare. My stress was mounting, and the newly increased $99 ticket price wasn’t helping (tickets were $1 when the park opened in 1955; Disney World tickets were $3.50 when that park opened in 1971). Recognizing that there was no escape from overspending, I behaved in the paradoxical manner of a trapped animal who suddenly becomes aggressively confrontational: I leaned in — way in, beyond reason. I went from feeling queasy over the enormous cost of every single stupid thing on the Disney website to signing up for all of the things, the two-day tickets, the overpriced Disneyland Hotel, the even more overpriced Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. I made reservations at faux-fancy Disney restaurants; I noted the times of parades, fireworks, and the World of Color water show, whatever the hell that was. I projected myself and my husband and our daughters into every gauzy photo on the site, all of us smiling and frolicking like extras in the opening credits to ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney. No driving there and back in a single day, getting up in the dark and returning in the dark and negotiating with exhausted kids all day long. “We have to go full Mickey,” I told my skeptical husband. “We can’t half-ass it this time.”
Spending too much money guarantees happiness. This is the confused thinking of the duped consumer. In my glamoured state, a gargantuan price tag meant we would finally see Disney through the eyes of our California-born, Disneyland-loving friends, with their pricey yearlong passes and beloved Mickey Mouse sweatshirts. These friends, half of them childless, visit Disneyland for birthdays and anniversaries and spontaneous, no-excuse-at-all, midweek day trips. One friend even got married as the nightly fireworks display lit up the sky, the strains of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” a stand-in for Pachelbel’s Canon or the Bridal Chorus.
They aren’t being ironic. They unabashedly love eating Dole Whip in the Enchanted Tiki Room and riding Space Mountain and touring the Haunted Mansion for the 40th time. They love eating cotton candy and cruising on the Mark Twain Riverboat and rumbling along on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. They know that the roller coaster derailed in 2003, and they don’t care. They view the park as something like hereditary land, their beloved Uncle Walt’s antiquated but still luxurious estate. Each return trip kicks up soothingly familiar memories of the trips that came before it.
Which is exactly what Walt Disney intended. As Neil Gabler points out in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, this escapist slant was apparent in the park’s promotional brochures. “[W]hen you enter Disneyland, you will find yourself in the land of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” one brochure declared. “Nothing of the present exists in Disneyland.” This sense of deliverance is echoed in the voices of the Disneyland lovers I know. “It helped me forget for a few hours that my parents were divorcing,” one friend told me, “and helped me cope with the teen angst years. I could enjoy myself like a kid and feel safe in a way that wasn’t possible outside of those walls.”
Of course, Disneyland was also an enormous and groundbreaking interactive advertisement for the Walt Disney company, just as ABC’s then-new TV show Disneyland (an anthology program that had several different titles, most memorably The Wonderful World of Disney) — and the soon-to-follow Mickey Mouse Club — were advertisements for Disneyland. Indeed, Disney himself said: “The main idea of the program is to sell.” Grumbling that the main idea of one product is to sell something else in the same brand family almost sounds quaint today, when brands are no longer judged on quality or consistency or purity so much as on their bulletproof, cross-platform international market penetration.
“Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.” — Oscar Wilde
From the moment we set foot on Disneyland property, we are treated like the only humans alive. Considering that an average of 44,000 people visit the park every day, this is a jaw-dropping feat. My daughter is given a “Happy Birthday!” button by the valet at the Disneyland Hotel, and then every adult who interacts with us wishes her a happy birthday. (As she’s unaccustomed to such kindness from total strangers, this only makes her suspicious. What do these needy adults in ugly blue vests want from her?)
