The sex of the millennium is pornography.
If anything is more irresistible than Jesus, it’s
I. The Clever Midwesterners
Once upon a time, there were two young men who wanted to change the world. The first, raised in the small town of Marceline, Missouri, was named Walter Elias Disney. The second, Hugh Hefner, hailed from the bustling streets of Chicago. Both men found their way to the magical land of Los Angeles, where their dreams came true—one by tapping into childlike wonder, the other by fanning and satiating adult desires.
Though Walt and Hef were a generation apart (Walt was born in 1901, Hef in 1926), in many ways they are strikingly similar. Both were raised by a warm, supportive mother and a father who could be distant and demanding. Both had backgrounds in commercial art; both served in wars but saw no action; both were serial entrepreneurs, though neither was particularly interested in the minutiae of business; both became world famous for success in a single medium and moved on to create complex ecosystems of media, formats, and environments. Most significantly, Walt and Hef simultaneously perfected what we might call the Factory Model of Desire, wherein the only fantasies that endure are those that can be fulfilled by a preexisting, branded, mass-marketed commodity.
Back in the middle of the twentieth century, psychologist Abraham Maslow distilled his years of research on human needs into a powerful graphic that has been taught in undergrad psych courses for decades. A marvel of information design, Maslow’s Pyramid cleverly shows how humans negotiate their needs. At the bottom are what Maslow called “deficit needs,” because we feel them most acutely when they are unfulfilled. These are our needs for air, water, and food. These also include our needs within the social sphere, such as finding others with whom to talk, work, and mate. At the apex of the pyramid we confront the most abstract “being needs,” which, when met, literally make us into better people.
What Maslow’s Pyramid does not address is a phrase that now returns more than 3.25 million Google hits: entertainment needs. As insightful as Maslow was, Walt and Hef were more forward-thinking. Both understood that human needs change, and, furthermore, that the notion of enlightenment Maslow located at the top of his pyramid would never be as popular, much less as profitable, as entertainment.
II. Personalized Mouse Ears
Disneyfication is the word we now use to describe taking an ancient tale and bleeding the danger from it. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen stories, from which many Disneyfied blockbusters were fashioned, brim with violence, privation, and premature death. The Brothers Grimm version of “Cinderella,” for example, ends with terrible retribution: on their way to Cinderella’s wedding, each of the wicked stepsisters has one eye pecked out, and, on the way home, the other. Walt’s 1950 animated version, by contrast, ends with Cinderella and Prince Charming kissing as husband and wife.
During Walt Disney’s childhood in Missouri, however, the world wasn’t ready for Disneyfied fairy tales. At the turn of the twentieth century, childbirth was still dangerous and infant mortality sky-high; children regularly lost siblings, and the elderly perished at home. The stories on which Walt was raised were not only appropriate to these daily conditions but demanded by them: children needed fairy tales to inoculate themselves emotionally against the many imminent traumas. (Fairy tales are also rife with ravenous wolves, jealous stepmothers, and unprotected adolescent female protagonists; they incarnate not only the chill of mortality, but the heat of unchecked hormones.)
Walt rose from farm boy in Marceline, to paper boy when the family moved to Kansas City, to a worker in his father’s jelly factory when they moved to Chicago, to part-time art student in night school, to commercial artist, to the proprietor of a small animation studio called Laugh-O-gram Films back in Kansas City. In the early ’20s, Walt drew from fairy tales (“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” “Jack and the Beanstalk”), but these were his learning years, and lean ones, too, and eventually his animation studio went bankrupt. It was only after he moved to Los Angeles in 1923 that Walt found his footing, this time with wholly original material—especially a series featuring a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Through the kinds of contract negotiations the movie business is famous for, Walt lost the rights to long-lobed Oswald and was forced to morph him into another funny animal, this time with rounder ears. In 1928, Oswald was reborn as Mickey Mouse, star of an animated featured called Steamboat Willie.
Instantly, Walt had a worldwide star on his hands. Walt kept Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto hopping through the ’30s, racking up profits and Academy Awards for animation, but Walt became obsessed with going back to his fairy-tale-telling roots. He committed to doing a feature-length version of “Snow White”—in large part because the dwarfs lent themselves to animation and comedy—promoting it not just for children, but “for the child that exists in all adults.” His first full-length animated film came out to rapturous reviews and thunderous box office returns in 1938, making unimaginable sums and garnering one large Oscar and seven small ones (for the dwarfs, get it?). More shorts, further animated features, live-action movies, and expansions into television and theme parks followed over the next quarter century, until Walt’s name and face rivaled Mickey’s as icons of entertainment.
