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Saturday, May 06, 2006

More on the Disney religion 

I've discussed civil religion ad nauseum in this blog. Let's take a moment and look at the Disney religion. Although I didn't realize it when I started writing this post, this is a long-delayed followup to something that I was looking at in December 2004:

So it was time for [Andrew Siciliano] to get into the act, mentioning that the park is not crowded at all during winter weeknights, and that the best thing to do would be to get drunk, go to Disneyland, and ride the roller coasters. This offended the religious sensitivities of [Van Earl Wright] and [Krystal Fernandez], who maintained that Thou Shalt Not Go To Disneyland Drunk. It's OK to [do] that at Magic Mountain, but Thou Shalt Not Do That At Kindly Uncle Walt's Place.

(Incidentally, there are a number of web pages that talk about Disney and religion, but I still haven't found one that explicitly talks about the "Disney religion" itself.)

Now I have.

I previously alluded to guardians of the Disney flame who consider themselves more pure than the official custodians of Disneyism - namely, the Disney company. Here's another take on the subject, written from the perspective of Why Walt's Dream Stagnated After His Death:

In the years following his death, Disneyphiles the world over continued to mourn the loss of such a great man. But he was more than a kindly figurehead. Walt was the driving force behind everything his company created. His had the guiding vision....

Finally, in 1977, the well ran completely dry. Space Mountain opened in Tomorrowland, and that was the end. It was the last attraction for which Walt had provided any substantial input. Then the project teams coasted for a while, coming to grips with the reality that nobody was going to uncover a hidden filing cabinet stuffed with more of Walt's great ideas....

All critical decisions were made by committee, leaving the company in a position later characterized by one author as resembling "the Roman Catholic Church, but without a Pope."...

Walt's greatest legacy, Disneyland, slipped into maintenance mode for a long while. Part of the problem had to do with all the Walt-hugging preservationists. Anything the man touched had to be treated like an archeological relic. This sentiment was by no means isolated to the employees of the Walt Disney Company. Many fans took it upon themselves to argue on behalf of leaving the classic Disney attractions undisturbed. They would prefer to limit Disneyland development, in order to maintain the park as a shrine....

Walt Disney Company chairman Michael Eisner experienced this firsthand in 1985 during an interview with a newspaper reporter:

"On the 30th anniversary night, I came down here with Frank [Wells] and the writer from the New York Times. And I was proudly telling about all the things we were doing at Disneyland, and I got to the George Lucas 'Star Wars' ride... 'We're going to put in this great Star Wars attraction with technology that has never been seen before. It's gonna be the attraction that's going to replace that dog, [Adventure Thru] Inner Space.' She said, 'How can you say "that dog?" That's the most brilliant attraction ever at Disney! Walt Disney himself designed it! How can you ruin Disney?' She then dragged me to go over on it. We rode it twice. She called me a monster."

That's when Eisner realized that, to the fundamentalists, changing anything in the park was immoral. And changing anything that Disney himself had personally created bordered on blasphemy.

The hardcore fans would like to see the place declared a national monument, to preserve what remains of Walt's original vision. In their view, the best thing would be if somehow the entire park could be hermetically sealed, stuck behind glass just like Walt's office down on Main Street.

Mark Pinsky has explored Disney religion further, as John Armstrong notes:

Mark Pinsky, author of the book The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust...suggests there really is a gospel according to Disney. He calls the faith of Disney "secular 'toonism," a calculated play on the oft-used term "secular humanism."...

To the surprise of no one who has seriously thought about the world of Disney, Pinsky argues that the films present "a consistent set of moral and human values" which are "identifiably Judeo-Christian." But the thoughtful Christian should not celebrate prematurely since Pinsky adds that there is "scarcely a mention of God" in Disney films. This is religion without the specifics, without content. It is intentionally vague in terms of expression and lacks all iconic symbolism. It is, in other words, the kind of religion one would expect from a commercial enterprise that seeks to make people happy....

Goodness is often equated with beauty. Good always triumphs over evil. There is a basic compatibility between being good and being happy....

It is not that these values and beliefs are wrong in themselves. Many are rooted in elements of the Christian message. The problem with the "Disney gospel" is much more subtle....Pinsky rightly notes [Disney] had an "ambivalent relationship with organized religion" (i.e., the church). At the same time Disney wanted to stress "personal faith in God." It is exactly here that the Disney gospel parallels the modern market-cultivated gospel of so many Evangelicals....

