Investing in Girl Play: Kickstarting a New Era of STEM Toys?
Avi Santo / Old Dominion University

Inspiring Play

Roominate’s success is positioned as both forward thinking and familiar

In my prveious Flow post I argued that MGA Entertainment’s transmedia product(ion), Project MC2, was marketing STEM as a lifestyle for tween girls. I also argued that MGA’s motivations for entering this market were likely less about wanting to shift the tide in girls pursuing engineering degrees and more about competition from emerging toy companies specifically claiming this demographic of girls, tweens, and parents concerned about the mainstream toy industry’s seemingly archaic adherence to reductionist gender binaries.

This post takes a closer look at a few of these so-called industry outsiders who are leading the charge to change girls’ play culture and guide them toward future STEM fields. More specifically, I analyze the ways these companies have positioned themselves to ‘consumer-investors’ on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While my objective is not to deter from the likely genuine desires of these companies and their founders to make positive interventions into girls play culture, I do seek to demonstrate how they strategically construct both the scope of their interventions and their own legitimacy as interventionists.

The examples I draw upon are from the Kickstarter campaigns for Goldieblox, Roominate, and i-Besties: Middle School Moguls and the Indiegogo campaign for Miss Possible. The first two originate as construction toys (though Goldieblox has since introduced an action figure line) while the other two brands are dolls accompanied by multimedia extensions that offer varying degrees of interactivity (GoldieBlox and Roominate have also recently ventured into app-enabled enhancements for their physical toys). All four companies launched their crowdfunding campaigns between May 2012 and June 2015 and all four exceeded the dollar amounts they were seeking to raise.

Miss Possiblei-Besties

Miss Possible (top left), i-Besties (top right) and GoldieBlox (bottom) represent a new crop of girls STEM toys

All four companies were launched by women with advanced degrees in STEM or MBAs, which is notable considering the dearth of female executives in the toy industry (LEGO has 22 men and 2 women in leadership roles; Mattel employs 11 men and 1 woman on its Board of Directors). Debbie Sterling (GoldieBlox), Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen (Roominate), Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves (Miss Possible), and Gina and Jenae Heitcamp (i-Besties) all looked to establish their credentials as engineers, scientists and business experts, but not as toy industry insiders, in building support for their cause. This positioned them as outsiders bringing new ideas to a stale male-dominated medium, but also as novices and idealists, which potentially undercut investor confidence in their ability to follow through on their initiatives. Unsurprisingly, Sterling was quick to point out that GoldieBlox was supported by the founders of Cranium and Klutz Press, two men with longstanding reputations as toy industry innovators who sold their startups to Hasbro and Scholastic. Likewise, Brooks and Chen noted that their product had been backed by entertainment and media mogul Mark Cuban after having been pitched on an episode of Shark Tank. In general, the founders foreground the relationships they had built with veteran toy manufacturers and distributors as assurance that their outsider status was more rhetorical than infrastructural.

Importantly, all 7 women used their college experiences as de facto origin stories for their products, reciting almost verbatim their shock at how few other girls were in their programs (MGA’s Isaac Larian also offered a ‘where are all the girls?’ epiphany for launching Project MC2 – albeit 35 years after he graduated from college – suggesting that this trope has quickly crossed over into mainstream efforts to sell STEM toy lines). They all then proceeded to make the spurious leap from low female enrollments to the lack of play options for girls, suggesting “you can’t be what you can’t see.” By spurious I don’t mean to suggest that they mischaracterized the state of girls toys, which is strongly entrenched in domestic, social, and appearance-based play scenarios, but rather, that their correlation selectively focuses on play objects rather than play environments. Brooks and Chen explain how their love for engineering stemmed from childhood experiences like Brooks’ father giving her a saw instead of the Barbie she requested and Chen growing up building LEGO creations with her older brothers and giving “no thought to gender differences in toys.” Though these disclosures are intended to justify the need for the products being ‘kickstarted,’ they also inadvertently undermine their effects-based arguments by revealing how parental interventions and gender-neutral household dynamics were ultimately the greater influencers on these women’s career paths. Here the rhetoric of parental intervention is transferred onto investing in the product lines being developed.

Also of significance is the way these campaigns go out of their way to reassure potential contributors that playing with STEM toys will not sap girls of their essential ‘girlyness.’ This message is conveyed on two fronts. First, the seven CEOs establish that they have not lost their femininity despite pursuing science and engineering careers. Sterling twice repeats that she enjoys pink princesses and playing dress-up while also advocating that girls are “so much more than that.” Her campaign video features her sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor in what is presumably her house rather than behind the desk at her office, which both juvenilizes and domesticates her ambitions. Hobbs and Eaves recount that they thought up Miss Possible in their dorm room while sharing “a pack of gummy worms (yummy!),” a rhetorical maneuver that ‘cutifies’ their business plan.

Engineering Toys for Girls

Screengrab of Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter pitch video

Second, the products pitched fit comfortably within established tropes of girl play culture. Roominate offers girls the opportunity to build and design their own dollhouse: “Designing the room ties the experience back to common play patterns that we know girls love!” [ (( To Roominate’s credit, their second crowdfunding campaign openly celebrates the diverse creations girls have made with their product, which include cars, space ships, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge and other non-domestic designs. ))] i-Besties seeks to take advantage of girls “already established play patterns” with dolls and doll fashions to ‘edutain’ them about “modern concepts of entrepreneurship and technology.” Hobbs and Eaves brag that the Miss Possible doll with have a “vinyl body and brushable nylon hair (like Barbie).” GoldieBlox reminds parents that an essential difference between boys and girls is that while the former have innate spatial skills the latter have superior verbal ones (read, boys are naturally good at unstructured play while girls take instruction well), which is why GoldieBlox combines building with stories that guide girls through the process. While some of this might be interpreted as a set of backdoor strategies to get girls interested in STEM, it also normalizes the industry’s status quo when it comes to gendered tastes and segregated sensibilities, offering product differentiation within established toy and consumer categories rather than challenging the logics of retail toy shelf slotting.


Dollhouses and interior decorating: backdoor strategies to excite girls?

The embrace by most of these entrepreneurs of the industry standard that kids want toys (or at least packaging) that somehow look like them is perhaps most apparent in their nod toward supporting diversity in their products. Miss Possible declares that “We want every girl to see powerful role models who look like her” accompanied by a promise that their second doll will be of African American aviator Bessie Coleman (the Kickstarter campaign is to prototype their Marie Curie doll), while i-Besties enthuses that the doll line is “as diverse as the girls who love them. Distinct in culture, personality and talents, they come from backgrounds that include blended, bi-racial, military and single-parent households.” Just like Miss Possible, however, their initial prototype doll, McKenna is Caucasian (she is also the self-identified ‘business boss’ of the group whereas the other non-white members have more discernibly exploitable high-end skills like coding and graphic design). In both instances, whiteness remains the default product that must succeed in order to get a complete racially-diverse set. [ (( Roominate again proves the exception with all of its packaging featuring non-white girls playing with the toy and its initial mini-figures based on childhood versions of the company’s founders, who are both Asian-American. ))] Diversity is also seemingly vinyl skin deep in the sense that there is virtually no address of diverse experiences or reasons why girls of color might either embrace or reject STEM. In this regard, the promise of diversity mimics the industry’s current reduction of race to a color dye rather than a socio-historical condition that influences and impacts everything from play possibilities to career opportunities.

Miss Possible

Miss Possible promises that diversity will follow if investors fund their Marie Curie doll

Finally, it is important to place efforts to inspire a love of STEM through play within the context of entrepreneurship. While it is a common refrain within these campaigns to suggest that more women becoming involved in STEM will make the world a ‘better place,’ there is a decidedly careerist bend to this notion. i-Besties bluntly states its goal to inspire girls to become CEOs, but all of the projects loosely connect improving the world with the success stories of their companies’ founders. Simply put, through the logic of crowdfunding, an investment in Roominate is both an investment in girls’ futures and in the present ambitions of the women who founded the company. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging more women to become scientists, engineers, and business-owners, there is some concern that tying this accomplishment to entrepreneurship’s investor model places the responsibility on consumers rather than public institutions. Entrepreneurship’s focus on market competition and executing sustainable business plans contributes to the conversion of young girls into customers rather than seeing them as a community with shared interests in STEM. Notably, none of the companies I’ve discussed share any of the proprietary science or engineering behind the products they are selling, nor do they acknowledge their own complicity in taking STEM jobs away from both girls and boys through their contracting of more cost-effective overseas manufacturers and product testers (granted these aren’t the sexy STEM jobs imagined as making the world a better place).

