Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why I don't like EPCOT, really

I'd like to take a break from all my lighthearted attacks on the theme park genre to discuss, if I may, why I don't like EPCOT. For real. Don't get me wrong -- the wifi is strong, the beer is plentiful and I can't get tired of all those Disney related things to buy. But there is a serious problem.

EPCOT does its best to give a taste of each country but it does so by freezing an entire country at one moment in its history and packaging that static window as the entire of the rich cultural heritage. Each country is a historical moment, a single ethnic contribution, maybe an architectural or geographical crumb, a beer and a food item. That's it. Do we really need to have our stereotypes of each culture reinforced by smiling actors wearing clothes that no one in the country has worn for 500 years? Are we supposed to be learning about how each country contributes to the global village today or about how they developed their signature dinner menu in 1750? Japan is a fascinating culture and country which is a first world power. Do I need that reduced to shrimp crackers, Hello Kitty and a woman bowing and saying "arigato" while giggling? I honestly felt bad for her and wanted to ask her if she was comfortable playing in to the oldest and most demeaning cliches about her identity. Does the Mexican pavilion help the cause of Mexican validity by giving me a burrito and Three Amigos references?

Maybe we are beyond the pavilions. Maybe the internet and the constant availability of information about disparate cultures makes the world showcase unnecessary and, if anything, stifling. Is the point to highlight something about each country to show it off? And if so, does the UK give us nothing more than Mary Poppins? Is the US to be known in the world for the Revolutionary War, fifes and domestic beer? When people couldn't travel anywhere on the cheap or see the sights of the world online, maybe seeing the Chinese pavilion was exciting and novel. When all I knew of France was the Eiffel tower, maybe seeing some of the other tourist sites was eye opening. But now, with a series of clicks, I can come in with more information and better pictures. Do I gain something by getting to speak with a native of Norway? Maybe but is that what is being stressed, or are the natives forced to play roles -- to act like historical natives and not like actual humans who live in a culture infused with the influences of an entire world, eager to move forward and reinvent themselves in a modern mold. By being stuck in these differences, EPCOT is undercutting the notion that we are all the same. Yes, we have distinct histories of which we should be proud, but the world showcase doesn't look at comparative histories the way a museum would. It insultingly presents these old ideas as the essence of what the country is now. What scientific breakthroughs are happening in Morocco NOW, and what cooperation with another country is Canada leveraging in order to improve the world? Why can't we talk about that instead of logging and the fur trade?

EPCOT is a vision of what the world of the future was going to be as of 1982. It has been over 30 years. Either those initial expectations have come true and they need to be updated or they haven't and they won't. If it really is a small world, why does EPCOT keep trying to cut it into smaller, discrete and old fashioned pieces?

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