The great American diet – junk food and junk culture

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, November 28 1988

This may not matter, but last week Walt Disney’s empire splashed its latest cartoon film across American cinema screens. It is the apparently innocuous story of an orphaned cat who takes up with a pack of dogs in New York City and is eventually rescued by a little girl called Jenny. The point here is that the cat is called Oliver, his best pal is a terrier called Dodger and the whole film claims to have been ‘inspired by Charles Dickens’.

Does it matter if Oliver Twist is turned into a cute little pussy cat with lovable eyes, if the Artful Dodger is a mongrel with a Brooklyn accent and his own rock song, if Bill Sykes becomes some oily Levantine in a limo, if the whole story climaxes with a car chase, and if the most memorable character is a Chihuahua with a Mexican accent who makes all the children in the cinema rock with laughter every time his eyes bulge and he says Chay Keed Art (trans: `Check it out’)?

Perhaps it is all fine. After all, if the children like it, that is what matters. And it may not be what Dickens intended – indeed, it is entirely certain that it is not what he intended – but at least it gives them a taste of the story. Perhaps it will encourage them to read the real thing. Anyway, ‘Oliver & Company’ is only doing to Dickens what ‘Snow White’ did to the Brothers Grimm or ‘Pinocchio’ did to Collodi. And yet…

Why should the American entertainment industry hijack European literature? Beyond the simple snobbery that makes New York street talk sound so wrong in the mouths of characters born in Victorian England, the sight of sticky American fingers grasping at other people’s goods is a little too familiar.

Traditionally, it has been their intelligence services seizing governments or their businessmen buying up other nations’ resources, but the same fingers stick equally happily to intellectual property.  There was a fine example on election night when President Elect George Bush claimed victory in a speech in which he casually referred to the United States as the world’s oldest democracy. It was not so much the convenient amnesia about the severe racial and sexual restrictions on American democracy which rankled, but his abduction of the political history of Western Europe.

Perhaps it would not matter if their seizing of intellectual goods turned out to be worthwhile. Few complain, for example, about Shakespeare burgling the literature of ancient Greece or Wagner ripping off the Ring. But look at Disney’s Oliver as an example of the outcome of this sort of cultural imperialism.

The original Dickens story is a powerful piece of subversion. It rubs the stuck-up noses of the Victorian middle class in the squalid poverty in which children were living in their own back yards. It is also factual in the sense that while the characters are fictitious, the world in which they move is drawn from life, specifically from the work of the pioneering sociologist Henry Mayhew, who dared to go into Victorian ghettos to talk to the unwashed masses.

But the Disney version is entirely anodyne. Here, poverty is a game, in which cute little guys sing cute little songs and ghetto life is one long party. It is not as if American children do not suffer from the kind of urban squalor which would have made Dickens blanche – 13 million American children living below the poverty line amidst the worst infant mortality rate of any industrialised nation, an epidemic of single teenage parents, widespread illiteracy and with, homicide their most common form of death. But all Disney gives us is Dodger the dog singing “Why Should I Worry?”

The power of original ideas in Dickens is reduced to pap by Disney. Yet – like Dodger – the company can see no reason to worry. So far this year, they have been the most successful film studio in the United States, cornering 20% of the market with such thought-provoking classics as ‘Three Men and a Baby’ and ‘Cocktail’.

The original Oliver Twist has no place in American culture, not so much because it would be subversive, as because it is complex and unique, whereas American cultural activity is directed by the demands of the market place which requires simple, familiar products in instantly gratifying forms.

The best symbol of America is also the most common: it hangs from the top of tall poles on every road running into every American town, it looks down over every city centre, it is a magnetic emblem which draws millions towards it: the McDonald’s hamburger sign. Anywhere Americans go in their country, they can stop and buy the same baby-food burger. It is quick and convenient. It involves no risks or decision making. It suits every taste – it was designed that way by Mr McDonald’s market researchers. It is cheap to buy and profitable to sell. It may not be nutritious but it is popular. A work of art, really.

Americans stuff some 18 million of Mr McDonald’s easily-digestible burgers down their throats each day. Then they go home and watch some drama burgers on McTelevision, read a story burger, before going to sleep and waking up to the sound of McRadio, probably with speech burgers (or sound bites, as we call them now) from McLeaders. Disney simply turns out schmaltz burgers. Junk food; junk culture. All of it designed to appeal to the mass market, none of it actually standing for anything except commercial success.

Night after night, in their TV dramas, the same good guys albeit with different names catch the same kind of killers and get the same kind of girls. Day after day, in their soap operas, one-dimensional characters kiss and kill and kill and kiss. It is like watching a lunatic obsessively repeating the same behaviour.

Even their factual programmes are reduced to pap formulas designed to maximise audiences and, therefore, advertising revenue. They buy perfectly good foreign wildlife programmes, for example, and substitute an American commentary which turns all the animals into cute little chaps. They use more and more fiction techniques in their documentaries: dramatic reconstructions of grisly crimes, breathless music pumping along behind the reporter’s voice. Best-selling books which ‘prove’ that Elvis is alive or that aliens have secretly invaded the Earth are sold as non-fiction. Drivel burgers.

When this sort of stuff is aimed at children, it is particularly lethal. Inevitably, they grow up without the ability to concentrate on anything that fails to produce a car chase or an explosion every five minutes (just as they will not eat anything that is not soaked in sugar). Worse, with the power of the American entertainment industry, the saccharine and schmaltz version of stories like Oliver Twist is distributed all over the globe and replaces the original as the standard version of the story.

Sometimes, living in the middle of it all, it is hard to grasp the universal inanity of American culture – what Martin Amis called ‘the moronic inferno’. Where are their great artists? Do they have any playwrights or poets? Or philosophers? Has there ever been a society of such imperial strength and such stunning intellectual weakness? The answer is probably that there are still Americans who are capable of original thought, but they have no access to the public channels of communication which are clogged with populist junk.

Rock music is one of the few areas where America can claim to have produced original work and where they have reversed the trend, conceiving new ideas which the rest of the world has borrowed. But even with rock music, there is now an alarming trend towards turning it into commercial pap. The advertising industry, in particular, has been buying up classic rock songs and converting them into jingles.

Buddy Holly has now been re-written: ‘All my life, I’ve been waiting/ Tonight, there’ll be no hesitating/ Oh, Buick.’ Jerry Lee Lewis says There’s A Whole Lotta Breakfast Goin’ On at Burger King. Michael Jackson sells Pepsi. And ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ has been permanently taken over by the California Raisins.

Still, business is business, as two recent news items about Disney confirm. First, Walt Disney’s senior lawyer, Joe Shapiro, was pictured in Moscow with his face scowling and his boot swinging towards a barely recognisable model of Mickey Mouse. lt seems Mr Shapiro was angry that the model Mickey had been made without his company’s permission, and Mr Shapiro is determined to protect all Disney characters against unlicensed exploitation. “The intellectual property right issue is huge for us,” he said. Try telling that to Mr Dickens.

And in Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World has been allowed to dump unprecedented daily doses of poisonous waste fluids into near-by Reedy Creek after lobbying the local city commission and obtaining what they called ‘pollution privileges’. Now, there’s a symbol.

NOTE: Following publication of this column, the US Consul General in Edinburgh wrote for a second time to The Scotsman to complain about Nick Davies’ “objectionable, irritating and wrongheaded” coverage.