The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s

By M. Keith Booker | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
American Film in the Long 1950s:
From Hitchcock to Disney

In the 1951 Disney short Plutopiα Mickey and Pluto vacation in the presumably idyllic setting of Camp Utopia. Mickey, being “human,” likes it fine, but one cartoon character's dream is another one's nightmare, and Pluto soon discovers that the camp is anything but an ideal world for dogs. Not only is he not allowed inside the cabin, but he is required to be muzzled and leashed at all times, making it possible for the camp cat (cats are almost invariably evil in Disney films of the period) to taunt him from just outside his reach. Finally, Pluto escapes the carceral environment of the camp by falling asleep, where he can experience a dream world in which the cat is his slave and even begs to be bitten.

The ideology of Plutopiα is typical not only of Disney films from the long 1950s but also of American culture as a whole during the period. For one thing, Pluto's definition of the ideal life as one in which he defeats the threatening cat suggests the extent to which American Utopian thought depends upon violent conquest of the Other. For another, the film shows a strong skepticism toward the achievability of Utopia in the material world, even through such violent victory, suggesting that the ideal life can be achieved only in the unreal world of fantasy and dream.

Indeed, the Utopian images produced in the Disney films and theme parks tend to be consistently problematic. Thus, Henry Giroux gives the subtitle “Disney's troubled utopia” to the introduction to his book-length study of Disney's role in shaping American popular culture. For Giroux, “Disney's power lies, in part, in its ability to tap into the lost hopes, abortive dreams, and Utopian potential of popular culture” (5). But Giroux notes that the Utopian energies of Disney products are complex and contradictory, sometimes offering genuine elements of pleasure and wish fulfillment, but also tending to “turn children's desires and dreams into fodder for the Disney Stores and power-lunch brokers” (12).

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