Monday, February 27, 2023

Between Books - Disney's Theme Parks and America's National Narratives

Book cover for Disney Theme Parks and America's National Narratives showing a large crowd in front of Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World.

I started this book and couldn’t get past the first page. I just couldn’t read it. And that’s why I got glasses!

It has been a while since I have read a monograph with smaller type, smaller pages, and with only occasional pictures. And the addition of glasses did make me feel like an academic reading a book for scholars.

Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narrative: Mirror, Mirror For Us All by Bethanee Bemis hypothesizes, argues, and defends an academic thesis about the history and culture of the United States and Disney Parks. Bemis puts forth that Disney theme parks are a physical location where the American public negotiates the meaning of what it means to be American. She looks at five points of contact. She examines the use of American folklore and myth in the parks, Disney characters as American symbols, the transformation of folk history into an experience, the legitimization of Disney’s version of history by national figures and organizations, and finally Disney's use and evolution of history in the theme parks. Bemis argues that what is reflected in theme parks are not just conservative viewpoints but an evolution of how Americans see themselves. The book chapters delve into these topics, by demonstrating numerous examples in a short number of pages. For example, “Mickey Mouse/White House: Celebrating American Indentiy at Disney Parks” provides an overview of every President’s relationship since Dwight D. Eisenhower with the Disney Parks. In this chapter, special focus is given to presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan who had more than glancing visits to the parks. And Bemis uses these examples to show the messages that Presidents were delivering using the parks for context and emphasis.

Bemis is a well-trained and respected academic with ties to the Smithsonian. She writes for an academic audience with numerous citations and a reference section that shows she’s done the work. The writing is clear and straightforward. And honestly, I feel like it’s accessible to the non-academic reader. But. this is a very different tone than a memoir, biography, or even non-academic history with a goal of entertaining. This is not a fireside or bedtime read, this is a monograph, a complex study. And that tone may not attract all readers. Also, this is a $40 book, which while a standard for an academic monograph may be too pricey for a 120-page book with limited pictures.

As I read through this book, I do feel Bemis very much depicts a relationship between the parks and American people that evolves. And while American history and even Walt Disney himself were often conservative in nature, there are many pieces of clear evidence that show the parks evolve along with society. I think the most impactful evidence for me of this evolution is Disney’s view of Gay Days. Bemis shows us how Disney had negative reactions to same-sex relational displays in Disneyland, to their caution but allowance to the first Gay Days events, to current corporate acceptance and support. Bemis shows us how the American viewpoint on this issue evolved the parks’ changing narrative making her point about the changing narrative.

Many early academic Disney books were, to be honest, attacks. The Disneyfication of American history is painted in a negative light as it may have glorified patriotism and ignored peoples and minority groups. I fully see the point that Bemis is making, the park narrative, which is not a true depiction of American history, has evolved as guests interacted with the parks. But what you look for, one will find. And I can see how those who believe that Disney parks and executives are immoral agents manipulating historical views, would be validated by this study. And I can see how those who believe that Disney creatives have only good intent would also be validated. In the end, Bemis to me paints a picture where the parks and the people for good and ill have informed each other. And it is a much more interesting and complex relationship of gray instead of black and white.

Professional academic Disney works are coming! They are not marketing. They are not Disney-sponsored history. They are not love letters from fans. They sometimes require reading glasses! Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narrative: Mirror, Mirror For Us All by Bethanee Bemis is part of this professional trend. The monograph would likely not be for everyone, as it is not as fun or nostalgic as a memoir or entertaining secrets account. But it does paint us a valuable picture of how an entertainment company can be influenced by society, and how that narrative can be mirrored back to the people.

And it appears that thanks to Bemis I can see clearly now! 


Review Copy Provided by Routledge

This post contains affiliate links, which means that Between Disney receives a percentage of sales purchased through links on this site.


No comments:

Post a Comment