We check into our room and admire the headboard with glowing firework design. You can dial a number and speak to Goofy. My kids do this 8 to 10 times in the course of 15 minutes. We enter the park, flanked by humans yelping “Happy birthday!” and “Have a magical day!” every few feet. We eat Dole Whip in the Enchanted Tiki Room, then spin through the Pirates of the Caribbean. Among other updates to the ride — like the occasional splashy descent — an animatronic pirate who once chased an unfortunate animatronic girl around a house now chases a girl carrying a cake. (See, this pirate is a real cake lover.) Next, we have lunch at the Blue Bayou, a slightly chilly, dimly lit restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I order a Monte Cristo sandwich (basically a ham-and-cheese donut) and a mint julep (tastes like corn syrup with a sprig of mint in it) with a fake ice cube that glows in rapidly shifting rainbow colors. All of our food falls neatly into the category of overcooked, oversalted hotel food, but the kids are too excited about the glowing ice cubes to care.
From this point forward, I expect the lines to grow and the kids’ moods to deteriorate. But thanks to minimal midweek crowds, lines are no longer than 15 minutes, and everyone remains cheerful. Even the crowds around us on this visit seem benevolent instead of grouchy and misguided. The children all seem to be smiling, maybe because most of them are holding some form of sugar or standing in line to meet Cinderella. We make it into Star Tours in 10 minutes flat, then spin through the Mad Tea Party and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Next, we glide through It’s a Small World. (I do find myself wishing the water in the canals was drinkable and made you hallucinate like in that Simpsons’ “Duff Gardens” parody.) There is a woman in line for the carousel whose legs are tattooed to look like she’s wearing lace-up fishnet hose. Instead of looking fancy, they look hideously scarred. But for some reason, even this doesn’t bother me. There is music everywhere, always surging romantically or bouncing along happily, the soundtrack to the most delightful, exciting, emotionally satisfying day you’ve had in your entire life. Granted, if you’re in a bad state of mind, this qualifies as slit-your-wrist music. But under cheerful circumstances, these melodies favorably alter your brain chemistry.
Even so, I don’t even realize I’m having a great — arguably even magical — day until later that afternoon. It’s unnerving. I actually feel happy. I’m standing in the town square of what feels like an adorable whistle-stop hamlet in Middle America, near a patch of lush green grass, and I’ve just been told a parade is about to roll by. Soon the music swells and a chorus of voices sings, “It’s a music celebration, come on come on come on, strike up the band!” Some drummers appear, grinning and dancing down the street, beating their drums enthusiastically. My daughters have big smiles on their faces. They’ve just eaten a gigantic poof of pink and yellow cotton candy and a frozen lemonade. I’m sipping a large iced coffee, which might explain why the words “Feel the beat, what a great sensation, come on come on come on, move and clap your hands!” inspires me to start clapping along. My husband, similarly caffeinated, hoists our six-year-old over his head and starts swaying in time to the music. “This is what life is all about,” I think, marveling that I was dreading this trip the night before. “Enjoying being alive, together, in the moment, as a family, as a community, even, sharing something positive and celebratory and real, right here and now!”
I look around at the other people in the square — other members of my community! Part of the human family! — and expect to see them smiling and clapping the way we are, if not dancing and cheering and weeping openly and hugging each other. Instead, they are motionless, sitting in chairs or on the curb, squinting into the sunshine as if they’re watching a screen at home. Some are holding up their phones to record video of the parade. Others are squinting at their phones, trying to read texts or emails or watching something else entirely. A few kids and adults are clapping, but most are standing still, staring at the spectacle rolling by. Even though the drummers and the dancers and Mickey and Minnie appear to be having some kind of peak experience, the crowd is a sea of blank faces, as if they’re not there at all, as if they’re invisible.
That’s when I notice that the lush green grass has a metal railing around it. The grass is for viewing, not for touching or playing or lounging on. According to Gabler, Disney imagined “a Main Village with a railroad station and a village green… a place for people to sit and rest; mothers and grandmothers can watch over small children at play…. I want it to be very relaxing, cool, and inviting.” Instead, this town square is a gorgeously designed sea of hot cement graced by only a smattering of smallish trees. A few feet away, a man in a blue Disney shirt is scanning the crowd and mumbling into his walkie-talkie. This spontaneous community celebration is a carefully choreographed, rigidly scripted corporate spectacle. My family and I were manipulated into thinking we were part of something incredible. We thought we were special, but we’re not.
