Update 08/27/22: If I had done just a few more minutes’ worth of digging, I would’ve seen that the people vocally objecting to the Splash Mountain re-theme all, without fail, quickly revealed themselves to be blatant bigots. The entire thing is obviously a “Comicsgate”/”Gamergate” style campaign, trying to insert alt-right talking points into discussions about pop culture. They’re assholes who are using people’s legitimate nostalgia for a ride and a movie to help amplify their bigotry, and I regret giving them any attention whatsoever.
Splash Mountain remains a problem, and not just for the obvious reasons. Possibly because the re-theming of the ride was delayed by COVID, we’ve gotten to hear an extra two years of people complaining about it.
I already talked about my reaction to the re-theme back when it was announced. Digest version: it makes me sad, because I grew up with Song of the South, I associate it with a family member who passed away, and when I was little, those animated characters were Quintessential Disney to me even more than Mickey Mouse. But the re-theme is going to be better in every possible way: better for Disney, better for Disney’s merchandising division, better for the young kids who’ll have new characters to get attached to, and better for guests who’ll get a fairly significant overhaul for a 30-year-old ride.
But there’s still a lot of revisionist history going on around Splash Mountain and Song of the South. Not just the movie’s absurdly Disney-fied version of a plantation during Reconstruction, but this bizarre idea that objections to the movie and the ride are some recent “woke” invention.
Simply put: Disney was well aware that there were objections to the movie when it was made in 1946, and that there were objections to the movie when the ride was made in 1989. Suggesting that it was a simpler time and they were just unaware of the connotations is an insultingly lousy defense, because it suggests that the people at Disney were either stupid or grossly naive. No, they’ve known at every step that there was going to be push back, they just never had enough incentive to care.
Really, the whole history of the movie and the attraction has been a series of half-measures to work around objectionable material, for the sake of preserving a bunch of charming characters. The movie was re-worked to emphasize that it was set during the Reconstruction and therefore the happy, magical black people weren’t actually enslaved. The ride was re-worked to change the “tar baby” to a beehive and put all the focus on the animated segments. The benefit of hindsight makes it clearer that it would’ve been a lot easier to just pick different source material, instead of juggling a hot potato for decades, trying to surgically remove the most objectionable thing and then leaving the rest for the next group of people to deal with. But to suggest that nobody’s ever had a problem with it until political correctness came along is just laughably false.
Even if you have the most charitable possible impression of Joel Chandler Harris, and believe that he was sincerely trying to bring African-American folklore to both black and white audiences as a reunification effort, it’s still obviously a problem because it’s black culture as filtered through a white man. I personally think it’s reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt — just like with everybody involved with the movie, who I think were at worst insensitive, not malicious — but the whole thing is a problem straight down to its origin.
Ironically, one of the stupidest things I’ve read online also has the barest nugget of a valid argument against a Princess and the Frog re-theme. One of the chuckleheads complaining incessantly on Twitter about “woke Disney” actually said that it was objectionable because it was replacing characters from African-American folklore with a fable written by “two European white men.” Once I stopped laughing at the sheer cluelessness of that, I did feel the barest tinge of regret that we were losing a piece of what is authentically Georgian culture.
So I definitely sympathize with anyone sad to see Splash Mountain go, but I’d also encourage them to get over it, since the re-theming is absolutely a no-brainer of a good idea by every measure. But the actual complaints about the change are so fatuous — even by the standards of people complaining online about Disney parks — that I can’t even believe that they’re being made in good faith.
That’s now true of every complaint about anything “woke” now. It’s so disingenuous and fake and deeply, deeply cynical. Opportunists have realized that they can get immediate attention any time they complain about whatever book, movie, comic book, video game, TV show, or really anything that includes women, LGBT people, non-whites, or non-Christians. Everything gets targeted with a campaign of review bombs and blatantly fake Twitter comments, because they’ve seen over and over again that it’ll generate a ton of reactions.
At this point, it’s just depressing to see people repeatedly taking the bait. Whether by reacting as if the comments are being in good faith, or much more often, just amplifying the stupid comments in order to publicly dunk on them. It’s too tempting to think, “I have the perfect response that will put an end to this kind of backwards thinking once and for all,” or, “I will shine a light on the kind of toxic behavior that permeates the internet, instead of letting their targets suffer privately,” which is exactly the goal behind them: to elevate nonsense and treat it as if it were the subject of reasonable debate.
I don’t know what the actual solution is, but I do know that, for instance, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the casting of The Sandman (apart from “hey, good choices all around!”) if Neil Gaiman hadn’t publicly responded to complaints about gender-swapping or casting black or non-binary actors. Some of the comments were so obviously phony, written by someone who’d never read the source material, that it’s tough to see what was gained by engaging with them as worthwhile. But if the alternative was for Gaiman to just let all of that garbage float around unaddressed, that’s not great, either.
And the part that’s especially dispiriting is that we’re in at least the fourth or fifth generation of this whole process. You can see how thoroughly it’s infected the conversation around everything. Bullshit, regressive ideas that would’ve been roundly rejected in the days before Web 2.0 are now just taken for granted and expected. This story has a woman superhero, so naturally some people are going to find that objectionable.
Real progress would mean that yes, of course, in 2022 we can see, for instance, a Predator movie with a bad-ass Comanche woman as its lead, that sounds awesome, you’d have to be a fool to object to that. But instead, we get a round of “hey look at this fool who’s objecting to that, let’s all point and laugh.” Even if we’re dismissing them as bullshit, we’re still spending way too much time thinking of bullshit.
What’s even more dispiriting than that is that I’m having a harder and harder time believing any of it is genuine or in good faith, from any direction. We’ve already seen worthless, contemptible piece-of-shit policitians shamelessly gin up culture wars — putting real people in danger — to advance their own political careers. If those assholes can get so much attention for it, it stands to reason that crass media marketing types are much, much better at it.
For instance: I think that Kate Bush is undeniably a genius, but you could show me detailed transcripts from Netflix headquarters and I still wouldn’t believe that the recent popularity of “Running Up That Hill” was completely organic, and not manufactured by the Stranger Things team doing some extremely effective viral marketing. That’s the innocuous version. What happens when a marketing campaign realizes that people complaining about a black or a Muslim or a female character in a movie or TV series generates a ton of buzz around it?
I know it sounds implausible that people involved in marketing would knowingly do something that makes people’s lives worse, but humor me in this obviously fantastic thought experiment.
It’s entirely possible that I’m being overly optimistic when I assume that people can’t possibly be so genuinely upset about a 30-year-old theme park ride, or a black man or a white woman being cast as the lead in an action movie, or transgender people simply existing. But even if I’m wrong about that, I’m right in thinking that those people don’t deserve to keep having such an outsized part in our conversations.