ReligionWise

Disney as religion? - Jill Peterfeso

February 16, 2022 Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding Season 1 Episode 6
ReligionWise
Disney as religion? - Jill Peterfeso
Show Notes Transcript

This episode of ReligionWise features a conversation between Carrie Duncan, Program Specialist for the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding and Jill Peterfeso, the Eli Franklin Craven and Minnie Phipps Craven Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Guilford College.

 In this conversation, we consider how an element of American popular culture, the Disney corporation and in particular Walt Disney World, can be better understood using the tools of religious studies. Dr. Peterfeso not only teaches on the confluence of Disney and religion, but took a group of students to the Magic Kingdom as part of the “Fantastic Journeys” curriculum at Guilford. 

This conversation demonstrates a different way of thinking about religion itself and asks you to consider similarities and differences between traditional religion and broader cultural experiences.

Chip Gruen:

Welcome to ReligionWise the podcast where we feature educators, researchers and other professionals, discussing topics on religion and their relevance to the public conversation. My name is Chip Gruen. I'm the Director of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding at Muhlenberg College and I will be the host for this podcast. Our guest today is Dr. Jill Peterfeso. The Eli Franklin Craven and Minnie Phipps Craven Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Dr. Peterfeso studies American religions, American Catholicism, Mormon studies, and gender and sexuality in religion. And among her other interests is the idea of popular American religion. This installment of ReligionWise is a little different from the previous episodes for a few reasons. First, we have a guest host today, Dr. Carrie Duncan, who is the Program Specialist for the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding. She is also a Ph.D. in religious studies. The other difference is the topic itself. Dr. Peterfeso and Dr. Duncan are discussing Disney, which is not necessarily what you think of when you think about religion or religious studies. So before we start the conversation, I wanted to offer a few comments on what to listen for and what to think about as we listen to the conversation. If you've ever taken a religious studies class before, chances are you've had a conversation at some point about defining religion. What is religion? And it sounds like a relatively easy question to answer. But once you start to do it by giving criteria, such as belief in God, an ethical system, the building of a community, you will see that there will be exceptions to each one of them. That not every religion hinges on, for example, belief in God, not every religion necessitates a community of believers practicing together, not every religion thinks about or considers ritual in the same way. And so when we're guiding students through this question, we will often turn to what is called a functional definition of religion. And in a functional definition, we don't think about what religion is, but we think about what it does, what does it do for the people who participate in it? Once you start doing that, you can start building a set of functions things that religion does for people. So for example, provides order and meaning for their lives, provides answers to the questions of "why am I here?", or "what does it mean to be human?", or "what is the good life?" Building a community or providing an ethical system- there are a lot of things that religion does for people that we can describe as these functions. Once you build a definition based on those functions, you then realize that there are other things in the world beyond what we call traditional religion that serve those same functions. There are other ways of building order and meaning in your life. There are other ways of building ethical systems, there are other ways of building community that don't fall under that umbrella of traditional religion. A lot of religious studies scholars have recognized that Disney is one of them. If you've watched any Disney film, for example, you'll see that it gives very clear direction on how to live in the world, how to be happy, how to find meaning in the world. The other consideration here is that as certain segments of the United States population, global population, become less traditionally religious, we might ask ourselves, do these people who don't identify with a particular religious tradition not need to build meaning and order in their lives, have a sense of community, have a ethical system, all of these functions that were traditionally filled by religious practice? And obviously the answer to that is no, they don't just jettison ideas of meaning and order. So how do they fill them? Where do ideas of meaning and order come from? And again, another answer to this is popular culture, media, the Disney Corporation, the Disney parks, the Disney movies is another place that we might go to think about meaning and order, or conversations about meaning and order in the world. So without further ado, I give you the conversation between Dr. Carrie Duncan and Dr. Jill Peterfeso.

Carrie Duncan:

Welcome to ReligionWise.

Jill Peterfeso:

Thank you for having me.

Carrie Duncan:

I'm excited to talk with you today about your recent adventure taking students to Disney World. Can you tell us a little about the class and the trip?

