Following the events of Hurricane Katrina, the Walt Disney Company took on New Orleans as a special philanthropic project.1 For many citizens of New Orleans, Disney's active role and its consequent partnership with the city is highly problematic, as evidenced by a spate of newspaper articles after Katrina that expressed fears about the rebuilding leading to the potential "Disneyfication" of the city.2 Citizens fear Disney will turn the city into something like Times Square—a space emptied of its former meanings and histories and rearticulated to Disney's sanitized family brand, marked by racial, class, and sexual exclusions. Thus, in New Orleans, critics fear Disney's potential to render the city, which already relies primarily on tourism as its main economic generator, into a whitewashed image of a Disney theme park. At a time when the images from Hurricane Katrina of floating dead bodies, mostly those of the city's black and poor, is still burned fresh on the brain, Disneyfying the city appears as a particularly problematic and disturbing possibility.
But down in New Orleans, Disney has not bought any real estate designed to imprint its Mickey Mouse value system on those who enter. It hasn't moved into Canal Street or the French Quarter, nor has it offered to take over the now-defunct Jazzland theme park. Instead, Disney presented itself as a "good neighbor," offering the city a kind of corporate social welfare to help bring the city back. In what follows, I consider Disney's two most visible charitable acts in New Orleans, what the company characterized as "gifts" to the city to help them recover: the film, The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Disney's "Dreams Come True" exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).
Figure 1. Promotional poster for The Princess and the Frog
Figure 2. Entrance to New Orleans' Museum of Art during "Dreams Come True" Exhibit
I argue that the partnership between Disney and the city of New Orleans3 resulting from the film and exhibit cannot be adequately explained as a Disneyfying of the city in Disney's sanitized and homogenized image. Instead, I suggest that Disney's practices in New Orleans are constitutive of a new relationship between media culture, urban branding, and urban renewal, what I will call "Disneyomatics." Disneyomatics has two central features that are distinct from the era of Disneyfication. First, Disneyomatics is aimed at the inclusion of racial and regional difference. Second, it works to "empower" (and capitalize on) marginalized spaces that are generative of creativity and difference toward the aims of neo-liberal self-governance. Examining the film and museum exhibit, I suggest post-Katrina New Orleans provides a useful case study for conceptualizing this new work that media companies like Disney are doing in their efforts to brand urban space in the contemporary conjuncture.
Disney's The Princess and the Frog is set in 1920s New Orleans. It features Disney's first black princess and is the first of Disney's fairy tales to be set in a real place. The film draws from a variety of cultural practices tied to New Orleans, many of them rooted in black history and culture. The "Dreams Come True" museum exhibit featured exclusive art from Disney's fairy-tale animation library up through The Princess and the Frog. Disney marketed the exhibit as not only a promotion of the film but also as a key way to generate both local and global interest in New Orleans' culture to help rebuild the city after Katrina. Thus, similar to Disney's ventures in Times Square, Disney and city officials characterized the film and exhibit as a partnership that constituted an urban renewal and revitalization strategy. Yet, unlike Times Square, it is a form of media-based urban renewal that does not rely on the physical occupation of the brand in the city to empty out city spaces from their previous meanings. Instead, both the film and the exhibit explicitly draw from the city's racial and regional histories, identities, and memories and the Disney brand is offered up not as a means of erasing these, but, rather, as enabling their reproduction.
In what follows, I first discuss the dynamics of Disneyfication before then turning to an analysis of The Princess and the Frog film and "Dreams Come True Museum" exhibit, where I point to the ways in which Disneyfication cannot explain these examples. I discuss how Disney's and New Orleans' partnership helps to rebrand Disney within the context of a "post-racial" media culture by associating it with the city's unique diversity and cultural history. At the same time, Disney offers its brand to the city to enable it to rebrand New Orleans as a creative city to potential tourists and businesses looking to relocate. Then, I turn to discuss how the film and the museum exhibit are directed inwardly toward New Orleanian citizens as well, as a cultural technology of neo-liberal governance aimed at producing entrepreneurial citizens to further the aims of both profit and "empowerment" in the wake of Katrina. I consider how Disney's ventures in New Orleans work as resources for helping to generate self-responsible citizens to carry out the city's urban renewal strategy. I then discuss how these dynamics within the case study point toward a theory of Disneyomatics. I suggest that although the shift to Disneyomatics enables some spaces in the city to gain power and visibility in ways that Disneyfication did not, Disneyomatics also risks a new form of marginalization for those spaces that fail to cultivate the creative capacities necessary for life within neo-liberalism. In New Orleans, Disneyomatics produces a potentially devastating rationality for the future of the city—that the responsibility for rebuilding falls squarely on the backs of citizens who are expected to rebuild the city on their own, rather than government, culture industries, or corporate philanthropy, Finally, I conclude with a reflection on how this theory might be applied elsewhere as well.
