and Ecumenical Imaginings of the "World Out There":
Do not cite without permission of the author.
The "World Out There," the first showstopping tune of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, refers, in the immediate context of the film, to the alleyways and marketplaces beyond the grand, but stultifying confines of Notre Dame de Paris, as viewed longingly by Quasimodo from his isolated perch in the belfry above. Full of yearning, the song expresses Quasimodo's desire to be at liberty among the masses on the street below, to exist freely and without constraint outside the cloistered walls of the cathedral and beyond the perverse, damaging ministrations of Archdeacon Frollo, in whose narrow view, the "world out there"--a world of gypsies, mountebanks, criminals, and other marginals--is dangerous and impure. In a broader context, however, the "World Out There" refers as well to an enlarged awareness of a global geography, urging, on the part of its viewers, an acceptance of an ecumenical, not parochial perspective and an unqualified participation in a New World Order. It shares with other Disney film songs of the last decade, i.e., Aladdin's "Whole New World," The Little Mermaid's "Part of That World," a global orientation--the "world out there"--and an underlying, (potentially globalizing) leitmotif--the desirability of a world without boundaries as the dynamic, utopian geography of endless possibilities and freedoms--in line with Disney Corporation's global mission: to be the worldwide leader in family entertainment.
As with many of its animated films released during the 90s, then, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is, or can be read as, a corporate response to (even allegory of) its position as a multinational company engaged in subtle negotiations at the "contact zone" with a recalcitrant, even defensive host nation--in this instance, a beleaguered post-Cold War France obsessed with the integrity of its national/cultural identity (the "French National Idea") in the context of decolonization, European unification, and, importantly for this paper, mondialization, read as Americanization, of which Disney is the image and symbol. The anti-American thrust of French debates over mondialization as Americanization involve critiques of values--individualism, consumerism, relativism, and multiculturalism--that constitute the core thematics of Disney's Hunchback, and that are said to undermine French national culture. As Jean-Philippe Mathy observes in French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars,
Americanization [for which Disney is the metonym] . . . threatens French society on all fronts: philosophically, it undermines the meta-physical foundations of the republican project; economically, it turns citizens into individualistic consumers and subjects the national economy to the whim of transnational organizations; culturally, it debases the high standards of the indigenous aesthetic canons . . .displacing Versailles with Disneyland; politically, it dissolves the shared values of citizenship into a neoromantic celebration of diversity. (16)
Disney's Hunchback, then, can be read, as I will attempt to read it, as a strategic intervention in the longstanding, on-going French-American Culture Wars that have intensified over the past decade with the installation of EuroDisney (now Disney Paris) and the commodification and Disneyfication of French culture. This reading revisits a study begun some years before at the Conference on Economic Criticism sponsored by the SCE in which I read Disney's Beauty and the Beast as an elaborate courtship of, and negotiation with, French public opinion, in the context of GATT--the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs--and hostile French reaction to what was perceived as an assault on the French culture and film industries by Hollywood and American media conglomerations. It is part of broader study of how "classic" Disney feature animation--the staple that saved Disney from impending financial ruin in the 80s and enabled its prodigious growth in the 90s--and its representational strategies have been impacted by its global mission to be the worldwide leader in family entertainment.
In the ensuing discussion, I will touch on related concerns that I believe are relevant to a discussion of Globalization and the Image. The first are practices of Disneyworlding, or how the world is packaged for consumption and culture is commodified in such venues as movie complexes, theatrical showcases, and theme parks This consists largely of the production and circulation of easy recognizable (cliched), usually marketable and sometimes transportable simulacrum of national culture, those signs or metonymic figures for any given geographical location.
Hence " 'France' equals wine or baked goods" (Kuenz, Inside
the Mouse, 77), the can-can, cabaret, or Eiffel Tower, as in Beauty and
the Beast or, in the case of Hunchback, Notre Dame Cathedral (which can't
be sold literally, of course, but can be--and has been--"sold,"
or promoted and packaged with EuroDisney as an enticement to visit the
park). As Susan Willis notes, through the operations of Disneyworlding,
consumers "fully participate in the ideology of global capitalism,
for which the duties of citizenship are equated with the practice of shopping.