Roomminate in Wal-Mart

Roominate conflates sales success and being stocked at Wal-Mart with empowering girls

The arrival of STEM toys brings with it a lot of excitement for play’s potential to change the demographic makeup of the next generation of scientists and engineers. How that potential is refracted through the toy industry’s entrenched product and consumer categorization practices remains to be determined. Despite the celebration of crowdfunding’s ability to circumvent the established industrial etiquette by appealing directly to consumers as investors, the girl inventor promoted by all these initiatives still seems constrained by the need to embrace a market-friendly invention of girlhood.

Image Credits:
1. Roominate header
2. Miss Possible
3. i-Besties
4. GoldieBlox
5. Debbie Sterling’s kickstarter pitch video (author’s screen grab)
6. Dollhouse interior decorating
7. Miss Possible diversity
8. Roominate in Wal-Mart

Please feel free to comment.

Wicked Games, Part 2: Blood, Sex, and Pixels
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon


Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings

Case Study #2: The Birth of the ESRB
In our last column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. Crucial to our argument was the notion of control: what happened to D&D when its creators no longer controlled how the game was perceived by the public? And, even more alarming, what happened once D&D was thought to be an actual danger to that public and therefore in need of juridical oversight?

In this column, we explore another crucial moment in the history of games and their control; namely, the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994. This story is a predictable one in many ways. It begins with relatively simple concerns about children’s play, which escalate to moral panic status replete with a legislative response, culminating with the formation of an industry’s self-regulation mechanism designed to keep the government away and the cash registers ringing and game machines chinging.

But what is often lost in popular tellings of the ESRB’s origin story is how this particular flashpoint was, in large part, a self-inflicted wound; a by-product of an industrial arms race that sought to capture players’ hearts and dollars. In their zeal to better identify and pitch their wares to an aging community of gamers for the fourth generation of home consoles (e.g., the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Neo Geo) — to say nothing of trying to control that lucrative marketplace for themselves — Sega and Nintendo were blinded to how their games and marketing efforts were being perceived by an increasingly wary public. Game publishers knew their consumers were growing in numbers and aging in years. Gamers were not putting down controllers as they exited adolescence. The American public, however, was less cognizant of this demographic trend, and without a regulatory body that promised commercial transparency to parents and cultural watchdogs (or at least its veneer), the very idea of a video game containing sex and violence was anathema. After all, video games were still deemed to be children’s toys, and gameplay still unfolded primarily in private spaces, be they dimly-lit arcades at the local mall or a neighbor’s rec room. What follows is an all-too-brief historical narrative of the commercial battle for the 16-bit home console marketplace of the early 1990s and the controversy that followed. This flashpoint illustrates demonstrably that while the cocktail of blood, sex, and pixels made for good business, the resulting commercial success invited the sort of headlines and popular scrutiny that threatened a nascent but growing cultural industry with the real specter of censorship.

ROUND #1 (1985-1990)
The contentious console wars waged between Sega and Nintendo spanned three generations of home consoles (4th-6th), and lasted nearly two decades. Sega’s first entrant in the 8-bit console market, the Master System (known as the Sega Mark III in Japan), was released in North America in 1986, a year after its main competitor, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in the United States. Although the Master System was armed with better hardware, Nintendo’s powerful marketing efforts, its expansive library of exclusive titles produced by third-party publishers, and its head-start in the marketplace ultimately proved too powerful. Sega never caught up to Nintendo during the 1980s, with sales of the NES far outpacing that of the Master System.[ (( Sega did have better success in Europe, where the Master System outsold the NES. ))] Indeed, at the height of its dominance, Nintendo controlled a whopping 83% of the home market.[ (( Douglas C. McGill, “Nintendo Scores Big,” New York Times, 4 December 1988. ))]


The Sega Master System, circa 1985


Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd

Nintendo’s dominance over Sega during the 1980s is evident even today in the comparative celebrity status of their respective 8-bit mascots. Sega’s monkey-like Alex Kidd, who saw his debut in 1986’s Miracle World, proved to be no competition for Nintendo’s mustachioed Mario. The plumber and his brother, Luigi, have since appeared on countless pieces of licensed merchandise while Alex Kidd has languished in relative obscurity. Sega was down but it was not out. More importantly, it learned its lessons quickly as it readied itself for the next round of competition.

ROUND #1 WINNER: Nintendo

ROUND #2 (1988-1998)
Sega wanted to beat Nintendo to the punch by being the first to release a 16-bit home console (5th generation). It also saw an opportunity to lay claim to an aging gamer demographic by appealing to teenage boys and young adults; the Genesis was something you graduated to after you were done with Nintendo’s “toys.” By specializing in sports titles (which included forging an important relationship with Electronic Arts) and by licensing popular culture properties, Sega differentiated itself from Nintendo’s more family-friendly fare. Or, as their marketing campaign memorably put it: “Sega does what Nintendon’t.” The following multi-page ad appearing in Sega Visions, the company’s response to the popular Nintendo Power magazine, illustrates the company’s thoroughgoing focus on sports and pop culture icons: Joe Montana, Buster Douglas, and Michael Jackson (to name a few).

Sega Does

What Nintendon't

Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign

Sega also cultivated the sense of a pronounced production culture divide between the firms. The following ad, for example, takes aim at Nintendo’s “nerdy” developers. (It is worth noting that the game being advertised is the controversial Night Trap, described in “Round #3” below).

Cool Guy

Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers

Also central to Sega’s re-branding effort for their 16-bit lineup was their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. This speedy blue critter was a far cry from Sega’s previous standard-bearer, Alex Kidd, or Nintendo’s more famous Mario brothers. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) was a platformer; but it was a platformer with an attitude.

Sonic Menu Screen

Sonic tapping his foot

Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.

Although the 16-bit Super NES sales figures would eventually crest and surpass that of the Sega Genesis (49 million to 29 million units sold, respectively[ (( IGN, “Genesis vs. SNES: By the Numbers,” 20 March 2009, ))]) no other company came close to dethroning the reigning video game giant during these years. Moreover, Sega’s steadfast effort to expand the content boundaries of home console titles put them in direct opposition to Nintendo in the marketplace and, eventually, in opposition in the halls of congress.


Older gamer

Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo

ROUND 3: Sega vs. Nintendo … vs. Congress
Hoping to press their momentary advantage, Sega released the Sega CD in 1992, a CD-Rom peripheral for the Genesis. With the CD’s additional storage space, game producers could package far more material into a game including full motion video (FMV) starring human actors. The pursuit of “realism” quickly became the center of attention. Among the early “interactive movie” games was Night Trap (1992), a schlocky horror title where players save young women at a slumber party from a group of fangless vampires. Of particular interest to panicked cultural critics was a scene depicting a woman in a nightgown being captured in a bathroom. Despite such apparently scandalous subject matter, the game, while moderately popular (especially in the UK), was not necessarily a smash hit. At least, not until it became the one half of an ensuing moral panic around sex, blood, and video games.


Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)


Night Trap’s preview complete with dripping blood

The other half of the panic was Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat, also released in 1992, which was designed to compete for gamers’ quarters against Capcom’s wildly successful 2D brawler, Street Fighter II (1991). But whereas Street Fighter II was stocked with cartoonish combatants, Mortal Kombat starred digitized human fighters who bled and did grave bodily injury to one another. The game was a smash hit, and both Nintendo and Sega desperately wanted the game for their 16-bit consoles and portable devices (i.e., the Nintendo Gameboy and Sega Game Gear). Following a tremendously successful “Mortal Monday” release event preceded by a $10 million marketing effort that included primetime TV spots, magazine advertisements, promotional trailers in 1,600 movie theaters, Mortal Kombat made millions of dollars and became a cultural phenomenon.[ (( Lindsey Gruson, “Video Violence: It’s Hot! It’s Mortal! It’s Kombat!; Teen-Agers Eagerly Await Electronic Carnage While Adults Debate Message Being Sent,” New York Times, 16 September 1993, B8. ))]


“Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release

Despite their different degrees of success, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap did share one common feature: the capacity of their increased “realism” to inspire cultural panic. In June 1993 Sega, sensing the rising anxiety surrounding the games, assembled experts in education, psychology, and sociology into a “Videogame Rating Council” (VRC). The company’s games were slotted into one of three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for mature audiences, and MA-17 for adults. The move, which only rated Sega’s games, did little to quell the growing panic that the screen violence would somehow inspire worldly violence. By late in the year, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) initiated legislation that would force the game industry to implement a ratings system within one year or face government intervention.

Hearings on the bill were ugly: Lieberman showed clips from Night Trap, wielded the plastic gun shipped with Sega’s Lethal Enforcers game, and played a Sega commercial that he claimed was targeting children to play Mortal Kombat. The assembled panel of industry executives surely could not have been pleased to hear Lieberman’s inflammatory rhetoric, particularly such statements as, “These games teach a child to enjoy inflicting torture.”[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1. ))] It was shades of D&D all over again: the fear of blurring the lines between children, adults, and games.


“Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny ” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release

By that point, though, the industry was already scrambling hard to ease the legislative pain and shift the discourse away from potential harm to one of self-control. Eighteen software companies and the Video Software Dealers Association formed a coalition in early December 1993 and announced they would create a ratings system. “Parents have every right to know and understand what their kids are getting,” said Electronic Arts executive Jeanne Golly in a press conference outside the hearings; such self-serving statements may have contradicted the narratives at play in commercials like the one for Sega shown by Lieberman, but they clearly fit the requirement that something was “being done” about the problem.[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1.))] It was certainly not a moment too soon for the industry: by mid-December, Toys ‘R’ Us and other retailers announced they would stop selling Night Trap, pouring fuel on the panic fire (and, of course, making the game even more taboo and thus desirable).[ (( Tom Redburn, “Toys ‘R’ Us Stops Selling a Violent Video Game,” New York Times 17 December 1993, B1.))] In early January, Sega threw in the towel and pulled the game from the market in order to “revise” it. Lieberman called the announcement a “small victory” on a larger road to a less violent society.[ (( John Burgess, “Sega to Withdraw, Revise ‘Night Trap,’” Washington Post 11 January 1994: D5.))]

The game industry didn’t wait for things to get worse. It was during meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was born. The self-regulatory agency, created and managed by a coalition of software companies, offers guidelines, ratings, and strategies to convey information to retailers and parents. Moreover, and most importantly, they also ensure nervous politicians stay out of game stores and living rooms. Ultimately, while Lieberman and Kohl might have declared some sort of victory, it was the game designers and retailers that survived the battles to emerge with deeper pockets and an “official” mechanism in place to placate those who feared adult games were encroaching on children’s play.

ROUND #3 WINNER: Sega, Nintendo, and the Industry itself…

Once the ESRB was established, Sega’s VRC folded and disappeared, as it had become an unnecessary redundancy. The result in the years since has been very nearly a replication of the ratings system overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which serves a similar purpose: maintain an “official,” internal mechanism to regulate content (one that promises to control the spectatorial and play behavior of children) and which will keep the threat of government interventions at a distance.[ (( For more on the history of movie regulation, see: Richard Maltby, “The Production Code and the Hays Office,” in Grand Design–Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, ed. Tino Balio (New York: Scribner, 1993).))] This regulatory moment was inevitable, perhaps even overdue, for the game industry. The combination of aging consumers, technological advancement, and creative and commercial investments meant boundaries of cultural acceptability would be pushed, eventually, into the ever-present and always on standby anxiety around “the children.”

While initially resistant, the game industry came to accept and embrace the economic necessity of creating a self-regulatory body. It was a strategy that the creators of D&D and other tabletop role-playing games certainly could have utilized to mitigate the moral panic that swept across the cultural landscape during a previous era. Despite their ability to keep politicians and anxious publics at bay, such bodies also inevitably have a creative chilling effect in that they lead first to distribution suppression. No major theater chains will play NC17-rated films, for example, just as no large-scale retailers will sell “Adults Only”-rated games, even though these are both “official” ratings categories. This means, obviously, that very few creators are willing to create content that will lead to such ratings. Even with such internal suppressions, though, the overall result for self-regulated industries is economic stability and discursive control, not to mention a mechanism for foreclosing episodes that might lead to public outcry, Congressional response, and moral panics. Ultimately, in exchange for imposing creative limitations, the ESRB helped guarantee a predictable marketplace and economic return on investment.

Despite the clear intentions of regulatory bodies such as the ESRB to contain the industry in a tidy, controversy-free package, ruptures are also predictable and unavoidable. The nature of regulation is that boundary-crossing is not only inevitable, but even, ironically, occasionally necessary. It allows regulators to keep the boundaries clearly defined and supported by a vigilant and wary public. In our third, and final, column, we will examine an example of just such a prominent and inevitable rupture: the “Hot Coffee” modification of the 2004 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that permitted users to see a sexually graphic sequence hidden by the game’s creators. The predictable panic that followed was rooted in anxieties about visibility, dependability, and trustworthiness: what happens when self-regulatory mechanisms designed to keep play transparent, such as the ESRB, fail to do their critical job? The fear of “dangerous play” is always lurking in the shadows, like the monsters in D&D’s mazes or the escalation of graphic content during the arms race of the fourth-generation console wars. In our concluding column, we continue to explore these tensions, and argue that the cycle of panics, regulations, and ruptures are an inevitable, predictable, and useful way of understanding how gameplay is produced and consumed.

Image Credits:
1. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings
2. The Sega Master System, circa 1985
3. Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd
4. Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions Vol. 1, Issue 1. June/July 1990 pp. 25-27.)
5. Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers (Author’s Screen grab from Sega Visions Nov/Dec 1992, pp 6-7.)
6. Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.
7. Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo (Authors screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, pp. 20-21.)
8. Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)
9. Night Trap‘s preview complete with dripping blood (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Nov/Dec 1992, pp 38-39.)
10. “Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat‘s September 1993 console release (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, p. 3)
11. Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny (Author’s screen grab from Electronic Games, Vol. 2, Issue 4. Jan. 1994)

The Madness of Angeleno Freeways: Auto Mobility, Futurism, and Masculine Desire
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Don Draper Driving

Don Draper Driving in his Cadillac

Beginning with the Italian Futurists’ first 1909 Manifesto, modernist design discourse championed the utopian potential promised by the speed and mobility of automobile transit. Cars represented, more than any other modernist creation, the male desire to dominate a landscape using a particular visual form. Filippo Marinetti, the founder of Futurism and the author of the 1909 Manifesto, also proposed deeply misogynistic and vocally anti-feminist ideas that expressed the desire to dominate and suppress women while liberating men through automobile transit. Marinetti later revised his comments about women, championing the kind of feminist who was “a new kind of unromantic woman,” but his first claims strike at the heart of modernism’s failures to make room for female let alone feminist voices. [ (( “Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1967), 103.” )) ] The Futurist Manifesto focuses solely on cars’ symbolic potentials rather than on any sort of formal tenets and defines the Futurist masculine movement by reconceptualizing time rather than space, stressing the significance of transience. The driving, solo man, street racing in the exurbs of Milan, comes to embody the empowered technological individual.