Walt’s genius was to understand that as the context shifted, so, too, must the texts. Mickey Mouse first caught the public’s attention the same year the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. The children who grew up with Walt’s early animations were protected by the explosion of antibiotics and immunizations that characterized the first half of the twentieth century. By the time those children’s children were watching Escape to Witch Mountain and buying personalized felt mouse ears at a kiosk next to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, scarlet fever was no more terrifying than the common cold, polio was a thing of the past, mothers gave birth in hospitals and came home nearly without fail, and old people were packed off to Leisure World. The children born in the second half of the twentieth century were truly modern. Things didn’t happen to them; they and the adults around them made things happen for them.
Walt made things happen. By the late 1930s, Mickey Mouse was as much of a cultural sensation as Charlie Chaplin. (Mickey, in fact, was embraced by the European avant-garde as a symbol of the anarchic liberation of the new world and its entertainments.) During this same period, however, Walter Benjamin expressed concern about the totalitarian implications of “the Disney method” that normalized power relationships—in other words, Donald Duck gets whacked because that’s his fate in life: he’s a whackable duck and no amount of social organizing will make him less whackable. Neither were the fascists happy: the Nazis took Walt to task for appropriating the tales of the German Volk and “Americanizing” them.
And the critiques continued, keeping pace with Walt’s degree of cultural influence and domination. In the 1940s, American labor excoriated Walt for right-wing union-busting, and in the 1960s librarian Frances Clarke Sayers critiqued Walt by writing that he “takes a great masterpiece and telescopes it… reduces it to ridiculous lengths, and in order to do this he has to make everything very obvious.” In the 1970s, political theorists Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart wrote a worldwide best seller titled How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, and Italian semiotician Umberto Eco would make Walt’s theme parks central to his Travels in Hyperreality. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that all these critiques officially came together under the term Disneyfication.
It’s no surprise that such a critical concept took off in the 1980s, twenty years after Walt’s death (or “death”—the rumor persists that Walt had himself cryogenically frozen and is, according to the most updated version of this rumor, stored under the Pirates of the Caribbean section of Disneyland). The ’80s was the decade that saw the Walt Disney Company rise to ever-greater heights under new CEO Michael Eisner and studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Eisner expanded the brand exponentially, opening a Disneyland in Paris, launching Disney Cruise Line, developing a master planned community in Florida called Celebration, inspired by Walt’s original plans for Epcot, and building Disney stores worldwide. Katzenberg revived the moribund animations group with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in 1988, and, most important, The Little Mermaid, in 1989, which made the fairy-tale animation more potent psychically and economically than it had been in decades. Walt might have taken issue with details of this vast expansion of his empire, as that was his nature as both artist and entrepreneur, but not with its totalizing spirit. For Walt, Disneyfication would have been a goal, not a warning.
III. The Ultimately Unsurprising Asphyxiation Risk Posed by Certain Sex Aids
Meanwhile, back in mid-’40s Chicago, a young Hugh Hefner had just returned from World War II. After bumping around for half a decade (and working as a copywriter for Esquire), he borrowed money from his mother, among others, to launch a skin magazine. Originally called Stag Party, and featuring a bachelor stag mascot in a smoking jacket, Hef’s magazine was warned it would be sued for copyright infringement by a men’s mag competitor (called Stag); by the time Hef’s first issue, featuring a nude Marilyn Monroe, appeared on newsstands, in December 1953, he’d changed the name to Playboy and replaced the mascot’s stag horns with floppy ears. (Just as Walt’s Oswald, responding to legal pressures, had to turn from a rabbit into a mouse, Hef’s deer was pressured to reinvent itself as a bunny.)
Hef’s “texts” were also in step with their time; Playboy’s incarnation of sex severed from reproduction emerged nearly in tandem with the first successful clinical trials of the birth-control pill. In the first issue’s now-famous introduction, the young editor and publisher wrote: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.… If we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age, we’ll feel we’ve justified our existence.” The telltale reference to nuclear holocaust reminds us that death, regardless of how it morphed in the twentieth century, remained tethered to sex, while sex itself was undergoing its own radical revisioning. Walt may have rewritten old stories for modern children, but Hef invented brave new tales for brave new adults in a brave new era.