Disneyfication refers to how public space, public life, and social objects and experiences are transformed into a Disney experience—how they are sanitized, homogenized, and made to simulate a nostalgic experience. As Bryman explains,
Disneyfication is typically associated with a statement about the cultural products of the Disney company. To disneyfy means to translate or transform an object into something superficial and even simplistic...a process of sanitizing culture or history…rendering the material world being worked upon…into a standardized format that is almost instantly recognizable as being from the Disney stable.4
Disneyfication is foremost about consumption. It aims at creating an optimal space for the marketing and consumption of consumer goods and branded experiences. Disneyfication is the subject of a great deal of criticism, as is suggested by the usually pejorative use of the accusation that a space has been Disneyfied. Disneyfication is criticized for its homogenization,5 privatization,6 and commodification of public space as well as for its exclusionary nature and its simulative, rather than authentic, qualities.7
As Davis notes, "Disney was the first to really undertake (and understand the possibilities of) the meshing of mass media content, merchandising, and promotion in his 1950s theme park." Disneyland was initially launched in conjunction with Disney's purchase of ABC as a way of materializing the Disney brand by creating an all-encompassing branded experience.9 Since the inception of Disneyland, Disney has since materialized in a variety of forms—Times Square's New Amsterdam Theater, Disney Store, ESPN Zone, Club Disney, and others.10 Likewise, Disney's configuration of space—its sanitization, control, choreography, and meaningfulness—has inspired numerous urban planners and architects.11
In the 1980s and 1990s especially, cities turned to the Disney model as a strategy for economic development and urban revitalization.12 Policy makers, urban planners, and architects across the country created carefully designed and controlled downtown spaces that would communicate a particular narrative by "drawing in and confirming the identities of the desired customers."13 In order to do so, the space had to be emptied out of any previous localized meanings, bodies, and buildings that might contradict the desired branded image. A form of privatized public space, all elements of the design and spatial layout in these Disneyfied spaces worked together to produce a holistic brand experience conducive to consumption.14 Likewise, the spaces were designed to discourage "undesirable" individuals or crowds from entering.15 These racial, class, and other exclusions were often written into the signifying systems of the buildings, making very clear who belonged and who did not.16
Disney's role as a producer of public space is most evident in its role in the redevelopment of New York City's Times Square.
Figures 3, 4, 5. Times Square Before and After Disney
The city actively pursued Disney as a strategy for urban revitalization in the hopes that they would redevelop the area to make it more "family friendly." 17 It was a shift for Disney branding in that the company agreed to occupy a public space that pre-existed the arrival of their brand in ways that they would not be able to entirely control. Yet, it was precisely the Disney brand that the City depended on to facilitate the control of Times Square—not only as a form of economic revitalization, but also as a means of cultural change to bring family values and corporate ethos to the seedy red light district.18 By disarticulating Times Square from the identities, histories, and memories that had hitherto given the space meaning, the Disney brand enabled the space to be rearticulated to a set of new meanings, identities, and histories.19 Consequently, Disneyfication's spatial control in New York is criticized for how it promotes sexual, racial, and class divisions based on who is allowed access with relative freedom of mobility and who is not.20
Disney's other main venture in producing public space is Celebration, Florida.
Figure 6. Downtown Celebration, FL
Celebration is a town just outside Disney World that, as in the case of Times Square, was the result of a partnership between Disney and state and local authorities. It provides another, yet different kind of example of Disneyfication by Disney itself. Like Times Square, it represents Disney's complete occupation and reconfiguration of a particular space. Yet, unlike Times Square, Disney soon withdrew from direct connection of its brand to the space and instead encouraged residents to develop their own means of self-governance. Andrew Ross suggests the town is a mark of Disney's future role as promoter of public space. Celebration is a carefully monitored and controlled town. It adheres to a stringent design and building code guided by the principles of New Urbanism that, like Times Square, is not so unlike the management of the Disney theme parks.21 Within these principles, however, it promotes Disney as a kind of good neighbor—one invested in the preservation of the wetlands, mixed income and mixed race housing, and active involvement in community. Though these aims played out on the ground in ways that were much more complicated, Ross suggests that Celebration is indicative of a shift in contemporary ways of living and thinking—one where the private realm of the marketplace enters the business of sponsoring the public realm and infusing it with public spirit.22
Although New Orleans is often discussed as one of the most "authentic" and distinct cities in the nation, it has also been criticized for how it caters to tourists, which, for some, represents a kind of Disneyfication. Moreover, Disneyland's New Orleans Square also creates a sense of linkage between the city and the Disney brand. A fan of the city and Dixieland jazz, Walt Disney built New Orleans Square in 1966 amidst a battle over desegregation in the city. Against this background, New Orleans Square represented a nostalgized and whitewashed version of the city, one where "the racial and social discrimination implicit in New Orleans historical collective were blanks left to be filled in—or tacitly accepted—by the visitor."23 Furthermore, at the same time the sanitized New Orleans was being built in Disneyland, historic preservationists, developers, and city leaders "were producing an urban space that, if not as controlled as its Disneyland counterpart, nevertheless invited comparisons."24
Figure 7. Disneyland's "New Orleans Square"
Figure 8. New Orleans' French Quarter: "Creole Disneyland?"
