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A different sort of pilgrimage

By Janet Harron

Going on a pilgrimage has long been a way to strengthen one's faith. For centuries, the faithful have travelled to the Holy Land. The French town of Lourdes has been a destination for those looking for miraculous cures since the mid-1800s. Devout Muslims travel to Mecca, the centre of the Islamic world and Buddhists visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha in west-central Nepal.

And then there are those that make regular pilgrimages to a place where they can forget their worries and be a kid – like the Magic Kingdom as envisioned by Walt Disney.

"Religion is more than church attendance or a belief in God," said Dr. Jennifer Porter, associate professor of religious studies in the Faculty of Arts. "Many people would say that religion is a system for providing definitions of what it means to be good and evil and a system for defining what it means to be a human being."

According to Dr. Porter, who is interested in how Disney defines these things, "virtually every Disney film" addresses questions surrounding the nature of sin and whether redemption is possible.

She offers up the 1940 film Pinocchio as a key example of the Disney philosophy.

"Pinocchio is told that if he is honest and truthful and brave, he too can be a real boy," explained Dr. Porter, who received a SSRHC standard research grant to study Disney and its culture. "Throughout the film, Pinocchio is given bad advice and good advice and must decide between the two. He becomes the arbiter of his own morality, which I think is a really significant message."

Dr. Porter is interested in studying more than the messages of Disney itself. She also focuses on its core audience and fan communities.

"Many people are critical of media for their influence and of Disney in particular for the messages they promulgate – such as the princess image – but no one has ever demonstrated whether and how the messages impact the audience in either a negative or positive way," Dr. Porter said, who plans to utilize discussion boards and attend conventions to speak directly to Disney fans.

Since the Disney Corporation is notoriously controlling of their image and how the audience sees them, Dr. Porter plans to engage with fans in unofficial spaces.

"I want to examine how they negotiate their own meanings and their own relationships to Disney."

As Dr. Porter explains it, the Disney world view can completely "suck you in."
With theme parks in Florida, California, Paris, Japan, and Hong Kong (with one opening soon in Shanghai), visitors to the parks get a physical sense of ending up in a new space.

"You literally cross a boundary from one world to another. In Florida in particular, you go from cracked to pristine roads, from dried out grass to manicured gardens – even the road signs change colour ... you know you're not in Kansas anymore," said Dr. Porter, whose academic interest in religion and pop culture began when she was a graduate student.

Dr. Porter plans on visiting each theme park on days that coincide with online community meetings in order to have one-on-one time with the fans. Since Disney also defines ethnicities and what it means to be American versus European versus Asian, Dr. Porter feels that emphasizing this global reach has added an international dimension to her research.