Such a world offers each and every shopper the experience of companionship
with the rest of the global community through purchases" (Inside
the Mouse, 43).
Before discussing the material and economic bases of Disney's representational practices, specifically, how the images Disney circulates address its corporate interests on a world stage, I should add a somewhat perfunctory, but necessary word of caution--globalization has been with us for some time. If by globalization one refers, loosely, to the worldwide circulation of ideas, people, and products enabled by improvements in communication and transportation and underwritten, finally, by the flow of capital, as well as to the effects of such a process, Disney can be said to have participated in, and been impacted by, globalization since its inception. The very idea of Main Street, U.S.A., which one associates with Walt Disney and which bespeaks a provincial American outlook, is perhaps best understood in the context of two turn-of-the-(twentieth) century global phenomena: U.S. neo-imperialism and mass immigration to America. It is no coincidence, as analysts have observed, that Main Street, U.S.A. is at once the thoroughfare and gateway which orients and disposes other countries and regions in Disney's themed Worlds. As is well-known, since the release of Snow White, foreign markets have assured the financial success of its animated features, and the disruption or weakening of those markets--during World War II, for example, when Pinocchio, considered by many to be a superior technical and artistic production to Snow White, nearly sunk the company--has guaranteed financial distress for the company. Further, Disney animated features always have been impacted and marked by global events and pressures, sometimes overtly (as with Dumbo and World War II or The Three Cabelleros and the Good Neighbor Policy) sometimes obliquely (as with Pinocchio and fascism or Aladdin and the Gulf War. Nevertheless, there seems to have been a shift in degree and kind concerning the impact of globalization on Disney Corporation. This includes the use of foreign-based animation units and production teams and "local" labor; substantial investments abroad in TV stations, communication networks and theme parks; and considerable revenues from overseas sources. These factors, in turn, have influenced Disney's production and labor practices, distribution and marketing, and, of crucial importance for this analysis, the nature of its product and representational practices, including choice of subject matter and themes. In this last regard, during the Eisner years, there has been a heightened, sustained effort to engage with other cultures and peoples, to model "appropriate" interactions within diverse "contact zones" and to allegorize its own position in cross-cultural exchanges. While Disney long has allegorized its animated features, typically employing moral and/or psychological abstractions as a framework of intelligibility for public relations, but also referring to economic or political realities and the corporate challenges posed within these spheres as reference points (and while the medium itself encourages allegorical readings), Disney's position as an embattled multinational corporation (competing with other multinationals for markets, negotiating with defensive governments, and contending with critics at home at abroad) has only exacerbated a need for self-justification and self-congratulation that finds expression in self-referential gestures--even corporate allegories--within its animated releases.
Given its enormous successes in the 90s, it's difficult to imagine Disney Corporation as every being embattled, but such was the case both at the outset of Michael Eisner's tenure as Disney's CEO and following his controversial decision to open EuroDisney, which forms the immediate context for The Hunchback. One synopsis of the troubled economic background to the making of Disney's "French" films is as follows:
On September 22, 1984, Michael Eisner is voted chairman and chief executive officer of Walt Disney Productions. His main job is to garner revenues from as many sources as possible in order to raise the price of Disney's undervalued stock and to save Disney from a Wall Street takeover. An important component of his strategy for recovery is globalization; Eisner recognizes the potential of what has been called America's hottest export--American popular culture--which includes the products and services Disney traditionally has been expert in packaging and distributing: software (movies, music, television programming) and licensed consumer goods. To this end, he targets markets worldwide, delivering a record number of books and magazine overseas, and, eventually, the Disney Store. Further, he ships work overseas, employing cheaper labor for animation work.
As Disney Corporation intensifies its globalization, its products take
on an international flavor. From The Little Mermaid (Europe, but with
Caribbean accents) to The Jungle Book (South Asia)--the first videocassette
release of a Disney "classic"--to Aladdin (The Middle East)
to the Lion King
The line of products includes theme parks. Disney hopes to replicate the success of Tokyo Disneyland (opened 1983), but with a significant difference: whereas Disney Corporation opted for limited participation and investment in the Tokyo project, due to its fragile economic position (considerable resources were committed to EPCOT, for example), it aims instead for complete control of a new theme park in Europe. Whereas it had settled for designing the Tokyo park and advising its operators in return for ten percent of admission revenues and five percent of concessions, leaving the Japanese owned Oriental Land to build, own, and operate the park, Disney now aspires to assume total responsibility for development within the park and the peripheries. Disney's plan for a new theme park is the cornerstone of Eisner's global vision for Disney's dominance of the international market for family entertainment. Instead of bringing the world to America (a world reduced to essences and then retailed as the "displaced souvenirs of a trip never taken"), Disney aims at bringing America to the world, at achieving synergy abroad.
