Tis the season for costumes and make believe. Personally, I don’t dress up anymore (though I did craft a pretty stellar Shaun of the Dead costume a few too many years back, complete with hand-carved cricket bat and a dart lodged in my head), but my oldest son is getting to the point where he has definite ideas about what he’d like to dress up for on Halloween, and for all the various little candy-getting enterprises that crop up at the end of October. It was at one of these trunk or treats that I observed something that has troubled me as I’ve looked back on it: my son got embarrassed.

We have had a bug costume sitting around our house since my son’s first Halloween five years ago. He loves it and wears it often. So, when he chose it for the recent trunk or treat without hesitation and with a big smile on his face, it wasn’t a surprise. We put it in the car and headed for the party. When we arrived, though, his enthusiasm for the bug vanished. At first, I chalked this up to his typically-reserved demeanor in big crowds. But, as I watched, another explanation came to the surface. All the other boys (all of whom were older, but not by much) were wearing either Star Wars or Marvel costumes. I’m afraid my son suddenly looked at the bug suit he loved and found it alien and ill-fitting in a room full of superheroes. I get a sharp pang when I consider what this might have felt like for him. Did he feel childish? Did he feel foolish? Did he feel like he had made the wrong choice? All I can say for sure is that he wore the bug suit only very briefly and at every costume party since, he’s opted for his Iron Man or Spiderman suits.

I know some of my son’s change of mind comes from the natural conformity that exists to a greater or lesser extent in all of us. We like to feel like we’re among peers, that we’re in a welcoming community, so we all pitch ourselves towards what we perceive to be normal. In healthy circumstances, this is a good thing. It helps bind us together. My son’s sudden change, though, has left me feeling sad, like he was manipulated somehow. That his feeling of exclusion was an intentional act. Not by the other kids, they were all friendly as can be. Still, my protective instinct has raised its hackles.

Making hay out of the community instinct
I remember back when Disney first bought Lucasfilm and Star Wars. A friend with daughters expressed his concern that Disney was poised to do for boys what it had already done for girls: homogenize and aggressively. Raising a son has me reporting from the front lines of boyhood that I believe this is absolutely coming to pass.

I think Disney knows full well that kids tend to want to fit in, so they set out to create pop culture products scientifically engineered to hit all the right pleasure centers in a kid (and their parents) so that their audience will reach a critical mass and become the thing that kids want to conform to. This outcome would, obviously, be great for their sales, but I don’t think it’s good for our communities. Not at a Disney scale.

Paving over pleasure
A while back, a friend of mine, Mike Cosper, wrote of his family’s recent trip to Disney World with their two daughters. He called it ‘Grinding Through the Pleasure Factory’ and I highly recommend it (reading it may even help some of the following make more sense). He drew out some insightful and alarming parallels between Disney’s marketing practices and the observations of Hannah Arendt on consumer culture, mass society, and totalitarianism. Please, read it.

I did find myself parting ways with Cosper at the end. He, being generous and, probably, wiser, sees space in the Disney machine for intimacy, joy, and the formation of human connection. His family enjoyed those things on their trip. I, being cynical and, definitely, grumpier, see the existence of joy and human connection in the Disney-fied world of mass-marketed childhood as things that happen despite the marketeers’ best efforts, as an unconscious act of defiance

Of course, Disney and its subsidiaries take great pains to present a diverse cast of characters so that nobody feels left out. But, is it important that nobody feels left out or that no dollar is missed? Disney is so aggressive (and effective) in their marketing efforts that another subtle message is getting through. Though there be an array of characters for us to relate to, they’re each trademarks registered to the big mouse. Disney isn’t in the business of making space for joy, for discovery, for human connection. Disney is in the business of making money, and they method they have chosen is akin to paving.

Disney goes to great lengths to pave over us all, taking the normally craggy and faceted surface of culture, with its peculiar local inflections and sub-species, and smoothing it out into a monolithic, unblemished demand for the pleasures the corporation sells. Just read about the layers of quality control—focus groups, test screenings, animation rules, market research, advertising, co-branding and crossovers, etc.—that Disney employs to keep their product pure and potent. They are hard at work making sure everything is dialed in to make their products as appealing as possible to as many people as possible. It’s almost as if their ideal vision is on single mass organism lining up to purchase as often and as much as instructed.

