Hot on the heels of the nightmare 2016 election, the corporate sanctioned Holiday Seasons demands from us a merry and bright disposition, which feels not just merely inappropriate but vulgar. Shiny seasonal campaigns ring as hollow and false as ever. I cannot help seeing festive decorations as lackluster cries for help. In other words, a perfect time to visit Disneyland. Surely our mouse overlords “imagineered” a peppy parade to suck the poison from the blackest of hearts. After all, what can’t a little dreaming (and spending) fix?
My Disneyland experience last Sunday caved to obvious pathetic fallacy: it rained. We sailed out of It’s A Small World at 4:00 PM ready to forgive the malfunctioning dolls, a number of which were either frozen or blinking stupidly, until the fat rain droplets hit us. After the technicolor spectacle inside, the English style garden––including hedges obsessively clipped into exotic giraffes and hippos––outside the attraction felt sinister and ominous in the grey fog. Pretending to be undeterred by the weather, my friend and I fought on. Due to lack of available indoor seating, and to protect our $10.99 Steak Gumbo in sourdough bread bowls, we hid behind garbage bins and ate like London sewer rats. I exchanged glares with a woman who looked at me in disgust as I savagely bit in the bread bowl. I figured it was karma for rolling my eyes at a large woman demanding her Steak Gumbo in a coffee cup because “we gotta haul it back to Bakersfield right now.”
Refusing to admit defeat, we pressed on. By the time Pirates of Caribbean turned into a nauseous game of bumper boats, however, we folded. Driving back home to North Hollywood, I got turned around a few times. Like the stuttering Animatronics inside It’s A Small World, Siri blanked on me for mile-long stretches. I was paranoid about hydroplaning. I turned up the heater to dry my wet coat and Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” came on Shuffle. “This is the coastal town that they forgot to close down. Armageddon, come Armageddon, come.” I ruminated on how ol’ Uncle Walt must’ve drove the same route, the 5 or “the Golden State Freeway” if we’re being formal, from Disneyland to his home and offices in Burbank.
While I’m not alone in my perverse fascination for Disneyland, I don’t know of anyone else who relishes horrid theme park experiences. I even pay my $42.00/mo for an Annual Passport (parking fee not included). To me, Disneyland is a palimpsest of the American dream with its habit of self-mythologizing, of scrubbing unsavory details, and of overselling itself. The self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth.” Disneyland operates as a walled garden where the real world is never overtly acknowledges, aside from stray corporate reminders: “Presented by Siemens” and “We accept Visa and MasterCard.” Despite constant renovations and updates, Disneyland presents itself as stoic and unchanging. The 11 Disney theme parks scattered around the globe rake in $2.2B yearly. It’s a quite profitable collective hallucination. You don’t need to smuggle in molly or edibles in order to enhance the Disney experience.
One uncanny detail that sticks out, however, is the sheer volume of Star Wars merchandise. Stormtrooper masks and light sabers are crammed into every gift shop over the whole park. Seeing Chewbacca backpacks alongside Haunted Mansion memorabilia feels wrong. Worlds collide under globalism; why not franchises? The pandering to Star Wars fans at every turn is no doubt drumming up feverish excitement for the planned Star Wars themed addition to Disneyland. Despite its sci-fi drag, and futuristic pretensions, we all know Star Wars is a Western, thus the anticipated placement near Frontierland only seems incongruous. Star Wars Land will replace Big Thunder Ranch (presented by Brawny paper towels) and tie in with the upcoming Han Solo spinoffs, which will be (surprise) Westerns. For the uninitiated, Frontierland paints Manifest Destiny in gooey golden coats of nostalgia. Cowboys and Indians, saloons, and McDonald’s branded covered wagon that read “Westward Ho!” (The only place in the park that sold McDonald’s French fries.) While I can’t name a Western Disney film off the top of my head, I recall “A Cowboy Needs A Horse” (1956), which dresses up racist tropes and Wild West violence with a melancholy ditty and fiery, hellish backgrounds. In 1955, a year before the park opened, Uncle Walt described Frontierland as place where “we experience the story of our country’s past” and dedicated to the “faith, courage and ingenuity of our hearty pioneers.” The hollowing out of Frontierland in 2016 could be read as Disney distancing itself from dusty Western narratives, progressing to slightly more complex characters like Finn. A more realist argument, however, can be made that sensitivity has nothing to do with bulldozing unpopular attractions in order to make way for recently acquired intellectual property that’s worth $7.3B.
