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All quacked up



Truth be told, academic conferences are not the stuff of high drama. If you're on the hunt for a riveting story, a gaggle of scholars is not the best company to keep. It's not that professors and professors-to-be lack passion -- those I knew during my years in a Ph.D. program were often genuinely taken with their subjects and could be deeply moved, almost transported, by, say, a stunning line of poetry. No, the tedium is more the result of an institutional beating-down. When in groups, the language academics tend to talk is rigid and opaque, not two things that make for snappy copy.

For high drama and such you need, let's say, a gripping, contentious, not-decided-long-after-it-should-have-been presidential election. Rescinded concessions, Jews voting for Buchanan, "revote" protests, flip-flopped leads and filibustering lawyers. Instead of being saddled with the rigid and opaque, the election mire has been blessed with chads that swing, creating fascinating nuances and one-liners sharp enough to poke all the way through a punch-card ballot.

The weekend after the election, Nov. 9-12, Florida Atlantic University played host to "Rethinking Disney: Private Control and Public Dimensions," the first-ever academic conference devoted solely to all things Mouse. You'd think such a topic would be a means of breaking out of the academy-straitjacketed lingo, but no; when university faculty, on the lookout for new subjects, turn their attention to porn or Madonna or the WWF, the results still seem invariably chilled, not like a martini but like an over-air-conditioned waiting room at a Rotary Club headquarters. Nonetheless, this conference merited attention because it covered a topic of local curiosity. As an added bonus, it skirted the edges of the election hubbub: The more than 100 scholars convened at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Airport Hotel, in manual-recounting Broward County, just minutes from butterfly-balloting Palm Beach County.

What Florida Has Been Known For: Disney, retirees, gators, theme parks, beaches, sunshine, Disney, space shuttles, Key West, kitsch, Disney.

What Florida Will Be Known For: Flori-duh. Indecision 2000. Butterfly ballots. Banana republic. (Footnote: Elian.)

The Beginning of the Academic Conference: The first session I attended was titled "Dazzled by Disney," a talk given by University of Oregon professor Janet Wasko. The prepresentation chatter of those seated around me eventually touched down on the election -- specifically, the media's performance. "Repetitious," said one person. "More of the same," agreed her neighbor. "The whole journalism mode is just awful."

After opening with a "once upon a time" tag line, Wasko talked about her research project: interviewing people in countries across the globe to gauge their feelings and attitudes toward Disney. She found lots of across-the-board similarities. For example, 93 percent of all respondents, from Korea to Yugoslavia, identified Disney with "fantasy and fun."

Wasko also named seven "Disney audience archetypes," ranging from fanatics to antagonists, and although her sample responses were well chosen, it seemed that you could place the audience for anything, from sushi to country music to participatory democracy, into the same seven categories.

Still, the local differences uncovered by Wasko's research team were curious and had a strong hmm! factor, like the Danes who thought that Donald Duck was "very Danish," and the fact offered by an audience member during the Q&A that Japanese boys use Disney bed sheets for seduction purposes. That idea made me chuckle and wince at the same time. I was heartened that something at an academic conference caused me to make such involuntary gestures.

The End of the Academic Conference: The DaVinci Donald Duck made me laugh out loud. The final conference session I attended included a presentation titled "Deconstructing or Reconstructing Disney? The Disney References of Interduck and ‘Fuck Mickey Mouse.'" Ernest JG Mathijs of the Free University of Brussels had a marvelous topic: a coalition of German artists who insert Donald and Mickey into Old Masters paintings, for the purposes of subversive cultural critique, edgy commercial commentary, or maybe just old-fashioned silliness masking as intellectual insight. Even better, Mathijs had visual aids.

These slides were highly, genuinely appreciated by the eight or 10 audience members. (With six or so sessions going on simultaneously throughout most of the conference, each presentation garnered just a handful of people. Academics are trained in small and large ways not to expect much.) A website,, includes a few of the images flicked on the screen by Mathijs, and if you want to smile at some random, um, cultural critiques, you should take a look. The Q&A included references to Bertoldt Brecht, dada art and the Seven Dwarfs-shaped columns holding up the roof at one Disney building in Anaheim. I don't know which building because, personally, I'm not much into Disney. Mathijs explained Interduck's aims as simultaneously criticizing and celebrating Disney, which seemed to sum up the conference itself. All in all, the talk was highbrow without being smug, and without trying to say something depressingly obvious in a more depressingly convoluted way.

The Middle of the Academic Conference: Saturday lunch held the tantalizing promise of a surreal intersection of academics and politics. Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader's Green Party vice presidential candidate, was scheduled to speak about Disney's images of native people, particularly Pocahontas. By this time, four days after the election, "Nader Traders" had morphed into "Nader Traitors," and "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush" had spun into "A vote for Gore is a vote for Buchanan." At the lunch, tuxedoed waiters discreetly served plates of chicken, rice and slightly steamed veggies to conference attendees done up in khakis, beards, earth tones and makeup-free faces. (One exception was the European woman who looked like the black-lidded tramp scorned by the dashing hero of a 1920s silent film. Thank God for Europeans. Another was the tanned guy sporting a necklace of major-sized seashells and a pencil-thick spike through his ear, not being punk-rock rebellious but rather middle-age native.)

Just my luck, LaDuke canceled. The lunch crowd watched a video of her presentation that she had taped the previous day. During a brief teleconference Q&A, two people announced they had voted for her before posing questions about Disney's corporate control of culture and about Native Americans' alternative economic products.

In her video LaDuke offered, "As it turns out, Florida is a state we don't want to be in right now." Two conference organizers told me that LaDuke didn't show because she had been getting death threats. I wondered about the type of person, the type of Gore supporter, who would pick up the phone, seething with uncontrollable rage over the results of the election, a publicly important but, let's be real, not dangerous event, and threaten not Nader but LaDuke.

