Playing Cat & (Mickey) Mouse with Gender Politics

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Escape From Tomorrow is, on its surface, a tale of a father’s mental breakdown. Middle-aged so-called “everyman” Jim White finds out, on his family’s last day of vacation at Disney World, that he’s lost his job. Determined to hide it from his wife and two young children, he tries to continue on with the day, dealing with the stress of getting fired all by himself. He finds the rides becoming more & more bizarre, all while spending the day neglecting his kids in order to stalk to pubescent French girls, purposefully stylized as Lolita figures. Once Jim starts hallucinating monsters, hearing voices, & slipping into general paranoia, the audience knows they’re in for something strange. It isn’t until the second “act” of the film, though, that things go completely wild. The already-flimsy narrative structure is more-or-less abandoned in favor of scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Because of the guerilla-style filmmaking that went into Escape From Tomorrow (the film was shot covertly [& illegally] on Disney property), many viewers & critics expected a deliberately searing critique of the Disney cultural phenomenon. While this kind of commentary wasn’t necessarily the central point of the film, writer/director Randy Moore certainly didn’t paint Disney as the happiest place on Earth. On the contrary, Disney World becomes a place of quietly totalitarian rule. Here, to borrow from David Mamet, everything not required is forbidden. The park functions as an autonomous character, exerting its control over the patrons, & everyone from children to adults is all-too-happy to let it happen. It’s the “Disney magic” in action.

Jim losing his job right away as the film begins immediately strips him of his traditionally masculine authority. The audience never gets to know him as anything but a man who’s been “emasculated”—he’s broke, his wife can’t stand him, his kids hate him, & the younger girls he flirts with think he’s a joke. His (now-absent) power comes off-screen: he provided the money that got his family to Disney. Once his role as breadwinner is challenged, he begins to question his identity, & this instability of his sense of self is manifested in the hallucinations he has—he think he hears his wife saying she hates him, thinks he finds out that his son is not actually his son.

The film is steeped in Freudian imagery & subtexts, not the least of which is the theory of the repressed. In the realm of Freudian psychosexual drama, a person who’s still fixated on early libido objects (see Jim’s obsession with the pubescent girls), two outcomes are possible: perversion or neurosis. Jim floats back & forth between the two outcomes, flirting with internalizing or externalizing his desires. His wife more or less allows him to get away with this psychosexual game with the underage girls, but when the opportunity arises for Jim to act on his desire for them, he can’t bring himself to do it.

If Disney World is the child’s overwhelming, unbridled fantasy, Jim’s is pedophilia. The girls aren’t painted as sophisticated high-school aged temptresses (which isn’t to say if they were high-school aged, they’d be able to consent either, but the point stands). They’re depicted as 12-13 years old, skipping around, giggling, screaming on rides like the children they clearly are. Their sexuality is tentative & playful, making it clear to the viewer that if Jim were to act on his impulses, he would obviously be taking full advantage of them. Just as he’s trapped in the family structure/unit, he’s similarly trapped in his own desires—he can’t get rid of them, but can’t act on them either.

Does Moore want the viewer to sympathize with Jim for feeling trapped? For his inability to act on his desires? At multiple moments, the sympathy is clearly & emphatically placed with Jim. He’s depicted as brave for approaching the girls in the pool, daring for following them onto a ride. It isn’t until the pool rendezvous is violently interrupted by his family & the ride excursion is disrupted by his young son vomiting that the viewer is jolted back to reality, realizing just what Jim was about to do. At these moments, we sympathize with Jim’s wife & children, & see him with the same disgust they do. Moore is an expert on swinging the viewer back & forth—making her question why she’s viewing these characters the way she is, & what external forces are shaping those views.

Are Jim’s pedophiliac desires creepier because the scene is one of innocence & youth—Disney World? Or do we give him a bit more of a free pass because he’s painted as a man trapped in a world over which he has no control? He can’t control his job, his relationship, his children, the circumstances of the park, hell—he can’t even control his own alcohol tolerance. He’s the “everyman” thrown into the ultimate world of simulacra. At Disney World, simulation triumphs over reality. Jim, therefore, permits himself to push the boundaries with his desires because Disney isn’t representative, in any way, of reality. It’s his playground, a simulation free-for-all.

As Jim plays around here, Moore wonders at his role of father-breadwinner, leading the film to imply that when the father’s physical, emotional, & monetary contributions go underappreciated, he deserves a break from reality. He gets to neglect his kids, he gets to get wasted, eat overpriced food, cheat on his wife, flirt with teenagers. This stance, paired with the film’s misogynistic painting of Jim’s wife, Emily, as a one-dimensional critical, demanding, high-pitched-voiced whiner, may serve as a problematic warning: appreciate your man or else.

