Like virtually any corporate giant, Disney is a controversial organization. I’d like to focus today on a Disney Creation that I haven’t seen too much focus on: Toontown.
Toontown is an online game/environment thingy. It’s one of these websites where players from all over the world interact, sort of like Web Kinz starring Mickey Mouse. Toontown, however, features a narrative, an over arching mission for players to engage in.
As I was watching my kids play and asking questions about the world of Toontown, quite an interesting (and hypocritical!) message emerged, hiding underneath the story.
At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with the message implied in the game. In broad strokes, it‘s archetypal. Arguably, the framework for this story is lifted right out of Genesis itself.
In the time before the game begins, toon town was this happy, colorful place. Like Eden, maybe., except that they use jellybeans as currency.
Something went wrong. The perfection became corrupted. The town was invaded. Buildings began to be taken over. These were robbed of their colors and turned into places that made more of the “bad guys.” The players are called to resist the invasion, to find new, joyful ways to combat the evils of the invaders, reclaim their land, repell the invaders.
So far, so good.
But let’s explore the invaders a little bit. Collectively, they are called cogs. The cogs are made up of variety of types. These include telemarketers, micromanagers, head hunters, ambulance chasers, and yes men. The cogs use weapons such as rolodex, fountain pens, and brain storms against the players.
In short: the villian of the game is corporate America.
The idea is that Corporate America is coming like a virus to rob the joy, color, and life from the world.
This is emphasized by the terms of the battles which go on. The players lose battles with the cogs when they run out of happiness before there gags (thrown pies, squirting flowers, etc.) cause the opponents to explode.
A player who is defeated in battle is sad. He is returned to the playground, and rather creepily, can’t leave until he’s happy. (There’s probably a whole post alone in the subtext of a utopia based on the happiness police enforcing the joy but I’ll save that for another time.)
The thing is, I can’t say that I completely disagree with this subtext. But it seems like the height of hypocrisy for Disney to be espousing this view. It seems like using a billboard to advertise for the “Billboards are evil” Campaign.
Without the real yes-men, micrmoanagers, and ambulance chasers in Disney’s employ, Toon Town never would have been created. I can see three possible objections to this critique: #1) Maybe Toon Town is created b y maverics who are trying to take the giant down from within #2) Corporate America owns the platform; anti-corporate voices have to use the platform in order to get their message out.
Obviosuly, if I thought that if any of these objections were valid I wouldn’t have written this. And I want to be clear. I just intend this post as food for thought. I’m not saying that we ought to boycott Disney. I haven’t even banned my kids from the game. But I have discussed it with them.
At any rate, I can imagine somebody pointing out that Disney has a long history of subversive artists working from inside the corporate structure. We all know how those wacky cartoonist snuck dirty parts into Disney movies. The argument might be made that maybe this Toontown’s subversiveness (is that a word? Maybve it’s subversion )is for a better cause.
The problem with this argument is that corporate America has infected the arhitecture of the game itself. The basic version of the game is played for free. But my kids quite frequently remind me that all the cool stuff on the game is members-only. You have to fork over some cash if you want to access a variety of functions that make you a better player.
Bottom line: You have to send an enomorous corporation even more money if you want to be effective at fighing the imaginary, symbolic forces of Corporation within the game. If there are in fact maverics trying to subvert the corporation from within, they have been outmaneuvered by the cogs.
A slightly different objection to my post is that if anybody wants to critique corporations, they have to use the corporations to do it. The idea is probably half way true. For example, Shane Clairborne writes against consumer culture. He realizes he’s a part of that system he opposes when he sells his books to a publisher. Which will then chop down trees to print his book and try to convince everybody that they need more stuff. Or consider a quite a different example: George Lucas utilized the motion picture industry. And yet the message in the more recent Star Wars trilogy is quite anti-industry in a variety of respects.
There are distinctions between Clairborne and Lucas on the one hand and Toontown on the other: reasons that it’s more valid for somebody like Lucas or Clairborne to say that they need the corporation’s platform in order to denounce the corporations. The reasons why this excuse doesn’t work for Toontown follows:
A) It’s clear that Lucas’ and Clairborne’s vision began in one person who actually atleast partially wanted to bring about change through their vision. This is not clear about Toontown.
B) Clairborne turned his profits over to his community.
C) Lucas sought to create new companies which didn’t inherit all the evils of the current system.
D) Clairborne recognized the difficulties with his position; he named the elephant in the room.
Is Toontown the most evil force in the world? No, of course not. But it is presents a world view that is radically oversimplified and quite hypocritically delivered. It’s easy to miss that, though, if we’re not paying attention.
This post was submitted to Watercooller Wednesdays, a cultural blog carnival over at Ethos, Randy Elrod’s blog.