Posts in: SO214
Last night we read “The Happiest Place on Earth: Disney’s America and the Commodification of Religion,” (Mazur and Koda). It argues that for many Americans, salvation is a commodity. Disney is competing with religion by offering the same products: “mythologies, symbols, rituals, and notions of community by which consumers organize their lives.” Disney provides lessons of morality through kid’s movies. They then sell toy versions of characters that symbolize the mythologies from the movies. But what I find the most fascinating is the ritual of visiting Disneyland. The article refers to pilgrimage to Disneyland as the American equivalent of making Hajj to the mecca of popular culture.
Growing up in Southern California, and less than an hour away from Disneyland, I have made this sacred Pilgrimage countless times. I even applied to work as a Disney Princess one summer. Disneyland is flawless in appearance and impeccably groomed. Everything seems effortlessly perfect. Disneyland goes to great lengths to keep up this appearance, and they do so by keeping the sacred separate from the profane. Everything happens behind the scenes, and what you see is all a performance of the ultimate fantasy. All the employees are always “in character” and always smiling. There are restrictions about the make-up, hairstyles, piercings and tattoos that employees can have. When Disneyland first opened, there were even these same types of restrictions for the patrons. When my step-dad was a teenager he was denied entry because he had long hair. You would think he would hate Disneyland for it, but he still loves the place and enjoys it just as much as us kids. Thats how powerful Disneyland is as a sacred space.
Disney is so powerful in popular culture is because they have successfully commodified the religious experience and marketed the sacred. Disney isn’t just movies, theme parks, and toy stores. It has its own cruise line and even its own wedding package including destination weddings at the parks, wedding dresses, and honeymoon trips. I would never get married at Disneyland personally, but I am completely obsessed with the place and and fully committed to the religion that is Disney.
One of our assignments is to attend a church (or other religious congregation) of our choice for the duration of the block. One of the churches that our professor said could be interesting was Grace Baptist Church, a fundamental church that interprets the King James’s Bible literally. This is the one I chose. I knew they were going to try and “save” me. Representatives from the church have been charged with a Colorado felony for baptizing children without their parents’ permission and have been know to proselytize to young children.
A classmate and I went to a service last Sunday morning. The second we walked through the doors we were warmly greeted, but also recognized as outsiders, or newcomers. They lady that welcomed us asked us to fill out a visitor card giving our name, how we heard about the church, and our phone numbers. The church was under construction so we were introduced to another woman who showed us where the service would be held. My classmate and I sat down towards the back hoping not to stick out too much. After only a few minutes, the lady who showed us where to sit brought over a girl our age and introduced us all. The girl was in the choir, so we would be singing at the opening of the service but would then come and sit with us “so we didn’t have to feel alone.”
My classmate were waiting for the service to start when the pastor came over, introduced himself, and welcomed us. A few other members of the congregation did the same. There was no way we were going to blend in.
The service started with contemporary music and the congregation was pretty animated, interjecting “Amens’” after certain lines. After a few songs and readings the pastor came to the pulpit. He held all the visitor cards in his hands. He called us out by name (along with another young couple) and asked the congregation to come welcome us. The majority of the congregation then came and introduced themselves to us and shook our hands. This is also when the young women we had met earlier came back to sit with us.
The sermon was very animated and involved many personal stories from the pastor. He talked about the variety of the religious opinions in the world, but stressed to always come back to the literal words in the bible. The sermon was about asking God to cleanse you of your sins in order to reach salvation. The young women sitting with us had her own bible with the verses cited highlighted.
After the sermon the pastor asked us to close our eyes and those who wanted to be saved to please come forward. One young woman was saved on Sunday. During the closing of the service, the young woman sitting with me asked if I anyone had ever shown me in the bible how I could be saved. I said no. She then asked if she could show me. I said maybe another time. She said she didn’t want to rush me, but she would be happy to show me whenever I felt ready; she said it was the most important thing I would ever know. She then gave me the church’s business card and told me to call if I ever needed anything. We said our goodbyes, and she said she hoped I would come back next week.
Today in class we debated whether or not there is a civil religion in America. Again, we used Durkheim’s definition of a religion: a unifying set of practices. We discussed the rituals we participate in (like voting or saying the pledge of allegiance) that reinforce American’s shared value system rooted in democracy. We talked about the importance of effervescence and the power of a shared emotional experience. People are often moved by patriotic events, not because of personal history, but because of the strong social force that comes from communal identity.
I don’t consider myself to be incredibly patriotic, but my roommates and I spent our afternoon crying while watching videos of soldiers’ homecomings. All of us are anti-war, and have no real connection to the military, yet we were overcome with emotion with every clip. Of course part of the emotion we felt was psychological, but much of it was socially constructed. America makes soldiers out to be heroes. As American’s, my roommates and I glorify the soldiers despite being pacifists. The influence of national values permeates our own value systems. This is a testament to the civil religion we have in the United States. We participate in communal practices that emphasize national values and the importance of our country. It influences our thoughts and dictates our emotions, whether or not we are aware of it.
Last Wednesday I handed in my senior thesis, “A Sociological Study of Debutantes.” Sociology of Religion started the following Monday and it was my first class since before Thanksgiving break. I was excited to finally be able to forget about my thesis. I should have known that it wouldn’t be that easy to forget. Our first homework assignment was to read, Marx, Weber, and of course Durkheim–one of the theorists I had used to frame my thesis. I wasn’t surprised I had to read him, since he is one of the founding fathers of sociology, but I was surprised that reading him in this context would inspire me to add another section to the conclusion of my thesis.
For Durkheim, religion is a set of practices that unite people. He argues that rituals are communal acts that affirm beliefs and strengthen the group’s values. Debutante balls are rituals for the upper–class elite. While social status isn’t a “religion” in the traditional sense, the ritual of the debutante ball can be examined through a Durkheimian lens. Debutante balls unite the upper class through the shared practice of debuting and reproduces the values of the elite. In my thesis, I argue that debutante balls reinforce class privilege, reflect racial segregation, perpetuate gender norms, and normalize heterosexuality.
Debutante balls are rituals, but more specifically coming of age rituals for women. A coming of age ritual implies a changed, or new identity. However, I argue that debutante balls don’t change identities but reinforce them. The women I interviewed for my thesis didn’t really feel changed by their debutante balls. When doing my homework on Monday night, I found a new aspect of Durkheim on rituals that explained this. He argues that rituals function as a way for individuals to restate their loyalty to the group. Rituals elevate the the well being of the group while minimizing individual concerns. So while the debutante ball is a coming of age ritual, it isn’t about the individual debutantes, but rather about strengthening the values of the upper class elite. Debutante balls unite people through a shared practice, does that make them a religious experience?