The Disney Fantasy: Chapter One

“No fucking way!”

“You? How did you agree to that?”

“Seriously? You will be, like, floating on American capitalism!”

The above are some of the reactions I got when I told my friends I would be accompanying my sister and her mother on a cruise aboard the Disney Fantasy for seven nights. Having a developed a reputation for finding something offensive or problematic in most all situations (like any attentive liberal arts students by their senior year really…) I think most people in my life imagined me commandeering a Disney ship and inciting a labor uprising before they imagined me aboard one, partaking in Mickey’s shenanigans. But this was my sister’s vacation of choice. And someone had to be there to balance the cascade of anorexia-inducing images Disney presents.

After trying to coach my 6-year old sister through many Disney films throughout the years, I was familiar with how difficult the task of building critical viewership in a young, impressionable child is. And while countering Disney’s omnipresent master narrative would not be my purpose on the ship, I knew there was no way I could ‘float on American capitalism’ and not give my subtle interventions. I wanted to go on the water slide over and over again, take her on a water safari where yours truly puts on her best Australian accent and points out (mostly imaginary) creatures, and play a billion games of categories in the 11th deck pool. But it would be hard to do this with when every cast member (their euphemism for all of their underpaid labor aboard) greets us with “Hello, Princess” and every kids menu features a picture where the waist of princess X is smaller than the bicep of prince Y.

It’s difficult to maintain and invigorate the natural sense of adventure and discovery in a young girl when all around them tells them that they are only desirable if they are made up and docile and a have an high pitched and unbecoming laugh.

So I would be there, competing against Cinderella and Rapunzel for her attention and moral compass—trying to put into practice the lessons of my critical theory college coursework. I wouldn’t be a shield: it’s impossible (and detrimental) to hide the racist and sexist lessons Disney embodies when stuck aboard a vessel in which “Wish Upon A Star” is perpetually playing in the hallways and growing up in a society where Disney has a virtual monopoly on the socialization of young minds. But I would rise to the harder task: building a critical filter in the mind of a six year old, so that she could take in the Disnified world around her not as a reflection of reality or as a series of fables that should inform her ethical framework but as a particular cultural product that she could classify and critique. What does that really mean for a six year old? And so the experiment begins…

***

The truth is I have some experience reading about and creating culturally competent curricula. As a pre-service social studies teacher looking to work in urban districts, I have read many books about building an “inclusive” classroom and the like. And while I have achieved relative success on creating projects and lesson plans that fulfill this demand, I find the improvised discussion that animates these products incredibly difficult.

Last summer, the first week I introduced my “girls empowerment” curriculum and the residential summer camp I was working at I was practically twerked out of the room by a mob of aggrieved teenage girls. I had just lead them through a “privilege walk,” where the girls were instructed to step backwards, toward a sign that read “Less Rights and Power” and away from one that said “More Rights and Power,” if the statement I read was relevant to them.

The statements addressed the ways in which American women and girls are oppressed, and dealt with issues from having few role models in the political and business arenas to not being encouraged to take advanced coursework in school. All the statements were followed by a short, data-driven explanation of why they amounted to a measurable way women and girls are less privileged than their male counterparts. Following the exercise, I asked the girls the most neutral, calming discussion question I could think of: how did that exercise make you feel?

After a few honest remarks that were mostly different iterations of “I had never really thought about that before,” one dignified and self-assured girl stood up and said something along the lines of, “I don’t care about the barriers that exist. I am going to the CEO of Proctor and Gamble one day and I don’t care if you tell me that these obstacles exist, I am going to surmount them! I am going to work hard and do whatever I need to do to accomplish my dreams.”

Just as I was constructing my response, a mix of cheerful encouragement to accomplish her goals and a sobering reminder that when she confronts obstacles, she shouldn’t blame her lack of hard work but the very real limitations that we just mentioned, the girls in the room begin to applause in chorus, some standing to show the agreement with this beat-the-odds attitude. I had lost them. The sweet myth of meritocracy and the familiar struggle to be the exception beat out my bad news. I made a last ditch effort to convince them that this bad news was really liberating information, that knowing and seeing these social phenomenon will help us navigate the world and ultimately enable our gender to achieve great things. Nope. Done. Victory for Proctor and Gamble.

