Monday, May 13, 2024

Splash Mountain and the Strange Arcs of Corporate Intersectionality

Back in 2021, my family took a trip to Disney World, where we rode the soon-to-be-closed Splash Mountain.  It was as I remembered it, from years before.  A little more threadbare, perhaps.

It's been reconceptualized now, as the characters and stories were all removed and replaced with characters from the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog.  Tiana's Bayou Adventure, it's now called.  

In that replacement, there's a peculiar irony.  

The Song of the South, the film on which Splash Mountain was based, is just the teensiest bit cringey.  Just the weensiest.  (Cough.)  Zip A Dee Doo Dah isn' actual feeling one would have gotten in the wildly racist Reconstruction-era South.  That's where the Uncle Remus stories were recorded by Joel Chandler Harris, a journalist and folklorist writing in the postwar period.  Remus is an amalgam character, one who gives voice to the actual narratives of enslaved peoples that were shared with Harris.  

Harris was white, of course, which means the tales were spun through his lens, although there's considerable murkiness about what that lens actually was.  He was understood by his contemporaries... such as Mark Twain... as being solicitous to Black folk, and Remus was read in much the same way that the wisdom fables of fellow-slave Aesop might be read.  Those stories were among those my grandfather would read to me in Georgia when I was a little boy, and that was the context in which they were presented.  

In the late twentieth and early twenty first century, that's been spun differently, as it's seen through the lenses of intersectionality and cultural appropriation, which the fluffy mid-20th century Disneyfication sho nuff exacerbated.  Oof.

But there's a peculiarity about reconceptualizing that ride.  

Again, the stories in Harrises writing were almost entirely the authentic narratives of enslaved African peoples.  That's a known known.  Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox derived their inspiration from West African trickster narratives, in which the weaker or the oppressed use their wits and wiles to overcome those who hold power.  As is so often the case with the disenfranchised, one has to dig through the narratives of their oppressors to find their truths and the tales they told.  For all of the flaws and clumsiness of the Uncle Remus stories, that's the purpose they served for the people who first told them.

The echoes of those stories have now been erased.

In their place, a story that is...different.  The Princess and the Frog isn't an African tale, nor is it a tale told by the African peoples who were brought enslaved to America.  It is also not a narrative with roots in the Black American experience.  It's rooted in a Germanic story, a classic European fairytale.  One that's been reframed to celebrate Creole and Bayou culture, certainly, but still. 

It's the word when you paint over a white thing with blackness to entertain an audience?  It's..uh...yeah.  I mean, how isn't it that?  

So to make amends, you replace the authentic stories of enslaved peoples with...a European fairy tale?  Capitalism is so weird.

If Disney wasn't run by lazy profit-driven execs happy to make bank off of commodified intersectionality, they'd have left the ride alone, and there'd have been a remake of Song of the South instead.  Lord have mercy, if there's ever been a Disney film that needed a hard reboot, it's that one.

It could have been something more...real.  Something that reframed those tales to surface the real and existential challenges facing Black folk in the Klan-dominated Reconstruction era South, and drilled down on the deep African roots of those now cancelled stories.

Maybe Barry Jenkins could have directed.  Ah well.  In another timeline, perhaps.