Jill Peterfeso:

It's true. I was at Disney World, and during a pandemic with 18 students, so it has been an adventure to say the least. You realize very early on as a religious studies scholar, maybe even as a major in religious studies, I like to think our students realize this too, that defining religion is almost impossible. And that's one of the fun projects of religious studies trying to figure out okay, what exactly do we mean by religion? What exactly counts as religion? And with something like Disney, how is religion different from culture? Those boundaries are really permeable. When we started to talk, when students and I started to talk through things in my first Disney class, which was called Discovering Disney, some themes started to pop out. For instance, so Disney and the way it educates children from an early age. So for instance, there's this Marxist critic of Disney named Henry Giroux who looks at Disney as sort of indoctrinating children in the way that it introduces children not only to certain versions of fairy tales, but also like a very capitalist way of being in the world. And it just started to strike me and my students that, oh, this sounds like other things, like Christianity and going to Sunday school at an early age, or I had students who'd grown up in the Jewish tradition, who said, Yeah, this, like just from being a child, these are the important traditions, and Disney has some of its own "traditions" or traditions that families make around Disney. So there was that. The issue of Disney and Empire started to come up a lot in my classes, I think it's because I had a great creative student who was taking a class on Empire. And she just kept, every day in class she's like, Disney's just like an empire, and she would quote from her readings in her Empire course. And you can't not think about a Christian empire as well. I am, my focus is on Christianity, so I tend to cite things in terms of Christianity. So Empire was also there. You know, some students would initially push back and say, well, but Disney is about making money, and religion is not about making money. And I would say, Well, hold on, let's look at the history of disestablishment in America, without having a state-church established by the Constitution and our founding fathers, the religious marketplace was opened up by the late 18th century. And so this is why you get the Second Great Awakening starting in 1800s America because all of these different religions are sort of vying for attention. So actually, yes, buying and selling is woven into the American religious story. So those are just a few of the examples that I started to recognize in conversations with students. And I think combined with that and my own interest in American culture, American religious culture, we can't ignore the growing number of nones, n-o-n-e-s, that are currently reporting on forms and censuses and other like Pew surveys right now. And I think the number is approaching 20%, which is really a very fast growth in the number of people who say they don't have a religious affiliation. If we look at some of the definitions of religion and what religion does and how religion emerged, we have to think that something might possibly be replacing the formal organized religions if the number of nones are, in fact, correct. So what what is religious for people who aren't religious? Or what might be serving that function? So that was a question we started to ask sort of as a class, because I would have plenty of students who would say, Well, I don't go to church. I'm not religious. But they are religious about certain things they would later admit.

Carrie Duncan:

So it sounds like you have taught this class several times, many times now, without this new experiential component. What do you think it added? What did your class that you took to Disney World get out of participation in place? That being there brings to the class?

Jill Peterfeso:

Yeah, it's hard to imagine teaching this class without the the trip component anymore.

Carrie Duncan:

Yeah, you can never go back?

Jill Peterfeso:

I'm like, I can never go back to not going back. It adds so much for so many reasons. I think, so before I address that, I think it's really important to name why Disney is such a helpful educational tool. And it's typically, I've typically taught First Year Seminars. This class that I just taught was, again, for the honors course, honors students. So there were sophomores, juniors and seniors in the group. But even when it comes to teaching a First Year Seminar, the thing about Disney is that everybody has interacted with Disney at some point in their life, even if they don't love it. And if they do love it, they have very strong opinions. And those are fun to deal with too. So Disney is great because it's not like- I teach Mormonism, and I've done work in Mormon studies, which I love doing, but people don't know what Mormonism is. They have some, some opinions. Maybe they know a Mormon who they think is great, I should say the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They may know a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or they may have like just some cultural inaccurate knowledge like, Oh, aren't they all polygamists? Like, Okay no, it's much more than that. So I sort of get a clean slate. But with Disney, there's all of this stuff that comes already; people know the movies, they know the characters. And so it becomes a great starting point for critical thinking, because if critical thinking involves breaking, identifying and breaking down assumptions, then I have, I have material to work with. Even if students haven't done any reading yet, I already have material to work with. So that's always been really valuable with the Disney class. What this experiential version has allowed me to do is to use Disney World The Place as a shared laboratory, as opposed to Oh, yeah, we've all seen Lion King at some point, and we can talk about how we felt when Mufasa died, or when you know, Simba became the king of Pride Rock. This is, Together, we are experiencing something. And even students who'd experienced it before, had never experienced it like this with this group of people at this time. And so we were able to be together and I kept referring to it to my students as a laboratory. I do ethnographic research when I can, my book project is largely ethnographic. I like hanging out with people and seeing what they're doing and talking to them about it. And being at Disney World allows that to happen even during a pandemic. You may not be able to get up to Cinderella, or Minnie Mouse and just have a real conversation. You wouldn't talk to Minnie anyway, but you can't really talk to the characters as you would when there isn't a pandemic and pandemic restrictions. But you can engage with cast members, or you can observe little girls going crazy as the princess cavalcade goes by, and you can watch people's faces and you can read expressions, and you can watch those same expressions on your classmates and then you can have a conversation. And so really being there shifted the terms of our conversation from Okay, we have the shared cultural understanding what Disney is and what Disney does to, we are now enveloped in it for five days. Disney World is a city, it's the size of San Francisco. So you're in the resort, and it's like that's the only world. And just that complete immersiveness, and, you know, at no point, even when you're like on a bus going to the Magic Kingdom, you don't see a billboard for like, you know, guns or tobacco or an outlet mall, like, you don't see that. So you're really just completely there. And it allows you to be transformed and transported. And, and I will say they just kept talking about the experiences as being transformative and transportive. And it wasn't something they could really articulate when we were there, but since we've come back, it's like all these pieces just sort of falling into place and constructing something for them each each one constructing something different. But when you're there, it's so much, but when you come back, you're suddenly able to breathe and say, oh my gosh, I'm connecting it to this reading, or to this guest speaker or to this conversation. And it starts to make sense. And it starts to be something that you can actually deal with academically and intellectually.