Billy Graham once complimented Disney on his new park and said, "Walt, you have a great fantasy land here." Disney replied to Graham, according to Pinsky, saying, "You preachers get it all wrong. This is reality in here. Out there is fantasy." The Magic Kingdom has no church, no religious symbols, and no plainly articulated worldview. But, according to Jayson Byassee (Christian Century, November 16, 2004) that doesn't mean it lacks a catechism. In the Western world it seems that far more children have been taught the Disney gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Byassee points out, when you compare the amount of time that children in our age are taught the essential elements of the Christian faith, with the amount of time that they sit in front of a television watching Disney movies and productions, you soon realize, that "Disney's evangelistic entrepreneurship has been extraordinarily successful" (Christian Century). And so it has. Pinsky observes that Disney characters are "far more recognizable around the world than images of Jesus or the Buddha."...

[T]he Disney myth shapes popular culture in ways that remove the radical demands of the biblical gospel which features "the way, the truth, and the life." The Disney gospel is fun, it is entertaining, and it is, most of all, religious. This is why author and literary critic Umberto Eco called Disneyland "America's Sistine Chapel," a place where the faithful must flock to at least once a year....

And a New York protester takes on the Disney religion:

Like many New Yorkers, performance artist and activist Bill Talen has been dismayed by the transformation of Times Square from raffish red-light district to glitzy shopping destination. But he is likely the only one who has decided to protest that shift, on more than 20 occasions, by donning a clerical collar and leading a group of noisy demonstrators into Disney's flagship store on 42nd Street....

A couple of hours before one such recent rally was scheduled to begin, about three dozen people, including members of several local radical political groups and students from the NYU Legal Defense Clinic, gathered in front of St. Clement's Episcopal Church on West 46th Street. The forty-something Talen had already assumed the guise of Reverend Billy, the street-preaching persona he adopts whenever he is combating the spread of global capitalism....

"The Disney people consider themselves to be part of something like a religion," he said. "So when I go into their store and start preaching against them, they get really confused."

A few minutes after 11:00, the protesters headed for the Disney Store....Their goal, according to Talen, was twofold: to "slow down the buying and selling" of Disney merchandise and "to let people know that there is dissent to the new Times Square."

Once inside the store, protesters sang a satirical song about factory conditions to the tune of "Whistle While You Work," from Disney's animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then Talen, warming fully to the role of Reverend Billy, began preaching to the crowd in staccato bursts. He criticized Disney chairman Michael Eisner's immense bonuses and lamented the shuttering of some mom-and-pop businesses in and around Times Square. Tourists paused, bewildered, to watch as the protesters exhorted Talen with shouts of "Amen!" and "Stop Shopping!"

Yet the faithful still exist:

Jocelyn said...

...I worship Disney, natch!

Lucky YOU to hang with them!

The Tart

My inner child wants to be the Little Mermaid or Beauty or... well ALL of them. ; )

Jocelyn's blog is called Cheap Tarts and Cigarettes. Perhaps Kara Monaco can join Jocelyn's convent.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

I read a biography of Walt a few years ago, which was very enlightening. The man had a dream no one would buy. He literally had doors slammed in his face everywhere he went. He persevered against all odds, financed his own work, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. For that alone, he is an inspiration. Of course, he quickly became a household name and all the people who had shunned him wanted a piece of the action.

Pinsky’s idea that Disney films represent represent Judeo-Christian values is absurd. In nearly every movie, a child’s parent is killed, and there are strong sexual overtones in all of the newer movies. But even with Walt at the helm, things weren’t as rosy as we’d like to believe. I wish I could remember the name of the book I read. If I think of it, I’ll let you know.
Walt was definitely obstinate - at one point he wouldn't speak to his brother Roy (the financial expert on the team) for several years. You could also say that he was, in the long term, lucky - just think if his Disneyland experiment had gone awry, or if ABC hadn't come in with the financing.

At some point one of us should take a step back and look, on a higher level, at the relationship between Christianity and myth - not just in the Disney/Lewis/Tolkien sense, but in general.
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