Category Archives: Reflections on the Dissertation Process

Sending the Baby Off to College

A week ago tomorrow I dropped the finalized draft of  my dissertation in the mail to my committee chair. I’ve been trying to decide what to do with myself ever since. Although I’ve never had the experience myself, I imagine that this must be a bit what sending a child off to college is like. I have high hopes for this project. I’ve nurtured it the best I knew how and, I’m sure, there are things I could have done to make it better. I’m sure there are ways that I have neglected its needs as well as ways that I have exceeded expectations. All of this is true, but now I have sent it out to fly on its own.  This made me think about the Disney Parks commercial campaign with the “real” family memories. So I watched it again, and a line caught my attention this time that I don’t think I’d noted before. The commercial says:

“Disney memories are magic things that you can hang on to for all time…Disney memories keep our children young in our hearts for all time and color our tomorrows with the best of our yesterdays.”

This really expresses the point I was making in my chapter 2. Now, perhaps more than ever, we all need this kind of magic. Perhaps, now more than ever, I need to reinvent joy and reinvest in happiness. So, yeah, in the midst of my uncertainty, as I wait for news regarding the status of my dissertation “coed,” I’m going to Disneyland.

And, by the way, Happy Halloween!


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Ritualizing Renewal

I’ve been on the road now (mostly) for over a month and am suddenly faced with the inevitability of getting back to work. It is amazing to me how things that constellate in one’s life also affect one’s work.

This has been the summer of distraction. In a whirlpool of  stuff-goings-on/stresses/family sadness, I’ve realized how easy it is to get out of the practice of thinking/crafting/working…Then along came my chapter on renewal, which I had previously thought would be so easy and fun. How difficult could it be to write a chapter on California Adventure as Pixarland and Disney’s process of renewal?

Ha Ha Ha!! Famous last words. Creativity is a muscle, like any other. And if I know about anything…it is the consequence of unused muscles.

So, now I find myself in the process of ritualizing renewal for myself. I keep questioning: What does that mean? What am I asking? What do I have to say? As I prepare to leave again (for a short jaunt to Seattle…I’m helping Britta move back to California), I find myself in the depths of all of this. Renewal…making new again…infusing with the energy of birth…Renewal isn’t about starting over. It is about re-inspiration. How does one bring back that kind of fresh, naiveté to a soul that feels jaded? These last three months have been full of actual, literal dreams from which I wake knowing they’ve occured and yet can’t remember. It seems that rebirth is on the cusp of my consciousness…

And Pixar: the little lamp that could…the PERFECT image of renewal. These guys have been working IMAGES and EXPERIENCES of renewal for over 30 years. How could immersing myself in them go wrong?? But it has. It has fallen flat. So, I return to questions about personal creativity, and (Disney legend/animator/producer) Don Hahn’s book on creativity. As he wrote so eloquently, creativity doesn’t spring spontaneously from the (Jungian) unconscious. It is hard work. It is the work of ego integration, and the process of individuation. It is about touching the shadow aspects of psyche, which, frankly, noone wants to do.

A large part of renewal is re-inspiration, or the willingness to do what is necessary. And something in the whole process of re-inspiration requires discipline and routine. It seems antithetical to me…it always has. Creativity should spring spontanteously from somewhere deep within the self, no? No…creativity comes from the hard work of observing and pounding the pavement of the imagination.

My BFF/Kittay-other has given me an example of the kind of discipline that creativity requires. She has made the commitment to write a song a day for one month and (EVEN BETTER) to post those songs to a blog for the whole world to see. She has been incredibly brave in taking this kind of step/chance. And for this, (not to mention the amazing songs) I give her mad props!

So, how do I do it? I think the first step is getting out…making this trip to Seattle…flying alone without a security blanket. This will be especially difficult for me. I have to own up to the part of psyche that needs to be nudged…the part of me that LIKES the exhaustion and resignation. Because, if i live in that place, I never have to risk. Some have suggested that I do a creative piece, and while I’m not ruling that out as a possiblity (and, in all actuality, a probability), first I have to fly. I DO hate to fly…

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Mary Blair: Disney’s Animating Anima

Mary Blair–The lady of flair. Her name is familiar to many of us who are Disney fans. Recently, the Walt Disney Family Museum posted a blog about a new Mary Blair shrine available at the museum. She was one of Walt’s favorite artists, and one of the elite few chosen for the now fabled good neighbor trip to South America in 1941. Blair was the only WOMAN chosen for this trip (not to mention the FIRST woman to receive the distinction of Disney legend). She was an image of tranquility who met each one of Walt Disney’s challenges with the soulful eye of a poet and the joy of a child. Her quiet genius was captured during the 10th anniversary show when Disney and Blair presented early plans for It’s a Small World. But who was this amazing woman who remained content to contribute concepts, while staying in the background as a source inspiration for Disney fans fascinated by the esoteric?