Carrie Duncan:

So when I taught a pilgrimage seminar a couple of years ago, we read a slightly older, but still very interesting, article about Disney World as a pilgrimage destination in the section of the class where we were talking about sort of pilgrimages that are outside of what one might normally conceptualize religious tourism as. And they were really intrigued by the sort of idea that Disney seems like a place where you would perform pilgrimage. But the more we thought and talked about it, the more sense it made. And I wonder if you invoked that kind of trope or imagery with your students when you were there.

Jill Peterfeso:

There's a chapter in a book called Power and Paradise in Walt Disney's World by Cher Krause Knight. And it's all about pilgrimage. The interesting thing is she compares the pilgrimage to Disney World to the pilgrimage on the El Camino in Spain. So, yeah, we definitely talked about it as pilgrimage. And with that, we talked about Victor Turner's, you know, steps of rite of passage, and the students now know what liminality is, and how they experienced that. You know, sort of the break, the rupture, the coming back into society, all of that- we've talked about it. We talked about it as sort of a middle class, Disney World as a middle class pilgrimage site as well. And that allowed them to tell some of their own personal family stories, whether they were able to go when they were younger or not. The other thing we sort of started to play with, pilgrimage is one idea, but something that I've started to notice just in park merchandise and in some of the language used at the park, and the students and I talked about this as well, is that Disney also positions itself not just as a site of pilgrimage, but as a place for homecoming. So juxtaposing pilgrimage to home are two different things with two very different feelings and reasons for going. So I've started to see, like I mentioned, a lot of merchandise that talks about Disney Is Home. And when DVC, Disney Vacation Club, members show up to their resort hotel, it's welcome home. So again, this is just a really interesting juxtaposition of these two rhetorical approaches to Disney. And one of the things I had students think about is, when we went to Disney, were you on a pilgrimage or were you going home, and why? So...

Carrie Duncan:

That's fascinating. And I'm sort of reminded of the speech patterns in the South of being asked whether you found a church home, and that sort of language being used also in explicitly religious settings where there's sort of the, yes, maybe you have a house, but your home is here in the community, in the congregation.

Jill Peterfeso:

Yes. And I don't ever want to lose sight of the fact that I know, and make sure students remember, this as a business. This is a corporation that we're talking about. So we should never give Disney too many free passes. Like this language of Homecoming, as much as we feel like Disney's welcoming us with open arms and giving us a great big bear hug, they're reaching into our pocket at the same time. Yes, exactly. Exactly. But sometimes it's like, go ahead Disney, take my money. I'll pay for this experience.

Carrie Duncan:

I mean I think that that's a lot of what marketing does right now, that you're not just supposed to have a phone, you're supposed to have a relationship with your phone, such that when it breaks or dies or you drop it in the toilet, you are emotionally upset, that you feel that loss, not just for its convenience, but for its meaningfulness to you.

