"For most people who act, getting a television (show) is the end product. It's the destination. For (Disney), it's the launch pad. In my mind it's: 'You’ve landed a TV show, now what’s the consumer products opportunity? The film opportunities? The Disney channel movie? The crossover episode? The book you’re going to write?' So they become Disney stars because they intersect with Disney in many ways, and that’s by design."
-- Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide
Lest your takeaway from this statement be that Gary Marsh is a sociopathic monster and the company he shills for, Disney, is nothing more than a ruthless corporate leviathan that considers kids no better than chattel, he goes on to say that there is a downside to this business model: when the manufactured young stars in question occasionally crack from the pressure, spiral downward and flame-out spectacularly and publicly, Disney's good name gets associated with the wreckage.
Re-read the above quote and understand something: It's not just the show that's the "product" -- it's the kids themselves.
And with that, I'm handed the perfect opportunity to bring back something from the archive -- or maybe, in Disney parlance, a classic from "The DXM Vault."
"Montana Über Alles" (Originally Published, 11.20.07)
Let me make something clear right off the bat: I don't normally go around taunting small children.
About a month or so ago, a friend of mine was in town -- a guy I hadn't seen since the two of us were a couple of kids watching The Wrath of Khan for the 130th time and trying to concoct viciously creative ways to destroy our neighborhood via a seemingly bottomless arsenal of fireworks. Eager to catch up after all these years, we made the decision to hook up for dinner on a Saturday night at one of my favorite local restaurants, Balthazar. Having traveled to New York City quite a few times in the past, he'd made a slew of new friends up here and asked if one of them could join us; I of course had no problem with it and when I arrived at the crowded upscale bistro -- after a hearty hug from my old partner in crime -- I was promptly introduced to a guy named Jeff who bore a somewhat frightening, doppelgangerish resemblance to Scrubs star and wuss-music connoisseur, Zach Braff.
The similarities were so striking in fact that after successfully emptying several glasses of fantastic red wine, I decided to have a little fun at the expense of the table behind ours. I had noticed the three slightly mousy middle-aged women decked out in full Dress Barn gear discreetly craning their necks in our direction since we first sat down. Every so often, they and the little girl at their table would steal a quick glance over their shoulders -- their faces registering slightly quizzical excitement -- then titter away to each other in hushed sybilance. Finally, I flashed a warm smile at them -- one that I hoped said "Why hello sisters from Michigan making your first trip to the big city! Welcome! Have no fear; I have no intention of robbing or violently raping you or your child!" -- and blurted out what they no doubt wanted to hear.
"Hi ladies, do you know who this is?" I said, gesturing toward Jeff/Zach with my wine glass.
"We were wondering --" one of them came back sheepishly.
"Yes," I said, cutting her off. "It's Zach Braff -- you know, from the hit NBC television series Scrubs?"
The second woman spoke up, stifling a giggle. "We're from Wisconsin." Close enough. "We weren't really sure if it was him."
This immediately made me wonder if the television reception was somehow inferior in Wisconsin, and if so, why the FCC hadn't seen to the problem.
A moment later, having wrapped up dinner, our new friends were up from their table and headed for the door, but not before stopping to get one last look at the famous face of my dining companion -- the focal point of a brush with greatness that would no doubt provide endless excitement at the next Junior League meeting or church pot luck dinner.
Jeff smiled demurely, giving off an almost supernatural level of Braffitude.
"Are you on TV, too?" the little girl practically shouted into my ear, her braces gleaming in the candlelight; she was smiling so wide that I was concerned her rubber bands were going to snap.
"Me?" I said. "Nope, sorry. I work in television but I'm not actually on TV."
And that's when it happened -- the moment that, if you know anything at all about the pre-teen set these days, you could've seen coming light years away.
"Have you ever seen Zac Efron?"
Ah, Jesus, that kid from the fucking Disney High School Musical thing.
The look in her wide eyes was positively feral. She looked like she'd just mainlined an entire bag of sugar.
After a brief pause -- "Actually, yeah."
"YOU HAVE?!?" She literally jumped. I was concerned she'd slip on the puddle forming directly beneath her.
"Yeah sure," I deadpanned. "I just saw him a couple of days ago on the cover of Rolling Stone. Something about him being the 'next teen hearthrob' I think."
Everything about her seemed to spontaneously slide downward five inches or so. Her face deflated. Her smile drooped into a desolate frown. Her shoulders collapsed. You'd have thought I'd just told her that her entire family had been killed when their plane collided with Santa's sleigh.
"Congratulations, kid. You're officially the youngest girl whose heart I ever broke," I muttered, downing a giant gulp of wine.
"Good meeting you -- sorry about Garden State," Jeff said with a wave to the backs of the dejected little rugrat and her family, who were now making as quick an exit as possible.
