Buffalo Bill and Disney Essay

This essay has a total of 3644 words and 14 pages.

Buffalo Bill and Disney

Buffalo Bill and Disney

More than seventy years after Buffalo Bill “taught” the history of the West to a curious
nation, Disneyland embarked on a strikingly similar course. Relying on creative marketing,
star appeal, the American fascination with all things western, and, most important, an
exceedingly glib portrayal of history, Disneyland in a strange way completed the story
that Buffalo Bill started in 1883. Although the eras, to be sure, were decidedly
different, history was delivered in exactly the same way.

The west is an idea that has always fascinated the American people. Buffalo Bill was the
first to understand the salability of this concept with his endearing, albeit distorted
road show of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Wild West Show was an attempt by
Buffalo Bill, or William Frederick Cody, to capitalize on his reputation as someone that
conquered the “savages” and freed the West for American expansion and the continuation of
its supposed manifest destiny. The themes of his show were simple, straightforward, and
easy for Americans of the era to remember: The west was won with necessary violence; that
the tool of the frontier hero was the rifle; that Americans were the victims who
ultimately prevailed in a violent struggle; that the moral truth of the frontier, indeed
America, was that violence was good for the U.S. and necessary to tame a savage frontier.
In general, the history explored in the Wild West Shows was romantic, glamorous, and
whitewashed. This message resonated with a population largely isolated from frontier
life. As a group, America was becoming increasingly urban and connected by rail,
telegraph, and canals—but, ironically, confused over the west and what it all meant.
Whether it was the story of the Pony Express, the recreation of the Deadwood stagecoach,
the spectacles such as Custer’s Last Fight, or battle scenes like the Battle of Summit
Springs, an eager nation was engrossed with The Wild West Show from 1883 until it ended in
1916. In one year alone, 1899, the show covered 11,000 miles in two hundred days, giving
341 performances in 132 cities. The show was enormously successful and profoundly
powerful as a shaping force in the way America saw the west.

The problem, of course, is that the show did more than entertain—it also became a sort of
travelling museum and the definitive word on a vital period of America’s past. What
lessons, exactly, did the show teach and whose values did the Buffalo Bill show endorse?
The program of the show, a website notes, “presented itself as a source of knowledge,
authority, and authenticity about the west.” (http://xroads.virginia.edu) This mixing of
fantasy with reality, of myth and history, belied the official sounding nature of the show
and its program, not to mention the visual nature of the presentation, which must have
seemed real. The blending of fact and fiction, not surprisingly, carried over to Cody
himself, as many became confused with him and the character of Buffalo Bill. More
important to history, though, the stereotype of the American Indian was reinforced, night
after night, as Buffalo Bill and his cast of nearly 500 actors played out scene after
scene where the Indian was nothing more than a mounted warrior destined to lose to the
American individual, taming the frontier, as it were, in a justifiable conquest.

While some historians have pointed out that the Indian cast members were paid good wages
and generally treated well, the stereotype has prevailed of the savage Indian and the
American individual. This, to put it mildly, has been damaging to the historical
consciousness of America. These myths have continued to be played out, once again
nightly, on television and in the movies. The myth of frontier values and “raw
independence” has continued to this day. Buffalo Bill, sadly, was as influential as any
other in defining the American frontier experience.

If the commercialization of American history can be traced to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
Show, it can also be said that it was perfected by Walt Disney and his 1955 masterpiece
called Disneyland. Once again blending fact and fiction and relying on simple, thematic
presentations that were easily digestible to a similarly eager crowd, Disneyland was the
continuation of the history of the west started by Cody in 1883. The history taught by
Disney was multifaceted and is easy to misinterpret. It seems, to me at least, that
Disney as history, at least in the 50’s and 60’s before they were forced to accept the
changing face of America in general, and L.A. in particular, was really a Turner-esque
creation of a new society after the frontier had been conquered. Disney offered a society
that was clean and safe and free of the racial, social, and economic strife that so
dominated the eastern cities like New York, or the cities of the Old World, like London or
Rome, where many Americans had their roots. Just as Turner saw the frontier as the slow
process of rebuilding civilization, so did Walt Disney see Disneyland as the creation of a
better society. If Buffalo Bill embodied the values of individualism and a romance with
the wilderness, Disney offered a civilization based on western progress, as an alternative
to the east.