Jill Peterfeso:

Yeah, um, a couple things on that. A student did a presentation on Disney and social media, and she gave a quote that I have not been able to track down yet the origins of- this was just yesterday- but that a successful brand is one that becomes part of a person's sense of self. So the idea of a successful, a successful brand is connected to a person's sense of self, which is just this really, very, like how have I become as a person, a person with being, you know, in that deep sense of what "being" is and might be, so connected to my Apple phone, or my Starbucks coffee, or my, you know, my Disney beach towel? I don't know. But, you know, these things happen. And I think that's what a lot of branding is about. Right now. I'm not an expert in marketing at all, but that just really made me think. It also connects back to, I would say, to some deep religion questions like Who are we? Where do we come from? How do we relate to the world around us? The other thing I was going to say is the Disney Parks experience is credited with creating the "experience economy." The fact that we think we need to have an experience every time we do anything. It needs to be an experience that we can share and inhabit. It's not just, We're going to watch this thing and then go home, it's We are going to be enveloped in it and everything's going to be an experience.

Carrie Duncan:

Well you have loved Disney for a long time, way before you ever started studying it. I'm guessing way before you ever thought of yourself as a religious studies scholar or student. When did you get started with Disney and what made that such an important part of your life?

Jill Peterfeso:

So I'm not inclined to talk about myself and why I love Disney. But, two things, one, if emotion is information, I think we should be asking ourselves these questions, Why do I have an emotional reaction to this item? The other thing is, it's so interesting, when I read scholarship about Disney, invariably, the scholar discloses their relationship to Disney if it's anything other than overtly critical. And I find that such an interesting academic move, and I asked myself why we need to make it.

Carrie Duncan:

I was thinking, sometimes, I've been reading some classes a lot of participant observer ethnography, I find that that people do more disclosure at the beginning of that type, but otherwise, yeah, that's just not a practice that we are taught.

Jill Peterfeso:

Sure, exactly. And yeah, and my book that came out last year is on Roman Catholic women priests. So these women who have defied the Catholic Church and have gotten ordained, I did feel that I needed to say in the introduction to my book, which was an ethnography, This is my relationship to Catholicism. But by and large, I mean even practitioners of religions who are writing academic studies don't need to say, I've been this religious faith for this long or I had this negative experience or I've had this positive experience. But with Disney, I mean, I'm sitting at my desk looking at two books right now, where in the opening pages, the scholar has to say, I just need to tell you, I actually really love Disney, but don't worry, I'm still gonna be really critical. I'm totally paraphrasing, but that's what's going on. So I feel like I'm entering into a good club now as I try to answer your question about why Disney and how long. I don't remember anything specific besides like having those little Disney books with the records, the company records as a kid. And I remember we used to do Mickey's Mousersize, which I still have the music in my head, and I haven't heard that for decades and decades. I remember we had a haunted mansion album, it was orange, and I used to just play it and I loved the scary sounds. And then I went to Disney World for the first time when I was eight, and there was just something about that place that made total sense to me, without being able to articulate why. By the time was a teenager, I was able to start to think about Disney a little more, like I started to recognize like, Okay, Disney gives us like three messages. One is, You can dream and do anything you want. Two, America is awesome. Three, take care of nature and animals. So I to start to distill the big Disney themes from my time at the parks. I love Disney, I respect a lot of what it does, and I'm also very critical of it. As I tell my students, you know, as a scholar of Christianity and American history, and even like feminist studies and feminist theology, I believe that when you love something, you should critique it. Like, if you really love something, challenge it to be its best expression of that thing. I know, that's not something everybody agrees with, when we look at some debates in this country about how we can be better as Americans, how we can be better citizens of this planet. I think we should always be critical while we love something. And I'm able to hold that intention, I think, even though I'm more gushing about Disney today. But I definitely have many critiques about Disney. So at this point in my life, there's so many things that I could say that I really like and respect about Disney. But the one that I think sort of hits it where I am in my life most is that it's a place, Disney World is a place, which is connected to Disney, the corporation, where things work. Like people put their best imagination, or creativity, or customer service, or engineering skills, or construction skills, they put that forward, and they're able to make something that functions in such a competent, coherent, and often life-affirming and life-energizing way. And I really respect that. I think, at least for me, you get to a certain point in your life where you're like, What am I doing with my life? Where do I spend my time? And how do I make the world around me better? And you see a place that just seems to do that, and I find that really appealing. I also don't want to dismiss the experience of cast members who often don't have a great time working at Disney. I know this, that was one of the things we talked about in my course was how the cast members, for instance, have been treated around COVID. So I know my students went into their park experience being much more sensitive about Okay, these cast members maybe have had a hard day, like maybe somebody yelled at them because the cast member asked them to put a mask on. Or maybe the cast member is just really hot or maybe the cast member has the sick relative at home and they feel the need to keep smiling because they're at Disney. So I don't want to ever suggest that we're not thinking about the human there. But the fact that by and large, you get a number of humans who step in to create, "magic," I really admire that.