If Zach Braff has received any confusing hate mail recently with a Wisconsin postmark, I apologize.
It's probably right about now that I should mention how much I hate Disney.
I hate the Walt Disney Company for roughly the same reason that a seemingly normal Midwestern pre-teen came very close to experiencing her first orgasm in the middle of a pricey French restaurant in SoHo: because the cult of Disney has exerted and continues to exert an almost undefinable form of mind control over America's kids, hypnotizing them into swallowing wholesale an inexhaustible supply of cleverly marketed but wholly mediocre crap.
I hate the Walt Disney Company because it's somehow also able to cast the same strangely anodyne spell over America's adults, cynically brainwashing a group of people who should know better into ignoring the decades of misdeeds the company has been guilty of in favor of buying into the eerily Stepfordesque image it expertly perpetuates.
I hate the Walt Disney Company because the heartless barons behind it expect you to believe that it isn't a company at all -- that it's still just Mickey Mouse and not guys like Mickey Eisner and Mickey Ovitz.
I hate the Walt Disney Company because everything about it is a lie. It sells phony perfection -- and we happily buy it.
Disney is the definition of bullshit.
About ten years ago, troublemaking Miami Herald columnist and best-selling author Carl Hiaasen wrote a brilliant, hilarious and entirely terrifying little book called Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World. Having grown up on Hiaasen -- his muckraking spirit was part of what inspired me to become a journalist -- and being lucky enough to have met him several times while in Miami, I looked forward to every new book of his; this particular one, though, was like a revelation. Hiaasen managed to sum up the palpable unease I felt when it came to Disney, and he offered more than a few examples of the malignance lurking just behind the carefully constructed facade that the company showed to the world.
Just from a mischievously miscreant point of view, Hiaasen's assertion is that Disney's prime evil lies in its constant quest to improve upon reality.
"Disney is so good at being good that it manifests an evil; so uniformly efficient and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly entertaining that it's unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure wickedness. Imagine promoting a universe in which raw Nature doesn't fit because it doesn't measure up... Team Rodent doesn't believe in (things like) sleaze, nor in old-fashioned revulsion. Square in the middle is where it wants us all to be, dependable consumers with predictable attitudes. The message, never stated but avuncularly implied, is that America's values ought to reflect those of the Walt Disney Company, and not the other way around."
Now before you begin chalking such indignation up to nothing more than sour grapes, general misanthropy or a lack of fairy dust sprinkled in one's hair, best to keep in mind that Disney has, throughout the breadth of its hegemony, engaged in corporate malfeasance so goddamned abominable that all the wishing upon a star in the universe couldn't put it right. Again, the goal of much of it has been nothing less than the creation and perpetuation of a strange Utopia which doesn't exist in nature but which Disney believes should.
Disney has a script and it will force any and all under its governance to adhere to that script word for word. There ain't no room for ad libbing when Chairman Mouse is in charge.
This is the company that drilled and dug into the fragile wetlands of Central Florida and deforested a massive area of land surrounding Walt Disney World, all to ensure that the water in the park's Bay Lake was the correct shade of deep blue.
This is the company that found itself accused of quietly poisoning and beating to death a group of federally protected large black buzzards that had the bad form to make a home atop one of the hotels on its Orlando property, potentially endangering Disney World's most salient ingredient, the one tourists from around the world have come to expect with the certainty of a morning sunrise: absolute, inoffensive predictability.
Likewise, this is the company that needlessly killed hundreds of lemmings during the filming of its Academy-Award winning 1958 nature "documentary," White Wilderness.
Oh yeah, you didn't hear about that?
The story of White Wilderness is by now as legendary as the mass lemming death march that the film purports to show. Unfortunately, only one of the two tales -- that would be the former -- is true. Put another way, lemmings don't in fact throw themselves off cliffs; it's a myth that persists to this day thanks mostly to the good folks at Disney, who, during the making of White Wilderness, managed to capture this incredible, impossible migration on film. The movie's crew had heard the rumor about the sad fate of those suicidal lemmings and decided to travel to Alberta, Canada to see it for themselves. When they arrived, they found that not only was the story a bunch of nonsense, but that there weren't even any lemmings in Alberta, Canada -- they live almost exclusively above the Arctic Circle -- nor was there even a nearby ocean. Undaunted by such minor factual hurdles, the crew bought hundreds of lemmings from a group of Innuit schoolchildren in Manitoba -- no doubt mesmerizing them with images of Mickey Mouse, the way a child molester might -- and hastily constructed a snow-covered turntable which they then put the lemmings on top of and rolled cameras. The lemmings essentially ran in place, with only the background moving.