Jim is by no means the flawless hero who deserves anything he wants, however. Returning to Freud, Jim’s latent fears are incredibly middle class. He’s afraid of losing his job (check), falling out of love with his wife (check), being broke (check), being inappropriately attracted to young girls (check), losing his children (check)… the list goes on. These middle class, domestic anxieties all come vividly to life in this setting, making the point that the most terrifying things we can imagine are those that we have to confront on a daily basis.

One of the most interesting “daily domestic terror” subplots in the film is that of the relationship between Jim & his son, Elliot, who clearly has an Oedipal obsession with his mother. The movie opens with Elliot locking Jim outside on the balcony so he can climb into bed with his mother, snuggling in tight & effectively taking Jim’s place in the marital bed. The relationship between father & son comes to a head at the end of the film, when Elliot opens the bathroom door to find his father dying. The triumphant look on Elliot’s face clearly lets the reader know that trying to save his father’s life never crosses his mind before he simply closes the door, going back to bed, & leaving his father to meet a grisly fate.

Elliot stands as the centerpiece of the film (even as the one character who remains silent more often than he speaks) making Jim’s ultimate failure to him. (Additionally, Moore has openly stated that his inspiration for the film came from his relationship with his estranged father & their trips to Disney World.) One key scene that speaks to this failure is when Emily takes their daughter Sara to get lunch, leaving Jim & Elliot alone together to ride the Buzz Lightyear ride Elliot’s been dying to go on all day. After waiting for over an hour in a slow-crawling line, the pair finally reaches the front, only to be told that the ride has just been shut down. Jim’s anger at being out of control leads him to become more brazen about stalking the French girls—even with Elliot (who asks why they’re following them, adding, “They’re pretty, huh?”) in tow.

Jim’s utter lack of control over the Buzz Lightyear ride mimics what he perceives as a lack of control over the failing relationship between himself & Elliot. This leads the viewer to wonder what Moore sees as being the pervasive, intergenerational failure between fathers & sons. There’s something, in other words, that is preventing men from passing along important, transcendent lessons to their sons. Here, it’s Disney itself. The infallible & oft-unnamable forces that construct the entity that is “Disney” rule children (& parents) with a heavy fist. The paternalism of the park & its related mythologies replaces Jim’s paternal role, leaving him to spin out into an identity-less mess.

Once his roles as father & breadwinner have both been effectively undermined, Jim begins to view his very masculinity as a joke, continually making cracks about the phallic imagery in the park—even calling Epcot’s famed Spaceship Earth “a giant testicle.” Not only is this a sign of Jim’s lost masculinity, it’s also representative of the way in which Disney frequently co-opts narratives as their own—but only after sanitizing the plots to hide the sex/sexuality/eroticism they contain. In Escape From Tomorrow, this forcibly repressed sexuality & eroticism bubbles up through the cracks. The imagery—everything from rides to food—becomes phallic, Disney princesses become prostitutes, kids get to live out their Oedipus-&-Electra dreams, & grown men get to have sex with children.

It is important to remember, though, that the viewer’s arbiter of this sexual freedom is ultimately a male. As such, it’s no coincidence that the film is chock-full of “male gaze” shots. What’s difficult to determine is whether they’re sincere or ironic. Do they mock the male gaze or do they revel in it? The French girls are aware of Jim’s sexualized attention, Emily is aware of it, the children are aware of it, the ex-princess Jim meets in the park is aware of it. He is by no means subtle, & that is portrayed as a flaw in his character, but it’s difficult to discern what the film would suggest as a preferable alternative—Jim not subjecting girls & women to his lecherous advances or him doing so more subtly & tactfully.

As female viewers, we are all intimately aware of the existence of the male gaze—we all know what it feels like to be subjected to it, including by someone like Jim, yet Moore shoots the film largely from Jim’s perspective in a feeble attempt to get us to identify with him. The male gaze is given the Hitchcockian treatment—we see Jim’s face, then we see what he’s looking at (often the French girls). We become intimate first with Jim’s reaction (the effect), only then with the girls (the cause). The one time we see the girls through Emily’s eyes, their faces become contorted, taking on the shapes of monsters.