Carrie Duncan:

It sounds exhausting to have to make magic for other people all day, every day as your job, such that if you don't make the magic, you have failed at your job that day.

Jill Peterfeso:

It's funny. So one of the ways I treated myself on this trip, because, you know, I wasn't with the students 24/7. They wanted free time. They wanted a lot of free time, and I was happy to give it to them. But I went to Oga's Cantina, which is in Galaxy's Edge. And it's very much supposed to be like the Cantina in Star Wars, like the the original Star Wars trilogy, that experience where we first meet Han Solo. So I went to Oga's Cantina and I ended up going by myself. The other people who were supposed to come with me, did not end up going on the trip because of COVID. So I went by myself to this bar at Galaxy's Edge. And I'm standing at the bar, and I make friends with this group of young people next to me who are all graduates of the Disney College Program. Which was, I mean, these young people just seemed to love the fact that they worked for or continue to work for Disney. And so I of course was picking their brains, like, Tell me about this. How did you get into this? And I just remember them, the young man standing next to me who I talk to the most, he's just like, I get to make magic for people, I get to make somebody's day. And I get to have close contact with people and put a smile on their face, and that means everything to me. And I was, you know, I of course pulled on him, you know, I want to know more than like, but why, like, why did you want to do that? And he goes back to his childhood, like, I've loved Disney since I was a kid. Disney, you know, helped me see who I am. Disney showed me what it's like to, you know, be a friend. I just love Disney, and now I get to be part of it. So again, I'm thinking of how his story sort of maps on in many ways to the stories of people who are religious and stick with it. Like, this has given me a sense of identity. This has given me a sense of purpose. This has shown me how to be in the world. This has shown me the way I can be my best self in the world. And I get to do it, and I'm so fortunate. So I admire that, I really admire that. I wish it could be bottled and I could consume it. Like just that, that clarity of purpose and vision and being part of something bigger than myself.

Carrie Duncan:

So I want to hear more about stories from the trip. What kinds of amazing moments did your students have and report back to you? What did you have together? What moments did you have that really gave them a sense, not just of, Yay, we're at Disney World, but that that crystallized for them the ideas that you were trying to get them to think about in your class that relate Disney, as a, Disney as religion and Disney World as a religious experience?

Jill Peterfeso:

I didn't, I'll just be clear that the religious piece was one that I invited students to think through, and I had a few religious studies majors on the trip, and that was something I had side conversations with them about. By and large, I let students drive their own research projects at the park. But it was, I will say it was exciting to have a student who took my Disney class, I had a couple students who took my Disney class a year ago, which was sort of a Disney and American culture with overlap with religion, who, at the time, they were very skeptical of this idea that maybe Disney's like a religion. Like students don't love this idea. Let me be very clear. Anyone who wants to try this at home, it's not going to go over really well right away. Students have their own idea of what religion is. So they're going to push back. By this point, after having sat with my material, my course last fall, and then coming into the class, they're kind of like, yeah, Disney's a religion. And they're ready to go with it. I don't know exactly what changed for them, but they were there with me. So that was pretty cool. Some of the big takeaways, I think, I mean, it's hard to distill because so many of them had their own takeaways based on the project questions they came into the parks with. I set it up again, ethnographically, where they were going to go do their own thing while they were there. I was going to help steer and guide them, but they each had things they were looking for or listening for. I had a student doing a project on sound, ambient sound, in the park. Another on color, how is color used and deployed in different ways. A student was doing a project on gardens and horticulture, the plant life that exists at Disney. So they had their own stuff coming in. I think some of the key things they take away, they definitely notice Disney's messaging about positivity, and progress. Like, life is good. We can make it good with our actions. And the future is a bright place. And we're moving there. And we're moving in that direction in a way that's good and we should be excited about. Some of those messages, I'd say all of those messages, go back to Walt in his own life. Walt died in 1966. Walt died five years before Disney World opened. But he still has a lot of his imprint, obviously, on Disneyland and Disney World and just the ethos of the company. The students were able to pick up on that. We talked about it beforehand, but for them to be able to sit in the Carousel of Progress and talk about Oh, the messages are all over that even in the song, or to talk about things like, just walking around Tomorrowland or Future World in Epcot and how these positive messages about the future and just about life are abounding. Something else they started to think about, which I thought was really cool, is about the connection between magic and science. What Is Magic was the title, was sort of the focus of our class. Like, How is magic made, with Disney providing a series of answers. One of my great colleagues, Don Smith, in physics at Guilford, came and gave like an hour-long talk about physics and psychology at the Haunted Mansion and all these many ways that the Haunted Mansion, which was designed in the '60s, opened in the '60s at Disneyland and at Disney World, uses just really basic theatre tricks and physics tricks. But it continues to be one of the most beloved popular rides that endures. It's like, we're going on 50 plus years-old now, and that ride works so well. And students were able to see, magic is not simply somebody behind the scenes is waving a wand, but really smart people are are deploying these scientific tricks and innovating science in order to create an experience like the Haunted Mansion or like the Tower of Terror or like the fill-in-the-blank with pretty much any ride. Star Tours was something else we rode, which is a flight simulator, basically. It's a ride that opened in the '90s at Disneyland and there was one at Disney World. It's a flight simulator, and you're moving, and you feel like you're moving, but it was put to tell a story about you in the middle of a Star Wars adventure. So that storytelling combined with technology and innovation in order to create an experience. They've also talked a lot, this was sort of from day one of the course, storytelling, and how everything comes down to story. I think religion is the same way. I think religion exists because humans like to tell stories and we can hold abstract thoughts in our heads. Students were able to recognize how just walking down Main Street USA, or just walking down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood Studios, or just walking around Animal Kingdom, you are part of a story, because Disney has made sure you are part of a world that is all detailed and immersive. We noticed that trash cans are everywhere at Disney World, because Walt wanted things to be clean, but those trash cans are themed to fit whatever world you are in. The trash can at Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom is not the same as the trash can on Main Street USA. Why would they be? Of course. So you notice this, even the way the ground has been constructed and detailed is different. So everything is different around you. And so they think about that, they came to think about that in terms of story, and rides put you in the middle of a story. Like you're on this adventure, and you're there with it. I think the other big takeaway that they really loved, and I get this, got this from the Imagineering documentary on Disney+, but there's a formula that Imagineers think about, and it's something like this, fear minus death equals fun. And they love that. They want to put it on a t-shirt. Fear minus death equals fun. And that all connects to story, but also that Disney is about letting you experience something and come out okay. And there's something, there's a word that came up in one of our readings from John Hench, who was an Imagineer and a later Disney executive, and he was talking about that, Disney is not an, escape Disney is reassurance. And that word "reassurance" came up a lot, over and over again. We're not trying to create a place for you to escape, we're trying to reassure you about the world you inhabit and your place in it. And so that fear minus death, I'm sorry, yeah, "fear minus death equals fun", was another thing. So many of the attractions at Disney World are about Here, you're going, something's happening. Oh, my God, something terrible is happening now. This is unexpected. Are we going to make it? Oh, yes, we made it. And you finish. So like three minutes later, five minutes later, you've defeated death and you've had fun and you have a smile on your face. And how so that's just sort of like a formula for how things work and how things work at Disney. So those are some of the key things that students took away in terms of bigger picture intellectual experiential things.

Carrie Duncan:

Do you think that having that kind of environment where sort of the ultimate bad is not an option is especially reassuring in a time like we're experiencing now? Was going to Disney during a pandemic and being in this highly constructed, and ultimately, at least safe-seeming environment different because of everything else that's happening? I'm trying to reconcile the idea that Disney can somehow guarantee a lack of death as being in some ways, I don't know, it seems like it's a false narrative, however, reassuring it is.

Jill Peterfeso:

Yeah, I mean, I hear the implied critique and I think that's fair. For sure. I don't think Disney thinks it's in the business of chaplaincy, for instance, they're not trying to guide you to death. They're trying to reassure you that everything is going to be okay. Like, that's the business they're in. So, your question is really interesting. Part of me wants to say I don't know a time in the last 60-70 years of Disney parks that Americans haven't needed reassurance about something. 20 years ago it was 9/11. We've had the Vietnam War, we've had, I mean, pick a time in history and I think Americans are stressed about something, probably.

Carrie Duncan:

Fair enough.