“All over the world major museums have bowed to the influence of Disney and become theme parks in their own right. The past, whether Renaissance Italy or ancient Egypt, is reassimilated and homogenized into its most digestible form. Desperate for the new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonize past and future.” — J. G. Ballard
At Disneyland today, participation mostly means standing or sitting and passively staring at whatever is in front of you. Participation requires nothing of the participants. You load your body into the little car or boat. You put on your seat belt. You keep your hands inside the vehicle. You sit on the curb until the parade comes. You file into the viewing area for the massive World of Color water fountain to spring to life. (“Color, color, color!” the chorus sings as rainbow colors shoot into the sky; Disney never had much of a taste for subtlety.) When it’s done, you clap weakly and file out. You are never asked to move or speak or sing or do a single thing. You are treated like a valuable person, but you’re never asked to demonstrate your value. When Ariel or Cinderella or the Mad Hatter appear in Fantasyland or Main Street, U.S.A., they ask a kid’s name and then simply hold forth for a minute or so in character before the kid is shuffled off and the next kid is led up to them. We are all here, but we’re not here. You can try to take part, speak up, get into it, but the implicit message is that you really shouldn’t. You are here to passively absorb the brand, and then buy some stuff that signifies and cements your allegiance. For all of its analog charms — animatronic birds that trade witty banter, hammy young actors in Prince costumes, primitive “Small World” dolls shaped by outdated cultural clichés — Disneyland is a real-life, interactive experience in which you’re meant to treat everything around you like it’s appearing on an iMAX screen.
The idealistic dream of Disneyland and the passivity of the modern consumer experience embodied by Disney offer a useful lens for viewing much of global corporatization. It begins when our most imaginative and thoughtful entrepreneurs create something new, guided by an ideology and values that ring true. Steve Jobs had an evangelistic vision of the positive changes that technology could bring to our lives. Mark Zuckerberg is inspired by “helping people to connect” and seeks to “create more empathic relationships.” Jeff Bezos wants to “invent” and “innovate” and “put customers first.” (“We get to work in the future,” he proclaimed in one shareholder report, sounding like a true disciple of Walt Disney.) We are meant to believe that our corporate leaders’ ideals are also the ideals “guiding” high capitalism. We are to understand pioneering and profiteering as compatible goals. When Bezos tells Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, “I want to see millions of people living and working in (outer) space,” we are supposed to see him as a passionate visionary, not a man who’s abusing his vast army of workers, or a man who’s gone from putting small bookstores out of business to putting all other stores out of business.
The problem with the fairy tale of constant growth and constant expansion, though, is that companies start off with modest goals and creative business plans and then, by dint of their own success, are cornered into following the reigning script of high-capitalist world domination, trading in true, steady innovation and ingenious products for aggressive initiatives and mergers that seem to promise the quickest route to infinity and beyond. “We’re branching into everything under the sun!” corporate CEOs (and the pop stars and struggling entrepreneurs and freelance jacks-of-all-trades who follow in their footsteps) announce, and the company’s original ideals are lost in the mix. That’s when you discover, just for example, that for all of their “Gee willikers!” talk of benevolent innovation, Facebook, Amazon, and Google are now in the business of data mining. Not only did Google merge all of its data across platforms, not only did it serve up ads correlated with keywords in users’ emails, but its Google View cars were outfitted with equipment and software used to steal data off personal computers via unsecured Wifi networks as the cars moved through various neighborhoods. (Allegedly, Google even recruits new employees based on their Google searches.) Amazon swore for years that it wasn’t in the data mining business, but now its digital display ad revenue outstrips Google’s (which in turn outstrips the ad revenue of all U.S. print magazines and newspapers combined). Even Disney may have found a way to get into the data mining business. Disney World’s new MagicBands — rubber wrist bands with an RFID chip and a radio inside — are capable of replacing tickets and cash, enabling preordering of food at restaurants, tracking how visitors move through the park, and recording their preferences and desires as they go. Through the benevolent-seeming magic of Disney, we’re gently led into a 1984-style future of constant surveillance.