Meanwhile, the Western genre chugs along to popular delight. In the past year or so, we’ve been served up The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, a re-make of The Magnificent Seven, that Adam Sandler abortion on Netflix and (what I’m currently watched) HBO’s Westworld. Even Lady Gaga, of all people, went country in her latest album Joanne, which faithful Performance Studies majors will certainly describe as her “queering” the country music scene, as if Dolly Parton or Patsy Cline didn’t come before. Curiously, her track “John Wayne” sells the same brand of macho rhetoric as Trump: “Every John is just the same / I’m sick of their city games / I crave a real wild man / I’m strung out on John Wayne.” Those sissy book readin’ city boys just ain’t cuttin’ the mustard! She desires a return to the era of old school masculinity, which Mad Men disassembled as false but Middle America continues to see as a glorious past. A proud time where “men were men,” according to the hapless and sexist goons now validated by the President-elect.
And while I doubt Lady Gaga’s intention with “John Wayne” was to glorify locker room talk, and I do admit to being attracted to smelly men with hair on their chest, the upsurge in regressive thinking should worry any thinking person. The twentieth season of South Park brilliantly handles the return of the repressed with the “memberberries” story arc. The “memberberries,” a cross between wine and pot, not only triggers fun memories of AT-ATs and Toto’s “Africa” but no-so-fun things like racism and homophobia. “Member when marriage was only between a man and a woman?” The illusory promise to “Make America Great Again” is rooted in uncritical nostalgia. Netflix’s Stranger Things is set in the 1980s and casts the same lure upon viewers. The technophobic Black Mirror, set in the “near-future,” arrives at the same conclusion at the end of nearly every episode: the Internet was a mistake.
The Western frontier is popularly approached in either one of two ways. Firstly, and most literally, the West is a return to a pre-technology society without civility, known today as “political correctness.” Etiquette is a sign of weakness and even the slightest whiff of intellectualism rouses suspicion. Men are men; women are women. Unsurprisingly, right-wing racists are appropriating Western lingo in threatening letters to mosques: “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Well, there’s a snake in my boot, Billy Bob! Secondly, the Western is a convenient genre to unload our fears and anxieties about the world in 2016. Our Wild West is the Internet. The cowboys and Indians are still fighting, re: DAPL protests (and the cowboys don’t look none too heroic this time around). Women and men are only two possible gender identities because sex does not define gender. We’re in the throes of massive social change and the old guard cannot accept that. They refuse to let their own childhood die, whether it be John Wayne or Han Solo because both characters are one in the same. The future generation is coming to California not to pan for gold, but to code.
This is why I think Westworld is the most interesting take so far on the Western. Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton movie, the series thematically parallels Jurassic Park in numerous ways, particularly with featuring a white-haired British grandpa creating a godless amusement park for the global elite using groundbreaking science and technology. Kinda just like Uncle Walt! Westworld looks like any other drab prestige TV tome in its corporate office scenes; the professionals and the “butchers” (low ranking employees tasked with repairing spilled guts and slit throats) alike work in futuristic black glass offices. The transparency of the glass walls, cheered on in corporate headquarters, is subverted as an instrument of paranoia, Panopticon in scope. The QA team, headed by the bitch in heels Theresa, observes the park from a holographic camera; it’s like a crystal ball or a bell jar, but underneath the magical veneer lies a massive surveillance apparatus. Everything the guests do does not go unnoticed. In the age of facial recognition and the looming NSA, the all seeing eye takes on a pertinent metaphor.
Having never read Jurassic Park, and having played Gabe the Dog’s “Jurassic Bork” a million times, I wasn’t aware of the original cynicism. Thankfully, this insightful primer on Jurassic Park and Westworld by saves me the trouble from reading the dang book. Apparently, Spielberg’s kindly Hammond “is no eccentric Santa Claus” after all:
Sure, he is still the gregarious and urbane billionaire that imagines himself as a visionary, and who is repeatedly compared by outsiders to Walt Disney. But whereas this is a virtue for Spielberg—a man whose career is defined by envisioning impossible worlds and who in the ‘80s was also considered the Second Coming of dear old Walt—to Crichton, it is the greatest of sins.
There are no outright references to Disneyland in Westworld, quite unlike the scene in Jurassic Park where Hammond, in response to mutant reptiles killing visitors, cheerily says, “When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked.” And Jeff Goldblum, as the sexy nihilist Ian Malcolm, replies, “Yeah John, but when The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” In Westworld‘s case, the pirates will be running the asylum. ◆