Friday, October 10, 2014

Cultural Appropriation in World Showcase

If you’re like me, you’re a little sick of all the Maelstrom coverage and commentary happening in our community currently… however, if you’re also like me, you want your voice to be heard too regardless.  My stubbornness coupled with my lack of knowledge and personal experience when it comes to EPCOT, led me to join forces once again with the well-traveled and experienced Mike from the Castle to Castle podcast.  Mike and his cohost Emily had me on their podcast a few months back and we discussed many Disney topics in terms of the sociological angles we all love.   You can find that show here if you are interested!  I hadn’t planned to have two collaborative posts in a row, but my busy schedule combined with great friends who can participate in civil discourse helped it end up that way.  So welcome, Mike, and let’s get to why we feel the need to chip in on the Maelstrom mess.

Photo by Mark Willard, used with permission

Well, first off, thanks for inviting me to contribute to this discussion! We loved having you on our show, and I'm honoured to be asked along, although I can’t claim to be a Maelstrom/Norway expert. I do have opinions and ideas about the subject we're about to discuss, and the thoughts in blue are mine.

The hot topics in the most recent conversations are the two major forces at war here: Resentment over Frozen’s massive influence in Disney park management, and a love of EPCOT and its original mission and vision.  I’m not here to discount either of those feelings and so I’m not focusing on them here.  I’m fixated on the bigger problem here, - yes bigger than both Frozen and EPCOT - which should spark more concern in the grand scheme of things, which is that this situation may be a case of culture appropriation.

Kudos for framing this discussion of Maelstrom-to-Frozen (or ‘Frozenstrom’, as I’ve taken to calling it!) within the context of cultural appropriation and exchange. Most of the current discussion focuses on EPCoT purists vs. Frozen fans (which is a false dichotomy; I consider myself a bit of both!), with a sideshow of certain…less critical bloggers complaining about the complaints, and then other folks getting annoyed about that.

Good point.  Frozen vs. Maelstrom has become a binary on which we as a community have been asked to choose a side.  I, too, like both and refuse to pick a “side.”  Culture appropriation, for those of you new to the subject, is the act of taking elements of another culture and using it to further your motive of fitting in, looking cool, or meeting a surface-level desire without actually learning about and respecting the many dimensions of that culture.  The first example that pops into my mind is how ex-Disney star Miley Cyrus recently appropriated the twerking dance move from African-American culture to further her career and create a new edgy image.  It’s unclear what Miley has done to help with civil rights, racial inequality, or discrimination in return, which is why this is problematic.

So why is this different from cultural appreciation?  The concept of World Showcase promotes appreciation of different countries and their cultures.  It emphasizes uniqueness while reminding us we aren’t all that different after all.  One could go there to learn more and explore what makes Norway unique.  It’s not as commonly known as, say Mexico or Italy, so it was truly a new experience for many people.  Now that Maelstrom will be removed for a Frozen attraction and Anna and Elsa will be returning for meet and greets, it begs the question of how much actual Norwegian culture will remain. 

Photo by Mark Willard, used with permission

I reckon, if we’re going to respect World Showcase and the countries represented within, we need to be constantly mindful of the difference between cultural exchange and appropriation. You explain appropriation perfectly; cultural exchange goes beyond mutual appreciation, to where the two (or more) different cultures can share ideas and customs, without anyone getting short-changed or disrespected.

I’m concerned because children and families are missing a key opportunity here.  Media literacy, or explaining good and bad possible consequences of what we see in the media, is important for education and socialization as kids grow up.  If you can sit with your child (of a certain age) while watching Peter Pan and explain why that portrayal of Native Americans is problematic, that’s better than hiding it from them altogether.  Likewise, if you can sit with your child and explain that Arendelle is based on a country called Norway with specific cultural elements, your child will obviously learn more than viewing solo.  And taking them to the Norway pavilion, if that chance is available, would be a fantastic way to solidify that discussion and encourage cultural competency. 

The removal of Norway and implementation of Arendelle removes that opportunity and link to the real thing.  Or, at best, dilutes it.  In its place, it leaves a caricature, an Americanization of Norway and its culture.  This is a problematic trend in an increasingly progressive world.  And my question is, does Disney want to be responsible for that in this day and age?

It’s my understanding that World Showcase was conceptualised and organised with considerable thought given to exchange – but with the last word generally given to the countries involved. Not only do I think ‘Frozenstrom’ negates this good will, I think it potentially goes beyond your basic appropriation, edging perilously towards cultural imperialism.  That Americanised caricature you predict would be the result of the dominant Disney getting one over the apparently subservient Norwegians, who we’re told can’t but love the idea. After all, they’re getting all that tourism and Adventures by Disney custom!

Good thoughts, Mike.  I’m glad you brought up the point we are all fed again and again – that this is good! This is promoting tourism in Norway and they only have Disney to thank!  To be thorough, Disney has had its fair share of cultural appropriation in the past.  Think, the Indian Village at Disneyland which capitalized on the “Cowboy and Indian” craze of the 1950s.  Was Disney truly trying to educate families on Native American history and culture, or were they portraying a romanticized version families saw on their televisions each week?  We look back on that critically now and as a sign of the times, so why is it okay to do it now in the twenty-first century?  Shouldn’t we know better?  Shouldn’t Disney?

Photo from Daveland
The cultural imperialism coming to Norway – where a fictionalised version of somewhere at least half-inspired by the country will be around 60% of its representation in EPCOT – generally pales in comparison to that exacted upon more marginalised countries and cultures, like Miley’s twerking rip-off from black women (arguably, one of the most marginalised identities to have). That said, it’s a useful example of how insidious cultural entitlement can be, when the worst offenses are mostly invisible to those blessed with white privilege.

Photo from the Disney Parks Blog
Thank you for pointing that out – this isn’t the worst possible example of cultural appropriation.  But once again, this is something people are dealing with on a daily basis.  With Halloween approaching we’ll see cultural appropriation in the form of tasteless costumes that perpetuate stereotypes.  The Americanization of characters can arguably be found again in the upcoming Big Hero 6, which is troublesome and frustrating.  The Frozen/Maelstrom debacle is just another example of something Disney should know better than to do in 2014.

Thanks again to Mike from Castle to Castle for joining me on this post! I hope this angle helps some look at this issue from a different point of view, but even if not it was something I felt compelled to discuss.


  1. I'll have to check out that podcast…. I'm always looking for new good Disney-related casts!

  2. If you like Disney critical analysis I'd love to hear what you think :) Thanks for stopping by, Major!