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The Problem is Alice

The Problem is Alice

by Sarah Dawson / 21.01.2010

About two years ago, through a series of unfortunate events revolving around some claustrophobic episodes, logistical convenience, boredom, and “ironic” curiosity (see below), I found myself an unexpected visitor to that glorious land of commercial wonderment, that bountiful cornucopia of commodity fetishism, that marvellous Mecca of magical “moneyness”: Disneyland.

Well, at least in a budget hotel on its not-so-lavish outskirts.

But who could possibly go as far as the gates of Disneyland and not venture inside for a peek up the Mount Olympus of capitalism to the apex reserved for only the giants of imaginative imperialism? Coaxed by the waft of cotton candy, I parted with the required dollars and was handed some kind of passport to Paradise.

Ever cynical, but in the mood for fun, I lifted my shield of ironic distance and strode confidently down the cobblestones of, um, Main St, USA.

But a word of warning to all stoned traveller hipster types who might, for a laugh, think to follow my lead: The place is a hungry vortex for all subversive intention. It’s just too big. Just waaay too big for one reluctant consumer’s anti-whatever ideological willpower to stand even the minutest chance. I won’t go into any detailed description of the place, since they’ve made a damned solid effort to make sure the mythology of Mickey has been as widely disseminated as that of the Baby Jesus. (It won’t be long till there’s a robed Mickey saving souls in the moat of the Magic Castle*.) But the sheer scale of the thing ensures that you have no access to external points of reference, and any rogue resistant subjectivity is left quivering in the shadow of a giant, drooling, red-shorted rodent, as his evil giggles echo through the valleys of fibreglass hills.

Scary but true.


There is a twist to this story. From this Disneyland, this particular Disneyland, despite all its American-Dreams-really-do-come-true-Candy-land-pioneer-WASP-fantasy blah blah, you’d have to swim pretty far to find yourself on Yankee soil.

Welcome to Disneyland – Hong Kong.

This sibling of Orlando, Florida is a profoundly weird place. Based on what I’ve just said, it would seem the omnipotent Walt has colonised little pockets at all corners of the Earth, polished them up and painted them pink, blue and yellow, creating seamlessly enchanting worlds of ideological saturation. But the truth is that the veneer is penetrable. As soon as Disney exists outside of white US suburbia, when the foundations beneath it are radically not-American, little idiosyncrasies ooze through the plastered up cracks that are striking, and show the myth up for what it is – dangerous and evil hegemonic manipulation.

To illustrate, the epiphanic moment for me came when, passing the Beauty and Beast tea cup ride, Alice in Wonderland came skipping through the crowd and stopped abruptly to wave hyperbolically at some fat chocolate-smeared kiddies. Looking like a real live animation, she was perfect – pale blue pinafore, eponymous hair accessory, pink lips, porcelain skin and wig of golden locks. But there was something awfully wrong, something that ripped through the seamless hyperreality, something that was so startlingly not part of the Disney myth. Those slanty eyes.

I am totally aware of how bigoted that sounds. But the prejudice of these words shows how immersion in the Western fantasy of the Disney heroine has a way of ruthlessly drawing attention to deviation from the twisted ideal it prescribes, and it breeds this bigotry where it wasn’t before. Though I’m sure there are plenty of fetishists who’d love it, Alice is not Asian. She never will be. But it’s certainly not the girl under the wig who’s the problem. The problem is Alice.

Kiss the Princess

And now we have a new Alice. But this time her name is “Tiana”, and they picked the colour brown instead of yellow for the fill bucket tool. Returning to its treasured traditional 2D fairy tale aesthetic a la Cinderella, Disney has just released The Princess and the Frog, championing its first African American princess. It’s being pitched as progressive in some way, as a means of making amends for the decades of Aryan favouritism, but the truth is the corporation just identified a new market of Oprah-generation African Americans with pockets open for the picking. But, again, the problem is with the mould, not the clay.

First clue that there’s nothing essentially progressive about this tale is that its structurally based on the “Frog Princess”, an age-old Eurocentric fairy story, which has then been put through the Hollywood mincing machine into a cabaret that in fact turns on themes of money, heteronormativity and racially defined class structures.

Froggy went a courting

Another misguided, no, perverted attempt at cracking open the wallets of the less Republican market is the inclusion of a (totally incidentally) Muslim prince/hero, from a completely fictionalised Middle-Eastern country. Way to be subtle.

Anyway, all this blathering does have a point. In the words of Disney’s newest villain, voodoo practitioner, Dr Facilier: “The real power in this world isn’t magic, it’s money!” And Disney has figured out that it can wave its magic wand and turn everything to gold if it lets people other than ringleted blondies dress up and play, no I mean buy Disney Barbie princess. But no matter how hard any one of them wishes upon that star, the dream they’re selling… ain’t gonna come true.

*Check out a doccie called What Would Jesus Buy on this theme.

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  1. bubba hotep says:

    ‘…the western fantasy of the Disney heroine has a way of ruthlessly drawing attention to deviation from the twisted ideal it prescribes’ – this is good writing people, the ‘new journalism’ in South Africa: knowing, attentive, well-written, ideas-based and ready to stare into the abyss of the 21st Century is happening right here right now!

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  2. Joerg says:

    Great read!

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  3. We're not just fans 'cos its free... says:

    Fantastic writing, and while we often applaud the lady writers on this site just because they are women competently string an opinion together with words, your work should be setting the standard.

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  4. Sarah Dee says:

    Aww shucks.
    ‘Preciate it, dudes.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Is this supposed to be a film review? Because I’m confused as to why three quarters of it is dedicated to your trips to various Disneylands around the world. Honestly, it doesn’t sound like you’ve even seen the movie, but just read the synopsis on imdb.

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  6. Sarah Dee says:

    Because, dear Anonymous, unlike that fluttering thought that just passed through your mind, film does not exist in a vacuum.

    There may, in fact, just perhaps, be a strong correlation between the institution of Disneyland and the latest Disney movie. It may even be linked to your very inability to grasp such an argument.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    mga vovo ok monico hahah

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