Between Stereotypes and Stories

written by Anna P.H. Geurts

Historians such as myself love a good story. And while they usually look for these stories in old manuscripts or eyewitness accounts, they won’t say no to the odd amusement park every now and then.

One of the older themed amusement parks of Europe is the Efteling in the Netherlands. Some of the attractions at the Efteling are based on specific stories, such as Rapunzel or Pinocchio. Others are based simply on ideas, images or types that circulate in the European cultural imagination. The idea that trees might come alive, for instance, or that dragons guard treasures. But also ideas about a mysterious orient, or an inhospitable Africa.

The problem with these latter images is that they were created to justify the conquest of these regions and the use of violence against them. And in the present day, they still support power differences between different areas in the world.

What’s more: I would argue that for a visitor to an amusement park, there is nothing much amusing about simply seeing stereotypes repeated. Surely, we want to be surprised at least a little, in order to really feel entertained?

However much I admire the Efteling, it certainly has its store of such stereotypical imagery. The dark ride Carnaval Festival may be the most well-known container of these images. Like Disney’s It’s a Small World, it features national buildings and national ‘types’ of people from around the world. That means that the very essence of the ride is a celebration of cliches. Some of these cliches are, however, fairly harmless: a choir of Dutch frogs, for instance. In other scenes, the designers have responded creatively to these cliches, like they responded creatively to the talking-tree idea mentioned earlier. This is where Carnaval Festival is at its best. The cliches are used for a visual joke, or they are turned into something beautiful. I remember being in awe as a child of the Japanese masks that were on display, the Scottish bagpiper, the shadow play with kites, or the arctic ceiling.

A third type of scene on this ride, however, has been using cliches in a much more problematic manner. The room representing the makers’ idea of ‘dark Africa’, for instance. The human figures which elsewhere on the ride are mostly just friendly (and blue-eyed, even in Mexico or Hawaii!), here had a stupid look on their faces (and no irises at all). They sported exaggerated lips as found in the ‘Sambo’ or ‘coon’ characters, and facial piercings that, although in vogue in Europe now, were probably meant to stand for anything but civilisation by the makers of the ride in the 1980s. They lived in a forest, were perpetually engaged in warfare (or else perhaps a symbolic demonstration of masculine prowess), brandishing spears and shields, and were observed by several colonial figures in khaki (or were the Africans threatening some of them? This always remained a little ambiguous).

Although the scene also included several humorous components, it may be clear why it has attracted criticism ever since opening to the public. It propagated a historical colonial image of Africa and was as such also very much out of tune with the rest of the ride, that instead focused on contemporary touristic imagery. It therefore suggested to the average European visitor that all of Africa is a forest, and that when travelling there they would be met by a troupe of silly bush warriors and – still – a colonial regime.

When the ride closed for a major technical overhaul, therefore, the Efteling also adjusted this scene, as well as several Asian ones.

The scene now looks like this:

Much has been done to meet the critics. Still, this visitor wonders whether the designers of the overhaul have really understood their critique.

Not only have some harmful stereotypes remained unchallenged and some new ones added. Why, for instance, are these African characters the only ones who are situated in uncultivated ‘nature’? Why, also, is an entire continent conflated into one scene, as if cultural distinctions do not matter when it comes to Africa, while the entire ride is premised on such cultural distinctions? For instance, we find a central-African rainforest and a tropical ape (an Indonesian Orangutan?) together with a South-African flag. The new music composed for this scene even seems to be Caribbean – ‘Black’, too, after all?

But equally, the spokespersons for the Efteling do not show much awareness of what this is all about. In interviews, they speak of an anti-colonial criticism coming from people who did not grow up with the Efteling: as if those hurt by the depictions cannot be Dutch or Flemish nationals; as if appreciation and critique cannot go together; and as if, most surprising of all from a commercial viewpoint, one first needs to ‘learn’ about the Efteling in order to join in the fun.

Equally, they suggest that colonial imagery has only become harmful in recent history. The ride had to change, they say, because it no longer fitted the present ‘diverse’ day and age. But surely, the entire point of colonial imagery, from the very start of colonisation onwards, is that it would harm the colonised? The world has always been a diverse place, and the ride has always attracted criticism. Only perhaps the Efteling is now finally seeing the commercial potential of attracting a more diverse group of visitors?

Finally, the new figures are presented as a great improvement because instead of nose-rings, they now wear ‘traditional African costume’. However, it is precisely the idea of Africa as a ‘traditional’ place – stuck in time – that has justified and still justifies colonial exploitation. (I am not entirely clear what is wrong with the piercings, by the way. Only that some view them as backwards, which may again invite a view of Africa as primitive. But should we go along in seeing piercings this way?)

As said, some harmful stereotypes remain, in the Efteling, not just in Carnaval Festival but in other rides, too.

Still, this year has seen a bright light on the horizon. Two more attractions based on colonial ideas have just closed for renovation and it seems that these, in contrast to Carnaval Festival, will not continue the old pattern of presenting stereotypes but introduce two more fundamental changes.

Firstly, the Adventure Maze and Monsieur Cannibale will shift perspective 180 degrees. Rather than continuing to be based on European images of the colonised, they will be based on the cultural heritage itself of a formerly colonised region. They will spotlight two stories from Sinbad the Sailor’s cycle of adventures, written probably in western Asia or Africa in the early modern period.

Even better: they will not just be based on simple types or cliches that float around in the cultural imagination but on actual stories, with plot, characters, and a lot of space for different interpretations and ways of enjoying them: like the tales of Rapunzel or Pinocchio that we see on display elsewhere in the park. I look forward to seeing the Efteling embody these stories to their fullest.


About the photos: Promotional photos by the Efteling, used here for review purposes with reference to the Berne Convention and the doctrine of fair use.