Disneyfied strategies are evident in various urban renewal projects in the city, including the building of the urban entertainment and shopping destination, Riverwalk Marketplace, and the efforts to convert the French Quarter into a family-friendly tourist destination. Having already been criticized as a "Creole Disneyland," with all the connotations of whitewashing and sanitizing of the city's mired history that term evokes, the more Disneyfication of the city has emerged as one of the central discourses guiding debates over the city's post-Katrina future.25
Yet, Disney's "Dreams Come True" museum exhibit and The Princess and the Frog(2009) movie suggest Disney's partnership with the City of New Orleans does not aim to empty out and occupy New Orleans in the same ways as it did in the case of Times Square and Celebration. Nevertheless, Disney's efforts are still constitutive of a particular kind of urban renewal and revitalization strategy that hinges on an articulation of the media brand to public, urban space. In the examples that follow, the Disney brand is co-articulated to the New Orleans city brand not through the buying up of real estate and the disarticulation of space from history, memory, and identity. Rather, the co-articulation of the Disney and New Orleans brands becomes a vehicle through which people with localized and regional identities, histories, and memories are invited to express themselves. Disney's brand in this case becomes a resource that citizens are encouraged to see as a vital means for both revitalizing and rebuilding the city as well as in empowering themselves. This is a decidedly distinct strategy from Disneyfication's standardization and homogenization of space, and it is in this context that I argue the case of Disney in New Orleans calls for a rethinking of the Disneyfication thesis and propose the Disneyomatic26 as an alternative.
The following table illustrates some of the differences that I am suggesting between Disneyfication and Disneyomatics, as I will highlight through the examples from New Orleans:
Coded/semiotic—spaces that produce meaning for its users
Axiomatic—spaces whose meaning is generated by the agency/action of users
Globalized, erasing local meanings
Localized, encouraging the production of local meaning
Excludes social others
Includes some social others
In what follows, I discuss Disney's filmand museum exhibit as a way to make clear how they complicate theories of Disneyfication. Following the discussion of these examples, I discuss how both help to explain a move toward a theory of the Disneyomatic production of space.
Cultural Policy and the Rebranding of Disney and New Orleans
Over the last decade, cities have employed new urban renewal strategies that aim toward the "empowerment" of neighborhoods and spaces that are associated with racial and ethnic Otherness. At the same time, media culture has moved toward the "post-racial," where (often commodified) forms of racial difference appear as prolific and varied across a fragmented media landscape. Long critiqued for its whiteness and for how its participation in urban renewal had wiped out local culture, Disney's partnership with New Orleans might best be understood in the contexts of these recent shifts in both media and cities. The partnership can be read as a means for racing and authenticating Disney's brand and situating it as a socially responsible, corporate citizen helping New Orleans to rebuild and rebrand itself. Here, I argue The Princess and the Frog (2009) film and NOMA "Dreams Come True" museum exhibit help to promote the city's brand as creative and cultural as well as family oriented, and, at the same time, they resituate Disney's global brand as sensitive to regional and racial difference. This constitutes a shift in cultural-spatial logic that cannot be adequately explained through Disneyfication.
Disney first released news of The Princess and the Frog in 2006, right on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The film was characterized as a gift and "love letter" to the city in its efforts to recover.27 The film is the first of Disney's fairy-tales to be set in a real place. It features a variety of spaces in New Orleans as well as the Louisiana bayou. Some of the spaces in the city featured in the film are familiar, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District. Its heroine, however, hails from the Lower Ninth Ward, an area decidedly off the tourist map, made known to the outside world following Hurricane Katrina for its large number of black and poor residents killed, left stranded, or displaced by the levees' breech.28 Setting the film in New Orleans, featuring Disney's first African American princess, and, in the wake of Katrina, having her come from the Lower Ninth Ward, helps to reconfigure the Disney brand to fit within the changing contexts of a post-racial media culture. The film combats criticisms of Disney's whiteness and problematic racial representations by critics who thought a black princess had been a long time coming.29 As Herman Gray (2005) notes, contemporary media and popular culture work more along the lines of a proliferation of difference, rather than through the practices of assimilation or Othering that were indicative of racial representations in the 1980s and 1990s.30 Representations of racial and ethnic identity today are ubiquitous, and, as Sarah Banet-Weiser suggests, they are used to market particular corporations as "cool, authentic, and urban."31 There was a great deal of debate in the popular press over whether or not the film promotes positive or negative representations of African Americans.33 However, whether the representations were positive or negative, what is significant is Disney's attempt to cultivate a brand strategy that works to produce Disney as diverse and responsive to its critics.
The Princess and the Frog articulates Disney's brand to the history and identity of New Orleans as a racially diverse urban enclave with a unique culture.33 The following clip illustrates how the film's setting in New Orleans positions the Disney brand differently than its' other fairy-tales.
As many of the interviewees note in the clip, the film emphasizes New Orleans as a unique place, focusing specifically on its cultural distinctness and rich cultural history. The film inflects the Disney brand as sensitive to and respectful of these differences. Yet, the comments also only signal oblique references to race. Race is instead marked by more of a cultural lifestyle, through its links to jazz music or culinary traditions, rather than a history of racial struggle and injustice that constitutes political identities. These post-racial representations are indicative of a neo-liberal politics of race that celebrates and cultivates difference as individual lifestyle and marketized choice.34 Girls and other viewers are therefore enjoined to identify with black and New Orleans culture through purchasing Tiana dolls, navigating the streets of New Orleans in thevideo game, or cooking one of the recipes in Tiana's cookbook.