She was born Mary Robinson on October 21, 1911 in Oklahoma. A naturally gifted artist, she was honored with a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute (which eventually became CalArts under Disney’s tutelage). After completing her course at Chouinard, Mary began to seek employment in the precarious environment that was the depression era art world  (not unlike our contemporary moment, ironically). She married fellow artist, Lee Blair, and soon began to work in the animation business.

In 1941, she went to South America, becoming part the Walt and El Grupo entourage. It was during this time that her style began to truly take its shape. Blair was fascinated by the bright colors and the physicality of South American folk art. Her work began to more closely resemble the dolls she saw carried by the children of Brazil, Peru and Argentina. This look became a part of what is now considered the iconic Disney look. It offers a different kind of caricature which, instead of providing a cynical outlook on culture, offers Blair’s special brand of innocence.

Walt Disney continued to be impressed by Blair’s work. Although she was not gifted in the technical aspects of animation per se, he considered her one of his most valuable artists. He loved her whimsical style, and continued to find ways to use her extraordinary talents.

Blair was entrusted with the concept art Disney commissioned for the animated features that are the crux of what has often been called the first Disney renaissance: Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and her artistic voice was colored by a fascination with the contemporary craftsman style of the mid-century era she helped shape.

 Her surrealist eye was a valuable asset to the Disney Studio and offered something about which few studios could boast; a feminine perspective. One might even suggest that Blair was Disney’s vehicle for positive anima (the feminine aspect of soul). She infused a much needed sweetness into an environment that was often oppressively possessed by the not so positive energy of the animus (the masculine aspect of soul).

Women at the Disney studio have generally been relegated to the ink and paint room, the stenograph, costuming and the duties of wife and mother. Sadly, this condition still continues. Even the brilliance of Pixar lacks the feminine as a physically iconic presence. Lasseter, Keane, Doctor, Bird, Stanton, Baxter, Hahn…they are all men. But women are present. They are everywhere in the background of Disney’s pantheon, doing much of the quiet, drudgery necessary in order to make the magic happen. 

Mary Blair, however, broke through the barrier of whatever version of sexism existed at the Disney studio. She did this through the power of her art, not by the kind of studio maneuvering that got animators like Art Babbitt fired, or by the kind of posturing that later garnered Michael Eisner the position of CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Blair simply did what she did best, presented the world as she saw it, in all its color and life. And Disney noticed.

Not only did he notice, he chose her to be one of the first female imagineers, handing her the project that would become the most iconic of her career. In 1964, Walt Disney was commissioned by Pepsi-Cola to build an exhibit for the upcoming New York World’s Fair sponsored by UNICEF. The exhibit was to be a gift to the children of the world.  Although the attraction’s song, penned by veteran songwriters (Walt’s boys), the Sherman Brothers, is notoriously infectious in the way that it tends to drive patrons crazy, it reflects Blair’s unique ability to combine silliness with social statement.

The boat ride she developed became the voice for Disneyland’s guiding ethos, not to mention a call for peace in the world. It is the outward projection of Disney’s anima; a wish for a utopian understanding of unity in diversity ala Mary (Our Lady of Flair) Blair.


Filed under Disneyland, Reflections on the Dissertation Process, Walt Disney

Crafting the Icon: Television Builds the Park

Walt Disney was constantly fascinated by the process of finding new and technologically progressive mediums to use in the promotion of his products. He often used these new technologies as springboards for new projects. Television is one of the mediums that Walt Disney plunged the company into whole-heartedly. It captured his fancy almost as utterly as animation and film. His long cherished dream of creating an interactive park where fans could interact with the myths of his studio seemed out of reach for him just decades before. That is until he moved into the realm of television. Suddenly it seemed possibly to reach into the homes of his fans and encourage them to try his newest products. It was the intimacy of television that struck Disney. Through it, he was able to fuse his love of education and entertainment with his charismatic personality and unaffected charm. At the project’s inception, he was reticent to be the face of this new forum, but once he committed to it, it became clear that he was the perfect choice to host the series.

Disney used the structure of the Disneyland series to creates an icon, while simultaneously placing viewers there. But, the Disneyland television show did much more than that. It created an axis mundi, a holy mountain, a temple.

Disney knew that the success of his park would hinge on memory. People might venture to the park out of curiosity, but they would return because of the memories they created while they were there. He knew that he had to find a way to affect the kind of memories one makes on trip a sacred spot, and, if he wanted to have a profitable first year, he needed to do this before the park opened. Television was the perfect medium for this project.

The Disneyland television series had the unique ability to relate the storytelling canon to their myths and tp create an airtight association between the stories and characters the audience had grown to love, and the place—Disneyland—where they would be found in the physical realm. Without television, the results may have eventually proved the same, but it would probably not have happened in time to turn a profit and save the fledgling, not to mention deeply in debt, Walter Elias Disney (WED) Enterprises…aka…Walt and the Imagineers.

