On Turning 30

When I was in my early 20s, 30 was the dreaded age. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this, least of which were the stories circulated such as Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’ Diary that suggest that after 30, you become too old to have any kind of romance. Of course, there could also be the factor that, by the time one turns 30, the expected individual responsibility increases dramatically.

When I was in my early 20s, my only goal by the time I reached 30 was to have my PhD. I don’t have a full doctorate yet, but I just started writing a dissertation, so close enough.

My body isn’t in the shape it was in 10 years ago, which really wasn’t all that good to begin with, only now my body constantly reminds me that it’s not immortal.

Either way, turning 30 isn’t so bad, at least today.


The Relevance of Disneyland

Yesterday, I found myself ready to write again. I’ve been grading grading and grading for a month. It was the first major assignment, which usually takes the longest to grade. So I thought I’d work on the nagging question: how is a study of Disneyland relevant to the Mythological Studies conversation?

I initially can come up with two such reasons. First, the work of Walt Disney and Disney Corp helped cement popular culture (and its various modalities) as the primary transmitter of American myth. I’m not sure I really have to argue that point too much, but there are plenty of sources that back this up (for example: Douglas Brode’s From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture). Second, Disneyland is a place onto which significance has been inscribed. As an immigrant culture, we have programmed our cultural psyche to lean towards a new relationship to place because we left all of our sacred places in the Old World. There have been various influxes of place significance, but our relationship to place was severely altered by the expansion West – in which place was a wide open blank slate – and the expansion upward with the growth of the Metropolis. The two came together in the 1950s with the rise of the mobile culture and the need for tourist locales, constantly at battle with each other to try to “one-up” the competition. Disneyland is one such place.

My exploration leaves me with a major missing link: Is Disneyland as relevant today as it was in 1955? 1965? Even 1970? Living in Texas and far removed from my Disney Dolly (who constantly recharges my love of Disneyland), I notice that more people in my vicinity venture to Disney World. Indeed, much of my research starts with “Disneyland was cool and it was innovative” and ends with “but it was really more of a practice for Disney World and EPCOT.” I’m intentionally not writing about Disney World because I’ve never been there, and it seems irresponsible to write about a place one has never visited.

So what is it about 2010 Disneyland that makes it so attractive? What is it about the place of Disneyland that yields a mythological experience? I’ve had said experience, but I can’t find the words to describe it. Of course, some would say that’s the point of a mythological experience: it is beyond words.


Personal Myth from Wonderland to Who

Those stories we hold especially close are those that often have some connection with our personal myth at the time we encounter them. It’s not just a happy accident that we fall in love with something. It’s something far deeper than that. Something has been triggered psychologically.

As an undergraduate and throughout a portion of my graduate studies, my myth revolved around all things Harry Potter. Like so many others, I was drawn into the stories, to the point where my life felt enhanced every single time I read the books. I remember the day when that changed. Somewhere along the way – I think when I started teaching – the myth of the student slowly lost its potency. This might also be a large contribution to why I’m writing a dissertation over Disney and not Potter.

But in the last few months, my myth has been defined by Alice in Wonderland. This might have something to do with the shift from grad student to dissertating student and the frightening aspects that comes with this change. It felt like I was dropping into Wonderland, tuning out and turning on … the laptop at least.

Even more recently, I have been sucked into the mythos of Dr. Who, to the point that I’ve made it my goal in recent weeks to watch every single available serial for all doctors on Netflix Instant. Of course, the limitation on Netflix Instant cuts out a large part of the series. But it’s almost to the point of an addition. I can’t do basic tasks – like grading – without the show running simultaneously. But here’s the question: Dr. Who is about a Time Lord who can move around time and space. It’s as though time is infinite and unchanging. The Doctor is in control of his own past, present and future. So why this myth, why now? I’m sure this has something to do with the whole dissertation business. The idea of having a series of adventures and return home at the right time to finish writing the thing.

There aren’t many of us who haven’t wished for a Time-Turner. But I suppose a TARDIS would be a perfectly acceptable substitute.

House of Wax

Every fall, approximately 6 weeks leading up to Halloween, I load our Netflix cue with a collection of Horror/Suspense Thrillers we haven’t seen. It’s amazing that every year, I can create a list of new titles, and we’ve been doing this for 4 years or so now. We get everything from Classics to B’s. I always try to get the original rather than the remake, because those are often not nearly as good. One of the films this year is House of Wax, the 1953 film starring Vincent Price as an insane wax artist whose sculptures are – literally – a little too real. This is a remake of a 1933 film, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which is almost the same story with some changes in characters, though not in the premise. In either version, the sculptor regards his figures as his children and feels a connection to them.