Figue 9. Merchandise: Princess and the Frog cookbook
The film enables the Disney brand to be marked by its connection to, and (as the statements of the Disney executives in the clip suggest) reverence for, local, regional, and historical constitutions of cultural space. Even more significantly, however, the film's relationship to the city in its post-Katrina state enables Disney to appear as helping to maintain and bring these spaces forth.
This makes the statements made by former Mayor Nagin at the end of the clip particularly notable. Speaking to Disney, he suggests, "We [the city and citizens of New Orleans] are indebted to you. This [film] will go around the world and continue to tell the story about New Orleans and will tell the world that New Orleans is back because the Disney magic brought us there." His statement is both telling and curious. It is curious in the fact that it suggests that it was "Disney magic" that will bring New Orleans back despite the remainder of the clip emphasizing that it is in fact the cultural vitality and uniqueness of New Orleans' character that make it a great American city. But this juxtaposition is telling, as it points to how Disney's philanthropic social welfare is posed as a mechanism for bringing forth this vitality—for making possible the renewal of the city not in the image of a simulated Disney experience, but in an image of a diverse city with a rich cultural heritage.
Nagin's comments construct Disney as a socially responsible corporate citizen and, in so doing, an agent of post-Katrina urban renewal. This is evident in the way the film and the exhibit were characterized by the Walt Disney Company as gifts to the city. The value of Disney's gifts is explicitly connected to how they will provide stimulus to the economic recovery of New Orleans. The museum exhibit in particular, touted as an exclusive exhibit that can only be seen in New Orleans, establishes a time and space pressure that gives it a heightened form of value. They enable Disney to break through the noise and clutter of global culture.35 Disney's gifts to the city become more than another commodity whose value lies in its ability to imprint a standardized sameness, as more than an empty signifier of simulated meaning. Instead, these gifts invest Disney with emotional and affective, intensive qualities that are specifically tied to the meanings and places in post-Katrina New Orleans.
It is not only Disney who is banking on this partnership to benefit its post-racial rebranding as a socially responsible corporate citizen. Nagin's statements in the above clip also make clear how the city of New Orleans sees Disney as a means to facilitate its rebuilding and rebranding.36 In Nagin's terms, the partnership benefits New Orleans by helping to tell the outside world how "professional" the city is, but in a way that "people respect and understand how unique and different we are." This does seem to provide a kind of veneer to the city, one that is "professional," but it also does so in a way that is more than emptying out the city in a Disneyfied way in its emphasis on cultural difference.
The aims for this public/private partnership are further elucidated in the NOMA's "Dreams Come True" exhibit. Like the film, the museum exhibit was characterized as a "gift" to help in the Katrina recovery effort.37 The exclusive exhibit featured over 600 pieces of art from the Disney Animation Research Library organized around a storybook theme from Disney's classic animation fairy tales from the 1930s through today. Though Disney paid for much of the exhibit, it depended on the State of Louisiana to contribute $1 million for regional marketing.38 The ubiquitous posters promoting the exhibit throughout the city, then, were not the product of a massive Disney marketing campaign, but, instead, that of the State's.
Figures 10, 11, 12. Promotional posters for the "Dreams Come True" exhibit located at
the Louis Armstrong Airport, Café du Monde, and on a building on Canal Street.
The expected benefits of the exhibit for the city are best described by the following literature from the press kit, titled "Dreams Come True for Louisiana":
- Disney magic in our backyards: positioning Louisiana as a more attractive family destination by aligning the State with one of the world's most trusted and popular family brands, Disney
- Revenue to the State of Louisiana: increased state sales tax revenue of at least $1 million over the four-month run of the exhibition
- Educational Opportunities: museum education staff would lead tours for an estimated 20,000 school children, introducing children to fine arts appreciation and creative thinking early in life
- Accessibility for all citizens: a world-class art exhibition accessible to every Louisiana resident
- Maintaining a positive business climate: enhancing the State's cultural life makes Louisiana a more attractive location for new businesses and professionals looking to relocate
- Securing Louisiana's place in the nation: Dreams Come True is a major Disney attraction that won't be seen in Florida, California, or anywhere else in the world other than Louisiana
The "dreams" of Louisiana discussed in this statement suggest that the exhibit was a strategy used by the city as a tool for economic recovery and revitalization. The public-private partnership it forms is indicative of cultural policy that characterizes urban revitalization strategies in the neo-liberal era. It relies on cultivating a creative city by drawing on media, entertainment, and creative industries to serve as catalysts for the city's brand. The promotional literature above suggests the exhibit will help in the larger branding of the city's image to the rest of the nation (e.g. "Securing Louisiana's place in the nation"). This assumes the exhibit's exclusivity to New Orleans will benefit the city's brand image as a unique site of cultural interest and thus bring revenue to the State. This is distinct from the era of Disneyfication, however, in that the resources of the Disney's brand are put to work to mobilize and facilitate the production of local, creative culture rather than pushing it out to make way for global media culture.