In order to hype the audience up and make them yearn for what he was about to offer, he went to television. To whet America’s appetite for what was about to come, the show built its built its structure around the structure of the park like the “cardinal points of the compass” (Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland). The earliest shows combined tv movies, theatrically released films, animated shorts, full length animation, true-life adventures WITH tours/progress reports of Disneyland the place. The show’s key intention to create a single cohesive narrative for the park.

The Disneyland show suggests, somewhat subtly, that all of these stories belong at Disneyland, In fact, more than any other film studio/purveyer of popular culture, Disney truly embraces the re-visioning of mythology. In true storyteller fashion, the Disney studio never ceases to produce new and innovative versions of archetypal stories. In his seminal essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” poet T.S. Eliot reminds us that we do not create in a vacuum. We are heirs to the mythic tradition of humanity. Myths are grand stories that tell stories about identities and, as folklorist Alan Dundes suggests, myths tell, in narrative form, how things became the way they are. And, Like other mythic systems, Disney is in the buisness of crafting identity.
Disney wisely recognized that memory would be the vital ingredient necessary for the park’s success. Memory, identity and mythology are inextricably linked. We craft our identity through our ability to identify with stories, with each other, with the memories we share. The phrase, “do you remember where you were when…happened” is a consistent phrase in our society. We get, implicitly, how important it is that we remember where we were when Kennedy was shot, when the astronauts landed on the moon, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, or where we were the fateful morning we witnessed the twin towers burn. The events themselves are archetypal and iconic. It is impossible not to mention inexhaustible, to explain how and why they are powerful. But, we know they are. Experiencing these kinds of powerful moments binds people together. It crafts myth and identity.

And, beginning in the age of television, events are brought directly into our homes. Suddenly, crafting myth is possible through a small box in the middle of the living room. Suddenly, mass culture is possible. Suddenly, it is not necessary to have actually been there for an event to have its all-important, identity making effect. And, its effective because television fuses photographic images and sound. Suddenly, just witnessing it from one’s living room creates the same kind of emotionally sealing experience as the actual act of being there.

THAT is how television built the park. Through the Disneyland television show, Disney continued working the long-standing Hollywood tradition of making illusion seem real. The show created a whole relationship between the audience and a place that didn’t even exist yet. And it did it so seamlessly that by the time the park was actually there, the psychological bonding was complete. The patron didn’t even question the temple’s iconic nature. It felt as though it had always been there…as temples always do. On some level, this is how all containers for ritualistic experience work. Disney’s use of television just cuts out the middleman.

And, truly, it is more than BRILLIANT…it’s magic!

The very first episode: The Disneyland Story

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Chapter five thread–Ritualizing Spectacle

Courtesy of Michaela Hansen

I think that chapter five has been the biggest question mark on this project for a while now. I wouldn’t say that it has given me the level of anxiety that the one I’m working on now has. It has simply been a blank. Although I’ve been relatively sure what the topic was going to be, I really didn’t know what I was going to do as far as structure/subtopic went. Yesterday I watched a short promo film downloaded from iTunes titled Disneyland Resort: Behind the Scenes. The film was actually quite interesting. It must have been made pretty recently, because when they interviewed Marty Sklar, they listed him as retired. They also showed quite a few concept drawings for the work at DCA that I hadn’t seen. FUN STUFF!!

Anyway, watching it made me think about concepts of ritualized spectacle.

I’ve been struggling with how much theoretical writing I’ve been doing for a while now. I’m not talking straight theory, I’m talking my own theoreticals. Like, when do I get down to the details about the park. I would imagine that some of my peeps would say that I could and should be doing that already. But, me being the straight lines Dutch girl, I feel like I need to make my theoretical case first before I move on to other kinds of specifics. That presents itself as a challenge, because it jumbles the structure up a bit. Buuuuuuut, I think in this case, I’m going to throw caution up in the air like the little tissue cut out Mickey heads that flutter all over Main Street during a parade.

It occured to me that I could break apart the chapter into sections on the different spectacles I want to cover, and that I could write about each of these as ritualizations of a certain facet of the overarching Disney myths.

Candlelight Procession-placing the spectacle in the realm of the sacred

Mickey Mouse Club-the myths of nostalgia and family

Parades-Celebrating YOU

Main Street Electrical Parade-Disney and technology

Fantastmic-the triumph of good over evil

World of Color-Creativity/transformative power of love.

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Metaphor, Metaphor, Metaphor :P

Hello dear readers,

I’ve been working away on this whole dissertation thingie (oh yeah, that old thing…). Immersed in the midst of the dark wood was a bit daunting for a while, but it seems to me that it is just the nature of this thing.

