If Your Research is Trivial, and You Know It, Scream in Agony

Not a great spot for a breakdown…
Snow White’s Scary Adventures attraction (Disneyland Park – Anaheim, CA)
(Photo provided by author)


Teetering atop a cliff.
About to be struck by lightning.
Unexpectedly and irreversibly exposed.

These terms describe the climactic moment of Disneyland’s Snow White’s Scary Adventures (1955) attraction, and if we add “painfully aware of the utter futility of the endeavor” to this list it also sums up how I feel about my dissertation most of the time.
When riders reach this final encounter (pictured above), the Evil Queen is out of options. Having been outmaneuvered at every turn, she makes one final disastrous attempt to put an end to . . . someone.

A person familiar with any version of the fairy tale will understand that this “someone” is Snow White, and one might then assume that in the attraction riders would identify accordingly. However, one would be wrong in doing this. Since riders are neither definitively placed in- or outside of the narrative universe, nor explicitly aligned with the title character, our relationship to the events portrayed in the attraction is ill-defined. Now is not the time for an extended textual analysis, and a better one already exists, but I do want to pause for a moment on this ambiguity.

Since Disney assumes we have all seen the film, the attraction dispenses with quite a bit of exposition so that we can be moved through in about 2 minutes. Among other things, this means that what the Evil Queen is actually trying to accomplish, and why, is never stated explicitly. All we really see is her putting a lot of work into setting up some elaborate plan, then trying like hell to pull it off and failing miserably. Add to this the fact that Snow White and the dwarfs are never seriously offered as protagonists (we actually see far less of them), plus our own inability to position ourselves definitively in relation to the plot (making it difficult to interpret any malicious actions as being directed our way), and I have to admit that by the end of the ride I actually feel a little sorry for the Queen.

Right about now, you may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with dissertations or humanities research. Have a slow clap.

If there is a point to any of this, it would be that the Evil Queen in this version* of the Disneyland attraction is actually a pretty good metaphor for my research experience thus far. Ethical concerns aside (no matter how much of an embarrassment I may be for my department and my field, I have no intention of imprisoning, conning, poisoning or dropping boulders on anyone), I can identify a bit too easily with dedicating oneself wholly to a goal that most people would consider, if not repugnant, at least worthless.
I can never pretend that this is uniquely my issue. The specter of applicability has always haunted the humanities, and will no doubt continue to do so, but this is neither the time nor the place to make that particular argument. What I propose, if anything, is something of a re-framing.

The ethical universe implied by the ride, as it is experienced by the Evil Queen, is a decent analogue for anyone pursuing weird research topics in higher education. You invest in your projects, do anything and everything to get them off the ground, and will likely suffer a horrible fate at the end. You may become part of a cautionary tale told to university-bound adolescents by well-meaning relatives, or in the case of this attraction a slightly disturbing, but necessary element in a well-rounded visit to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” And maybe the latter is not such a sad ending.

Evil or not, the Queen was passionate and thorough. Fun needs a dark side, after all, and in the savage wasteland of higher education who can say which passions are best pursued? For now, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that were I to run into this version of the Evil Queen somewhere I could look knowingly into her withered, hideous face and say: “I get it.”

* The opening day version followed the film more closely, as I understand it, to the effect that the Evil Queen was clearly portrayed as evil in more than name. As the ride was refurbished the year of my birth, I am in no position to confirm this, but I am prepared to take full advantage of the ambiguity in the current incarnation.

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