That we still find moments of joy, that we find characters that echo things we feel ourselves, that we find ways to connect to each other, all of this speaks to an irrepressible power of humanity. Not unlike a weed growing through a sidewalk speaks to the fierce determination of nature and says nothing of the civil engineer’s desire to incorporate green space.

Totalitarian economics
It’s easy to contrast what Disney does with a totalitarian political regime, replete with brutal policing of dissent, and not see much overlap. I’m not so sure that they don’t have plenty in common, though. Both the marketeer and the dictator want to control something. One seeks to control our actions, the other seeks to control our desires. In that light, economic totalitarianism is quite terrifying even if no blood is shed.

Economics is not just about how we spend our money, it’s root is in our affections. Any attempt to herd us as people into demographic audiences, reducing is as much as possible into that single, predictable mass in order to more efficiently sell us things, must be done by manipulating those affections. While a dictator may control our movements, they do not often gain access to our hearts precisely because their power is focused on restricting our bodies. In the totalitarian voodoo of marketing, the implications for our liberty are, if anything, more alarming than those presented by any state precisely because they are so invisible. The manipulation waged by the market is done at the soul level. Our very desires are the target, our very hearts, and this is a serious threat no matter how freely we can move.

This manipulation is complemented with the artifice that we are always free to choose otherwise. Try to figure out a way to live outside the influence of our industrialized, urban-leaning, sustained-by-money-alone economy, though, and this ‘freedom to choose otherwise’ begins to look like a myth. The economy works hard to make sure our most viable choices stay within the economy itself. Sure, you can eschew the spate of Disney characters, and the economy will gladly offer you another set of characters. Fox has the X-Men. There’s Harry Potter. Lego has a whole multiverse. Pixar has its own thing going (oh wait, that’s Disney, too). It’s still all in the family, all part of the consumer economy. Just don’t go further afield, or you’ll be The Outsider. And doesn’t the mainstream have a whole arsenal of ways to make The Outsider feel their otherness keenly and as derision?

And here it all comes back to a little bug costume. It’s one of those things that doesn’t easily compute in the mass economy. It doesn’t tie into a movie franchise, it doesn’t beg the purchase of more stuff. As a plaything, it’s an island. It stands alone and is satisfying to my son. At least it was. Of course, Disney didn’t have anything to do with my son’s choice. All they did was convince enough people to buy into their universe of stuff so that my son suddenly felt weird. That desire not to feel weird is something that Disney and the larger mass culture can count on and exploit in a thousand subtle ways while keeping their own hands squeaky clean.

Raising boys in the pleasure factory
I don’t know the solution as a father. I am trying to help my son fall in love with other things than the TV, like working in our garden or building things or books. Already, though, these branded characters have already staged a hostile takeover of our public library. They pervade every shelf, drowning out the diversity of the well-crafted one-off characters with the flood of the franchise. Good lord, though, so many of those franchise books are terrible.[1]  Poor writing, though, is surely a chink in the armor that Disney will soon stitch up. They’ll use the power of language just like they use all of their other creative tools: as expedients of their bottom line.

I feel a bit helpless in teaching my son to seek better against such a tide of the branded, flashy, and popular. But, I have seen the line between what he’d choose on his own and what he chooses in the crowd, and it stole away a piece of my heart. I see anew that there are enormous corporations trying to sculpt his preferences toward the fattening of their own bottom line. It certainly spooked me. And I feel an invigorated sense of mission to help my son grow into the kind of courage that can stand out, that can resist the paving-over force of mass culture. It doesn’t matter all that much with a costume, but someday it’ll matter about truly important stuff and I hope I can help him be ready.

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[1] Particularly horrible are the Star Wars early readers books. No plot, no characters, just endless exposition of various characters and locations and the end. It’s so obvious the only goal is to keep these commercial entities ‘top of mind’ for the kids. If it were about developing the pleasures and skills of reading, they’d be better-written.

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