Don Draper is always driving on an Angeleno freeway of the mind. Matthew Weiner cites the preserved modernist fabric of Los Angeles as a primary inspiration for the series, but the modernist thrall of Los Angeles comes, in the assessment of modernist historians, from its almost hyperreal car culture. Mad Men is nothing if not a blend of the decades surrounding its 1960s setting, and its sets reflect a continued preoccupation with Populuxe 1950s car aesthetics, especially in roadside architectures like Howard Johnson’s, Burger Chef, and a string of motels that feature as prominently in the show’s narrative arc as the elite modernist office spaces they inhabit. The 1950s represented the decade when corporate consumer architecture — big box stores, malls, grocery stores, fast food chains, and more — began proliferating in many American cities and spreading along highways into suburbs and even exurbs. This kind of sprawl had characterized Los Angeles since the 1880s; however, it became the national American urban image in the postwar period. The ad people of Mad Men are actively trying to advertise to this new, automobile-dependent national landscape.

While Mad Men’s sets and filming locations were intended to represent largely confining and dense New York locations, the entire series, excepting the pilot, was actually shot within the Los Angeles metro area and on sound studios at Los Angeles Center Studios. The modernist tower of the studios, near downtown LA, was designed by the same architects behind CBS Television City and, before the 1990s, had been an oil company’s corporate headquarters, imbricating Mad Men’s Manhattan corporate with the fuel that drives the auto industry.

Whitten Case Study House

Los Angeles Case Study House

Mad Men’s modernist Angeleno preservation impulse is perhaps most evident with Don and Megan Draper’s Upper East Side apartment whose interior is said to be based upon the LA Case Study Houses from the late 1940s and early 1950s and also upon popular California and national design magazines. On DVD commentary, Matthew Weiner claims the season two episode “The Jet Set” was filmed at one of these houses, but the kind of new multimedia affluent suburban ranch home brimming with equally new corporate technologies ironically receives its clearest re-articulation–as the nightmare setting of a failed second marriage–in Manhattan. Homes with built-in televisions and commissioned and promoted by a magazine, the Case Study houses represent the mass media’s attempt to shape the architectural tastes of the general public, to instate a Design for Dreaming.

From its historical perspective, Mad Men focuses on how mundane these spaces ultimately were and rejects the mythologies of the good life and glamour that are embedded in our collective memory of such spaces. As the aforementioned 1956 General Motors promotional video Design for Dreaming insists, the success of new, Second Machine age techno-utopia homes depended upon automobility. The good life was afforded by a hardworking husband, always in the driver seat coming to and from work, who affords his wife the newest technologies to ease her housework and childrearing. Driving in the car came to represent the acquisition and accumulation of capital, the engine affording the proliferation of mechanical consumer goods in the postwar home. But, then there’s one of Mad Men’s responses to this mythology in season seven’s “Time Zones,” which soundtracks Vanilla Fudge’s “Keep Me Hangin’ On” to a montage of sobbing, compromised, variously inebriated and forlorn characters in Case Study landscapes, unable to live up to or within the iconic poses these spaces insist upon their inhabitants taking.

Yet the dominant Angeleno car mythologies of Mad Men stem from Futurism and architectural history. Indeed, two architectural histories by Reyner Banham reflect the masculine thrall of automobile transit during the 1960s and that era’s historical desire to render the driving suburban everyman as possessing a kind of Futurist power. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960, first edition), Banham admits the sexism of the Futurists but does not fully explore the hypocrisies undergirding said sexism. Instead, he glorifies their idealism. His book proposes that cars define the ability of technological modernity to progress and, implicitly, that only men have developed theories or publicly worthwhile opinions on cars.

Joan Holloway doll and lithograph

“Joan Holloway doll and lithograph”

The season five episode “The Other Woman” could be read as an overt Futurist allegory that meditates upon how masculine car culture progresses at the cost of women who are not unromantic. In the episode, Joan Holloway, who was commodified as a sexy Barbie doll during an early season, must sleep with a Jaguar executive (masculinist car culture!) in order to gain partner status. Those truly benefiting from the agreement are Joan’s male colleagues who have a far larger financial stake in winning the business. While this narrative could read like a woman (Joan) overcoming, or accepting, the car industry’s embodied oppression to achieve something long deserved, Joan’s victory is temporary and it’s made explicit that the sorts of oppressions she experienced are continuous in every professional arena.

In the third to final episode, “Lost Horizon,” Joan is sexually propositioned and harassed after a recent merger. She confronts her new boss about the situation and the scene escalates to Joan proclaiming she is going to enlist Betty Friedan, the ACLU, and the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal protesters and him demanding she leave and accept a liquidated partnership. Joan’s brief attempt to intervene in masculinist corporate politics with overt feminism is depicted and punished in the modernist idiom of the show. Joan must start anew from her kitchen. This trajectory runs counter to Don’s: in the final episodes, he takes the open road to California where he attains spiritual capitalist enlightenment, privileged, unlike Joan, with the ability to abandon responsibilities and to adopt the kinds of new spatial identities afforded by carefree automobile transit.

In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Banham paeans the LA freeways as the modern American equivalent of ancient Roman monuments — without admitting the extremely embodied and not always positive experience of, well, actually driving in LA. Banham provides a narcissistic universalizing (read: only his own straight white male) perspective on Los Angeles that doesn’t account for the different ways that Angelenos experience the freeways. Rather, this is Don’s fantasia: driving alone in a car on a scenic empty highway on the road towards the everyman’s enlightenment, or, towards “California Dreamin.” Somehow, Banham’s photos of the LA freeways, included in the book, are all empty or, at most, contain one other car, rescripting the actuality of the place to reflect a modernist privileging of the automobile and its infrastructure as design objects autonomous from their congested context. These are the same empty roadways as those Don’s always taking.

whitten howard johnson

Mad Men visits a Howard Johnson

In fifth season Mad Men episode “Far Away Places,” the Futurist myths concerning automobility are harnessed to express what Matthew Weiner describes as the “desire to go away.” [ (( “” )) ] The entire show could be based upon this premise, with the weekly pitches to clients functioning as the idealized capitalist automobile dreamworlds that its characters peddle but never inhabit. In the episode, Don turns aimless driving — a Futurist mobility for the sake of mobility — into a tool to attempt to control his second wife, Megan. They decide to take an impromptu trip to a Plattsburgh, New York where there’s a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and Motor Lodge. There, inside the restaurant, Megan tells Don that she is sick of Don dominating their shared life. The image of their marriage is one of driving, of escape, of a road as open as the American landscape, and it’s also one of commercial capitalist roadside architecture, a love affair born of Disneyland motels, but also one in which Don is always in the driver’s seat. Their marriage fails because, following a Futurist myth, these Mad adventures only prove enlightening, or generate progress, when a man sets out on his own.

Image Credits

1. Don Draper Driving
2. Case Study House
3. Joan Holloway
4. Howard Johnson

Please feel free to comment.

Magical Girl as a Shōjo Genre and the Male Gaze
Coco Zhou / McGill University

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon

In my last column, I provided a brief overview of the extent to which the shōjo image has come to dominate all aspects of contemporary Japanese visual culture. I also suggested that this image is constructed to invite men to not only objectify her but also identify with/as her. I would like us to take a closer look now at the ways in which this dynamic is produced. When they look at these representations of girlhood, do girls and boys, men and women all see the same thing? How does a piece of shōjo media frame viewers to look at it a certain way, and what kind of gendered expectations and demands does it make on the viewer?

Although the shōjo character in anime and manga enables viewers of all genders to consume her as a commodity, she also embodies a kind of freedom from social constrictions by virtue of being non-reproductive. Focusing on this liberating aspect of being shōjo, by the late 1980s artists had begun to produce stories about shōjo subjects who are embedded in narratives around battle, adventure, and high technology.[ ((For instance, many of Miyazaki Hayao’s films adopt this very formula: Nausicaa (1984), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001) all centre around silly yet brave shōjo heroines on a mission. Shirō Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1989) and Takahashi Rumiko’s Ranma ½ are also part of this trend.)) ] These anime/manga are consumed by audiences across the gender spectrum and feature a variety of shōjo representations. Narratives about the shōjo in 1990s pop culture thus appear to adopt male (shōnen)-associated elements, such as action, violence, and responsibility toward society.[ ((Orbaugh, Sharalyn. “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture.” Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field (2003).)) ]

Just as these depictions of shōjo repudiate earlier ones that signified irresponsibility, weakness, and passivity, these new images of “female empowerment” also contradict the social realities of Japanese women.[ ((Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” Journal of Asian Studies 73 (2014).))] Among all of the visual productions and practices that helped spread these shōjo images, I want to focus on a particular anime/manga genre, the Magical Girl (mahou shōjo), and argue that male viewership and subjectivity are deeply wedged into this genre that simultaneously targets a young female audience.