Turn on Hef’s earliest television show, Playboy’s Penthouse, and watch Hef, pipe in hand, rather stiffly invite us in to join his swinging party. And what a party it was, with foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce ogling real-life Playmates, and Nat King Cole tickling the ivories. This social leveling of hipcats and kittens—blacks, Jews, and women who later could be seen without their clothes on in the magazine—was too incendiary for some stations in the South, yet Hef and his people preferred losing markets to succumbing to fears of race-mixing. This was the man who was proud of publishing some of the biggest literary stars of his time (John Updike and Saul Bellow among them), who staked out liberal positions on civil rights and censorship disputes, who found common cause with second-wave feminists over birth control and abortion.
Yet by the time he moved his personal operations to Los Angeles in the 1970s, Hef’s emphasis on sex morphed ever more surely into an emphasis on Hef’s sex. The Mansion in Chicago may have been a swinging pad, but the Mansion West, located in Holmby Hills (near TV producer Aaron Spelling’s massive spread, as well as the Disney manse), was weird, and became weirder: the site of a Me Decade–long bacchanal documented play-by-play in Hef’s house organ. The baby-oil-slathered pornotopia was assuredly not all fun and games. One night, poor Hef accidentally inhaled a Ben Wa ball out of July 1977 Playmate of the Month Sondra Theodore. The canny centerfold deployed the Heimlich, the gleaming silver orb flew out of Hef’s throat, and the lucky girl framed the unique souvenir with the motto “Lest We Forget.” It was in this period that Hef admitted, “The most successful sex object I’d ever created was me.”
IV. Single Entendres About Weenies
Entertainment becomes ubiquitous and audiences theoretically unlimited with the advent of what we now call “transmedia.” No one before or since has gotten that as profoundly as Walt, who began his career with animated shorts about funny animals, moved into comics (we have him to thank for Carl Barks’s sublime Donald Duck), then low-budget live-action movies (Swiss Family Robinson, Son of Flubber, and The Shaggy Dog), television (The Wonderful World of Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club), licensed goods of every description (from watches to pajamas to anything you can slap a copyrighted character image onto), and, finally, what he called “theme parks” (never, ever, the more common “amusement parks”).
Inspired by sources as disparate as Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens and Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, Walt opened Disneyland in 1955 as what we might call a Gesamtkunstraum—a work of art as a place, completely incorporating architecture, media, transportation, and even the people who work there into a totally integrated aesthetic space, walled off from the world and formed as much by the cinematic imagination as by any kind of architectural impulse. Disneyland was a space for pure entertainment, conceived in large part around Walt’s brilliant crowd-control-and-public-space concept—one that was inspired by dog trainers’ trick of waving frankfurters, or weenies, at their canine stars to encourage them to “act” as bidden. Walt took the concept of the hot dog as motivational device and deployed it throughout his Magic Kingdom. (The ultimate weenie, of course, is Sleeping Beauty Castle, which pulls people down Main Street toward Fantasyland. But there are secondary weenies galore, beckoning enraptured guests from land to ride to shop.)
It’s hard to resist creating double, or even single, entendres about weenies and Playboy, but just five years after Disneyland opened, Hef likewise determined that there would be a demand for a Gesamtkunstraum for his particular kind of entertainment. He founded the first Playboy Club in Chicago, and then went on to create a string of such clubs from New York to Los Angeles, London to Tokyo, Manila to Macao. Like the Disneylands and Worlds, Playboy Clubs were extrusions of the cinematic. Hef, a lifelong movie buff, was obsessed by the erotics of the silver screen, and the Playboy Clubs instantiated his movie-inspired architectural fantasias, making flesh the bachelor pads and urban boîtes of his fevered imagination. These were set-directed and fully staffed spaces where the average Joe (after forking over the then-estimable sum of twenty-five dollars for a “key”) could live life as though he were James Bond. (So successful was this merging of fantasy and real space that the movies soon returned the compliment. In Diamonds Are Forever, an execrable ’70s installment of the venerable series, Sean Connery as 007 is shown with a London Playboy Club key—a weenie if ever there was one.)
