News Mythology

My three news sources are Twitter, Steven Colbert and John Stewart. The latter two with no regularity. So when my Twitter feed erupts with responses to a headline, I tend to pay attention. But what I don’t get is the types of headlines people react to. Case in point: Casey Anthony. This has blown up to the point of overshadowing more important concerns. This has prompted me to ponder about News Mythos and our current state of mis-information.

Since William Randolph Hurst, news has been sensationalist, targeting our gut reactions to moral issues rather than straight reporting. Sure, there are news outlets that try very hard to keep it real, such as NPR, but they lie in the shadows in comparison to other news sources (probably because of their medium. I bet if NPR launched a TV subsidiary, they’d give CNN a run for their money). News media, however, seems to construct our culture myths by reacting to a seemingly pointless issue and reporting on it ad nauseum. For example, the Vietnam war was the first to unfold on television, which helped fuel the student and counterculture riots and rallies, giving the late 1960s the flavor so idolized in modern culture. Same with all of the other wars and major world events.

But what does it suggest when a mom accused of killing her daughter is aquitted and everyone gets angry? Something within our perfect utopian illusion has been violated, so we react en masse. But the reaction is something unconscious being triggered, anything from mommy issues to a metaphorical Abrahamic sacrifice. Maybe Casey Anthony is guilty or not–that’s not the point. The point is that the news has erupted to create a screen of distraction from the larger concerns of the nation/culture, and this is what makes sensationalist news reporting so attractive and entertaining. It gets difficult to face daily reports of why our utopia is failing (which is why I disconnected from the news beyond Twitter headlines), so murder trials give us something else to project on to. Maybe if we get upset enough, we can restore the utopia. But it doesn’t work that way. See yesterday’s post about Epic Mickey.


Epic Mickey: Disney’s Dystopia

I know I’m a little late on the bandwagon, but I finally started playing Epic Mickey last month. This is a Wii-console game (only) about a land constructed by Yin Sid for the forgotten Disney characters. Except that it’s called Epic Mickey and not Disney’s Forgotten Characters. So here’s the plot: Mickey Mouse is playing around in Yin Sid’s lab (an homage to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) and spills a magic paint into the model land, causing the Blot or Thinner Disaster. Mickey is then pulled into this wasteland by the Mad Doctor (another tribute to an old Mickey cartoon), who almost cuts out Mickey’s heart, except that Mickey escapes. He picks up his magic paintbrush and is tasked with restoring the wasteland.

What follows is a tribute to Disney. Areas of the game occur in places inspired by Disneyland areas and attractions. Transitions between the game areas are inspired by old Mickey Mouse cartoons. Mickey becomes friends with Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit, his predecessor, and is reunited with friends he hasn’t seen since the first Mickey cartoon days. All along the way, Mickey battles paint splatters and mechanical creatures, solves puzzles, and rescues the Gremlins that keep this wasteland running.

But what is interesting with the dystopian theme of the entire game. Real-life Disneylands and Magic Kingdoms project a utopian ideal. These are places where everything is clean, believed to be safe, and mechanics are running properly. Epic Mickey’s wasteland is full of deadly paint thinner, is dangerous, and nothing is running properly. One of the first areas you encounter outside Dark Beauty Castle (based on Sleeping Beauty Castle) is a sort of Fantasyland with the spinning tea cups, flying Dumbos and It’s a Small World—except the tea cups jerk around, the Dumbos don’t fly (and have a mad elephant look in their eyes), and the Small World dolls look like something from it and Small World attraction is likewise broken. The music is a slowed-down bummer remix. This wasteland is anything BUT the Disney ideal. Even for all of Mickey’s repairs, this land never gets up to the Disney-standard, which makes sense since it is the land of the Forgotten Characters (unless you’re a Disney-geek, like me, who has never forgotten).

But, in the vein of that show Life After People, I’ve often wondered just what a run-down Disneyland would look like. This game gives this imagery very nicely.

So now, what does it mean? Disney has been plussing the parks lately. Some notable new attractions or reduxes have happened within the last 10 years to the present, from adding Jack Sparrow to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction to the Star Tours redux or the Little Mermaid attraction. Disney parks rank among the best theme parks in the country (if not the world). But they do come under the criticism of being the happy side of a mythic spectrum, ignoring the shadow, or that counter element to any mytheme (Jung coined to term to describe unconscious elements that get filed away as we go through the course of identity formation). Everything in Disneyland is supposed to be perfect – this is a part of the utopian ideal. We enjoy going to Disneyland because we want to experience utopia. A key component of the American myth is the constant quest for a utopia. We need it, we hunger for it, we want it, but we can’t make it happen in our real lives, no matter how hard we try. The constitution and its constituent parts is utopian philosophy.