The mahou shōjo story is most commonly identified by transformativity, a central trope of the genre. The typical protagonist is an ordinary girl who is suddenly granted special powers, which she activates after performing a series of ritualized gestures, often involving a catchphrase and a personalized costume. This ability to transform, though also shared by various types of shōnen media (that which targets boys), is unique to the mahou shōjo in the sense that it is ontological in nature: while shōnen comics may include combat scenes in which the hero uses high-tech body armour to turn himself into a robot warrior, the Magical Girl’s transformation seems to originate internally.[ ((Orbaugh, “Busty Battlin’ Babes,” 215.)) ]

Consider Sailor Moon (1991) and Cardcaptor Sakura (1996), the most commonly cited mahou shōjo productions in the past two decades. We could identify elements of shōnen in both of these works, not only in their emphasis on combat and protecting society from evil, but also in their elaborate transformation sequences, in which the heroines transform by donning special fighting outfits.

Sailor Moon’s various transformation sequences.

While this transformation is sexualized, what ultimately makes the Magical Girl shōjo is the fact that she refuses to activate her sexual potential despite all her power. Whereas the antagonists in both series are often power-hungry seductresses with thick makeup, Sailor Moon and Sakura are marked by youthfulness and cuteness, signified by their frilly skirts and school uniforms. Despite her resistance to womanhood, the mahou shōjo is tasked with domestic obligations. Sailor Moon’s later series focuses heavily on the family relationship between Sailor Moon, her future husband Tuxedo Mask, and their time-travelling daughter. Meanwhile, in Cardcaptor Sakura’s motherless household, Sakura fulfills the cleaning and cooking duties assigned to her. The Magical Girl image is thus constituted by her social and communal usefulness.

We are beginning to see how these paradoxical messages may be useful for reproducing patriarchal gender relations. On one hand, the mahou shōjo is supposed to prepare herself for conventional womanhood, and on the other hand, she is told to stay shōjo, since her “power” is not only associated with cuteness, femininity, passivity, but also stems from those concepts of powerlessness. Another way in which mahou shōjo productions usher young children into adopting gender norms is through their business structure. As Japan’s production system of animation depends financially on the sales of copyrighted goods, the Magical Girl genre’s backbone consists of exploiting viewer interest specific to young female children, the targeted consumers of its merchandise. The same transformation sequences are often repeated every episode, recycling fragmented shots (of a magical staff, for example) to effectively show details of the toy, thereby making it attractive to potential buyers.[ ((Saito, “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis,” 154.)) ]

Cardcaptor Sakura's staff, which she uses to transform.

Cardcaptor Sakura’s staff

By carefully exploiting feminine ideals and consumer interest, mahou shōjo productions have thus become a site of contradictory and prescriptive ideas surrounding gender roles and identities. But how does the mahou shōjo traffic male subjectivity? For one, eroticization and objectification are inherent in the transformation sequences, as they not only portray commercial goods in fragmented shots but also spatially dissect the transforming female body. In addition to commodifying her, male viewers are also invited to identify with the mahou shōjo who, despite being secretly powerful, is carefree and disengaged from expectations of masculinity. Since her power is constituted by her shōjo identity, the mahou shōjo does not need outside forces in order to be powerful, which makes her an appealing object of consumption (and identification) for post-economic-collapse Japan.

At the same time, masculine ideals are reaffirmed by the glorification of violence—through action-driven plots and elaborate battle scenes—and by the relationships between Magical Girl characters, which simulate structures of male competition. Much like the way patriarchy creates solidarity among men at the expense of women, the world of mahou shōjo seems to exclude men so that Magical Girls could enjoy competing with each other as a way to build meaningful relationships. This type of rivalry also channels desire. [ ((Eve K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985).)) ] Subjected to the male gaze, battle scenes between Magical Girls are performed so that men could not only eroticize the relationships between the characters but also identify themselves in them. Should the practice of referring to these battle scenes as “fan service” be of any indication, male viewership is clearly taken into consideration in the production of mahou shōjo anime, if not prioritized.

The mahou shōjo thus generates and reconfirms gender norms and heteronormative relations, using the motif of magical transformation—masked as empowerment—to exploit its subjects and mediate feminine ideals. The visual conflation of a shōjo body with power also invites the male audience to both eroticize her and identify with her. Though this identification stems from anxieties about and resistance to traditional masculinity, it is ultimately enabled by patriarchal hegemony, the power structure against which the resistance is intended.

Image Credits:
1. Sailor Moon
2. Cardcaptor Sakura’s Staff

Please feel free to comment.

Mr. Robot’s Filmic Debts
M. King Adkins / South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson

Actor Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, security engineer and vigilante hacktivist

The USA Network’s new summer series, Mr. Robot knows its media history. It’s filled with hidden references (see, for example, Sarah Bunting’s discussion of Mr. Robot’s relationships to Ocean’s 11, The Wire, and Hannibal). [ (( Bunting, Sarah. “Love on a Real Train.” Previously TV. 23 July 2015. )) ] I want to focus here on two specific debts it owes – the first to The Matrix (1999); the second, to the 1949 classic, The Third Man. It’s the mix of the two that really gives Mr. Robot its particular complexity.

The Matrix, of course, has exerted enormous influence in film and television over the last sixteen years, or rather pop culture’s brand of postmodernism has exerted enormous influence, since The Matrix (and, in fact, The Truman Show, which came out at roughly the same time) is, at its heart, a parable of postmodernism. Movies including Inception, Stranger than Fiction, Avatar, Insidious, Wall-E, all owe a debt to Neo and Morpheus and the artificial reality they inhabit. Lately, the same sorts of worlds have been cropping up on television as well. Wayward Pines, in which we discover a small town is not quite what it seems, offers one good example. Meanwhile, in this season of The Dome, the characters have spent some time living lives that turned out to be only virtual.

Mr. Robot’s references to The Matrix have less to do with plot and more with attitude. The green camera filter, for instance, tints everything to roughly the same computer-code-color as The Matrix. Some of the language echoes the Wachowski’s dialogue as well. In his first conversation with Elliot Alderson (note the last name), the mysterious Mr. Robot (played by Christian Slater) sounds very much like Morpheus reassuring the newly reborn Neo: “Obviously you’re going to ask a lot of questions. It’s weird what you’re doing right now. But I can’t tell you anything until we get there.” Later, he promises: “I’m gonna break you out.” And still later, he begins to reveal a bit more about the “truth”: “Let me tell you why you’re really here. You’re here because you sense something wrong with the world. Something you can’t explain. But you know it controls you and everyone you care about.” [ (( “” Mr. Robot. Perf. Rami Malek, Christian Slater. USA, 27 May 2015. TV. )) ] Like “a splinter in the mind” perhaps? And in an interview for Google, creator Sam Esmail readily admits, “You can say I ripped the lines off […] I’m a huge Matrix fan.”

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail admits he’s a “huge Matrix fan.”

This new version, however, twists the “things aren’t what they seem” motif of The Matrix: this Alderson, like that earlier Anderson, is a gifted hacker, but he finds himself caught up in a real computer-generated network. That is, the network in this case isn’t virtual. Except that’s not strictly accurate either: the virtual and the “real” exist as one, a situation that more closely resembles how postmodern theorists like Jean Baudrillard saw the world. Literally living inside a computer construct makes for a handy metaphor, but these thinkers saw our world – not some futuristic post-apocalyptic world – as the true Matrix. “Living in the computer” in these terms isn’t about learning to stop bullets; instead, it means texting your friends across the country while ignoring the people sitting next to you; it means walking around with your own soundtrack (courtesy of iPod) playing in your ears; it means being exposed to so many images that your reality only exists as a collage of these images.