Buoyed by the interstate highway system, Disney sought to create a destination point where
people would be entertained and spend vast amounts of money. This was not going to be a
melting pot, salad bowl, or any other mixing of classes and races. His plan, simply put,
was to bring middle class America together, feed them middle class values and dummied-down
history, and then, as they cheer how great it is that history is explained just how they
see it, separate them from their money. Inherent in his vision was a level of control not
seen in theme parks of the east. Disney sought to abolish the chaos associated with such
hallowed places as Coney Island in New York. To achieve this, he used tight security,
hired young, energetic white faces, banned hippies, intimidated minorities, and charged
exorbitant fees, before stuffing the most sterile Maine St—which people loved—down their
collective throats. The 185-acre amusement park was divided into areas like Frontierland,
Fantasyland, Adventurland, Tomorrowland and Maine Street, which all offered a wholesome
portrayal of America without war, poverty, or any rough edge normally associated with
frontier life, or life in general. The motives of Walt Disney are complicated and
contradictory, and therefore will not be discussed in this paper. It has been well noted
that Walt had a troubling childhood, and as an adult supported authoritarian power. But
it is possible that his park used control to support their financial goals more than to
advance any agenda by the founder.

Nonetheless, the history taught at Disneyland is consistent with the conservative belief
that internal disorder is the great threat to American Democracy. Presidential history
according to Walt Disney is nothing more than a series of great steps by great men—white
men, of course—to restore order. As is evidenced in the Presidents exhibit, or on many of
the rides (like the Safari) disorder is to be feared. Internal disorder, to Disney, was
the west before people like Cody tamed the savages. This disorder, moreover, had been
replaced by the model western society of Disneyland. In this sanitized reality, the
corporation was the perfect institution, and capitalism inevitable. Disneyland sold—in
its exhibits, planned communities, and media products—a glorified, American lifestyle
based on cleanliness, order, and white middle class values.

Disneyland, moreover, as a product of its times pushed a history dominated by competition
(a value of extreme relevance during cold war) and capitalism; values which glorified the
success of its wealthy, white patrons. Walt Disney, it seems, was very astute to the
values of his time and gave the people exactly what they wanted to hear. Not only were
the employees all white and overly cheerful, but the blacks that were involved, like the
infamous “Aunt Jemima Kitchen” sponsored by Quaker Oats, were so pejoratively. Only after
CORE protests, in 1963 and again in 1968, did blacks get hired and then actually greet the
public. For a nation in turmoil, and for a region happy to be away from the residue left
over from a century of massive, rapid urbanization in the east, Disneyland was the perfect
tonic for a white, mobile middle class apathetic to the problems of race and class.

Disneyland offered a history that glorified the west and the cleanliness of an era long
gone, while at the same time neglecting things like collective action like labor
movements. The interesting thing about Disney is that they are still influencing the way
we see the past, and, dishearteningly, the future. Watching Disney “gentrify” New York is
like watching history in real time: the cleaning up of Times Square; the walling off of
public space; the removal of benevolent chaos from public life; the creation of another
Disneyland; the end of history removed from commerce. After 40 years, Disney has finished
what Buffalo Bill started. Fact and fiction have been blended to the point where the
truth is not decipherable. History, for the masses, has been reduced to public spectacle
for a price. It is almost as if the west was tamed, the millions of innocent Indians
killed, so Disney could wall off our neighborhoods, close off public space, and then
charge America to hear the story of how he managed to do it. There are indeed many
consistent themes in the Buffalo Bill and Disneyland experiences. Buffalo Bill was
bankrupt in 1916. Historians can only hope the same fate awaits hegemonic Disney. The
question, though, is it too late to rewrite all of this specious history?

More than entertainment, to be sure, both Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Walt Disney’s
Disneyland permeated American culture in their day and continue to mold collective ideas
about America, the west, and the California dream.

The Populists

If one looks at history as a series of economic stages, as Marx did, then the Populists
are easy to explain. In the 1890s as the American economy was transformed from an
agricultural society to an industrial society, the losers of this transition, the small
farmer, fought to stop the clock of history and secure the lifestyle of the past. Like the
manufacturer of today who hopelessly fights globalization and the next stage of history,
the so-called information-age (or what Toffler, Blair, Clinton and Gingrich call the third
wave) the fight is doomed to failure. Nothing can stop the inevitable march of progress
into the next stage of history, the argument goes, and the Populist movement was merely
the last gasp—like the recent WTO riots of the industrial stage, perhaps—of the
agricultural stage. While it is convenient to see history as a series of stages and the
Populist in this light, they were far more successful then most third parties in US
history, and their legacy is one of both failure and great achievement. The unprecedented
demands of the Populist revolt forever changed America and the role of the Federal
Government. It is with irony, then, that many historians now consider the Populists a
vital part of the new America, the industrial America, then merely a residue of the past.
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