In December, 1985, after engaging several countries in a bidding war, Eisner signs an initial agreement with Laurent Fabius, prime minister of France, for a multi-billion dollar theme park to be built at Marne-la-Vallee, thirty miles east of Paris. The site is chosen, despite its cool climate, because of location--it is near major European population centers and is connected to them by efficient transportation; it abuts a tourist Mecca: Paris--and because of considerable concessions granted by the French government of Jacques Chirac: France sells acreage at artificially low prices (1971 prices for agricultural land), promises to improve access to the park, and reduces by nearly two-thirds the amount of value-added tax Disney will pay on every franc of goods sold. The opposition to the deal cries sell-out.
In directing the flow of capital across international borders, Disney joins other multinational corporations which attempt "to survive and compete through the creation of branches and subsidiaries throughout the world." At the same time, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks resume with the goal of opening markets and promoting fair trade. At the decade's end, by some accounts, the tenor of the discussion changes: GATT is "highjacked" by big business; internationally-oriented companies and businesses lobby to further deregulate trade and eliminate barriers to overseas growth, and they labor to define to their advantage new areas on the GATT agenda: intellectual property, services, and investments.
During the early 90s, GATT talks stall and threaten to collapse: France, host country to EuroDisney, is at the center of resistance, representing the interests of two powerful national industries: farming and film making. The farmers wish to retain farm subsidies; the film makers, to retain subsidies and maintain quotas to protect a struggling industry. Both industries cry foul (the film industry, for example, argues that free trade is not fair trade; having covered costs at home with successful ventures, American film makers, the argue, are able to distribute more widely, advertise more extensively, and sell their product more cheaply); both cast their arguments in nationalistic terms: what is at risk in GATT discussions, they argue, is the heart and soul of France, its cultural identity, its civilization. And their arguments are not without some foundation. On the one hand, "authentic" French culture and French values traditionally have been located in the countryside, which exists, in the imagination of many, as a reservoir of essential French qualities removed from contamination by outside/cosmopolitan influences. Further, despite the fact that since 1970 more than a million farm jobs have been lost, the number of farms have fallen by half, and farms produce less than four percent of the country's wealth, "France still sees itself as an agricultural nation." On the other hand, French film, in addition to being the special province and glory of France in the early years of the twentieth century, has also been a primary medium for celebrating Frenchness and establishing French identity (however narrowly in the opinion of minority populations.) Finally, it must be added that the industry increasingly is sensitive to questions of identity and difference (hence the proliferation of "heritage" films during the eighties) in response to a perception, in some quarters, of a growing cultural "crisis" related to, not only the influx of American popular culture, but also to France's participation in the EC and to the increasingly visible presence of minority populations.
This, then, is the broad economic and cultural context--the global politics--informing
the production of Disney's "French" films, Beauty and the Beast
and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as my readings of the films.
Beauty and the Beast, for example, is productively read in the context
of GATT and French resistance to EuroDisney. A self-referential allegory,
Beauty and the Beast concerns the courtship of la Belle France and Disney
(the bete noire of American consumer culture) in the context of French
concerns about the cultural and economic impact of American popular culture.
The film not only is about courtship, but instantiates it through its
operations. The Beast offers la Belle France a marriage of convenience,
a chance to escape narrow provincialism and to profit by the arrangement;
for her part, Belle humanizes the beast with the ultimate French gift--civilization.