Disney and the museum expected that much new income would be brought in from visiting tourists generating tax revenue for the city's hotel, restaurant, bar and nightclub, entertainment, shopping, transportation, and gaming businesses.39 This revenue is therefore assumed to provide a substantial economic benefit to local and small businesses in the entertainment economy. These strategies are bound up with the neo-liberal expectation that cities must be entrepreneurs of themselves, relying on local governments' and actors' abilities to market the city's culture as a unique branded experience to attract tourists and investors.40 Moreover, the exhibit is expected to promote a positive business climate by "enhancing the State's cultural life" which will make "Louisiana a more attractive location for new businesses and professionals looking to relocate."41 It is significant that it does so through an exhibit that foregrounds the city's African-American cultural heritage. The exhibit situates the city as culturally vibrant in terms of its (racial) diversity. This logic draws on Richard Florida's creative class thesis that argues cities must draw on local, diverse culture to attract the creative class, whose bohemian sensibilities are attracted not to spectacular sites of consumption, but, rather, "authentic" local culture.42 In expressing the uniqueness, creativity, and diversity of ordinary New Orleanians, then, the exhibit is rationalized as helping to rebuild the city.
On the one hand, this creative city re-branding strategy might be seen as a potentially progressive shift from the days of Disneyfication. The film and museum exhibit rationalize the city as culturally rich and diverse and propose solutions for renewal that aim to reinvigorate local businesses and cultural practices. This is a potentially laudable effort, as it might enable some marginalized individuals and practices to play a more substantial role and to have a greater voice in the rebuilding process. Neighborhoods little known to the outside world prior to Katrina, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, gain visibility and a stake in the city's future. On the other hand, however, this reworking of urban space in New Orleans also relies on rendering culture, in George Yudice's words, "expedient." 43 That is, the creative city approach rationalizes racial and ethnic difference and cultural practices as resources that the marginalized are expected to utilize in order to gain economic, as well as social and political validation. As can be seen in the case of the "Dreams Come True" exhibit, spaces and practices of local culture and racial and ethnic difference are expected to bring in a return on investment—to attract tourists, global business, and labor, as well as provide economic returns and visibility for struggling local businesses and marginalized cultural practices. As many critics note, these practices can lead to the commodification of cultural practices, as well as gentrification.44 These spaces are presented as sites of consumable culture desirable to Florida's hip, middle class "creatives" who are in search of "authentic" urban culture. This makes these spaces which are revered and entrepreneurialized give way to forms of culture susceptible to practices of gentrification. As Sharon Zukin points out, this often drives out the people and practices that made these sites desirable in the first place since they can no longer afford to live there.45
Nevertheless, these practices position Disney in a different kind of relationship to the city space in New Orleans than one of Disneyfication. Constituting a form of the Disneyomatic, the Disney brand is not invested in wiping out the meanings and practices embedded in spaces like Tiana's Lower Ninth Ward. The brand instead invests itself in entrepreneurializing these histories to further a kind of neo-liberal version of empowerment, as well as Disney's bottom line. Although one possibility for analyzing the consequences of these branding practices is in terms of how they commodify cultural practices for Disney's profit, they also serve broader social and cultural aims as well. As Moor notes, "branding is often less about commodification and more about the effort to reorganize markets and direct them according to ‘emotional,' affective or broadly cultural means…as a technical means to address entrenched social problems."46 In the following section, I consider how The Princess and the Frog film and "Dreams Come True" exhibit can be considered as providing these technical means to address the social problems made manifest during Katrina.
Cultural Governance and the Disneyomatic Production of Space
Although New Orleans has been configured as a Creole Disneyland, it is also understood as giving way to hedonistic pleasures and conduct that runs counter to Disney's image of childhood innocence. The "Dreams Come True" exhibit and The Princess and the Frog film, however, re-present these images of New Orleans' culture as part of a family-oriented fairy-tale storybook. Such a re-presentation is directed not only outwardly at potential tourists and Richard Florida's "creatives" looking to relocate, but also inwardly at the citizens of New Orleans. In so doing, viewers and visitors are invited to bear witness to a particular re-telling of history in ways that are productive towards educating New Orleanians as to what it means to be a citizen in the present. These aims are achieved through technical practices initiated by Disney and the museum that work with and through urban and corporate branding. They enjoin subjects to actively participate in producing their own local spaces within the city as a means of validating diverse forms of cultural citizenship. This enjoinment of active participation helps constitute the Disneyomatic.
Figure 12. Entrance to the "Dreams Come True" exhibit
Disney paid for 12,000 public school students to visit the museum for the exhibit and be educated about "fine arts appreciation and creative thinking."47 Students from kindergarten through the third grade were provided with specially trained museum docents to facilitate their educational experience, while fourth through twelfth graders were given "Acoustaguides" as educational tools. In order to make the exhibit accessible to "all" Louisiana residents, admission for the museum, normally $16, was reduced to $8 for those with a valid Louisiana ID.48 Clearly, such a move does not in fact make the exhibit available to all residents, as shelling out $8 per person assumes a fairly large degree of economic privilege. Despite this fact, however, these practices nonetheless go beyond the goal of the city in branding itself to attract tourists or capital investment. Instead, these are internally-directed practices that have a social aim at educating and training a particular segment of Louisiana's, and especially New Orleans', citizens.