So what does this have to do with anything? I can’t find a picture easily, but in the 1953 version, one of the figures outside the museum to attract visitors is dancing. Wiggling her wax hips from side to side in an imitation belly dance. 1953 pre-dates Disneyland by 2 years and Audio-Animatronics by about 10, but this clearly serves as an early experiment with the possibility of making inanimate figures move.

Automatons are nothing new. Descartes, the famous annoying Enlightenment philosopher, used to play with them in between his other scholarly pursuits. Stories of golems are almost ancient lore. Frankenstein’s Monster, Pinocchio, Metropolis’s robot. Humans have been long obsessed with making the inanimate move. In a way, I guess this is our god complex at it’s best – though, the myths remind us, since we are not the creator gods, our creations are imperfect and fall short of true living things.

Disney was no stranger to this. Initially, he brought to life pictures, making them move. His chosen medium was animation, so he was bringing to life the images of his psyche (and the psyches of his animators). In the 1940s and 1950s, he started removing himself further away from the production of animations and started playing with toys – specifically miniatures and trains – that would plant the seeds of inspiration for Disneyland. By the time of planning the 1964 World’s Fair, he was so fascinated with the idea of automatons, that he pushed the imagineers to come up with realistic robots, or the Audio-Animatronics. Granted, when you sail through it’s a small world, the roboticness of the dolls is apparent, complete with clicking eyelids, but in The Haunted Mansion, they resemble real grim-grinning ghosties. Audio-animatronics makes sense when bringing to life the stuff of our dreams.

But wait, you might ask, isn’t Disneyland one man’s dreams and aren’t we expected to play along with his scheme? Yes, but as my very wonderful dissertation partner-in-crime points out in her blog, they can’t really control the patron’s reaction, though they do try really really hard and hope that all patrons have the same experience. I think Disneyland has inspired more dreams than any other element in my life. I have had them for years, even before ever visiting Disneyland. At least for me, Disneyland does bring to life the stuff of my dreams. For me, it is fully archetypal imagery that communicated to me from beyond the berm. So this is why I’m writing a dissertation about it. May as well spend the cornerstone of my academic career writing about something personally relevant. I didn’t go to Pacifica to write about someone else’s dreams, after all.

Have It Your Way Mythologies

I’ve been reading Jean Baudrillard’s America lately. It’s my first encounter with Baudrillard’s work and I sort of wish I’d started reading him sooner. His observations about American culture are clear and, to an extent, spot on, because he makes them as an outsider who wants to have a romance with America, but finds that that romance isn’t quite what he hoped. Somewhere in there, he made a connection between anorexic and obese cultures. Of course, as I sat here to write about it, I can’t find the quote, so it’s possible that I’m remembering it incorrectly, but the gist is that anorexic cultures consciously exclude and push things away, whereas an obese culture has to inject and absorb all they can. I don’t think anyone could refute the fact that America is an obese culture – our weight epidemic is famous around the world (perhaps more as a joke than as a serious medical concern), but it’s not just our material gluttony that is making us obese. It is also our mythological gluttony.

When I started writing my Master’s thesis a billion years ago – okay, maybe a million – I compiled a list of children’s/young adult literature that stood out at the time as prominent myths in literature and cinema – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Eragon/Inheritance. Some of these you can see on my Essays page. But, as I was nearing my due date and graduation deadline, it finally dawned on me that all of these stories, save one, are not American. Big oops, especially since I was trying to write about American myth.

But what I’ve since come to realize is that we are living in a culture of too many myths to choose from. Those from the other side of the pond are just as potent for us as those we create for ourselves (and in some cases, more potent). Lately, I’ve been distracting myself from the inevitable research by watching TV shows on Netflix Instant: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Heroes, Dr. Who.. All of these tap into something in the cultural unconscious that needs expressing. Of those three, only one is profoundly American.

With the global market being what it is, we have the opportunity to chose whatever we want – we can have our myths in any media, at any time, and we can change our mind about them on whim. But for myths to really work, can the Have It Your Way model really work? Or are we just overloading our circuits?