Later I putzed around my hotel room as a CNN anchor repeated the same information that he'd been saying since I had turned on the TV. One line as he broke for a commercial, though, sizzled with rhetorical bombast: "We'll have more," he said, "from Palm Beach County, the political epicenter of the world."

The Bush Contingent: The televisions at the strung-with-lights poolside bar of the Comfort Inn Fort Lauderdale/ Hollywood Airport hotel were tuned to "America's Most Wanted." The dramatic narrative centered on a preteen about to testify against a guy who tried to kill her. She had scars on her throat. Bob from "hick town" Lake City, sitting next to me, said he voted for Bush. "He'll have two cabinets," said Bob regarding Bush: "a gun cabinet and a liquor cabinet." Bob then proceeded to announce that we're actually living in a communist society; his explanation included the facts that we pay taxes and must carry driver's licenses. Neither my vote for Gore nor my admission that I was in town for an academic conference dissuaded Bob from inviting me along to a Nascar race the next day.

The nightly news came on the TV. A young Latino man with wavy hair and combat boots at the end of a bar angrily mumbled aloud to no one in particular when President Clinton flashed on the screen. A report about claims of African Americans intimidated at polling places prompted the barmaid to say several times the first name of the NAACP's president: "KWAY-say," she laughed. "KWAY-say."

There's Disney, and There's the Idea of Disney: Mike Budd, an FAU professor of communications and a conference organizer, said the Disney gathering made it onto CNN's "headline news," in a brief segment that described the event as studying how Disney oversimplifies the difference between good and evil. CNN also mentioned that Disney sent a representative to take notes. I never managed to catch up with this official Disney guy, variously described to me as an archivist, a librarian and "Philip." At the bottom of the program's cover were these words: "This conference is an academic event and is not in any way sponsored or approved by the Walt Disney Company." "Disney is famous for its protection of its intellectual property," said Budd. "The disclaimer had to appear everywhere."

Budd and others mentioned to me that the feeling among the attendees, whose fields ran the gamut from urban planning to film to anthropology, was relief at being in a situation where they didn't need to justify their study of mice, ducks, mermaids and never-never lands, topics which traditional scholars tend to write off as "insignificant." "Suddenly you have a whole panel of people who wanted to talk about Animal Kingdom," Budd said with delight.

Some Presentations I Didn't Attend but That Sounded Interesting: "The Freak Show Tradition in Disney Animation." "Buena Vista, Miramax, and the Control of Theatrical Film Distribution in the 1990s." "Mickey Mouse Meets the Naked Mole Rat." "Targeting Disney: The Grand Opening of Animal Kingdom." "Black Representations in Disney's Theatrical Cartoons, 1928-1954."

Some Presentations I Didn't Attend (and Didn't Want To): "Selling Family Values: Gendered Space and Nostalgia in Celebration's Model Homes." "Global Versus Local Strategies in Transcultural Materialism." "Uncle Toy(m)'s Cabin: The Politics of Ownership in Disney's Toy Story." "The Disney Entelechy: A Burkean Analysis of the Toy Stories." (Since I avoided these, I guess I'll never know what it was about Toy Story that attracted two such painfully titled talks.)

A Typical Panel: The "Faces of Capitalism" panel's three members were crystal-clear proof of the conference's disparate disciplines and approaches. Susan Fainstein, of Rutgers University, examined Disney's presence in the newly-scrubbed-clean Times Square. She noted that Disney said it would set up shop in the formerly tawdry district on one condition: that two other entertainment companies would also locate there. Next up, Michael Angelo Tata, from Hunter College (and another style rebel -- the clue was the doorknob-size medallion around his neck), discussed the large photographic portraits that decorated Times Square while Disney's project was under construction. Actually, "discussed" isn't the right word; he mused on his own reaction to the photos. Actually, "mused" isn't quite right, either, since his jargon and logic were of the type that some would call "knotty" and others would call "unnecessary." He talked of "liminal hybridity" and "confronting their radical transparency," which is a convoluted way of saying something, and I'd rather not take a stab at explaining what that something might be. The third speaker, the exquisitely named Bartholomew Bland, from City University of New York, presented Scrooge McDuck as Walt Disney's image of benign capitalism -- of, you could say, compassionate conservatism.

Other speakers were just as varied. I learned that young Japanese mothers stroll around Tokyo Disneyland with their infants, basically treating the place like a big, annual-pass-accessible daycare center, because there are so few safe open spaces in that city. In talking about the unreal reality of Disney theme parks, a philosopher made wry observations that included the line, "In what world could one feel sexually threatened by a 6-foot chipmunk?" An architect noted that the "new urbanism" of communities like Celebration amounted to gated enclaves without the gates, their layout emphasizing their self-containment.

Two moments are worth noting for the friction that they produced. (1) Several people chimed in when arguing why middle-class folks buy expensive souvenirs at theme parks, especially now that there are Disney stores carrying much of the same merchandise. (2) After listening to a panel misleadingly titled "Globalizing Disney," Rollins College political scientist Richard Foglesong, who earlier gave a presentation on how Disney misrepresented its plans to the Florida government, said he was hearing a lot of assertions that didn't have a whole lot of evidence. He noted that many panelists seemed to be working on the assumption that Disney is a perfect machine, able to create in people the exact response it wants. "I'm used to writing about government," said Foglesong, "and government is just not that infallible."

Later, back in my hotel room, Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez, a Republican member of Florida's electoral college, was on CNN talking about the elections. With manual ballot counting, "You do inject a lot of subjectivity into the matter," said Martinez. "The deeper you go into it, the more problems you're going to turn up."


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