As Tony Bennett notes, museums are a cultural technology of citizenship bound up with techniques and practices used to move, organize, shape, and regulate free citizens.49 They are invested with relations of power that serve as a form of civilizing and educating populations. In the case of the Disney exhibit, citizens are educated about cultural history and the art of popular culture, and their subjective gaze is directed toward a particular viewing of that history. This, in fact, is the aim of fairy tales—to provide a moral education to citizens through which they can understand and rationalize their own subjective agency. Miller and Yúdice suggest museums, as sites that can be both static and dynamic, are loci of cultural policies which seek to harness history and memory toward the aims of governing.50 The history being told at the "Dreams Come True" exhibit is a particular history that is made relevant to speak to contemporary New Orleans in the post-Katrina era. Specifically, I argue that the historical citizenship evoked in the exhibit validates the conduct of post-racial entrepreneurial citizens.
Both the exhibit and the film emphasize the hard-working nature of the city's black community, its cultural vibrancy, and its "authenticity" which renders New Orleans a "special" American city. Whereas most of the rooms in the exhibit focus on the history of Disney and its artistry, The Princess and the Frog room focuses largely on the specific aspects of the film itself –e.g. its narrative, historical context—as well as on the city and history of New Orleans. The room intersperses words of wisdom from Uncle Walt, such as, "Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for mass appreciation." Alongside this are words of wisdom about the city, such as the animators' explanation of how they thought of the city as a character with "a rich past and fighting, salty character," a kind of hero, which they hoped they "could help bring back." A significant portion of The Princess and the Frog part of the exhibit is devoted to the music in the film. It is arranged as a form of citizen education about New Orleans' links to distinct forms of music, such as jazz, Cajun, zydeco. It teaches visitors about these forms, how to distinguish between them, their contribution to American musical genres, and their cultural significance.
Overall, the room tells a similar story to that of the film: what the city needs is to augment their hard work with some love and a dream—some Disney magic—in order to bring the city back to its glorious roots in the jazz era. Just as the film's heroine, Tiana, can use her entrepreneurial spirit to become a restauranteur, so too the African-American community of New Orleans, with some love and a dream to help them recover from Katrina, is rationalized as able to thrive today in ways that they would not have been able to in the segregated 1920s. As Mama Odie, the 190 year old voodoo mistress and moral voice of the film, sings, "It don't matter what you look like, it don't matter where you come from, it don't matter what you are…You gotta dig deeper, find out who you are."51
Mama Odie's "Dig a Little Deeper" song
This decidedly neo-liberal and post-racial logic assumes the struggle over racial difference and marginality is no longer relevant, as it is merely a question of individual agency and self-responsibility. The allegory between Tiana and post-Katrina New Orleans is made clearly in the following clip, where those involved in the film discuss how Tiana embodies a kind of ideal neo-liberal citizen guided by a personal responsibility that is helped along by Disney's magic.
“Disney's Newest Princess” Featurette
As the clip makes clear, Tiana does not depend upon a prince to rescue her, just as New Orleans cannot depend upon anyone else to rebuild the city. But New Orleans, like Tiana, can rely on Disney to help remind citizens of their dreams (rooted firmly in history and culture) so they can rebuild the city themselves.
The film and exhibit, therefore, put nostalgia for the jazz era into the service of making sense of the present. Yet this results in more than an ideological mystification of history. The exhibit works as a kind of practical and technical guide that brings Louisiana residents into a pedagogical tutelage in a cultural institution, while also furthering the aims of capital and Disney's bottom line. It provides a form of citizen education as to how to conduct one's life in the present, encouraging citizens to view their history as a resource, to "dig deeper, find out who you are," for creating a renewed entrepreneurial spirit. Citizens are enjoined to visit the exhibit to activate their creative and cultural spirit through the fine arts, a relationship to popular culture, and the city's musical culture. Yet this citizen education is not coming from the social services or municipal traditions, but, rather, it is bound up with the aims of the market and its value creating possibilities for Disney. Disney at the museum, therefore, represents a kind of logical outcome for neo-liberal cultural policy where the market and the state come together in the interests of preserving and promoting cultural value and heritage.
This is not to say that all forms of culture and heritage are deemed equal—clearly, there is a validation of particular forms of culture and heritage that are seen as capable of bringing about a return on investment. The emphasis on jazz, Cajun, and zydeco music, for example, makes noticeably absent any discussion of present-day forms of local cultural expression in the form of hip-hop or bounce music that are associated with spaces in the city that have never been deemed sites of tourism. However, the fact that Tiana, the film's main character, comes from the Lower Ninth Ward points to how the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina made visible city spaces that serve as potential sites for extraction of value.
In contrast to Disneyfication, which would have sought to exclude these marginal elements from the dominant space of culture and consumption, this is a Disneyomatic production of space that mobilizes and "empowers" excluded spaces like Tiana's Lower Ninth Ward. However, this form of cultural governance also produces a potentially devastating rationality for the future of post-Katrina New Orleans. It promotes the idea that the responsibility for rebuilding falls on the shoulders of individuals and their communities, rather than government or even culture industries and corporate philanthropists. It constitutes a kind of media branded urban renewal that justifies the idea that citizens should be expected to, indeed are best suited to, rebuild the city on their own. Failure to rebuild is therefore a result of the failures of enterprising citizens themselves. In this rationality, neither Disney nor the city becomes subject to the kinds of criticisms engendered by the failures of Times Square or Celebration, as it is not they who are deemed responsible for carrying out this form of urban renewal. Thus, although the shift to Disneyomatics enables some spaces in the city to become networked into technologies of political and social power in ways that Disneyfication did not, Disneyomatics also risks a more insidious form of marginalization that marks out new rationalities for the exclusion of spaces in the city that fail to cultivate the kind of creative capacities necessary for life within neo-liberalism. Assumedly, these are spaces that no amount of Disney magic can help bring back.