Since then, I’ve reread Pedagogy of the Oppressed a few times and have become more comfortable facilitating discussion and presenting information in a way that is palatable to a barely pubescent brain. I’ve had successes. But the fact that I was “working with” someone that was not only 6 and a half but by blood relative, whose mental health and self-esteem I had a serious stake in, made this particular endeavor all the more challenging. And I would be in the middle of the ocean on a ship with no soul to “deconstruct” the stream of problematic images I would be encountering daily. It seemed my own sanity would be at stake.

***

There are the usual suspects.

The avid teenage cruise goer, who is as enthusiastic about all things floating as I was about disembarking from the dizzying vessel in at the next port. She knows the ship from bow to stern (and all the ship jargon for that matter) and the color-scheme on each of its elaborately decorated rooms just from studying the Disney website. She loves cruises and all the nautical accessories that accompany them. Charm bracelets made of anchor shaped links, stripped everything and a shamelessly overzealous personality. She can give a comparative analysis of the “teen clubs” on more Disney cruise ships than you can count on one hand. There’s the one in the renovated smoke stack, the one that year that “just, had the best people,” and the one here, where, given that she’s on the cusp of 20, she’s not sure how much time she’ll spend inside, despite the “awesome” design. Each time we see her it’s “go to go, there’s a ventriloquist in the Buena Vista Theater” or “can’t talk long, we have the late dining slot tonight and I just adore our company there!” The girl is definitely getting her monies worth. I thought I was sticking it to the (super)man by indulging in my twenty-five shrimp at lunch time. If I am the casual coupon cutter, she is the spend thrift who sets us an encampment at Walmart before Black Friday. She knows how to do all-inclusive like I know how to spot racism in our exclusive, live performance of Disney’s Aladdin.

There’s the out-of-place couple always without children and with a drink in hand who must have booked this trip accidentally. They missed the trademark mouse ears stamped on every the page of the Disney cruise booking site, realizing the only other adults without children on board would spend the majority of their day dressed as characters from the Seven Dwarfs only after paying the thousand dollar deposit. No sensible adults would elect to do this, right? Wrong. They’re everywhere. They’ve managed to get thoroughly tipsy before the abandon-ship drill that takes place within three hours of getting on the boat. They can be found in the hot tubs with tropical drinks in hand, receiving mixed looks from mothers who have to begrudgingly explain to their children “no honey, you can’t have what that man’s drinking because it has silly juice in it.” Aloof to the fact that they are in an environment completely and exclusively made for children, they chat about last night’s party and the makes of Caribbean rum they plan on purchasing in port. When they complain about how they’ve “reached their threshold for seeing children for the day” you want to pour water on them and say “why the fuck are you on a Disney Cruise?”

There’s the two year old that perpetually looks like they are on the very best drugs you’ve ever taken, combined. Everything around them is blowing their fucking minds. When they step onto the deck eleven Kids Reef Play Zone, they are at the bottom of the ocean, playing alongside starfish and other aquatic life on the sea floor. They are blind to plastic seaweed, the speakers blasting “sounds” of the deep ocean, and the limits the human capacity to survive underwater. Everything is so fucking real and awesome and mind-blowingly magical. Their reaction to everything is to drop their jaw, widen their eyes and bounce up and down until they fall over from the unsteady surface below them. They shit themselves a little at the site of each character. Pluto brings a shart, Donald duck a bronzed nugget and Mickey a dipper change. The only thing that lowers them from their perpetual high is the stinging sensation they get when peeing out vestiges of exorbitantly chlorinated pool water.

It’s a weird bunch. Definitely no likeminded folk on board who would enjoy comparing reflections on the role of media in socializing our children while sharing a mickey waffle.

I shouldn’t pretend be such an awe-struck outsider however. For, upon boarding the ship, I was reminded that I had, in fact, been on a Disney cruise once before. I was six with my dad and I don’t remember much and had honestly not thought about that trip while preparing myself for this one. But surely enough, as we entered the ship, an enthusiastic Ken-ish looking man with an exotic accent, barked in a microphone for all to hear, “Welcome, Cataway Club members, the Griswold-Yosha’s!” Then, a lobby full of clapping “cast members” with that familiar fake-it-til’-you-make-it attitude I recognize from my camp counseling days hands us an assortment of “gifts,” bestowed on us (me really) for being returning cruisers.

I carried my Castaway Club tote the whole week.

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