Mr. Robot shows us the corporations that generate these images and the complex web of computer systems that weave these corporations into a virtual world that both underlies and overshadows the “real” world. It offers us characters shaped by that artificiality – Elliot, so deeply enmeshed in this world that he seems himself robotic; or Martin Wallstrom, who seems to have been made psychotic by having constantly to split his personality between the underworld of the computer system and its glittering corporate façade. This is not the world even while it very much is the world.

Part of the show’s complication of The Matrix‘s themes has to do with its debt to another, less obvious, source: Carol Reed’s brilliant noir classic, The Third Man. Without getting too enmeshed in that film’s complex plot, it concerns Holly Martins, recently arrived in post-war Berlin to discover his old friend, Harry Lime, has become embroiled in black market racketeering. Harry, it seems, has committed a number of rather vicious frauds, one of which involves selling tainted batches of penicillin to orphanages. The crux of the film occurs, rather famously, in a Ferris wheel compartment. There, Martins asks his old friend, bewildered, “Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you seen any of your victims?” to which Harry replies, “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic, Holly. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—forever? If I said you could have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” [ (( Reed, Carol. The Third Man. Perf. Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles. Lionsgate, 2014. DVD )) ]

Holly Martens at the Ferris Wheel

Holly Martens at the Ferris Wheel

But Harry continues with one of the most famous speeches in all of cinema: “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” [ (( “Ibid.” )) ]

Lime’s point here about beauty springing from horrific circumstances gets echoed in another Ferris wheel scene, this one from the first episode of Mr. Robot. Here, Mr. Robot entices Elliot with a proposition:

“Money. Money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard. It’s become virtual. Software: the operating system of our world […] We are on the verge of taking down this virtual reality. Think about it. What if you could take down one conglomerate, a conglomerate so deeply entrenched in the world’s economy. Too big to fail doesn’t even come close to describing it. […] What if I told you that this conglomerate just so happens to own 70% of the global consumer credit industry? If we hit their data center just right we could systematically format all the servers, including back up. […] All the debt we owe them. Every record of every credit card, loan, and mortgage would be wiped clean. It would impossible to enforce outdated paper records. It would all be gone. The single biggest incident of wealth redistribution in history.” [ (( “” Mr. Robot. Perf. Rami Malek, Christian Slater. USA, 27 May 2015. TV. )) ]

Here Mr. Robot’s speech borrows pieces of both Morpheus and Lime, “one conglomerate” and “What if I told you” echoing Harry’s temptation of Holly with the “one dot” below.

Mr. Robot at the Ferris Wheel

Mr. Robot at the Ferris Wheel

The Matrix is brilliant in many ways, especially its crucial head-turning moment when reality becomes something entirely different (a moment important enough to influence Inception, Stranger than Fiction, Its morality, on the other hand, is overly simplistic: computers bad! humanity good! This wasn’t quite the point Baudrillard had been driving at. The postmodern condition isn’t a philosophical proposition, an ideological argument for how we should or shouldn’t live. It’s a description of things as they are. And things as they are aren’t good or evil – they simply are.

The genius of Mr. Robot is that it complicates that simple morality. Mr. Robot offers a proposition that sounds an awful lot like the one Morpheus offers to Neo: open your eyes, see the world for what it is, and fight to get the reality back. At the same time, it’s couched in the disconcerting morality of Harry Lime: “so a few people get hurt; in the end it’s all to the greater good.” The system, it turns out, is more complicated than we might imagine – it traps us, to be sure, but we must always remember we are at least passive participants. We like our video games, our designer drugs, our internet porn. Taking down the system means taking down ourselves.

It must be said that the Wachowskis did have something like this complexity in mind when they made the second and third parts of their trilogy. We learn in The Matrix: Reloaded, for instance, that the computer encourages occasional revolution. Unfortunately, if Neo wasn’t heroically defeating the system the audience found the plot less engaging. The other part of Mr. Robot’s genius – at least I hope – is that they’ve discovered a way to make this complexity resonate more strongly with the audience. Or perhaps – another hope – we have grown more sophisticated in our understanding of the postmodern world around us.

Image Credits

1. Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson
2. Holly Martens at the Ferris Wheel
3. Mr. Robot at the Ferris Wheel

Please feel free to comment

Textual Object
Nicholas Sammond / University of Toronto

mickey minnie disneyland

Walt Disney poses with a map of Disneyland

This is the second of three essays on the creation, design, and implementation of a graduate class. In the previous outing I outlined ideas for a course that would explore the relationship between textuality and space. In this essay I will discuss its realization in a syllabus. In the final essay, I will review its execution as a course. Each essay approaches the topic through one of three successive lenses: the first started from Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, this one takes up Lefebvre’s systematic analysis of social space, and the last will consider new materialism’s troubling of the category of the reading subject.

“…the Text achieves, if not the transparence of social relations, that at least of language relations: the Text is that space where no language has a hold over any other, where languages circulate (keeping the circular sense of the term).”
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (( Translated by Stephen Heath, 1977. ))

“We are forever hearing about the space of this and/or the space of that: about literary space, ideological spaces, the space of the dream, psychoanalytic topologies, and so on and so forth. Conspicuous by its absence from supposedly fundamental epistemological studies is not only the idea ‘man,’ but also that of space—the fact that ‘space’ is mentioned on every page notwithstanding.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (( Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1974), 3. ))

This is a story about implementation.

To call a place like Disneyland a text is a conceit. It offers the possibility of reading in the designed landscape of the theme park a narrative, or even a collation of narratives that then form a master narrative. The term “master” is appropriate: one reading of the larger narrative of Disneyland is that it reproduces the ideal fantasy of Walt Disney’s life. From the early 1930s on, Disney’s public relations described Walt as the guiding spirit behind everything the company made, and it suggested that his formation as the ideal Middle American was transmuted in its products and transmitted to the children who consumed them. Main Street U.S.A. reproduced Walt’s small-town childhood in the Midwest; Adventureland featured his deep connection with animals, his sense of their primal importance; Frontierland celebrated the settler spirit of Middle America; Fantasyland manifested Walt’s childlike love of fairy tales; and Tomorrowland celebrated him as an inventor invested in technology’s promise of a better future. Each land was a text unto itself; together they formed the larger text of Disney-land, the place that manifested the life story of the man.

Yet the conceit of Disneyland as text runs the risk of occluding the very real spatial relations it imagines and attempts to create. A book, movie, or television program is a self-contained entity, populated by characters who perform a free will they don’t actually have. In Disneyland, however well managed it may be, people do unpredictable things, take away unexpected messages. This is exactly the complaint and the concern of the sociologist Henri Lefebvre. Imagining a spatiality in mediated texts, or ascribing textuality to actual places, runs the risk of obscuring the complex ways in which actual spaces themselves attempt to organize, regulate, and understand complex social practices and relations. This is the central tension and core idea of the graduate course “The Textual Object: Disneyland”: that the ideals produced in the television program Disneyland—and in its subsidiary segments Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—were nearly impossible to translate into the actual spaces meant to represent them in Anaheim, California. And it is that ongoing tension, that contradiction, which makes Disneyland such a useful text to read, such a valuable space to analyze.

Sammond Disneyland


View Section I of the Syllabus here.