Not everyone wants the escapism of a utopia. It’s not realistic. The modernist and post-modernist world has filled us with dystopian imagery, so what better place to explore this dystopia than in the place of utopia?

But the whole point is that Mickey is cleaning it up. In the past, I’ve written about the idea of Mickey Mouse as Everyman. So it is in the hands of Everyman to clean up our present state of dystopia. But we can’t return it to the polished state of utopia. Once something has been damaged like that, it’s in the past. When we rebuild, we build something new. But if the goal is not rebuilding, as Mickey is just repainting, there will always be a dingy reminder of the dystopian past. This is a statement about the current state of America, and a reminder that we have to tend to the utopia ourselves rather than hope that someone will make it happen for us. There’s a lesson to be learned from this game, not just a really fun time to be had or Disney tribute to experience.

Fairy Tales and Utopian Ideals

There are some scholars that, as much as I would like to try, I just cannot avoid. They are the ones that add conversation and dialogue to my research, taking it to a deeper level. Sure, it would be easy to ignore them, but then I’d be just as shallow a researcher as the Shallow Researcher “archetype” at the core of my academic shadow projections. Today’s unavoidable researcher: Jack Zipes.

I discovered Jack Zipes when I was doing the Pacifica preview day, which I’d timed on purpose to coincide with my admissions interview. As part of the preview day, they were giving out a $25 gift certificate for the Pacifica bookstore. One of the unspoken secrets of the Pacifica bookstore is that the really good books all cost exactly $25 or more, and that it is neigh impossible to exit the bookstore without spending at least $45. I blew my travel budget many times in that bookstore… Anyway, I chose Zipes’ Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale, because the title seemed to be dealing with some residual questions I had lingering from my MA thesis. I read 3 pages before shelving the book to prepare for Pacifica, and there the book stayed for 3 years until one day I brought home his book, Happy Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry from the Pacifica library. Revisiting Jack Zipes revealed two things: 1. he is no lover of Disney and 2. he fails to make the distinction between Grimmified fairy tales and literary fairy tales in his criticism of the Disneyfication of fairy tales. Before leaving this point, I must emphasize how much it annoys me that people criticize Disney for “sanitizing” or “trivializing” fairy tales, making “the one true version” that most kids today know and realize, but fail to criticize the Brothers Grimm for doing the EXACT same thing. AND, I would further point out, that Disney’s fairy tale films until The Little Mermaid were anything BUT sanitized.

Anyway, the point of this post is a couple of questions that Zipes poses in Happily Ever After that I think need to be addressed, though I’m not sure my dissertation is the place to do it.The quote is this:

Indeed, ever since World War II the fairy tale as live-action film or animation has become one of the most successful genres in the culture industry. Perhaps, given the barbarism of World War II, the need for fairy tales in the mass media became greater afterward, for it is through the fairy tale that hope for happy endings is kept alive. The question we must ask, however, is whether it is a false hope. Do fairy-tale films project false utopias through amusement? Have fairy-tale films contributed to the destruction of community and the deception of the masses? (70).

The hope for happy endings that these films project is not limited to the barbarism that upset the American psyche following World War II. In fact, Snow White and Pinocchio were promising us happy endings before we even entered the war. However, the potency of the genre took off following the war, but I don’t think the war is to blame for this. Instead, I suggest turning to the Cold War. After World War II, America was on a high – we had come out of the war the victors and we were one of the most prosperous nations in the industrialized world. But we were afraid of “communism,” a fear of our individuality being compromised and a fear that still resonates today. We projected this fear onto the Russians, and what followed was an absurd decade of drills, bomb shelters and the illusion that if your school gets hit by a bomb then your school desk will protect you. Out of this fear, we get science fiction films, film noir, suspense thrillers and fairy tale films. The first three deal with confrontation with the unknown, while the last on the list deals with the happier side of the imagination. So it makes sense that Disney would experience a surge of popularity, being one of the few media outlets that gave us fluffy bunnies in a time of constant fear. The Cold War fear led to Vietnam, which was a major blow to the American psyche, from which we sort of recovered from after the fall of the Berlin wall. But as we were leaving our fear of communism behind, we were turning it instead into a fear of “terrorism,” which we believe compromises our identity with oil. This is the mode we’re still deeply swimming in.

