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2001 Annual Meeting

The Mouse and the Magnifying Glass: A Sociological and Sardonic Tour of Disneyland

by Harry J. Mersmann, San Joaquin Delta College,

So there you are, at the ASA meetings, with an extra day or two on either side. Sure there are a lot of places you could go; explorations abound in Southern California. But admit it, you know you are being pulled, maybe by your kids, maybe by the kid inside of you, to the gates of the place that turned Anaheim from a sleepy community surrounded by orange groves into a raging and raving mini-metropolis. Just like all those sports superstars, you are going to Disneyland.

Now if you want to go to the world’s first theme (as opposed to amusement) park and battle the crowds while trying to have fun, do not let me discourage you. In fact, I would strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of Bob Sehlinger’s Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2001 in order to get a jump on the rest of the tourists. But if you want a whirlwind tour of the park from a sociological perspective, and a few insights garnered from my experiences teaching a course on “The Sociology of the Magic Kingdom” at Chapman University in Orange (just down the road from Anaheim), then grab my hand and hang on...

Welcome to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Ignore the many crying children, yelling parents, and grumpy faces, which await us in the 90+ degree weather, or rather pick up your sociological lens and spend some time examining the family dynamics and interactions of the folks who can afford to come here. (With parking, admission, food and one small souvenir, the cost of one day’s attendance for a family of four jumps past the weekly earnings of a minimum wage worker.) Those of you who teach marriage and the family courses will be able to spend most of your day just watching the family dynamics.

Right after you enter the gates, just in front of the huge floral Mickey face, you will note the first of many “Picture Spots” sponsored by Kodak. Here in Disneyland, reality is constructed to the point of telling you where to take pictures (although it is sometimes humorous to watch guests try to figure out if they should be shooting the spot itself or using the spot as a place to stand while taking a picture). No need to think or worry.... just follow the signs.

From here we enter onto Main Street, a re-creation of a turn of the century small town thoroughfare (minus all the “nasty” elements like a saloon, jail, or horse droppings). The architecture here is downsized with first floors at 7/8ths scale and second floors at 5/8ths in order to make the area more accessible and to create a sense of forced perspective, which pulls the eye down Main Street to the rest of the park. But before you venture much further, bear to the right and enter into Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. While waiting for the show to start, you can peruse a recreation of Walt’s offices and get some teaching tips from a talking owl character. Soon enough the doors will open and you will be able to spend a few minutes with our 16th president. His speech is composed of segments of speeches given over a 26-year period that never really mesh, but the best part is yet to come. After leaving, you will be dumped into a small room that most guests just hurry out of, but stay awhile and read the quotations on the wall from such great Americans as Andrew Carnegie who tells us that “....Individualism, private property, the law of accumulation of wealth, and the law of competition; these are the highest results of human experience,” or Louis Brandeis who suggests that “As long as you have freedom, freedom of capital and freedom in the lines of business, you are safe...” One would be hard pressed to find a more deliberate shrine to capitalism anywhere.

Making our way down Main Street (notice how white almost everyone is in this early 20th century utopia), we will bear to the left and enter into Adventureland. Here, those of you with expertise in anthropology and archeology might want to venture into Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom just to see Disney’s portrayals of your fields, the requisite exotification of the other (and to experience the most amazing attraction in the park), but the rest of us will get in line for the Jungle Cruise. This attraction is so loaded with possibilities for sociological analysis, that I usually make my students ride it at least three times in a row in order to refine their sociological visions. As you step into the boat, take note of the name. All of the boats on this journey are named after women (after all, both women and boats, intended to be the possessions of men). Also note the sex of your guide. For most of its history, this ride only had male boat captains, but women now commandeer their fare share, with a tendency to alter the pattern in predictably gendered ways.

Up until fairly recently in Disney history, the guides were confined to a strictly scripted set of descriptions and jokes, but cast members are now free to improvise. As your tour proceeds through a variety of rivers and continents (Oy, what a geographical mess!) you may encounter ethnocentrism (jokes about Ganesh, the Hindu elephant God), sexism (jokes about mothers-in-law, wives, and women in general), and racism (assorted “witticisms” about the “Natives” and “Primitives”). This is also an interesting site of workplace resistance as guides joke about working conditions with comments about the boring and repetitive nature of work (“there’s something you don’t see everyday, but I do...over and over and over again”), customer relations (“if you enjoyed the tour my name is Jack and this has been the Jungle Cruise, if not, my name is Julie and this has been the Storybook Canal ride”), and the dead end nature of the job (“kids, stay in school or you’ll end up with a job like this”).Moving further along, we enter New Orleans Square, home of the famous Pirates of the Caribbean. Here you will find one of two semi-nude portraits of women in the park (the other is hanging over the bar in the Golden Horseshoe) and a tribute to looting, pillaging, and rape. See women for sale (the heavy one is much cheaper than the red headed “hottie”) and others being chased by pirates. A few years ago, park management put food and beverages into the women’s hands in order to tone down the rape theme and make it seem like the pirates were merely hungry and thirsty, but the sense of sexual predation is still clear. For extra credit, see if you can spot the one non-white pirate (I’ll give you a hint, he’s Asian) and the portrayals of the lesbian pirate couple Anne Bonney and Mary Reade.

As you leave the Pirates ride, look directly to your left and you will see a door marked “33.” This is the site of Club 33, a private dining club that was originally intended to be a residence for Walt. Here, patrons who can afford the $10,000 annual fee, are allowed to spend additional big bucks on gourmet food while escaping the masses below. It is also the only place in Disneyland where you can consume alcohol.

We do not have much time left, so let’s hurry out to Toon Town and stop for a tour of Mickey’s House and Minnie’s House. A virtual textbook of gender relations and construction awaits us as we walk through these domiciles. In Mickey’s house we learn that males have the power (keys to the city), athletic ability (a variety of sports paraphernalia), and do important work (we meet Mickey at work in his studio behind the house). Minnie’s house on the other hand is mostly a domestic paradise with the kitchen taking up most of the space. Not only is she (and by implication, all women) supposed to be concerned with feeding her man, she is also supposed to be attractive, hence the vanity and perfume counter, the “diet” cookies, and the copy of Jessica’s Secret, a take-off of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie catalog, with a picture of Jessica Rabbit on the cover. I guess we should not be surprised that three of the ten items on her “To Do” list involve Mickey. By now we are a bit tired, so why not sit back and take a Disney geography lesson via It’s a Small World? Here, amidst the hallucinatory effects of one of the world’s most insidious tunes, we learn that almost half of the world is European or of European descent as we tour the globe and count the number of scenes and dolls from each country or region. For those of you with any bent towards anthropology, it is all here: manifest destiny, exotification of the other, and construction of the “primitive.” The point of the ride is clear in the final room where all the children of the world join together, wearing white garments and singing not in their native languages, but in English: It’s a white/European world after all.

Our tour is coming to an end. There is no time for Frontierland where the new McDonald’s Chuck Wagon sells fries and cokes for more than any other stand in the park and we will have to leave Tomorrowland for tomorrow. We never had a chance to explore the commercial wonder of the new Downtown Disney Mall or the new California Adventure theme park across the street where simulacra are piled upon simulacra. Perhaps next time, perhaps another day, but for now: “M-I-C, See how sociological this place is? K-E-Y, Why? Because it’s a microcosm of American culture. M-O-U-S-E.”