“If people would think more of fairies they would soon forget the atom bomb.” — Walt Disney
Corporations are the new world leaders, more powerful than most nations and more entitled to willfully ignore the rights of citizens in pursuit of continued dominance by reaping profits that far outstrip the economies of most countries. Disney made $48.8 billion in 2014, a record-breaking year that would make it the 82nd-biggest country in the world, edging out Tunisia ($48.5 billion) and Lithuania ($48.2 billion). Apple’s revenue in 2014, $182 billion, would make it the 57th-biggest country in the world, larger than Iceland ($16.6 billion), Nepal ($19.6 billion), El Salvador ($25.3 billion), Bolivia ($34 billion), and Syria ($72 billion) combined.
Disney is right in line with this reigning corporate playbook of conquistador-like growth in every direction at once. The company’s Disney Junior channel hooks kids into the brand before they hit preschool. The acquisition of Marvel and Star Wars brings into the Mouse’s vast empire two franchises with the iconic significance and feverishly devoted followings of most world religions. But then, Disney is always in touch with shifts in public sentiment. When feminists decried the regressive nature of the Disney Princess franchise, Disney answered with Frozen’s princesses, who prioritize their sisters over empty romantic promises from princes (but retain the chirpy voices and 15-inch waists and giant sparkling gowns of their predecessors, as well as their habits of forsaking unwieldy emotions like rage and ambivalence in favor of sweetness and smiles).
It helps Disney’s case that in the last 15 years we’ve gone from lamenting insipid cultural artifacts to exalting not just wildly popular stuff (action movies, misogynistic pop songs, aggressively stupid sitcoms, transparent publicity stunts), but also the process of branding itself. Being a “great brand” (and staying “on-brand”) is now the highest accolade, whereas being suspicious of manufactured authenticity and global branding is itself suspicious, tantamount to distinguishing between high and low culture (elitist!) or labeling predictable, dull, ubiquitous styles and products and choices “basic” (snob!). The very concept of selling out has fallen out of the modern lexicon. Advertising is everywhere, but why shouldn’t it be? Privacy is dead, but transparency will make us more honest! We are all brands, all sellouts, so what’s the problem? We all manufacture authenticity via social media, so why would we stigmatize such behavior in others? Art-directing yourself, keeping your message on-brand: Everyone knows that’s the shortest path to living your best life.
Against this cultural backdrop, it’s not hard to understand why Banksy’s Dismaland has been painted as naïve, reductive, repetitive, and deeply uncool, another act of ego-driven attention-seeking. Ben Luke of Evening Standard proclaims that Banksy’s Dismaland offers “mostly selfie-friendly stuff, momentarily arresting, quickly forgotten — art as clickbait.” Others imply that art itself is old news — an exercise in pointlessness — when compared with concrete stuff like “helping people.” “[I]f Banksy has the money to make an entire theme park, WHY NOT JUST USE IT TO HELP PEOPLE!?” writes John Trowbride of The Huffington Post. Why, Banksy could “fund a school in Africa” or “make a video encouraging the youth to be positive and engaged.” Has there ever been a more Disneyfied vision of what it takes to change the world? Ignore all the bad stuff out there — and make a super inspiring video to post on YouTube instead!
In other words, it’s natural to feel annoyed with anticonsumerist, anticorporate, antiauthoritarian screeds and creations, but utterly unnatural (and so clichéd!) to feel disillusioned with consumerism, corporatization, or authoritarianism itself. Likewise, many seem to greet the relentless on-brand messages and uniformity of the enterprise as if it’s incredibly clever, if not virtuous. “[O]ur proven franchise strategy creates long-term value across all of our businesses,” Disney CEO Robert A. Iger said in a May 2015 press release. What he means is, instead of making us feel sickened by the fact that we’re dishing out piles of cash just to live inside an enormous advertisement for a few days, each zombie franchise — The Little Mermaid, Toy Story, Frozen, Pirates of the Caribbean — encourages us to rewatch the movies, buy more merchandise, return to the park repeatedly, bring the little totems and trinkets home where they’ll scream “Disney!” at us until they’re decomposing in some giant shit-heap of plush and plastic. Clearly, this strategy is working: Disney stock hit an all-time high earlier this month.