Do fairy tale films project false utopias? YES, but these false utopias offer hope. The American Dream is a projection of a false utopia. The country was founded on utopian ideals, conquered by utopian ideals, and industrialized under utopian ideals. We have always attracted immigrants who are searching for utopia. Utopia is at the deep, buried core of American mythos. Since World War II, we have seen an increase in apocalyptic films. Cold War films projecting the fear of our destruction. Then after the fall of the studio system and Woodstock, films reflected a dystopian disillusionment. Films since the 80s have tried to offer hope for a savior hero, but that savior hero has yet to manifest in the culture (another discussion for another day). Throughout all of this, fairy tale films have given us happily ever afters. Sure, there is some saving going on – the princess needs some kind of rescue, or more recently the prince does – but what is being saved is hope for new beginnings. As Doug Brode points out in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, Disney films don’t have happy endings. They don’t end. They offer, instead, new beginnings. One that takes place off screen. “And they lived happily ever after” is very different than “The End.”

Have fairy tale films contributed to the destruction of the community? I think asking this question is blowing everything out of proportion. Many factors contribute to the destruction of the community. If anything, fairy tale films reinforce community. Walt Disney said somewhere that his goal was always the family, which is the core of any community.

Have they contributed to the deception of the masses? Again, I think this is blowing everything out of proportion. Sure, they project false utopias, but they speak to the mythic imagination, not to the reality of our lives. If the masses are deceived, it’s a failing of the education system and community network. America does have a propaganda machine, but it does not operate the same way as other propaganda machines have, fully pulling the mask over our eyes. This country benefits from the fact that we allow both sides of the conversation to happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re listening. That’s not Disney’s fault. If anything, Disney films are more subversive than we realize.

Mickey Mouse is Everyman

I know you’re probably thinking “B. F. Freakin’ O.” [Brilliant flash of the obvious.] Of course Mickey Mouse is Everyman. That’s nothing new. In fact, much of the critical research I’ve been reading since starting this dissertation thingy say the exact same thing—Mickey Mouse is Everyman. Why? Because he plays down-to-earth characters in all of his shorts who gets into down-to-earth, albeit hilarious, situations. He has a good heart, and more often than not, does not start his adventure with the intent of hurting anyone. John Hench, I believe, has famously described his mandalic features, suggesting that Mickey is popular because he’s made of circles, which are the most nurturing and gentle of all geometric shapes (and their composition in Mickey’s head stirs up memories of Mommy—I like the idea, but I don’t run away with it).

So I recently scored a used copy of the Disney Treasures Pluto collection, volume 1. As much as I’d love to utilize my D23 membership to get the awesome boxed set that contains almost all of the Treasures to date, it’s super-expensive. Like $500 expensive. But that’s neither here nor there.

The first cartoon I watched on the collection is “The Chain Gang,” which I think is one of Pluto’s first appearances as a police dog. He hasn’t become Mickey’s friend yet, but, as we all know, he does and also is one of the primary Mickey and friends characters. Watching this cartoon really cemented the Mickey as Everyman thing—What makes Mickey Everyman is that he has no clear racial indicator. He is neither black nor white. In fact, he’s both. He not only embraces “the common man” but he embraces all skin tones and cultural backgrounds. This is significant, given that he was born prior to desegregation. Walt Disney seems to be suggesting that Mickey Mouse is American, and that distinction has nothing to do with race, class or creed. He just is.

So this is one more feather in the cap toward Walt Disney’s Utopia. I have long held the belief that the secret to overcoming racial tensions is to stop using any of the negative terms or behaviors associated with them—but this should not be to the expense of diversity. Every culture group should be allowed to embrace it’s heritage, but that heritage should be celebrated and not used against anyone for malicious reasons. I grew up in the South, and while my school district did a really good job of celebrating diversity, I saw a different world on the school bus.

Mickey Mouse stands as a champion of a world without the tension and negativity, which brings me to another crucial point. Rolly May points out that the myths will precede the history. The stories have to become ingrained in our psyche before we can make them happen. Thinking about some other utopias from the 60s (Star Trek comes to mind), is it possible that the Utopia that Walt dreamed about is around the corner?

To wrap up this post, I googled some images of utopia and came across the following interesting tidbits:

Utopia woodcut by Ortelius
This is a picture from an SMU faculty web page, and looks to be a woodcut of More’s Utopia And this is a picture of Walt Disney with the original concept of Disneyland. The main similarity is in the heart-shape of the layout. Is this a crucial element of a Utopia?

And then I found this: Mickey Mouse is Corrupting Our Youth and Destroying Our Childhoods (link). I’m not sure what, beyond shaking my head, to think of this article, but the fear of Utopia is legitimate in our culture of Individualism, no?