Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Disneyland's Jungle Cruise and the Power of Racial Narratives #SOL16

Kayla (on the left) with her BFF Chandra at Disneyland.
This summer thousands of theme park lovers will visit Disneyland, and while there they race to popular rides and those they remember from their childhoods Such is the experience my husband and I had with my granddaughter Kayla and her friend Chandra a few weeks ago. It was both my husband's and Kayla's first trip to Disneyland. We explored the park, and I cajoled them into riding the rides I remembered experiencing years ago. 

As do many visitors to the park, we rode the Jungle Cruise ride. My experience in 2016 differs dramatically from the times I've ridden the ride in the past, 1981 and 2002, although the ride itself remains virtually unchanged from the one that opened with the park in 1955. 

What has changed is the culture of our country. Jungle Cruise opened before the Civil Rights movement, before we began addressing protecting endangered species, before the era of mass shootings. 

Jungle Cruise, as well as other Disney rides, appears innocuous to many middle-class white travelers such as myself, but in these days of hyper-awareness of our country's racial tension, in the aftermath of last week's shootings of two black men by law enforcement and five police officers in Dallas, and in the wake of teaching Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, I experienced JUNGLE CRUISE through different cultural lenses. Riding Jungle Cruise in 2016, I realized some things.

JUNGLE CRUISE conveys an overtly racist message.

But that's not the only problem with JUNGLE CRUISE.

JUNGLE CRUISE also advances an irresponsible environmental narrative.

Wait, there's more.

JUNGLE CRUISE resonates Disney's tone deafness to America's gun problem.

The ride begins with a warning about the dangers of a river trip in Africa. That's the first indication of a false narrative. The "guide," a Disney team member, is tasked with instilling a sense of fear of the African jungle in riders. This warning echoes Marlow's river trip, but perhaps that's a misreading given that Jungle Cruise owes its inspiration to The African Queen.

However, the ride does traffic in common stereotypes of Africans as savage, uneducated headhunters who live in territory we're cautioned to fear. It constructs an "other" of black people. This recalls the images of heads on poles in HEART OF DARKNESS. Similarly, visitors are to "believe" they're on a cruise up the Congo River.

In terms of its environmental narrative, the rhino scene disturbed me most. In 2015 scientists declared the Western Black Rhino extinct, but Disney continues using a "black" rhino in the Jungle Cruise ride. During the ride, the boat passes by a rhino that has a pole filled with men stacked one on top of the other. The rhino has his horn pointed at their bottoms, keeping the men trapped. "This right here is why you never argue with a rhino. He always gets his point across in the end." That's the guide speaking. 

Later, the guide unholsters a gun and fires it into the air to scare off a hippo. We witnessed this a couple of days after the Pulse massacre in Orlando. 

By now, if you've read this far, you may be thinking, "but it's just a silly ride." 

The problem with the silly Jungle Cruise ride resides in the layered narrative it constructs. It keeps the black man as savage narrative anchored in our national consciousness. This narrative feeds irrational fears, even among law enforcement who too often see skin color as a mark of danger. The more often we repeat a narrative, the more likely we are to accept it. Jungle Cruise does that, and its story often begins in the minds of small children.

The problem with the silly Jungle Cruise ride resides in its narrative that wild animals roam freely in Africa and that we should fear many of them. The Jungle Cruise constructs a false narrative by omission because its story has not changed enough since its opening in 1955. 

The problem with the silly Jungle Cruise ride echoes in the narrative that to solve a problem simply pull out a gun and fire into the air. The joke no longer creates a Ha Ha moment. Instead, I cringed when I saw the gun and heard the shot only days after the worst gun massacre in our nation's history. 

When we exited the ride, I looked at my husband and said, "That's a racist ride." My granddaughter and her friend responded in unison: "No it's not." My granddaughter, the child of an immigrant, in that moment believed Disney's narrative, and so our conversation about our national narrative and the inherent problems with such stories began. 


*It's Slice of Life Tuesday. Check out other slices on the Two Writing Teachers blog. Thank you, ladies, for your commitment to teachers and the sharing of stories.