I spent the weekend at Disneyland with my in-laws.Â Â We had a good time. However, I was horrifed by the first ride we went on, “The Jungle Cruise,” because it seemed so backward in its representation of people in so-called “less developed” areas of the world. (The concept of “development”Â undergirds most modern argumentsÂ about the way societies are ordered: all societies are either economicallyÂ stagnant, progressing towards better development, or developed. This trope, very nearly a universal assumption, has become so commonplace that it is difficult not to refer to it when talking about places like Africa. Even individuals who are anti-globalization still think that what people in inÂ the “Third World”Â lack is “development.”Â ThisÂ essentially humanitarian belief, one held by conservatives and liberalsÂ alike,Â assumes that if weÂ couldÂ only “develop” the “under-developed” nations of the world,Â the problem of poverty would be resolved.)
Anyway, weÂ rode “The NileÂ Princess” through Burma (now Myanmar), the Congo (nowÂ the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and the Amazon (which is actually in Brazil).Â Now, first of all, I’d like to point out that the Nile is nowhere near Myanmar or the Amazon, and, whileÂ it comes close to the DRC, it doesn’t actually ever at any point cross into Congolese borders. But beyond the geographical errors, I was disturbed by the way it paintedÂ those regions. For example, take a look at this picture:
I’m not sure exactly whatÂ Disney meant toÂ portray with this image, but it reminds me of the rhetoric and images emergingÂ from European colonizers that represented Africans as members of pristine cultures which, though barbaric and at an early stage of social and physical evolution, were nevertheless corrupted when they came under the influence of industrialized civilizations. Thus, theÂ gorilla holding a gun might represent the image of a lesser-evolved human being (symbolized by this animal whose genetic structure is similar to humans) who has been corrupted by its involvement with European weaponry. Though this interpretation might seem outlandish to folks today (“it’s just a gorilla shooting a gun”), these were very common images during the 60-plus years of African colonialism, during which time Africans were frequently portrayed as monkeys, and some of the ideas behind those images persist today. Since this ride was, I discovered, developed during the declining years of colonialism (when some of this rhetoric reached a feverish pitch),Â my interpretation may very well be valid.
Much was explained when I went to Disney’s website, which describes the ride as a 1955 original:
“Enter a Colonial outpost in a remote section of forest, where cut-rate guides haul cargo and tourists upriver for a cruise you won’t soon forget. The steady hand and sharp wit of your riverboat Skipper guide you through the treacherous perils of the jungle. Travel the rivers of four continents:
- Take an excursion down the Irrawady River of Burma and happen upon an ancient shrine
- Brave the hippopotamus-filled waters of the Congo
- Float among the rain forests of the Amazon
- The most dangerous part of your journey: “the return to civilization”Â
I don’t know what the fourth continent is–I only remember three from the ride and they don’t mention the fourth continent in this promotional blurb.
Although I lackÂ information about whatÂ the Jungle Cruise looked like or the kinds of things that were said in 1955, the amazing thing is that they are still using the tropes of colonialism in 2007. The ideas of social Darwinism–that societies are ordered along a continuum evolving fromÂ simple to more complex, in which the “survival of the fittest” principle demands that so-called “simple” societies change for the better by becoming like the so-called “civilized” societies of Europe and the U.S.–has pretty much been damned as racist. What’s interesting is that the 19th century ideal of “civilization”–that all societies are progressing or need to progressÂ towards a state of complexity and industralization–may be mirrored to some degree in this more recent concept of “development” that I mentioned earlier in the post.
As I’m only just “developing” my ideas about the problems with thisÂ concept of “development,” please comment!Â