Once that was done, it was time for the money shot.
The film crew went to a nearby river, once again made sure the cameras were rolling, and then threw lemmings into the icy water by the handful. The poor lemmings of course drowned, but hey, Disney got its movie -- and an Oscar for that matter.
Knowing this story, it should surprise no one that Disney was responsible for creating a series of pro-American propaganda films that were aired all over Iraqi television -- it obviously has no issue with the innocent dying for a lie.
There are so many more examples of questionable corporate behavior: from strong-arming local governments that stood in the way of Disney World and Disneyland's "progress," to eventually creating its own puppet government -- the Reedy Creek Improvement District -- in Orlando, in charge of its own police force which answers strictly to the whims of the Mouse, to the purchase of a Caribbean island notoriously popular with drug-smugglers which the company benignly rechristened as a family friendly stop for its Disney Cruiseline, to the suing of a daycare center in Hallandale, Florida which dared to paint images of Disney characters on its walls. (The company claimed the daycare was violating its intellectual property rights.)
But Disney's true villainy lies, once again, not in what it's doing behind the scenes, but in the innocence of the scenes it's created to hide behind. Disney has what could be the largest and most offensive gap in the corporate universe between its image and its reality.
And most of that image is aimed at snaring your kids.
It's the perfect, self-perpetuating marketing technique -- literally raising the company's own consumers from birth.
Disney grabs your children right out of the womb, enticing them with colorful banalities and nurturing them through product placement and its own televised propaganda wing -- Cap Cities/ABC TV -- until brand name recognition is practically Pavlovian. As they grow, Disney plays the role of their BFF, growing alongside them and responding to the very wants and needs that it's surreptitiously insinuating into their consciousness.
In effect, creating its own demand for dreck like High School Musical.
Or -- God save us all -- Hannah Montana.
I don't envy parents of young girls right now. I would probably consider going the Disney-approved-lemming route if it meant that I could avoid having to indulge a screaming 'tween desperate to lick the sweat from Miley Cyrus's ass crack. The High School Musical craze was utterly surreal to me; this Hannah Montana shit is just flat-out baffling. I'd like to think that the pre-teen worship of the young Miss Cyrus is at least amusing to most parents, who unlike their kids remember a time when her father Billy Ray was the most ridiculous man in America. Of course that's assuming that most middle-American moms these days would be unwilling to admit to their complicity in the God-awful "Achy Breaky" craze -- the one which held this country hostage for what seemed like an eternity during the early 90s.
Now, proving that Billy Ray Cyrus's sperm would indeed mutate exactly as many had feared, his daughter has taken her rightful place as the new Gozer the Gozerian of popular culture.
She's Blossom without the nose. She's Hillary Duff without the idiot from Good Charlotte. She's Hannah Montana!
And she's turning millions of girls below the age of 14 into little Veruca Salts, angrily demanding that their parents drop everything to buy them CDs, DVDs, concert tickets, lunchboxes and anything else adorned with the image and featuring the painfully average vocal ability of Miley Fuckin' Cyrus.
It's gotten so bad, what with Christmas (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company) approaching and all, that people are now joining in a class-action lawsuit against Miley Cyrus's online fanclub because they feel that they were lured into buying up memberships with seductive promises of a first crack at tickets to the sold-out Hannah Montana tour.
Let me say that again: People are suing because they couldn't get tickets to see Billy Ray Cyrus's daughter. Who needs the striking late night writers? That kind of comedy gold writes itself.
Meanwhile, in Tampa, a 35-year-old man hung on to a nine-foot-tall statue of Hannah Montana's golden calf-esque likeness for six days to win tickets to a sold out HM show. "I'm ecstatic. It's like a dream come true," he said just moments after the final challenger died of shame, releasing her grip and ensuring his victory.
Look, I'm the first one to agree that the mitigating factor of a phenomenon like Hannah Montana is that, for most young girls, it likely represents the final relatively harmless stop on the pop culture line before MTV gets its hooks into them and graduates them to full-blown sluthood with noxious crap like The Hills. But even MTV -- which is owned by Viacom -- is either unable or unwilling to make use of the kind of full-spectrum corporate synergy that Disney brings to bear when it comes to marketing pabulum like Hannah Montana and High School Musical to America's kids. The onslaught from film, broadcast television, cable TV, DVD, publishing and music outlets is simply unavoidable. A child has almost no choice but to hop on the bandwagon.
Which of course is exactly the way Disney wants it, because for those engineering another generation of consumers -- Imagineering, if you'd like -- Hannah Montana is just the next phase in a lifelong strategy.
I have no doubt as to what that little girl from Wisconsin is already bugging her mom for this Christmas.
Sure, it's a small world after all -- but it's all Disney's.