Walt and Hef both, then, offered their paying customers a chance to cross the fourth wall, to enter the dreamscape and literally interact with its cast (Mickey or Pluto or Cinderella at Disneyland, fluffy-tailed bunnies in the Playboy Clubs). These cast members were subject to strict regulations about fraternization, and minutely orchestrated rituals on how to appear and behave. Walt, for example, insisted that they emerge from hidden tunnels and that characters like Goofy were never seen without their heads on. Hef liked rules as well. The Bunny Manual prohibits the “girls” from sitting (though each was schooled in The Perch, which involved leaning against a chair back), and elaborates upon the crucial Bunny Dip, the key to smooth drink service: “A Bunny… does not awkwardly reach across the table,” but but reaches “by arching the back as much as possible, then bending the knees to whatever degree is necessary.” This kind of live performance of cinematic spectacle, of course, became a sine qua non of later cultural entrepreneurs, from Ray Kroc and the McDonald’s PlayPlaces to the ESPN Zone and every other horrible themed entertainment eatery that’s opened in a mall or downtown-redevelopment district near you. But Walt and Hef got there first.
V. Neighbors in the Uncanny Valley
As mentioned, both Walt and Hef owned homes in Holmby Hills, nestled in between those two more famous enclaves for the rich and famous, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. But Walt and Hef are also aesthetic neighbors in a wondrously named and entirely imaginary place called “the uncanny valley.” In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori published a paper about why it was that as robots became more human, they engendered greater and greater amounts of unease in spectators and users. Mori claimed that we recognize machines as they begin to look and behave like us, but, ironically, the closer they actually get to us, the creepier it makes us feel. Mori charts his research with industrial robots (non-humanoid machines) on one end of the scale, and healthy humans on the other, demonstrating that as robots approach the human, they rise at first, only to fall into the valley as their unheimlich qualities recall prostheses, corpses, and zombies. The uncanny valley extends into 3-D films as well, and it’s the reason that the toys in Toy Story are so much more involving than the few people we see, and why 2009’s Avatar was so much more successful than 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a translation of a successful video game into one of the biggest money-losing animated feature films of all time. It’s not just that animation advanced over the course of the decade. It’s that Avatar’s sultry Neytiri, being not quite human, was that much less likely to tumble into the uncanny valley than Final Fantasy’s photorealistic CGI “human,” Dr. Aki Ross.
Obviously, Walt and his corporate progeny have been taking the standard route into the uncanny valley ever since his first foray into animatronics, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. (This was the first stab at what would eventually be expanded into The Hall of Presidents at Disney World, which opened seven years later.) Walt’s Imagineers worked long and hard on defamiliarizing and refamiliarizing their animation of the nonliving to create simulations that delight rather than disturb. But juxtaposing Walt and Hef leads to one completely unexpected discovery: The uncanny valley has more than one road into it. If roboticists, animators, and Imagineers have entered from the south, think of Hef as a pioneer in a condom-and-vibrator-filled covered wagon, arriving from the north, uninterested in creating the lifelike from the inanimate, but instead in taking life and rendering it so seamless that it approaches the condition of unreality. In other words, if animation is the southern route into the valley, then airbrushing takes you in from the north. Each is drawing of a kind, but the animator takes the drawing and makes it “real,” while the airbrusher takes photography and creates an ideal.
The Playboy Playmate might have begun as a girl next door, but she is buffed and rebuffed by the magazine’s expert photographers, burnished into a high-gloss sheen before being printed on heavy-gloss stock. The addition of ubiquitous plastic surgery, literally from head to toe, Brazilian waxes, Oompa Loompa orange tans, and bleached hair has yielded squads of porno-fied California blonds (sometimes literally zygotic twins and triplets) who become pneumatic specimens of the posthuman unheimlich. “The Girls Next Door” of TV fame are filmed at the Mansion but live in the uncanny valley along with a host of other freakish plastic-surgery obsessives, including the late Disney fanatic Michael Jackson, the living cat woman socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein, and even the rictus-jawed octogenarian Hef himself, who at this writing had just become engaged to the twenty-four-year-old Crystal Harris.
It’s unclear if Walt and Hef ever met in the flesh, and less than likely that the older man would have seen anything of himself in his pajama-clad Holmby Hills neighbor. But Hef certainly embraced his forbear, delighting in the notion that the Mansion West was “Disneyland for adults,” as he put it. In this millennial moment of ours, when we expect connectivity everywhere and carry devices that deliver endless streams of branded content, we might pause for a moment and reflect upon these two clever Midwesterners who moved to L.A. and created their virtual worlds, their factories of desire, and how they both helped to gentrify the most uncanny of life’s valleys—the one that dips between the mountain peaks of ecstasy and annihilation.