Since 1945, American culture has functioned less as friendly emissary than zombie horde. Marauding across continents, it devours brains, assimilates everything in its path, and leaves behind only ruin and childhood obesity. But as this onslaught spreads throughout Europe, one nation has boldly drawn its Maginot line in the sand. I refer, of course, to France.
Being an expert on France (I’ve seen Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Mis), I can speak authoritatively of its culture. Unlike America and its melting pot, France defines a fixed version of Frenchness which its government encourages everyone to upkeep. Roaming outside the bounds of this Frenchness is frowned upon, and succumbing to any aspect of American culture is expressly forbidden.
To better understand the struggle between American and French cultures, we need not look further than Marne-la-Vallée, a sleepy hamlet just 20 miles east of Paris. You may not know Marne-la-Vallée by name, but perhaps you’ve heard of a local business it contains: Euro Disney.
Well, technically, it’s “Disneyland Paris.” Disney changed the name of the park in 2001 when they realized that “Euro” suggested currency rather than fun. While The Walt Disney Company rarely shies away from currency — specifically, taking yours—they would sooner position their theme parks around the concept of feel-good Americana.
Thus, at Disneyland Paris, the culture war rages. For on one side, you have Disney operating a bastille of American Culture within a stone’s throw of Paris. On the other, you have France attempting to storm said bastille and thrust Frenchness upon it. As a result, over its twenty-two years of existence, Disneyland Paris has become a begrudging hybrid of both American and French cultures. Like most examples of opposites grafted together (e.g. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the Labradoodle), no one wins.
French culture’s imprint upon Disneyland Paris first becomes evident when you’re standing in line for tickets. In America, we take lining up very seriously. Should someone behind us attempt to move in front, even by a single slot, we stare them down, block their way, and snatch back our rightful place at the earliest opportunity. In Disneyland Paris, however, lines are a communal effort. No one seems to care exactly what spot he or she occupies, or how this spot shifts, as long as there’s a sense of the whole community moving forward. This French indifference toward individuality begs the question of how do Disney movies—whose message is usually “I want to be an individual, whereupon I’ll marry a rich person”—succeed in France? But that is outside the scope of this essay.
For the most part, Disney hasn’t altered its theme park design to accommodate French culture. As in California’s Disneyland, you enter Disneyland Paris through Main Street USA, and as you stroll down it, you hear a calliope remix of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” from The Music Man. From a historical perspective, you’d think the French would be less concerned about the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon than, say, German troops, but Disney begs to differ.
At the end of Main Street USA is Sleeping Beauty’s “chateau.” However, this castle is significantly larger and more intricate than its California counterpart, presumably because French people know what real castles look like. A cave beneath the castle contains a fire-breathing, razor-clawed dragon, and here France’s influence becomes clear. For the country’s response to its monarchs has always involved flames and sharp objects.
From the castle, you may access the different areas of the park wherein the few differences between Disneylands emerge. Disneyland Paris has made the following concessions to French culture:
- King Arthur’s Carousel is Le Carrousel de Lancelot.
- They sell alcohol and cigarettes. Everywhere.
- Tomorrowland is now Discoveryland, as in “The sun will come out discovery, betcha bottom dollar that discovery there’ll be sun.” It has a Jules Verne theme.
But these generous concessions weren’t enough for the French government; it also insisted on bilingualism and biculturalism. Accordingly, in the Haunted Mansion, a disembodied head speaks both English and French: “Ghoulies and ghosts, wherever you dwell / Give us a sign by ringing a bell” alternates with “Attention fantômes et goules lambinants / Dites ‘Bonjour, je suis un croissant,’” or something. And on Main Street USA, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” has been replaced with the “Statue of Liberty Tableau” which focuses less on where the Statue of Liberty stands, or what it stands for, than the fact that the French built it.
Disney has responded to these French dictates with a spoonful of passive aggression. In Frontierland, the riverboat is named the “Molly Brown,” after a passenger on the Titanic. Far from its New Orleans-and-therefore-somewhat French roots, the Haunted Mansion now has a Wild West theme; as you enter what is traditionally the graveyard section of the ride, you’re greeted by ghosts with six-shooters popping out of saloons. Finally, where France forbids hijabs in many public institutions, Disney happily incorporates them into the uniforms of its female Muslim employees. This being Disney, however, the hijabs are themed to the area of the park where the employee works. In Fantasyland, for example, the hijab is a long stocking cap that wouldn’t be out of place on a Seven Dwarf.
Though France may not be able to stop the Disney zeitgeist altogether, it certainly slows down the rate at which it’s adopted. As a result, Disneyland Paris consistently remains a beat behind its California counterpart. Its Main Street USA still has a twinge of that old-fashioned Disney racism, such as the shop window advertising “Mr. Chang’s Chinese Laundry, Mahjong Parlor upstairs.” The park’s main roller coaster has the theme of “Aerosmith.” And despite the release and world domination of Frozen, Disneyland Paris still promotes Tangled in its maps and parades. (Stop trying to make Tangled happen. Tangled is not going to happen.)
Nevertheless, The Walt Disney Company continues to bet on the ability of “Disneyland magic” to cross over between cultures. In Paris as in California, this magic is a tripartite formula that consists of Disney characters, Americana, and relentless marketing.
At California’s Disneyland, this approach works like gangbusters. American visitors recognize the characters, connect subliminally to the Americana, and have seen Disney ads since birth. (It’s only a matter of time until Disney advertises in utero.) As a result, by the time you get to Disneyland, you’ve already internalized the message that every minute you spend there you will be happy—and if you’re not, something’s wrong with you. In practice, this leads to two types of visitors: (i) people having the time of their life and (ii) people who feel they should be having the time of their life, aren’t, and as a result are furious. Both types buy mouse ears.
At Disneyland Paris, however, the magic doesn’t quite gel. Sure, French people know the Disney characters and have seen the ads, but the third part of the formula, Americana, is anathema to a country that’s so protective of its own identity. To Americans, cultural signifiers such as barbershop quartets and cowpokes telling jokes represent a happier, simpler time. To the French, they represent people you want to strangle. Accordingly, visitors walk around Disneyland Paris in a state somewhere between bewilderment and indifference. Thanks to ads on the side of every bus and phone booth, French people understand that they should go to Disneyland Paris. Upon arrival, however, they’re not quite sure why they’re there or how they should feel about it.
For these are French citizens, the frontlines of their country’s culture war. And they definitely don’t wear mouse ears.
Greg Edwards: Writing wrongs.