The opening sections of the syllabus examine the putative origins of Disneyland: its precursors were the amusement parks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of them outgrowths of the world expositions that were organized during the same period. I say “putative” because Disney’s own history, produced by the company itself, as well as by the chroniclers of the company and its eponymous founder, have produced a story that is often very speculative and contradictory. In the case of Disneyland, there is a question as to whether the park is more indebted to Coney Island, Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, or to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Rather than to try to settle that question of fact, it’s more productive to note the ways in which the company promoted Disneyland as like or unlike any of those places, which makes each of them antecedent, either as an exemplar or as a cautionary tale. Disney created Disneyland as much as an antidote to a raucous, slightly ribald, perhaps dangerous, and dirty place like Coney Island’s Luna Park in its heyday as it was an homage to the genteel pleasures of the Tivoli Gardens or the technological wonders of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Amusement parks owed a bit to the midways of those expositions, many of which featured thrill rides, freak shows, games of chance, exotic dancers, and drinking. As Lauren Rabinovitz points out, although they may have been inspired by expositions, many amusement parks grew out of public or semipublic gardens and swimming parks. ((Rabinovitz, Lauren. “Urban Wonderlands: the “Cracked Mirror” of Turn-of-the-Century Amusement Parks.” Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 25-64. )) In some cases, as urban railways began extending streetcar lines to the edges of cities, they sought to attract riders by putting amusement parks at their further reaches, then stocking them with paying attractions. For example, the founder of Steeplechase Park and Luna Park, George Tilyou, was inspired by the 1893 Chicago Exposition and saw in it a moneymaker. Although some amusement parks were genteel and moderate, appealing to a burgeoning industrial middle class, the general association, and certainly Disney’s sense of the amusement park, is that they were gritty, loud, extensions of rapidly mechanizing urban landscapes, celebrating (as Rabinovitz notes) the tension, danger, excitement, and titillation that the modern urban environment offered. It was for this reason, perhaps, that Disney welcomed visitors to its park via the decidedly small-town Main Street U.S.A.

Main Street

Town Square in Main Street, U.S.A., 1956

Main Street U.S.A., the entrance and spine of Disneyland, was presented as a faithful recreation of a “typical” small American town, circa 1900, and its shops as the precursors of the modern businesses—Kodak, Carnation, Upjohn—that ran them as concessions. (Even Main Street had conflicting origin stories. Some have claimed that it was modeled after Walt Disney’s childhood home of Marceline, Missouri; others have suggested that it resembles Fort Collins, Colorado, the home town of its principal designer; the company disavows both stories.) Performing a spectacular fantasy of ideal small town life—with marching bands, circus parades, and processions of “horseless carriages”—Main Street also was meant to be an accurate reproduction of that life, hence educational. Likewise, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland each, in varying degrees, also framed spectacle as an opportunity for edification.

The expositions on which Disneyland modeled itself as educational began with the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the grandest and best remembered of these was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, through the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 1915 San Francisco Pan Pacific Exposition each has its echoes in Anaheim. (( Rydell, Robert. “Forerunners of the Century-of-Progress Expositions.” World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 15-37. )) Each of these expositions celebrated the emergence of the United States as an imperial power, and they did so through an ingathering of commodities from newly acquired territories—commodities which included the “native” populations of those lands. Recreations of whole villages, with inhabitants, were very popular at the expositions, producing a sense of uplift and education, and counterposing life in the United States as civilized in comparison to the savagery of conquered peoples. These exhibits were distant relatives of the exhibits in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (strangely later recreated in Disneyland Paris), but they differed in that they seemed to eschew sensationalism in favor of a patina of scholarship and the potential to educate. (Authenticity was fungible in these exhibits. The great African American Broadway performers George Walker and Bert Williams reported that they got their start when a “Zulu show” scheduled to open in San Francisco was delayed an local men were recruited as stand-in natives.) (( Theatre Magazine Advertiser, n.d. [1902?], Robinson Locke Collection, folder 2461, Special Collections, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library. ))

View Section II of the Syllabus here.

Disney conceived of Adventureland as the physical realization of its True-Life Adventures (1948-1960), nature films which it first created for theatrical release and later featured in rotation on the Disneyland television show. With titles such as Bear Country (1953), White Wilderness (1958), and Nature’s Half Acre (1951), most focused on specific biomes or regions, stitching together a series of vignettes about specific species or about relationships between species. The company advertised, and tried to hire, heterosexual couples to capture these scenes, a trope which expanded upon the popular “white hunter” genre of the 1930s-1950s—realized in films such as Chang (Cooper 1927), or the Frank Buck films such as Bring ‘Em Back Alive (Elliott 1932) or Tiger Fangs (Newfield 1943). (( See Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 195-246. See also Chris, Cynthia. Watching Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). )) Disney’s choice to feature married couples as cinematographers updated that trope by creating a seeming symmetry between the observer and the observed: wherever possible, Disney mapped human gender relations (as it understood them) onto a wide range of species, purporting to offer a glimpse into the lives of natural “families.” In this, the company participated in and amplified the popular neo-Freudianism of the postwar years—espoused in popular literature by the likes of Benjamin Spock, Margaret Mead, Erik Erikson, and Erich Fromm, which (with variations) argued that the social discontents that had produced the extremes of WWII, embodied in fascism and state communism, and the social upheaval caused by the war itself (including the trauma to its male soldiers) could best be addressed through psychoanalytic means. This approach promised to address neurosis in veterans, sexual “perversion” (homosexuality, the social precariousness of which might make gay men and women vulnerable to communist blackmail and subversion), and “momism” (the problem of wartime wives and mothers having accumulated excess social and domestic power in the absence of male authority). (( See Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society (New York: W.W. Norton, 1950), 248-280. )) At the level of popular culture for children and families, this meant modeling “natural” gender relations in which the proper social roles for each (and there were only two) were clearly delineated. The True-Life Adventures, and Adventureland, provided examples of a natural order meant to mirror visiting happy families.

The Jungle Cruise Ride in Adventureland

This kind of gender mapping was easy to do in its nature films, which Disney circulated in theaters and on the Disneyland television show. On the ground in the park, however, the fine grained relations that closeups, music, narration, and editing could create were nearly impossible to reproduce. Although animatronic versions of large animals such as hippos, giraffes, and elephants could be arranged in heteronormative familial groupings, recreating the suburban home in the “jungle,” scaling that fantasy up and down the chain of being was impossible. Instead, Adventureland in the park hearkened back to adventure rides in amusement parks, and gestured toward the world of the white hunter/naturalist more than to the scientific researcher. When the park opened in 1955, Adventureland featured the Jungle Cruise ride, a nod to the True-Life Adventures’ The African Lion (1955), with a little of The African Queen (1951) and Trader Mickey (1932) thrown in. Visitors to the park rode in riverboats reminiscent of the African Queen and a pilot in a pith helmet and khakis provided the narrative as they meandered through a quasi-African landscape, menaced by animatronic crocodiles and hippos (one of which the guide shoots). In 1962, Disney added the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse to Adventureland and in 1963 opened the Enchanted Tiki Room. So, the tidy gendering of nature that True-Life Adventures performed were replaced on the ground by the gendered performances of the families themselves.

View Section III of the Syllabus here.

Sammond frontierland


One other feature of the Jungle Cruise ride was that menacing animatronic natives peered out of the underbrush, and a pile of human bones in a native village hinted at the dangers of cannibalism, which had been so prominently displayed in Trader Mickey. The colonial fantasy hinted at in Adventureland was the organizing principle in Frontierland, shifted from the Dark Continent to the American West of the 19th century. Ostensibly organized around the changing modes of transportation used to traverse the continent—from Conestoga wagons, to paddle-wheel steamers, to stage coaches, to a railroad that took visitors there from Main Street—Frontierland celebrated conquest. Whether riding pack mules or in Mike Fink’s keel boats, visitors relived the “taming” of the wilderness (and its peoples) by European settlers moving westward. Again, regulating the narrative proved challenging, with the traditional oater battle between cowboys and Indians modulated by an Indian village in which Native American performers presented arts, culture, and dance to curious visitors. (Frontierland also featured a native village viewed from several rides, in which one lone human performer shared a fire circle with fellow animatronic natives.) Visitors to Frontierland could also board the Mark Twain Riverboat and travel to Tom Sawyer Island. In 1966 Disney added New Orleans Square, and in 1967 the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and with that expanded the representation of the colonial experience southward, and if the “red man” of the western frontier was represented through gunfights, dances, and teepees, the colonial subject of Frontierland’s southern reaches was represented through piracy, voodoo, and more jungle-theming.