As parents, we resist Disney briefly when our kids are toddlers, but eventually most of us get tired and give in. There’s just too much Disney in the world to battle the brand at every turn. Why pursue a doomed rebellion against a resilient monolith? Who are we kidding? Yet perversely, at some point we don’t just give in, we resign ourselves to buy all of the things, and watch all of the movies, and sing all of the songs, and march in time with our children and our friends and our parents. Disney is the brand we make allowances for. We think Disney is Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear and Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker. After all these years, Disney still embodies our most dearly held ideals: Bravery, honor, standing up for the little guy. But as megacorporations gain hold of every dimension of our lives, isn’t Disney — with its multitiered, omnipresent marketing and its age-specific, identity-focused gateway drugs to lifelong brand loyalty — the ideal brand to resist? Instead, we tell ourselves that this must be what happiness feels like: total surrender.
Disney’s California Adventure Park is hot, flat, and crowded. All of the careful design and calming dimensions that make Disneyland feel like a safe, soothing escape from the present are gone, supplanted by loud noises, whizzing gears, and unbroken stretches of pavement that heat up unbearably in the midday sun. After hours of wandering through this maze of shadeless, charmless “amusements,” from the absurdly ugly pink and gray Tower of Terror to the overheated, gasoline-fumed Radiator Springs Racers, my family and I seek refuge in the dark, air-conditioned theater of It’s Tough To Be a Bug!, which promises kid-focused amusement. There are warnings about big bugs and loud sounds, but come on, how frightening can fake bugs be?
Pretty damn frightening, as it turns out. The show is a blaring, banging gauntlet of surprises designed to scare the living daylights out of the audience, from the animated bugs onscreen who shout every line to the giant stuffed spiders that drop from the ceiling and dangle just above our heads, causing both of my daughters to cry softly and shield their eyes with their hands. And just when we think it’s over, a wall in the theater appears to crumble to the ground with a thundering crash and a giant animatronic grasshopper — Thumper, the tyrannical antagonist of A Bug’s Life — bellows menacingly at the audience. This moment embodies everything Disneyland was never supposed to be: loud, jarring, dirty, and unsafe.
Good corporate branding means never feeling unsafe. But it may take a truly jarring event for us to recognize that we’ve been steadily surrendering more and more control over the globe’s future to indifferent, profiteering giants. Glamoured and placated by the technologies that have mediated our every experience for years, we may finally recognize that we’ve been ushered, docile as sheep, into a polluted, dystopian future. Maybe then we’ll find a way to meaningfully regulate and limit the corporations that now own us more completely than they ever have before. Maybe then we’ll rebuild the world, guided by real community and real connection. But by then, it may already be too late.
Long after the menacing grasshopper goes silent, a terrified toddler in the row ahead of us keeps screaming at the top of his lungs. “Don’t worry, it’s not real,” his father tells him, but the boy doesn’t believe it. He’s screaming like the world is ending.
You Tell Me
Why does it feel so exhausting to resist Disney or to object to the corporatization of culture? It’s easy enough to say that we don’t have the energy (or the time or the money) to keep ourselves or our kids from falling into a high-capitalist digital maw head-first. But what can be done to beat back our collective sense of learned helplessness? How do we take a stand against the widely shared notion that fighting against the pervasive cultural control exerted by megacorporations is somehow naive or pointless?
Yes, these things have been debated a million times before, but as my friend Joey said to me yesterday, “Everything’s a remix.” I’m genuinely interested in talking about how we proceed against such a prevalent sense of surrender.
Write your thoughts in a response below, and I’ll join the conversation.
This story was written by Heather Havrilesky. It was edited by Mark Lotto and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Illustrations by Earl Barrett-Holloway.