The Most Magical Place on Earth?

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Magically offensive, that is.

Courtesy of Whitney Gao
Courtesy of Whitney Gao

I’m nearly two decades old (yikes), and I went to Disney World for spring break this year.
No shame, though. I love a good throwback, and this was going to be an entire week of reliving my childhood. I walked into the parks and felt all the feels, letting the waves of nostalgia wash over me in glorious elation. It was amazing, it was beautiful, and Florida was warm. It was a happy and much welcomed break from the never-ending winter we are currently still experiencing in the 617.
However, as the novelty of each day wore off, I began to unhappily notice streaks of strangely offensive storylines and experiences that I don’t remember coloring my childhood experiences there. Whether it’s because I’ve opened my eyes and my mind enough to really see at this point in my life or whether it’s because the world has finally changed enough to make this kind of situation glaringly noticeable, I found these exceptionally politically incorrect instances an inerasable blemish on my week.
We went to Epcot on the first day, and as I scanned the map, I found that I had completely forgotten everything about that park except for the giant golf ball and Test Track (which has been redesigned and updated and is debatably much less fun). So, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that they had the World Showcase, which is basically a circle of “countries” that have characteristic food and souvenirs and scenery. I’m pretty nerdy about those kinds of things, so I was really excited to wander slowly through the lands of Morocco, Japan, Canada, etc.
However, what we found was infinitely less exciting and decidedly more creepy than we expected. Canada’s architecture and décor consisted of only Native American motifs — Haida and Tlingit crest poles (also known more commonly as “totem poles”) and form-line design style decorations on the outside of the buildings — which shocked me so much that I snapped a picture and sent it to my US-World TF since we had literally just studied them the week before break. France apparently only cared about art and expensive goods (think Givenchy), and everything stereotypical you can think of regarding Chinese culture was in that section (paifang gates, Buddha statues, lucky cat figurines, trite street and store names like “Good Fortune”). There was even an area dubbed “outpost” that when we first walked through we were so confused as to what country it was supposed to represent. It turned out that this land of African building-types and decorations, with souvenir shops filled with Brazilian soccer jerseys and random African trinkets like drums and masks, had not even been designated as a specific country, merely referred to on the map as “outpost.” Whatever that means.
This wildly and narrow-mindedly stereotypical display of rapid cultural misappropriation was stunning to say the least. We laughed nervously and joked about it, somewhat unsettled by our surroundings. However, this would have been more or less forgivable, since it is understandable that they are trying to sell a scene, to sell a fantasy more or less. It’s all about the money.
But instead of leaving with just a visual scar on our memories for the day, our trip to the Japanese hibachi restaurant inside Epcot left us with more reason to be unhappy with Disney’s cultural insensitivity. In what I assume to be an effort towards authenticity, Disney apparently hires only natives of the country to work in each country’s establishments. Their nametags all have their hometown on them, and without fail, every single nametag I read had the name of a city in Japan on it. These restaurant employees looked Japanese, spoke with heavy Japanese accents, and wore what most might assume to be typical Japanese outfits. The alternative theory is that these employees are hired based on their race and taught to accentuate their cultural heritage to an offensively false degree. To ask someone to abuse their background like that is inexcusable, but to import “natives” to staff your carnival-esque freak shows is just as terrible.
Normally, I would just assume that most educated adults would recognize that this is a crazy over-generalization of culture — though I know that that is a very large and optimistic stretch — but the problem is that the target audience of Disney is not the adult population. The children are who I’m concerned about, the future of our world, the leaders and influencers of tomorrow. If this is what they see, this becomes what they know. If this is what they know, this is what they will assume for all future interactions. I don’t know about you, but it is an alarming thought for me that my future president might expect me to eat fried rice for every meal and talk in broken English to my neighbors.
And it’s not just a race issue. Disney has historically been criticized heavily, mostly in recent times, for its demeaning portrayal of women. According to Disney, my eyes should be bigger than my arms and my waist should be smaller than a dime. According to Disney, I should wait endlessly and alter myself ceaselessly for my prince charming. According to Disney, only princesses can find happiness, and true happiness can only be achieved with a man by your side.
Disney has obviously attempted to try and fix these trends, however flimsily, with the creation of such heroines like Tiana (whose journey was based on her own independent hard work instead of rich entitlement and whose skin color sparked an obvious dialogue on race relations) and Merida (whose movie’s lack of love interest and focus on family dynamic was touching and admittedly made me cry and whose more accurate physical depiction, though later redacted and set Disney five steps back, garnered the corporation some praise).
However, whatever strides they have taken to improve their digital presentations, their physical manifestations, at least at their Florida location, remain steadfastly behind the times. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride in the Magic Kingdom, for example, still contains a section where women are being sold at a “wench auction” to the highest bidder. For a little girl to see that and think that her body can be sold to the prettiest penny is devastating. For a little boy to see that and think that he has the power to purchase flesh and blood is also extremely disturbing.
So why does Disney get away with this? How does Disney get away with this? My guess is that since Disney has so ingrained itself into our culture and into our children’s culture that it is forgivable for many a sin, despite its lack of repentance. To capitalize on stereotypical racial errors and patriarchic gender relations is apparently economically sound (the company is valued at over $100 billion dollars and currently ranks as Forbes’s #17 most valuable brand), but culturally and socially destructive. I am surprised that Disney hasn’t received more backlash regarding its presentation to its park visitors. It pains me to consider whether the demographics of park-goers is a factor in this relatively peaceful acceptance of these social misconducts, but it is a possibility. But I am more upset with the idea that if I take my children here on a visit, will they absorb these images and come out the other side poisoned with these unrepresentative and homogeneous ideas of culture and gender norms?
As I was leaving Orlando to return to the frigid lands of New England, I stood in line at the airport Starbucks to get a last-minute coffee before my early morning flight. A flock of middle-school-aged girls in front of me stood in the waiting area, chatting and laughing as they waited for their drinks, obviously part of a school trip either to or from somewhere. I didn’t think anything of it, since Florida is a pretty popular destination for such excursions. However, as soon as the words “grande apple juice” sliced through the air in a vaguely Mexican accent, they all fell silent for a split moment before launching into quiet snickers and mild chuckles. Then one girl piped up, mimicking the exact accent and intonation of the Starbucks barista’s voice as she repeated to the rest of her entourage: “Grande apple juice!”
But this is no longer Disney World. This is no longer a fantasyland created for your whims and your fancies and your imagination and your dreams. This is the real world. And in the real world, racial insensitivity is unacceptable.

Whitney Gao ’16 ([email protected]) thinks the renovations and updates shouldn’t stop with Cinderella’s Castle.