The proof of her efficacy lies in the extreme politesse of the film itself;
it repays its debts and displays its gratitude by recognizing, through
citation, a host of French cultural contributions: the Caberet, Maurice
Chevalier, Lumiere pictures, Cocteau's La Belle et Le Bete, French cuisine
and ambience. Finally, Beauty and the Beast celebrates travel and entertainment
and sells tourism as intensive consumption, seducing (interpellating?)
the modern tourist, figured by Belle, with its vision of life within the
In the context of the contemporary European political scene, Frollo's mission to rid Paris of Esmerelda and the rest of her gypsy band--to eliminate all of Romany, in effect--resonates with the vocabulary of ethnic cleansing deployed in discussions of the embattled Balkan states, and this, in fact, is precisely the situation that Byrne and McQuillian, authors of Deconstructing Disney, invoke in their analysis of the animated feature. In their reading, "Frollo demonstrates his Serbian credentials . . . when he burns down the whole city of Paris in his search for Esmerelda." As provocative as this suggestion is, it begs the question as to why Disney Corporation would want to represent the crisis in the Balkans or figure Frollo as a type of Milosavic. Not that a connection cannot be made and Byrne and McQuillan, in fact, gesture in this direction. They suggest that The Hunchback reminds France of its obligations to a larger European community and, beyond that, to an even larger New World Order, subtended by the economic clout and political might of the United States. Ultimately, ethnic particularism and ethnic cleansing mitigate against normalized relations between nations and the unencumbered flow of goods and services and therefore must be opposed.
While critics might reasonably conclude with Byrne and McQuillan that, as a MNC and proponent of neoliberalism, Disney desires the unrestricted flow of goods and services in the marketplace, deregulated and unsupervised from above, such as characterizes the economy of the market square that Frollo ultimately is unable to control, they may balk at accepting the framework of intelligibility--the New Europe safeguarding the interests of a New World order in the Balkans-- informing their interpretation as being at once too removed from the immediate concerns of the film and of the corporation. For a film set in France and, like Hugo's novel, in some sense about France, of which the Cathedral is both the sign and symbol, the most immediate and obvious context for the film is the French nation and its crisis within an emerging world order configuring itself according to the imperatives of the realities and discourses of globalization. The Balkans may figure in the film, but indirectly, not so much as an invitation to accept a New World Order under the auspices of an American-controlled NATO, but as one more occasion for the nation to reflect on its troubled, collaborationist past, its inability or refusal to intervene during the dark Vichy years for basic human rights for some notion of the integral, pure French nation. Or the Balkans may figure as one more regional trouble spot releasing refugees and immigrants across increasingly open borders and, in the process, threatening a settled sense of national identity. These matters were, in fact, at the center of a heated debate among French intellectuals concerning the role of France in the Balkans, a debate that was part of a larger national dialogue concerning French identity in the wake of globalization and the flow of ideas, products and people across national boundaries. As an agent of mondialization whose successful operations in France require a large multinational workforce and a broad consumer base, Disney had much at stake in that dialogue over the impact of migration/immigration and mondialization as Americanization on French national identity, especially as it figured as a specific referent in many of those discussions.
A significant part of the dialogue concerned the place of the universal in French political identity. According to Naomi Schor, "if there is one difference between the two cultures [that of the United States and France] that hold maximum explanatory power in this context it is the significance in France of the notion of the universal, and of France and its language as its measure, the French nation as its embodiment, the French Revolution as its praxis." According to this way of thinking, the universal and undifferentiated French Republic is fundamentally opposed to the fractious and relativistic liberal democracies of the Anglo-American political tradition, which are steeped in notions of individual, not collective rights, and the tenets of neo-liberalism. The universal French model is "a national model of integration as the only defense against boundless liberalism, hyperindividualism, the dissolution of the social fabric, and the wholesale destruction of civic virtues." In this view, the enemy of univeralism is, by turns, particularism and pluralism, both conducive to a destabilizing multiculturalism, or differentialisme, the values and programs of which, strange to say for an organization known for its mainstream conservativism, are celebrated (topsy-turvy) in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.