Jill Peterfeso:

But I do think there will probably be some really interesting research coming out in the next couple of years about Disney during COVID. My own very limited observation has been that social media engagement with Disney, writ large movies, parks, merchandise has really ticked up a lot during the pandemic, that people have turned to social media to connect them with that which they love at Disney, just an example, using Disney as an example here. So I think you're probably right, that being at Disney World was reassuring in some narrative way for my students. I will also acknowledge and honor that many of them were very nervous at times throughout the trip. I want to brag about our group, that we did not get COVID. My students wore masks almost the entire trip. Even when it was not required outdoors at Disney, many of them just kept their masks on. They were very cautious and careful. So, but I know that that anxiety was there, for me, for sure, and definitely for many of them, not if not all of them, but a lot of them just had a lot of very outward anxiety about the COVID thing. So I don't know how much the Disney Magic of reassurance allowed them to not experience the fear of contracting and passing on COVID. I do think there is a moment at Disney for everyone where you're just sort of swept up. And you don't necessarily have to be thinking about that which scares you most, and I do think that happened for all my students at some point, if not, if not many points on the trip.

Carrie Duncan:

That's just so interesting. When I was thinking about sort of Disney and religion, I kept coming back to the idea of Utopia, and the ways in which Disney functions as a utopian community. And I think that a lot of the themes that you've brought up here resonate in that way. But I also then felt like most utopian communities don't make it for the long haul. What do you think? I mean, first of all, do you think that that I am right to make that connection? And do you think that Disney has found sort of a formula to be a successful, utopian community?

Jill Peterfeso:

I think when I think of the utopian attempts in American religious history, often the problem is they were too highly principled. And that gets you into trouble when you run into trouble. I don't think Disney has the same, they don't have the same masters. Utopian communities are often trying to serve God and community in a way that was gonna to be hard because people are messy. Disney is sort of unapologetic about it being a corporate. like monolith. But yes, I mean, to your point about Disney and utopia, yeah, I mean, this is something I think a lot of people who are interested in Disney have looked into. The idea of Utopia- Walt himself was an urban planner. He did a lot of urban planning. Disney World, what we know now as Walt Disney World was initially really supposed to be like a city that functioned in a futuristic, for the time, for the 1960s, way. And Epcot itself was really supposed to be a place where people could live and work and have recreation all in one place. A lot changed when Walt died. Walt died five years before Walt Disney World opened. So things had to change, change in terms of that vision. And what you end up with in Florida is sort of like a Disneyland but with a lot more space to grow. So yes, urban planning, and Disney is absolutely there. The other thing that I think about in terms of, I wouldn't, I am careful to juxtapose utopia with the next term I'm going to introduce, which is "City on a Hill", but I think those two things can go together. So the City on a Hill idea, of course, comes from the the Puritans in New England, you know, 1630s arriving in order to create the perfect Christian town. And they wanted to be a city on a hill, and they wanted the people back in England, who basically were so annoyed with them that the Puritans left, they wanted them to look at what they created in New England and be like, Okay, they had it right. Look at how great that is. Like, We are the city on the hill. We are going to live together in community, and we are going to make God so proud. And we're gonna live out this Christian vision. I think in many ways, you could think about Disney as sort of an American, a 20th century American city on a hill in that there's no question that Disney is a beacon to the rest of the world, or at least insofar as it is an American export that has traveled globally. And there are parks in Asia, there's a park in Paris, outside Paris. So yeah, there's some appeal here in the park environment that Disney has created that is, again, utopian or city on a hill, or some aspect of urban planning that has really worked and been replicated and sent around the world.

Carrie Duncan:

So I want to ask whether you've encountered skepticism. I know you said that you had some students who took a little while of digesting before they came around to, to a willingness to think about Disney from a religious studies kind of perspective. What pushback, if any, have you gotten from administrators or parents or colleagues about the idea that you can teach a rigorous and academically stimulating religious studies, or college course of any discipline about Disney? Do you have a way of explaining sort of your objectives that helps them make sense of that? And and what would you say why? Why does this matter? What is important about, what what can we learn about ourselves and about society? From this particular topic?

Jill Peterfeso:

I think, I think the challenges I have with students around this topic, are the are the arguments I use for why it matters. So students, as I said earlier, everybody, every even like international students know know what Disney is, they may know it to different degrees, they may have different emotional relationships to Disney. This thing that produces movies and TV shows and music and theme parks and also owns ESPN and ABC and is really growing in its size. People know Disney in some degree. So asking students to think critically about Disney can be very challenging, because they think they already know all they need to know. And there is definite resistance to thinking deeply critically. And when I say critically, I don't mean harshly. But that sometimes gets involved in it too. Right? Okay, is Disney doing something problematic with this messaging? What is Disney saying about race? What is Disney saying about heteronormativity, and how does that limit cultural ideas about LGBTQIA people? What is Disney saying about how you achieve success in the American dream? If I'm not, "winning" as a person, is it because I'm not virtuous as so many Disney heroes and heroines are. So thinking critically, can be really a barrier that students eventually get through. When I get some skepticism from parents. I mean, I don't talk to a lot of parents as a college professor, but I certainly hear it, you know, from other friends I have who have kids and just parents in general, like there's always like that single eyebrow, like, really, you're going to teach a college class on Disney. That sounds like fun. And I'm like, Yeah, see, that's the thing, students sign up thinking it's going to be fun. They think they're going to watch movies. And instead, we go so deeply into something they thought they already knew. And they realize they didn't know it at all. And now they have an opportunity to see it a new and that. If that's not like a crash course in critical thinking, and reassessing how you think about the world and see the world, I don't know what is. So one of the things I love about what I get to teach Christianity in America, by and large is that I get to make the familiar, unfamiliar. I get to take something that people think they know, and I turn it into something they realize they didn't know. And that is a new form of empowerment and a new way of seeing and thinking. So I really have not found anyone who could respond to my claim that teaching Disney, especially to first year students and newer students to college is really one of the best ways to get them to critically think for the reasons that I've laid out. So yeah, students sometimes don't want to think critically about Disney. And I've had students when I taught my three iterations of this course, the Disney course to first year students, every time I taught it, there's some time and I taught it in the fall, sometime around like late September, early October, I would come into class and the vibe was weird. I finally recognized it after like a year or two, but I was like, What's wrong, y'all? And they're like, You are ruining our childhood. I got some version of that every timeYou are ruining our childhood. And then we had to stop and have a conversation about what it meant to do school, and what it meant to think deeply. And is there a way that we can love something, think deeply about it and come back to it? And I think this is something that teaching religious studies prepared me for really well, because again, teaching Christianity for the past 10 years plus, longer than that 15, you get students who suddenly start to see Christianity critically like they actually read the Bible in a historical context, or they learn that the history of Christian traditions is very different than what they thought. And that can be jarring, it can knock them out of their, their comfortable orbit. But I've been used to having conversations with those students, as they're sort of like trying to pick up the pieces. And it's very possible to reconstruct those pieces into something stronger and more meaningful. And, well I know I stand ready to do that with students and Disney, if that's where they want to go, if that's something that means that much to them. So credit to religious studies for helping us to have hard conversations that might be a little earth and identity shattering, but we can reconstruct ultimately.

Carrie Duncan:

So for our listeners who have now learned a lot about Disney and a lot about thinking about it in new and different ways, what should they take away? What would what would you like, folks who have listened to this conversation to take away to reflect on about their own life about sort of things that maybe they hadn't thought about?

Jill Peterfeso:

I think the big takeaway is one, I would just invite anybody who's listening to think about how religion may not just be something in churches or synagogues or temples, like where actually do we see and make religion in our, in our world. My guess is, we'll see that it's a lot more places than we thought. But if you do want to start to think deeply about Disney, I would start by just looking at where Disney has popped up in your life, because it's probably in a lot more places than you realize. And it's probably given you messages and memories that you are unaware of until you stop to sort of piece them all together. And I think those are two pretty simple ways to begin to think more deeply about this. It's not unlike the ways I've started some of my classes. One of my favorite things that there's a story that is credited to David Foster Wallace. And I use it a lot in my own thinking about my teaching. But you probably know this, Carrie, but it's the story of like, there are two fish that are just swimming in the in the ocean do-do-do, hanging out chatting, and another fish swims by them and says, Hi, guys, the water is lovely today, isn't it? And then he keeps on going do-do-do and the fish keep going, the two, and one stops and turns to the other and says, Wait, what's water? And I love that because I feel like it's the perfect analogy for culture. Like we're immersed in this stuff, but we never stop and think about what exactly it is and how it is literally giving us oxygen, and how it is literally sort of dictating how we move in the world. So if we can just stop and start to ask ourselves, wait, what is the water? What is that which is around us that we haven't even recognized? I think we'll find some really cool things about the world and ourselves. For me right now, that's Disney. And it's also religion and religious culture and I just invite students and others to participate in that discovery with me.

Carrie Duncan:

Thank you so much. This has been such a fabulous conversation.

Jill Peterfeso:

Thank you for having me.

Chip Gruen:

This has been ReligionWise a podcast produced by the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College. For more information and additional programming, please visit our website at religionandculture.com. There, you'll find our contact information, links to other programming and have the opportunity to support the work of the Institute. ReligionWise is produced by the staff of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College, including Christine Flicker and Carrie Duncan. Please subscribe to ReligionWise wherever you get your podcasts. We look forward to seeing you next time.