View Section IV of the Syllabus here.

Sammond Fantasyland


Fantasyland continued Disney’s negotiation of the contradictions between ideals it could realize in its animation and live-action film and the messy complications of unspooling a coherent narrative on the ground in the park. Walt’s dedication plaque for Fantasyland reads, in part, “In this timeless land of enchantment the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true.” The notion that the fairy tales that Disney animated represented eternal truths, rather than the work of authors like Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Carlo Collodi or J.M. Barrie, was important to the Disney mythos. But creating an environment of “timelessness” in Anaheim, California, circa 1955, proved a challenge. So, this part of the park, more than the other lands, most resembled the amusement parks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Disney’s animated feature films built narratives of very gendered self-realization around the affective push/pull of separation anxiety (experienced by parents and children alike). On the ground, those devices faded. After visitors entered through Snow White’s Castle (the “happily ever after” of that story), Fantasyland featured rides such as the Casey Jr. Circus Train (a nod to Dumbo) and appropriately, the aerial carousel Dumbo the Flying Elephant, as well as the King Arthur Carrousel, The Mad Tea Party saucer ride, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventures. All of the rides related thematically to Disney movies, but all were for the most part standard amusement park rides. Of later additions, the most notable was It’s a Small World (1966), Disney’s nod to internationalism whose ominous overtones were hilariously sent up in an episode of The Simpsons set in Duff Gardens.

Little Land of Duff

The Little Land of Duff, a parody of It’s a Small World by The Simpsons

Missing in all of those rides was Disney’s heavy investment in, and contribution, the regulation of gender normativity in 1950s American culture. Parents raising children via the neo-Freudian counsel of Dr. Benjamin Spock or through the headier ideas of social critic/practitioners such as Erik Erikson were warned that the proper performance of gender roles by both mothers and fathers was key to restoring a social order badly warped by the privations of World War II. For men this meant providing a strong, steady, and regular manly presence in the home. Little boys needed a clear masculine role model to imitate, struggle with, and grow into; little girls needed a strong, supportive male love object to outgrow, preparing them for the well-adjusted boys and men they would eventually choose to reproduce an ideal American life. For women it meant conceding to their husbands the masculine control of the home that they had by necessity taken during WWII, acting as loving and supportive mothers, yet only as representatives of their husbands in their day to day absences, second to them in authority at all other times. Couples, finally, had to perform clearly what heterosexual love and desire looked like, the courtship of women by men and the yielding of women to men, as part of the natural order. Disney’s fairy tales, which often featured absent parents, served as cautionary tales in which the abandoned child had to overcome peril and challenge to become an integrated member of society, and as comforting stories about the resilience of children who evinced the inherent power of heteronormative behavior. That spinning mechanical teacups and carousels didn’t signal that clearly was a secondary problem; the visitors could accomplish that work by associating the ride with its animated antecedent.

View Section V of the Syllabus here.

Sammond Tomorrowland


One possible positive outcome for this careful gender modeling was Tomorrowland, a utopian future world in which technology laid to rest the problems of the midcentury United States. (Appropriately, a skyway tram system linked Fantasyland to Tomorrowland.) Perhaps appropriately, Tomorrowland was the least developed part of Disneyland when the park opened in July of 1955, and perhaps a harbinger of the future we now occupy, most of the rides were sponsored by outside corporations. TWA paid for the Ride to the Moon; Richland Oil sponsored the Autopia ride; the Dutch Boy Paint Gallery was self-explanatory; and American Motors sponsored the cinema-in-the-round Circarama. Monsanto sponsored a Hall of Chemistry, then expanded its offerings in 1957 with the Monsanto House of the Future. In 1959 Disney added its famous and long-anticipated Monorail (also mocked on The Simpsons), its Submarine ride, and The Matterhorn, which was eventually moved to Fantasyland since there was little futuristic about it.

Whether by design or by economic necessity, Tomorrowland boomeranged visitors from the pre-capitalist past of Fantasyland into an inherently corporatist future. Disney’s televised version of Tomorrowland, on Disneyland, while it still celebrated technology, eschewed the sponsorship angle. (Given the tensions around sponsorship, advertising and broadcasting in the late 1950s, this shouldn’t be surprising.) Disney’s “science factual” films, such as Man in Space (1955), Mars and Beyond (1957), Our Friend the Atom (1957), and Magic Highway U.S.A. (1958), were each about an hour long, and each presented an evolutionary model of science and technology, moving easily from human prehistory through the current day, toward an ideal future. After airing on Disneyland, they then had a second life in the educational rental market, alongside the Bell Laboratory Science Series. In the films’ narrative arc, the technotopias that Disney envisioned seemed predestined, determined by the necessary arc of human history as it passed into and through Euro-American science.

The translation of these utopic narratives into a technocapitalist playground in the park may seem heavy handed in its branded approach to living, but in the 1950s, when suspicions about corporate motives were muted and brand loyalty a less self-conscious form of belonging, a heavily sponsored future seemed more natural, less fraught than it might today. (Disney and Pixar even gently and vaguely spoofed branded living in the 2008 hit film WALL-E, which featured lives lived within the universe of the Buy and Large corporation.) At the dawn of the Cold War, though, the IBM and Ford’s connections to Nazi Germany, Dow’s role in producing napalm, or General Electric’s vast of array of weapons-related products were not yet widely known by the general public. And although Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders was published in 1957, its insights into brand consciousness and daily life were not quite as detailed, thoughtful, and damning of specific corporations and practices as, say, Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic: the Politics of Ambivalence in Brand Culture (NYU 2012).

Because of this acceptance of corporate conservatorship, the dissonance between the televised versions of Tomorrowland and the rides and attractions on the ground at Disneyland was less pronounced than it was between the electronic and material versions of Disneyland’s other three lands, yet neither was it entirely absent. Each of Disneyland’s four lands plays out a tension that runs through Lefebvre’s model for analyzing social space and its associated practices. The Disneyland television program’s ideal and fantastic spaces of Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland follow the logic of what Lefebvre calls “representations of space,” which he describes as “conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers…all of whom identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived.” (( Lefebvre, 38. )) Certainly it was Disney’s goal to attempt that idealized control of space through its “imagineers,” Disney’s trademarked term for its park planners. Yet the distance between the ideal cinematic and televisual spaces of the four lands and their realization on the ground remained irreducible, an example of Lefebvre’s concept of “representational spaces,” which he termed “space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’…. This is the dominated—and hence passively experienced—space which the seeks to change and appropriate.” (( Lefebvre, 39. ))

Try as it might, Disney could not control relations on the ground, nor reproduce the meanings Disneyland viewers might have produced in consuming Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland on TV. Imagineering was the impossible practice of aligning the imagined narrative of Disneyland/Disneyland as the embodiment of Walt Disney’s weltanschauung with its instantiation in each of its four subsidiary lands, and thence with the lived experience of visitors as they moved through the social space of the park. Its success, then, perhaps has had less to do with the park’s design on the ground than with its visitors’ will to believe, to see the narrative even where it has not been evident.


Promotional still for Disney’sTomorrowland (2015)

That will to believe, to imagineer an ideal set of relations regardless of their dissonance with life as lived on the ground, continues to inform the Disney narrative. Its 2015 film Tomorrowland attempts to reconcile the utopianism of the original Disneyland with an increasing sense that a blind faith in technology is actually what has delivered the world to its increasingly catastrophic present and a potentially apocalyptic future. Oddly, though, the film resolves this contradiction by suggesting that cynicism about the future is the actual cause of technologically driven dystopic trends…suggesting perhaps that all the world needs do to set things right is return to a fantastically optimistic narrative such as that of Disneyland…to wish upon a star.

Select Bibliography

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holmquist, ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (NewYork: Vintage Books, 1971).
Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Harvey, David. Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1974).

Image Credits:
1. Disneyland Map
2. Disneyland
3. Main Street, U.S.A.
4. Frontierland
5. Fantasyland
6. Tomorrowland
7. The Simpsons
8. Tomorrowland

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