Toward a Theory of the Disneyomatic
The events during and after Hurricane Katrina clearly revealed the deathly consequences of strategies of Disneyfication. In the floating dead bodies through the streets of New Orleans, the erasure of those very same bodies on which Disneyfied space is dependent was made manifest. These realities engendered the possibility of a critique of strategies of Disneyfication for its deadly orchestrations of race, class, and space. As a response to these critiques, it is my contention that the cultural-spatial strategies being pursued through the Disney/New Orleans partnership proposes a new solution to the organization of space and the role that global media brands like Disney are to play in that organization—Disneyomatics. Unlike Disneyfication, Disneyomatics does not depend on imposing Disney's own signifying system from above onto a particular city space to cleanse it of its relationship to marginalized and undesirable identities and practices. Disneyomatics instead constitutes a distinct form of mediated urban branding and renewal that is aimed at producing urban spaces that can be productive of meaning and difference in and of themselves. The city and Disney can shift and adapt their brands to capitalize on the value and meaning producing capacities of agential subjects who give meaning to their own spaces. This kind of branding of space extracts value from social life itself.52 At the same time, these brands are offered up as resources for helping to produce the "empowered" and creative citizenship from which they draw value.
In the examples discussed above, city spaces that had hitherto been excluded from the city's branding practices and deemed threatening to its images of revitalization and renewal, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, are now held up as key sites of creativity, significant cultural practices, and productivity. These sites are not fixed with a particular meaning imposed by the Disney brand. The Disney brand instead aims to draw from the meanings that those living within that space give to it themselves. Disney aims to capitalize on, rather than erase, racial and regional differences bound up with the history of that space. This reconfiguration of the logic of city space in New Orleans depends upon the productive capacity of subjects to render space meaningful in ways that render the Disney brand productive. Disneyomatics thus points to a kind of inversion of the logic of the relationship between the local and global in Disneyfication—the local is now intended to give meaning and value to the global brand rather than the reverse.
Disneyomatics also points to how Disney positions its brand to enable and direct these active productions of subjectivity and creativity. Disney thus plays a role in helping produce those very spaces from which it seeks to draw meaning, but not in the same ways it did in Disneyfication. Acting as a "good neighbor" and socially responsible corporate citizen, Disney offers up its brand as a kind of corporatized social welfare to help rebuild the city. The Disney brand becomes what Arvidsson calls "a platform for action," or a vehicle through which consumers are invited to express their own individual identity and agency.53 Most evident in the museum exhibit, the Disney brand is utilized to help produce citizen-agents who are active, creative, and can draw upon their history to cultivate more productive—both economically and culturally—local spaces in the city. Disney and the museum thus act as experts who take New Orleanians into their tutelage and connect them to technical and practical means for becoming entrepreneurs of their cultures.54 In this sense, post-Katrina New Orleans emerges not as a sanitized and whitewashed space, but, rather, as a differentiated space composed of diverse racial and cultural practices of active citizen-agents invested in the creation of meaning and value for their own lived spaces. Whereas Disneyfication worked through a more disciplinary mode that aimed to filter out undesirables and cultivate consumer citizens, Disneyomatics works along the logic of neo-liberal "empowerment." Disney helps New Orleanians foster a spirit of entrepreneurialism within themselves and their heritage in ways that are productive for the city's aims to rebuild itself along a creative cities model.
Disneyomatics thus brings together the aims of capital and those of neo-liberal governance. The entrepreneurialization of the city becomes rationalized as productive for both addressing the social and political needs of its inhabitants, as made manifest during Katrina, as well as for generating profit for Disney and the city. More than just a public-private partnership, Disneyomatic space in New Orleans speaks to how both governance and valuation are becoming increasingly dependent upon forces that are immanent to social life itself.55 That is, the entrepreneurial spirit of New Orleanians is expected to both generate profit for Disney and the city as well as to gain political and social validation for citizens in the wake of Katrina. In short, these practices point toward a different kind of production of mediated spatiality in the city: a Disneyomatic city space. They reveal a picture of New Orleans that is not about revitalization remaking the city into a homogenous and simulated space through a global media brand, but it is instead being made to work in ways that are increasingly localized and dependent upon the agency of local inhabitants.
This shift in Disney's production of space therefore produces a different set of stakes than those of Disneyfication. On the one hand, Disneyomatics might be viewed as a progressive shift in the production of mediatized space. As Jenkins argues, the media's shift toward a culture produced through the active participation of consumer practices has the potential of creating a more democratic media culture.56 In the context of Disney and New Orleans, it does indeed seem that this particular partnership enables the expression of local voices and cultures to thrive in ways that the Disneyfication of Times Square did not. Excluded and marginalized populations and practices are elevated as objects of reverence, as creative elements that are particularly valorized. There is a continuity here with Disneyfication in that to be included one still has to conform to maximizing the kind of local culture that is moral and family oriented, but these morals have been expanded to include new populations, races, ethnicities, and practices that had hitherto been posed as threatening or marginal in Disneyfication.