As previously mentioned, Emily is well-aware of Jim’s eroticized feelings for the girls, even making comments like “They’re a little young, Jim, even for you!” Since the viewer always sees them the way Jim sees them, they are presented onscreen as stereotypical “Lolitas,” young, thin, doe-eyed, largely physically undeveloped, & wearing flimsy white clothing adorned with hearts. Their symbolic markers of innocence are clear, in other words. The question then arises—if they are filtered solely through Jim, if it were not for his lecherous, pedophiliac reaction, would the audience think twice about their sexual appeal? It seems nearly impossible to claim that the audience wouldn’t already sexualize the two girls, even if Jim hadn’t done it first. The film, in this way, puts the onus on the viewer, saying, in essence, you thought it, too, don’t lie.

As the film progresses, both Jim & the girls become bolder in their moves toward one another, & it becomes clear that this is a game for both of them. Though they may have different outcomes in mind, the strategic moves are clear on both sides. When one of the two girls invites Jim to come with them & he can’t muster up the courage to say yes, she spits in his face. The audience later learns that she’s given him the mysterious & deadly “cat flu” that’s been going around the park. If the girls are the cat, Jim is the mouse. He’s been caught, bested in the game. The assumption here is that the pursued, forbidden girl is really the one with all the power; that the grown man is inevitably powerless in the face of the underage girl, & she bats him around just for fun—because she can.

The dangerous stances here are evident. The girls (remember, they’re portrayed as middle schoolers—12-13 years old) may flirt playfully with Jim, but at the end of the day, they are shown skipping, eating frozen treats, riding the teacups, enjoying fireworks, & running around, playing with boys their own age. They’re still innocent & their tentative foray into sexuality & sexual power is just that—tentative. They’re testing their power in a land (Disney World) that’s distinctly separate from reality. It’s a simulation. As Baurdrillard explains, not only is Disney World a copy of a fictional/cultural idea; it’s also a copy of Disneyland. It’s a simulacrum to the second power. The girls’ test of their sexual power occurred in a space that is not real & therefore should not have been subjected to reality’s terms & consequences.

Jim’s denial of their continued test (as he refuses to go with them) shatters the illusion. He’s brought the real—with its norms, expectations, & consequences—into the fantasy. The punishment for this? Cat flu &, ultimately, death.

The gender politics swing pendulously throughout Escape From Tomorrow. To map major moments on this trajectory:

  1. Jim brings family to Disneyworld, demonstrating monetary power & role as breadwinning father
  2. Emily repeatedly & shrilly criticizes Jim’s every parenting decision
  3. Beautiful female nurse explains cat flu to Jim & how he can’t control it
  4. Ex-princess seduces & then rapes Jim
  5. Jim & Emily argue about Jim’s drinking; Jim looks like a fool, Emily a shrew
  6. Emily confronts Jim about the French girls; lashes out by hitting her daughter
  7. French girls ask Jim to come with him; he rejects them & they repay him for this decision by giving him cat flu
  8. Ex-princess kidnaps Sara; Jim rescues her
  9. Jim dies of cat flu, leaving the viewer w/the closing image of the French girls as grinning fairies

Neither male or female characters are painted as particularly illustrious, despite the plethora of gender-based commentary. There are five speaking female characters in the film, along with the voice-less Disney princesses whom we come to learn are actually high-priced prostitutes:

  1. Emily: Prudish, controlling, shrill, critical, exhausted
  2. Sara: Worships her father, innocent, puts on a strong face in front of him
  3. Ex-Princess: Seduces Jim w/her amulet, rapes him, kidnaps Sara
  4. Disney Princesses: Beautiful, mythologized, secretly sexual
  5. / 6.  French Girls: Innocent, but seductive (to Jim), ultimately deadly to him

The fact that the French girls Jim idealizes are a sharp composite of the four other women (counting the princesses as an entity) in the film is fascinating. The two girls are innocent, curious, & worshipful, just like his daughter, Sara; they’re controlling of & ultimately rude to him just like his wife, Emily; they’re seductive & powerful just like the ex-princess; they’re beautiful & mythologized (as Nabokov’s nymphets) just like the Disney princesses. The two girls whom Jim feels have inescapable control over him are actually representative of women in general. His misogyny, his cockiness, his cowardice, are ultimately his downfall. The fact that he sees these girls (& thereby all women) as his consequence-less playthings, is what kills him.  It’s the male corruption of the ultimate space of innocence—both in terms of the virginal female body & of Disney World.

As a viewer, it’s extremely difficult to discern what Moore is, in fact, attempting to say about gender & gender roles. Is Jim the victim? Is his wife? Are the girls? It’s a question that might take multiple views of the film to explore—& even then, may still very well go unanswered.

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