Disney or Paris?

I recently came back from my first four-day vacation with my family at Disney / Universal in Orlando. It was a lot of fun.

On our last day, I was eating lunch with my three kids at The Three Broomsticks, the favorite haunt of witches and wizards at Hogsmeade (the town next to Hogwarts in Harry Potter, for those few of you who didn’t read all those books and see all of those movies). Our section of the restaurant suddenly hushed when three sparrows dive-bombed across the hall and perched on the fireplace.

Everyone started tittering and pointing, asking, “Are those birds real?!”

So much of what happens at Disney and Universal is about making fantasy seem like reality.   So, in that world, one has to notice three sparrows and wonder if they we real. If they weren’t, it was an impressive effect and a fabulous little detail. And if they were real…well, when was the last time people stopped to notice three sparrows and have a conversation about them?

What is real, and what are the stories we create?

At Epcot, strolling between the pavilions representing France, Mexico, China, the United States and Morocco, it is easy to critique the whole experience as a poor facsimile of the “real” countries. But is it really that different? True, the cheap bangles and jewelry at Epcot’s Morocco pavilion are mostly made in China, but these days so are the cheap bangles sold on the streets of India (or Morocco, I assume.).

Better, how do I make sense of my recent shopping trip to an outdoor market in Hyderabad where I found a nice white blouse that I was considering buying for my wife, until I noticed the label: Eileen Fisher. The stall was stocked with returned seconds of clothing from the United States, Indian-styled clothes made in Bangladesh or Thailand or Pakistan that didn’t hit U.S. manufacturing standards and had made their way back to a street market in Hyderabad.   It kind of makes your head spin.

In a globalized world, what is real and what is fake?

My kids wanted to know whether the French brasserie at Epcot was “like a real French restaurant” and my wife and I were stumped. Yes, it looked and felt mostly like a French brasserie, especially the fresh baguettes, which were delicious, the décor, which looked right, and the staff, which was all French. The real question is, isn’t the “real” French brasserie just a rendition of something that once was? A brasserie in Paris is “real,” of course, and it is also an emblem of a fading, more homogenous France, a whiter, more upper-middle class version of the “real” France of today. Today’s real France is a traditional brasserie, but it’s also an Algerian pastry shop with a French twist; it’s the swanky 6th Arrondissement and the hard immigrant life of the banlieuesIn the end, Epcot’s France is just as unreal as a France where most people pretend that the Africans and Arabs who represent an increasing portion of the French population can persist indefinitely on the periphery of Paris and on the periphery of French identity.

This same story is playing out everywhere. Last week Chris Rock wrote a blistering essay in the Hollywood Reporter on how white Hollywood is. It’s an incredible read – honest, wildly smart and incisive – and it paints a tough picture of a supposedly progressive city. There are far too many quotable lines in Rock’s essay, but just to give you a feel for it:

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist…just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else….

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot.

Find 10 minutes to read the Chris Rock piece, and you won’t look at movies the same way again.

The tug and pull of the next century is going to be between the possibility of connection – with products and information flowing seamlessly from anywhere to anywhere – and the increasing ease of creating a fantasy world that isolates and separate us. And it’s the most powerful and influential who are both the most global and who run the risk of complete separation from anyone unlike themselves (where “like themselves” means uber-rich.)

[For kicks: in another story out of L.A., the mega-millionaires are forming a sort of homeowners association that is striking out against the billionaires, including a Saudi prince, whose 70,000 square foot homes are, supposedly, ruining the neighborhood.]

And so we find ourselves back at the American pavilion at Epcot, which is next door to the Mexican pavilion but has no hope of capturing the story of the nearly 1/5th of Americans who are Hispanic. Is Epcot’s American pavilion any different from Ferguson, a town with a 94% white police force and a population that is 67% black?

After a while I ended up feeling like Disney or Universal aren’t any more real or fake than anywhere else, and, if anything, Disney wins for being upfront about being a fantasy world that is trying to create fantasy. In fact, for some things, like Harry Potter, Disney is actually more real than other places: there is no more real representation of Hogsmeade, or Diagon Alley, or Gringotts than in the pages of a book, on the big screen, and in a little corner of Orlando.

And the world outside? Increasingly, it is the world of those sparrows in Hogsmeade. The birds were definitely real birds. The world around them is both completely real and completely the narrative we choose to see.

2 thoughts on “Disney or Paris?

  1. There is this slave mentality around the world about Filipinos like me also. That we are the caregivers and nannies of white people. Nevertheless, those who do it have degrees and are professionals back home. Sadly back home and abroad we are not given a chance. But there is always hope.

  2. Been meaning to reply to this for a while Sasha. I loved most of this post. I know you know what I’m going to write but just a reminder. Going to France (or fill in country X) is never just about the food or the clothes or the other wonderful things you can see at Epcot. It is all about finding your way (and yourself) in a foreign place – the total opposite of Epcot. Epcot is in some ways wonderful because it exposes us to lots of different, semi-authentic cultural experiences in one nice location. But it is awful because it is the safest place imaginable to do this. There is no spending hours finding your way, trying to ask for help and no one will understand you, having someone yell at you in a foreign language, having the wrong power adapter, sticking out because you wear sneakers or chew gum, being harassed just because you are foreign, being harassed to buy this and go here. And there is no making foreign friends or drinking way too much or going to raves or being able to travel a whole country by train. These are just a few of the great things about going abroad that you will never get from Disney.

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