On the other hand, Disneyomatic space cannot be viewed merely as a progressive and democratic form of inclusion. Disneyomatics lends itself to the subsumption of the creative potentiality of local cultures so that value can be extracted from them. This makes it particularly susceptible to the commodification of culture and practices of gentrification, as discussed earlier. Moreover, Disneyomatics produces new forms of exclusion and marginalization of spaces that are not productive of creative cultural lifestyles. Those who lack the winning combination of hard work and a dream have no place in the Disneyomatic. What will happen to the spaces that cannot guarantee a return on investment because they lack identifiable cultural practices that have value on the market? There is a potential that these spaces might represent a kind of excised waste, abandoned by the city and ultimately left to die through lack of investment, public services, and so forth. According to Wilson, these spaces represent a "third wave of black ghetto marginalization," where the ghettos become "one-dimensional apparatuses for the naked isolating and warehousing of those deemed cancerous to real-estate submarkets and downtown transformation."57 At the same time, however, these spaces also represent market potential. Elements of this logic can be seen in The Princess and the Frog's newfound reverence for the Lower Ninth Ward. Once an excised space of black ghetto marginalization and isolation, the film romanticizes the neighborhood's cultural and community vitality. Disneyomatics produces a kind of immanent exclusion, where a potential promise of inclusion exists on the horizon of possibility. Like the reserve army of labor, these spaces represent the reserve army of productive spatiality, precariously waiting for the time when their capacities can be made productive for the extraction of value.58
The Disney/New Orleans partnership presented here requires a rethinking of the Disneyfication thesis. I have proposed the term "Disneyomatics" as a possible alternative to capture the particular dynamics of racial inclusion, entrepreneurial urban renewal, and neo-liberal governance engendered by the partnership. However, it has not been my intention to suggest that Disneyfication and Disneyomatics are entirely mutually exclusive strategies. Disneyfication also engendered practices of enterprising citizenship and the subscription of active identification with branded consumer culture through, for example, middle class shopping practices. Likewise, Disneyomatic space also produces exclusions of undesirable and risky populations who fail to correctly self-govern themselves or who will not or cannot maximize their cultural spaces. However, Disneyomatics constitutes a significant shift in media-based urban branding and renewal in that it no longer relies on the investment of space with an imposed meaning and logic that comes from above, i.e. from the culture industries themselves. Rather, it works to cultivate a logic of space that emerges from the local itself and maximizes self-governing capacities.
If, as Davis contends, Disney has always been at the forefront of engendering shifts in the urban cultural economy and production of mediated space, it is important to analyze the ways in which they, in particular, participate in the production of these new strategies.59 What is significant about this particular case study is that it helps to illuminate the particular role that Disney plays within neo-liberal strategies of city branding and racialized media culture. It calls attention to the different stakes engendered in these practices for which the indictment of Disneyfication in terms of its homogenizing and standardizing properties no longer seems to capture the dynamics of what is currently happening. Such an analysis would miss the particular work that is being carried forth in Disney's utilization of race and regional space in New Orleans. Dismissing these efforts as only a whitewashing of New Orleans culture fails to account for how Disney works to entrepreneurialize this cultural heritage in ways that are congruent with the particular aims of neo-liberal governance at this particular moment.
Thinking about these practices in terms of the production of a Disneyomatic space provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding shifts in media-branded urban space at the contemporary conjuncture and could be applied elsewhere as well. For example, Disneyomatics could help to illuminate the dynamics of Disney's ventures to build theme parks globally, such as its recent erection of Hong Kong Disneyland. Built in 2005, many critics claim the park effectively Disneyfies cultural space and imports a corporate, American hegemony.60 Yet, this criticism reduces the park's incorporation of Chinese culture and heritage to a simplistic analysis that fails to account for how these cultural elements interact with the company's involvement in community outreach and philanthropy in these particular cultural enclaves.61 It is precisely these dynamics that the theory of Disneyomatics aims to elucidate. Disneyomatics can also be applied to other forms of urban renewal and branding efforts in which Disney is not present, particularly in cities whose aim is to cultivate creative cities. These efforts, visible in my own hometown of Minneapolis, are often embraced for the ways in which they divert from Disneyfied downtown urban destinations and focus on the cultural and artistic practices cultivated by particular neighborhoods. Alternatively, such efforts are also dismissed as merely another form of commodifying culture. Disneyomatics complicates these polarized conclusions and can offer a way to flesh out the stakes involved in these forms of urban renewal and their imbrications in racial and cultural politics, as well as entrepreneurial citizenship. I thus hope Disneyomatics can provide a tool to analyze the dynamics of media, urban branding, and renewal in the contemporary conjuncture where Disney remains a force to be reckoned with, albeit a force of a different kind.
Disneyomatics: Media, Branding, and Urban Space in Post-Katrina New Orleans by Helen Morgan Parmett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.