It hurts me to say this because Walt Disney World holds a landmark place in my heart. But the Carousel of Progress, in Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World, is watchable only as an artifact of an American narrative we no longer want to tell. Queue up and watch the 21 minutes of patriarchal late capitalist GE-approved “progress.”
The ultimate takedown of Walt Disney World as an ideologically loaded place is in the book Vinyl Leaves. And the Carousel of Progress, perhaps the longest running stage show in America, is perhaps the most ideologically loaded place in this most ideologically loaded place, as it commits itself to a story of American progress. The Carousel is a stage show in which an audioanimatronic family discusses the theme of progress. The show is divided into stage sets upon which the audience (and not the stage) revolves. Each stage set features the family in a different technological era from the turn of the 20th century onward to the near future.
And what is progress to the Carousel of Progress? Well, the GE-sponsored show seems to link progress almost exclusively with… the purchase of more and more GE products in each stage set’s period of time. In each stage set, the father of the family narrates and directs traffic, identifying all of the new technological advances that have enabled he and his family to overcome previous inconveniences. It now takes the mother of the family Sarah “only five hours to do the wash,” we find out in the first stage set in 1900 – as Sarah irons the laundry. Now Sarah has time to engage in “canning and cleaning the oven.” In each stage set, what I have previously (and painfully) labeled as “traditional gendered behavior” is performed throughout.
Disney apologists might point to the final scene, in the near future (around 15:25 in the video), as evidence that progress has suddenly taken not just a technological, but also a social component. The maternal character now appears dressed in business attire and she sits in front of a laptop. She is now the most knowledgeable about the household technology, and the father character is now wearing an apron and doing the cooking. Of course, he is terrible at cooking, and the family longs for the day when technology will liberate the father from his kitchen responsibilities. “One day,” the son hopes, “everything will be so automated that [Dad] will never have to cook another Christmas turkey again.”
The final scene was the product of a 1994 update – the only stage set that has ever gotten an update (other than to the theme song, which has alternated historically between “It’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and “Now is the Time” and back again since the show’s conception in 1964). The final scene is a departure in script from the previous final scene of the near future. (The video of the original Carousel, whose embedding is disabled, is here – the final scene starts around 4:01.)
As such, Walt Disney World had every opportunity to include in the script lines that explicitly confirmed that progress has a social, as well as a technological, component. One of the family members could have made a comment about Sarah working, for instance. Instead, the main changes from the original near-future stage set is to update the technology, the interior design of the living room, and the clothing, which was vaguely Star Trekked, and remove the embedded GE sloganeering (We Bring Good Things to Life!™). Yet in other ways, the update is a step backward in its story of progress from the original. For seven seconds (6:19 – 6:26) in the original scene, we see a minority female journalist reporting live from Walt Disney World about holiday celebrations – the only dark-skinned face in Tomorrowland. That image is not in the update.
Perhaps I would be willing to accept certain limitations on any improving of the Carousel of Progress. Disney could say, for example, that the show is beloved and one of Walt Disney’s most personal creations and that they don’t want to gut the thing. They could say that they only want to periodically update the final stage set. But if so, that stage set can do more than just imply that Sarah is a liberated woman by putting wire-framed eyeglasses on her robot face.
A quick postscript: If you do watch the show, you’ll be treated to many other instances worth criticizing, such as the antique exercise machine helping the daughter lose a few pounds for her boyfriend.
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