NEWho, I’m working on my chapter 2, which is shaping up to be a chapter on performance ritual from stage to film to theme park and depth psychological reflections on such. Interesting breakthroughs have been coming my way lately regarding the project as a whole, so I thought I would capture them in my blog before they flitted away like so many others have in the past.

Pilgrimage: I have struggled for quite a while now regarding this project’s relationship to the whole pilgrimage question. It was suggested to me, sometimes gently, sometimes not so much, that pilgrimage should actually be the firm foundation of the project. Well, I have finally figured out the relationship of pilgrimage to this project. It is NOT the focus, in so far as it needs to be laid out as the number one grounding topic in the thesis. However, a chapter 2 on pilgrimage is completely appropriate. I am actually talking about pilgrimage, but using it as a quasi-metaphor. In order to talk about pilgrimage from the point of view of the Myth and Depth Psych disciplines, the word pilgrimage needs to expand from a simple one to one definition. So, talking about pilgrimage as a state of psyche, and the soul’s need to turn to pilgrimage is a wonderful jumping off point for this first content chapter.

Chapter 3, which was originally going to be chapter 2 will now be a focused juxtaposition of theater and film in order to develop consider the origins of the theme park experience as transformation (the journey to the otherworld). I like it…From Stage to Screen to Theme Park. This leads nicely to…

Chapter 4, which will consider the content of the place itself in reference to the traditions of icon and spectacle.

Chapter 5-underworld

Chapter 6 Renewal

nuff said for structure at present. The biggest AHA of the day was not really an aha as much as a reminder. As I’m a myth studies person and not an actual ritual studies/anthro/religious studies person, I tend to deal more in metaphor. I need to own that use of these terms as metaphor.

that’s todays output. I am choosing to see it as productive. LOL

Sidenote: I need to get a Wii. I’m dying to play Epic Mickey…

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Today’s uniquely EPIC brand of writer’s block or structuring chapter 2

Uncle Walt~

I would venture to say that most of the people reading this blog are friends or family, if there are any readers out there at all…*quizical brow* That means that most of you are kept abreast of the recent writing momentum occurring in the depths of dissertation hades, where I currently reside. For any of you who aren’t, let’s just say that two weeks ago, I wrote over twenty pages, sketching out my lit review, and getting to a stopping point that I felt deserved a week-long break.

Now I return. And I find myself paralyzed by some sort of a blockage (and trust me, it is as painful as it sounds). I have decided to let that lit review and chapter one rest for a while, which means that I will be moving on to chapter two (as I absolutely NEED  to get this proposal done).

I originally thought I would write chapter 2 as a excursus on ritual theory, and I think I will still do so. However, the way that will play out is still up in the air. Kitty suggested that I outline possibilities for the chapter, and I think that is a fabulous idea. However, my ADD is taking over…jumbled thoughts…inability to focus…so here I am, blogging about it and hoping that the process of doing so will help the chapter make sense.

First question: whether to focus this theoretical discourse on ritual itself or on pilgrimage. Or to write about the ways in which pilgrimage is a ritual. In short, this thesis seems to continue to revolve around the same topic again and again: sacred space and our interaction with it.

Perhaps that is the perfect topic for this chapter two. Myth studies insists that the development of a balanced ritual life is of vital importance to a cohesive personal myth. Traditionally, the creation of sacred space has been a central aspect of ritual making. While, as Eliade has suggested, creating a sacred space does not necessarily involve traveling to a holy site, that travel itself is sacred ritual. The general consensus of the academy on this topic is that humanity, at least in certain parts of the world,  lacks the ability to make meaningful rituals out of the material that makes up our lives. I began to work this issue in my chapter one when I talked about the demonization of American culture. How and when this disconnect happened in modern America is an interesting topic, and might warrant a short excursus, but isn’t really the focus of the diss. The focus of this chapter is meaningful ritual making itself. I’m questioning the assumption that Americans have lost the ability to make meaningful rituals. I don’t think we’ve lost our ability to MAKE the rituals. I do, however, think we’ve repressed the ability to experience the sacred mystically. And, since rituals require transcendence, our rituals don’t carry the same psychological heft as ancient rituals and/or the rituals of “indigenous” cultures. Transcendant rituals require submission. They require suspension of disbelief. That’s the subtext of all the academic examination of rituals. The discourse develops in circular patterns about the necessity for rituals, the functionality of rituals and the presence of these rituals in culture. However, there is one aspect to meaningful ritual life that is often overlooked in academic discussion…belief. The experience of wonder, awe, transcendence. Analysis can’t interpret this aspect of experience.

So, I get back to my topic of Disneyland and chapter 2. Why Disneyland? What is its relationship to American ritual making? That’s the rub. That’s the topic of chapter two. That will weave together both theory and the beginnings of an interpretation of Disneyland as a ritual center.

Huzzah for processing!

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