An appropriate context, then, for allegorizing Disney's Hunchback is the French-American culture wars precipitated by the influx of American services and goods--electronic media, in particular, and fears surrounding the impact of American economic and political ideals and values on French national identity in a period of crisis following the after-effects of decolonization, mass immigration, and, most recently, increasing globalization. A specific context is the ascendancy of Jean-Marie Pen and the National Front, opposed to the U.S. domination of popular culture and Disney's role in such. Its resistance is marked by "a new protectionism [which] includes a call for the protection of the cultural sphere," wherein "the free market is placed in opposition to national identity." The Front's xenophobic, anti-immigrant messages the face of "a rising tide of mainly North African and Muslim faces," whose "foreign" presence is linked to urban delinquency and crime, "fits" the Hunchback well, which opens, fittingly enough, with the failed attempt by an impoverished gypsy family to sneak into Paris under cover of darkness, where they are summarily arrested and dispatched. This focus on immigration, which is absent in the novel and which frames the film, signposting one of its concerns, establishes a contemporary framework for understanding the racial politics of the film--the presence of a significant Beur population whose presence has challenged a universal conceptualization of settled French identity.
In addition to rehearsing contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment, Frollo's efforts to exterminate the "colony" of orientalized gypsies who have, contra the law, found safe haven within the walls of Paris and who, according to Frollo, live "outside the normal order," alludes as well to the dark days of the Vichy regime when Jews, the initial racialized other of Europe, were identified and deported. In this regard, the Hunchback's deployment of visual references to collaboration with, and resistance to, National Socialism, is not a complacent, empty gesture, as Byrne and McQuillan contend, but, rather, a loaded reference to a volatile debate in the late eighties and early nineties, in precisely these freighted terms, concerning the presence of the Nazi past in France's contemporary national formation, stimulated by high-profile trials of French officials with a dubious pasts. As an "international" proponent of the free market (with a Jewish CEO no less), Disney's response is hardly gratuitous or disinterested, but constitutes an intervention into a representational field, depicting Frollo as the true enemy of the national polity, his xenophobia fanning the flames of intolerance that promise to incinerate the city.
Interestingly, scapegoating Frollo, who is further marginalized through attributing to him a twisted sexual orientation (i.e., the sadomasochistic dungeon scene where, when lashing a barely culpable prisoner, Frollo anticipates with glee that Phoebus his captain will "whip them [his guard] into shape") splits him from the rest of the French polity and saves the film from being a sweeping indictment of all Frenchmen. By the same token, while rejecting Frollo's rhetoric of exclusion by demonstrating its dangers, the Hunchback also rejects the Republican solution of absorption and assimilation often held out as the appropriate French response to its identity crisis. The film champions not the universal rights of citizens in accordance with a French Republican model, but rather the rights of individuals, whose personal tastes and preferences--their differences--are expressed and affirmed in the marketplace. The liberal commonplace that there's no accounting for taste is memorably captured when Victor, Hugo, and Laverne, the three talking gargoyles of Notre Dame and Quasi's companion in his sequestration, conjure up quite different versions of their dream dates--including Hugo's fantasy of Esmerelda's goat.
Though this scenario would only seem to confirm one's worst fears about relativism, it also raises questions, with a sidelong glance at Frollo, the twisted Minister of Justice whose efforts to maintain the "normal" order of things pervert him, as to what constitutes perversion or normalcy and who ultimately has the power to decide. Quasimodo, like Esmerelda, is outside the "normal" order of things by design. The suggestion is that he is disabled, not by his physical limitations, but by the prejudices of others and, more significantly, by the discourse of inadequacy and abnormality that keeps him dependent on Frollo for the Minister's own dark purposes. As Quasi asserts himself with the help of friends, he gradually disentangles himself from Frollo's monstrous designs, establishing self-reliance, not welfare as the logical requirement of freedom. In the context of the French welfare state and an economy weakened (with consequences for Disney), from a neo-liberal perspective, by entitlements and handouts, this is a powerful critique aimed once again at dismantling the centralizing assumptions and tendencies of a paternalistic French nation state. Like Beauty and the Beast, then, the Hunchback of Notre Dame can be viewed as an intervention into a debate over mondialization, which is also a debate over the impact of individualism and the "free market" on French society. It celebrates what one critic has called "the multi-cultural fun fair" operating within an open economy promising the satisfaction of individual tastes and preferences. Opposing regulation from above and absolutist positions, the Hunchback takes on the rhetoric of exclusion circulating within France that, directed at foreign internationals and immigrant populations, has produced a chilling climate for Disney's multinational operations in France.